Sugary excerpt of Monday from Eduardo Sabrovsky:
The exploration of the idea—of the sole legitimate Kantian idea, the idea of Europe—has led us to this conclusion: albeit peculiar, this idea is a religion. We often react with scandal at the Islamic notion of Sharia, Islamic law. This is because we are blind to our own Sharia. In the best of possible worlds, we should be able to understand that our ways and mores may be, for the Islamic world, as scandalous an unacceptable as theirs usually are to us. They have their strict prohibitions, their strange bodily practices; though we may not perceive them, we surely do have ours; when we look at our bodies in the mirror, we see a human body as such; we do not perceive it as formed—and thus, de-formed—by our particular culture. So, in the best of possible worlds, we would live in our particularity and let live others live in theirs. Why don’t we?
Because 'we' disagree...
Sugary excerpt of the day from John Quiggin:
The trillions of dollars and thousands of lives the United States and its allies, including Australia, have spent trying to direct events in the Middle East have produced nothing but bloodshed and chaos. Rather than waiting for today’s allies to become, yet again, tomorrow’s enemies, it’s time to let the people of the region make what they can of it, with whatever assistance the usual forms of foreign aid may be able to provide. •
(...) it is somehow odd for a Western politician to be telling anybody, however horrible and unworthy of respect: "You don't understand your own religion, but I do..."
(...) the fact is that the first world war was a time when Muslims were generally used as pawns in European imperial games—whether they were Indians who fought for Britain, Senegalese or Algerians who fought for France or Turks who fought on the German side. Fighting on any side in the first world war was a pretty miserable experience, and that certainly deserves to be remembered. But Islam's collective memory of that period is probably a bit different from the European one.
BS from Liam Halligan:
The common western problem isn’t a housing shortage, deteriorating infrastructure or immigration fears — although such issues are widespread and must clearly be addressed. The underlying problem in Britain, across Europe and in America, too, is more general yet somehow more arcane: we’re living in an age of bloated, deeply dysfunctional and often counter-productive government.
Awesome stuff from Angela Nagle:
As well as lacking a familiar sense of humour or frame of cultural reference, Femen have no sense of political correctness. In the West we are so steeped in this cultural trope that to be politically incorrect usually involves some knowing subversion. But Femen’s actions are too earnest to be a knowing subversion of anything. Their insensitivity to other religious groups and nationalities has left guilt-ridden liberal and left-wing feminists in the West aghast. Once, for example, they protested outside a mosque in Paris and burned a Salafist flag while wearing joke-shop beards and sporting the words “Topless Jihad” across their naked chests.
(...) Unsurprisingly though, Femen’s embrace of conventional beauty standards and of a look that would read to the Western eye as trashy, have not impressed everyone and they have been slated for an image that seems white, heterosexual, thin and conventionally beautiful.
(...)the suffering of Ukrainian women and the oppressive environment Femen emerged from is of no concern to the Americanised cultural politics of their detractors, who understand all political, social and economic issues only in terms of “white” on the one hand and “people of colour” on the other, masking, in apparently radical language, an utter ignorance of the world. Their apparent cultural relativism is highly selective: it will extend its understanding to some of the most brutal forms of misogyny in the world today, but will not extend it to Ukraine.
The reality is that Mr Putin sees holding Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence as a vital national interest that he is willing to run pretty big risks to secure. What is more, it seems highly probable that he does not take threats from Mr Obama particularly seriously. He has seen at close hand the American president’s disastrous vacillation over Syria, culminating in the scuttling away from his own red line declaring punishment for the Assad regime if it used chemical weapons. He no doubt also draws conclusions from big American defence spending cuts in the pipeline and Mr Obama’s extreme sensitivity to the war-weariness of American voters.
If Mr Putin believes (as he almost certainly does) that Mr Obama will do little more than deliver a petulant slap on the wrist, he will have no compunction in putting into operation a familiar playbook. (...) While it is easy to criticise Mr Obama’s infinite capacity for thoughtful inaction, the dilemmas for Western diplomacy are real enough. The problem is that like the fox, the West knows lots of different things but is not sure what it really wants, while Mr Putin is like the hedgehog that knows just one big thing, namely that Ukraine, especially in the south and east, is really part of Russia's world.
Great stuff from Mukoma Wa Ngugi:
For western journalism to be taken seriously by Africans and Westerners alike, it needs Africans to vouch for stories rather than satirizing them. I am not saying that journalism needs the subject to agree with the content, but the search for journalistic truth takes place within a broad societal consensus. That is, while one may disagree with particular reportage and the facts, the spirit of the essay should not be in question. But Africans are saying that the journalists are not representing the complex truth of the continent; that Western journalists are not only misrepresenting the truth, but are in spirit working against the continent. The good news is there have been enough people questioning the coverage of Africa over the years that Western journalists have had no choice but to do some soul searching. The bad news is that the answers are variations of the problem.
Michela Wrong, in a New York Times piece shortly before the Kenyan elections, debated the use of the word “tribe.” She acknowledged that the word tribe “carries too many colonial echoes. It conjures up M.G.M. visions of masked dances and pagan rites. ‘Tribal violence’ and ‘tribal voting’ suggest something illogical and instinctive, motivated by impulses Westerners distanced themselves from long ago.” But she concluded the piece by reserving her right to use the term. She stated that “When it comes to the T-word, Kenyan politics are neither atavistic nor illogical. But yes, they are tribal.” The term tribe should have died in the 2007 elections when Africanist scholars took NYT’s Jeffrey Gettleman’s usage of the term to task. To his credit, Gettleman stopped using the term.
If you have Wrong insisting on using a discredited analytical framework, you have others who position themselves as missionaries and explorers out to save the image of Africa. But their egos end up outsizing the story.
Well, the problem starts with the simple fact that Africa is not a country and that therefore Kenya is neither Mali or Cote d'Ivoire and vice versa.
I agree with Tim Black on this:
Under Cameron’s gaze, the problems in Mali are simply collapsed into a grand narrative in which good people fight bad people, just as Blair, alongside President George W Bush, proceeded to view world affairs through the prism of the ‘war on terror’.
The narcissism of this essentially Blairite approach to foreign policy is as incredible as it is reckless. In each case, they really do think this conflict is about them. Arbitrarily chosen, far-flung trouble spots act as ad hoc stages on which a Western leader can show the people back at home just what a good person he is. For Cameron, it was Libya and now neighbouring African states. For Blair, it was the Former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.
It was a grisly irony, then, that while Blair spoke of the necessity of intervention in north Africa, of trying to do the right thing, the stage of his most infamous display of doing the right thing – Iraq – appeared once more on the fringes of the world’s news bulletins: a suicide bomber, aided by several others, had attacked a police headquarters in the northern city of Kirkuk. At least 36 people were killed and 105 were injured.
At some point, there has to be the recognition that as Camus would say détruire n'est pas créer and that destroying monsters ( which is more often than not about seeking them desperately) isn't the same as fixing problems that are so complex that they require something more than the use of force.
That said power, faith and money have pierced Blair's eyes and ears, which explains why he isn't just irrelevant, but the epitome of what political success can do to the people who are more ambitious and self-righteous than anything else.
From Glenn Greenwald:
The very same western countries that snuggle up to and prop up the planet's worst dictators are the same ones who strut around depicting themselves as crusaders for democracy and freedom, all while smearing anyone who objects to their conduct as lovers of tyranny.
Well,we are all westerners now so...!
From Brendan O'Neill:
What the current instability in north Africa really reveals is not that Islamists are taking over the world, but rather that Western governments are utterly incapable of acting in their own interests on the international stage these days. The chasm that now separates what is in the West’s interests and what the West actually does in global politics is enormous. So determined were the British and French to score some PR points by bombing Libya in 2011 that they didn’t give a moment’s thought to the potential consequences – and now the French military, backed by Britain, is getting stuck into the Libyan fallout in Mali, and both governments are panicked by what is happening in Algeria. The true danger on the world stage today is not a global Islamist conspiracy to demolish Western values, but rather the fact that international affairs is now overseen by immature, narcissistic showboaters who know nothing of realpolitik, nothing of diplomacy, nothing of blowback, and nothing of history.
The trouble with hubris and incompetence is that they lead to a stubborn blindness that makes results inconsequential for the emphasis is placed on feeling good rather than on doing what works.
From Robert Fox:
Once more we are hearing of the need to combat an international threat from global Islamist extremism. No one dares use the term ‘war against terror' any longer, but the West faces many of the same questions as in the campaigns launched by President George W Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.
France is in danger of finding that it owns the Mali problem, so weak is the Mali government and its forces. A long and uncertain ground campaign awaits them.
It's always dangerous to own a country one doesn't understand, isn't willing to allow to grow up and to thus make its own decisions.
I agree with Kweli Jaoko on this with the usual caveat that I don't agree with the west/rest division:
The banality, say, of tweeting and hashtagging, is part of the socio-historical through which misogyny becomes reflexive. Banality becomes the training we put ourselves through to make misogyny reflexive. What might it mean to understand misogyny through the kind of training that produces reflexes? Certainly the banality of tweeting and hashtagging labors to traffic the misogyny of #TeamMafisi and pass it off as ordinary, everyday, as part of the affects and intensities exchanged through the internet, and therefore something one must put up with. The fallacy is that misogyny is slightly inconveniencing.
As Western media deploys an Orientalist lens that locates rape and misogyny squarely in India—meaning, in the Global South, outside the West, and, yet again, as the need to save brown women from brown men—I would like us to think locally. Misogyny is not just a problem in India; in Kenya; or on Twitter. It is a problem everywhere, including here in the West from where I write.
Well it is always easier and satisfying even to criticize the barbarians rather than to recognize the world has, how should I put it, a woman problem!
I don't know if it is possible to have a quagmire in a desert, but Mali may offer an example.
The problem is that wars nowadays are won on TV especially when the victims are more than likely going to be people with no media access and to whom most, especially journalists, will have a hard time relating to!
From Justin Peters's review of Jonathan Katz's The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left on Haiti and the 32010 Earthquake:
For as long as Haiti has existed, foreigners have been trying to fix it. Early in the island’s history, the tools of improvement were familiar ones: invasion, repression, economic suasion, and other favorites from the colonialism handbook. France transformed Haiti into a vast sugar plantation; the United States installed several puppet presidents favorably disposed to American corporate interests. But eventually, Haiti stopped being worth the trouble. (...) No one disputes that Haiti needed help [after the [2010 Earthquake]. Left unsaid was the implicit assumption that one certainly couldn’t trust Haitians to help themselves. Aid groups warned potential donors, “Do Not Give To The Haitian Government: Haiti is known to be a corrupt country;” media organizations announced that “the chief culprit of current or past suffering in Haiti” was “intense corruption.” It wouldn’t surprise me if some observers secretly believed the Préval regime had engineered the earthquake in order to steal billions from the international community. (...) The result? Donated money went directly to NGOs and organizations that were often fundamentally incapable of putting that money to its proper use.
The trouble with charity/aid in 'dark' places such as Haiti is that it is based mostly solely on good sentiments and ignores realities on the ground because the need of the fixers/helpers is to parent and to feel good about themselves.
The very right that laid the foundation for Western civilization is increasingly viewed as a nuisance, if not a threat. Whether speech is deemed imflammatory or hateful or discriminatory or simply false, society is denying speech rights in the name of tolerance, enforcing mutual respect through categorical censorship.
As in a troubled marriage, the West seems to be falling out of love with free speech. Unable to divorce ourselves from this defining right, we take refuge instead in an awkward and forced silence.
One caveat, free speech isn't a western right or value. That said, I think the problem is that free speech has just become expensive for citizens who value security and comfort over pretty much everything else. It is for that reason that a knowledge citizenry is key to a liberal democracy to realize that there are certain things that can never be too costly!
The following words from Hugh Roberts make me uncomfortable:
The reason Muslims have been demonstrating from Tunis to Jakarta is not that they are exceptionally thin-skinned and liable to throw tantrums at the drop of a hat, nor even that US policy has given them plenty of other grounds for grievance over the years. It is that Islamist movements now collectively dominate but nowhere monopolise the political field and are bound to mobilise their supporters to the hilt whenever any of their rivals begin to do so. This is what the eclipse of the modernist nationalist tradition has led to, and Western – and by no means solely American – policy is responsible for it. The result is growing anarchy in the region from which Americans and American interests cannot realistically expect to remain immune.
Do we really live in a world where there are masters who act freely and slaves who submit and suffer from the actions of the all-powerful?
I am having a literary crush on Pankaj Mishra, which just intensifies when he says things like this:
The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire - those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended…
All this was just staggering to me, and people like myself who share a reflexive suspicion of armed imperialists claiming to be missionaries.
I have to admit that I am ashamed to have once taken Tom Friedman seriously...
For a long time, Western histories simply suppressed non-western perspectives — nobody cared what the ‘native’ thought. But even today, the benignly universalist West creates the standards of judgement, and the historian at the imperial metropole of course writes the truly objective and coolly rational history. And the non-westerner challenging it with other perspectives is prone to be described — and discredited — as no more than a polemicist (The word is usual preceded by a damning adjective like ‘left-wing’ and ‘angry’). (...) By loudly invoking religion and culture and race, these Western pundits want to prevent us from examining the material basis of global inequality in all matters, intellectual as well as economic — the long history behind the fact that some countries are rich, many others permanently poor; why some forms of large-scale violence, such as neo-imperialism, enjoy moral sanction and respectability, and those opposed to them prone to be dismissed as left-wing crackpots and losers. I think the neo-imperialists and their sympathisers are best seen as a symptom of Anglo-America’s bizarre political culture of the previous two decades — a culture in which politicians supported by an unquestioning corporate media wage genocidal wars while feeding lies to their electorates, crooked bankers give themselves huge salaries and bonuses, and intellectuals — well, many of them turn to justifying and vindicating this shameful state of affairs and are given bully pulpits for this purpose at mainstream institutions like Harvard and the BBC.
Sugary excerpt from Pankaj Mishra's critical, but fair piece on Niall Ferguson:
The banner of white supremacism has been more warily raised ever since in post-imperial Europe, and very rarely by mainstream politicians and writers. In the United States, racial anxieties have been couched either in such pseudo-scientific tracts about the inferiority of certain races as The Bell Curve, or in big alarmist theories like Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’. It’s not at all surprising that in his last book Huntington fretted about the destruction by Latino immigration of America’s national identity, which is apparently a construct of ‘Anglo-Protestant culture’. As power ostensibly shifts to the East, a counterpoise to dismay over the West’s loss of authority and influence is sought in a periodic ballyhooing of the ‘trans-Atlantic alliance’, as in Philip Bobbitt’s Terror and Consent (2008), which Niall Ferguson in an enthusiastic review claimed will ‘be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End’.
I wish I could read Mishra's writings without reservations, but I cannot even though I like him as a writer. Oh well, it's always good to be aware of one's own prejudices.
The conclusion of Christopher Hitchens's article on the upcoming anniversary of 9/11:
The battle against casuistry and bad faith has also been worth fighting. So have many other struggles to assert the obvious. Contrary to the peddlers of shallow anti-Western self-hatred, the Muslim world did not adopt Bin-Ladenism as its shield against reality. Very much to the contrary, there turned out to be many millions of Arabs who have heretically and robustly preferred life over death. In many societies, al-Qaida defeated itself as well as underwent defeat.
In these cases, then, the problems did turn out to be more complicated than any "simple" solution the theocratic fanatics could propose. But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and "free speech fundamentalism." The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of "ancient hatreds" but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called "evil." And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.
Hitchens states the obvious (which may be virtuous, but more often than not unproductive when the goal is to refuse that even stout simplicities lead to uneasy complexities) in an ideological manner. He does it to avoid posing the tough questions, and be on his high horse when he refuses to acknowledge that in life, politics or in any aspect of life being on the right side, fighting 'evil' doesn't make things simpler, but more complicated because it means that there is a duty to act as if only the final result matters for the other side is evil.
Hitchens fails to understand the question is never in the characterization of evil as evil, but in the uncomfortable notion that stating it doesn't solve anything and does make things simple.
In short, 9/11 did make life, the world easier, it make it more complex because the 'evil' of the act was so obvious that reflexion and the morality of political acts mattered more tha ever before.
Gideon Rachman gets this right as he does more often than not:
It does look as if the Europeans, backed by the Americans, will manage to push Christine Lagarde into the job. But the groundswell of protest against the idea of a Western fix – and the accompanying commentary highlighting the shift in economic and political power from West to East and from North to South – will probably ensure that this will be the last time that a European appointment can simply be bulldozed through.
So President Obama is right when he insists “the time for leadership is now.” But Madame Lagarde might add – “Apres moi, le deluge.”
As a true non-believer in the division of the world between the West and the rest, I have to say that it would be more than a disappointment if the new head of the IMF came from Europe, it would be scandalous. Such an outcome would be indicated of the existence of more than a Western fix, but of a problematic bias within that organization that must be influencing its policies. Furthermore, I baffled by the fact that Christine Lagarde is a credible choice to be head of the IMF not because she isn't competent, but because she just isn't a good choice for so many reasons, the least important of which is that France isn't entitled to get a second chance at the position after it supported Strauss-Kahn knowing full of the risks that something could happen.
Sugary excerpt of the day from Brendan O'Neill:
In the post-assassination commentary OBL is presented to us as the mighty figurehead of an organisation that posed a mortal threat to Western civilisation. In truth he was always an isolated actor, with little support, no army and few weapons, yet who benefited enormously from Western fears and confusion. It was Western society’s culture of fear that fed and nurtured him; he lived off it, vampire-style. The most powerful weapon in his armoury was not his access to cash or those crazy young guys willing to blow themselves up in his name, but rather the abject willingness of Western governments to change their way of life and panic their peoples in response to his threats and antics.
The impact of acts of terrorism is determined not only by the terrorists themselves, but also by how the target society chooses to respond to them. And Western nations, most notably America, Britain, France and Spain, reacted to al-Qaeda threats or attacks in such a way that they amplified them, allowing what were mostly sporadic assaults by tiny and isolated groups of men to have a deep and long-lasting impact across society. In instituting tough new security measures, liberty-allergic legislation and a general sense of panic and unease, Western governments not only did most of the terrorists’ dirty work for them – they also advertised their institutional vulnerability to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They effectively sent to bin Laden the message: ‘We are weak. So weak that even you, one man in a cave, can have a massively disproportionate impact on our liberty and lives.’ The truly decisive factor in Islamic terrorism over the past 10 years, the thing that allowed this ragtag ‘army’ of wannabe martyrs to rattle half the world and encouraged them to continue doing so, was not the strength of al-Qaeda, but the loudly trumpeted weakness of the West.
Is it just me, but do some people have trouble understanding that Osama Bin Laden is an empty vessel in which most people put what they want? The point isn't that OBL doesn't matter, but rather that he is just a symbol meaning that his death isn't about him, but about the people reacting to it. To use O'Neill language, the 'West' isn't weak, the west is just normal.
Sugary excerpt from Brendan O'Neill:
In their fear that Egypt doesn’t have the right amount of middle-classness or the correct type of civil service to do democracy properly, we can glimpse Western observers’ conviction that politics is best done away from the people, insulated from the masses, in grey buildings occupied by experts and judges. At a time when even young American voters can be described as a ‘glassy-eyed, brainwashed cult’ (as Barack Obama’s youthful champions were branded in 2008), when white working-class voters in Britain are looked upon by the liberal elite as an alien breed of ‘bigots’, and when leading Western thinkers deliver speeches titled ‘Why democracy is overrated’, it’s not surprising that Egyptians, too, are seen as a marauding mob with weird passions. From the outright anti-Arab sentiments to the demand that a better middle class be created in Egypt before the creation of democracy, from the colonialist snobbery about foreigners to the cultural relativism about whether ‘our’ political systems are suitable for them, the response to the Egyptian uprising has revealed Western observers’ multifaceted lack of faith in the very ideal of democracy. The general sentiment is not so much that ‘democracy is okay for us but not for those people’, à la Clive of India, so much as ‘democracy – eeurgh’.
The problem of course is as much one of condescension as it is one of culturalism for the assumption and the assertion is that some, because their 'culture' and identity are too immature and too savage for democracy.
Interesting stuff from Charlemagne:
The West is guilty of two errors, in my view.
Firstly, in the contest between the police state and the mosque, it too easily fell into the trap of backing the police state. It therefore became associated with oppression and hypocrisy in the minds of many Arabs. It never sought to help foster other democratic opposition forces, or to criticise rulers for their oppressive ways. President Barack Obama’s brilliant speech in Cairo in 2009 criticised the Bush-era’s (short-lived) notion that democracy could be brought at the point of a gun, but did not shy away from making a powerful case for freedom. The trouble is, Mr Obama’s America then did little to support the cause of democracy in the Arab world. The same was true of Europe.
Any promotion of democracy in the Arab world cannot avoid the encounter with some form of Islamism. And this is Europe’s second error: its failure to distinguish between different currents of political groups inspired by Islam. Not all groups bearing the name of “Islamic” are puppets of Iran’s mullahs, or comrades of Osama bin Laden. Hamas may be the violent Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt. But the Egyptian branch declares itself to be non-violent and democratic, and is hated by al-Qaeda. At the very least, its democratic credentials should have been tested through greater dialogue.
I disagree with Charlemagne's implied affirmation that there is such a thing as the Western world. Nevertheless, he isn't wrong. The trouble is that he doesn't assert explicitly that the problem comes precisely from the too-easily made assertion that some foreigners are different, not mature, brutal, have an exotic or homogeneous or simply an essentialist culture, which makes it impossible for them to have self-determination and other good things in life. In short, the issue is always going to come to Sameness, commonness, that is to how much Charlemagne's West believes that the people from the rest of the world have in common with them.
Fraser Nelson over at the Spectator's Coffee House can't step out his way to see the forest through the trees:
In Egypt, the army look like they are settling in. If there is regime change, I doubt that whoever takes over will be pro-Western (the crowds will likely remember that the tear gas used on them was dispensed in canisters saying “Made in USA”). The grim fact remains that Iran is racing towards the bomb, and if they succeed then the Sunni world – in Saudi Arabia and Cairo – will likely follow suit. I’d love to see some wind of change blowing through Arab street, but I still fear that we’re heading for a multi-polar nuclear standoff in the only part of the world which is mad enough to use nuclear weapons. I do hope I’m wrong.
The trouble with Nelson isn't that he may be wrong or can be right, but rather that he sees Egypt not as a country like his own or any 'normal' one (I would use Western, but I don't believe in the existence of the West or in the division of the world between the West and the rest). Egypt to Nelson is a means to an end or worst a part of a jungle whose happenings must not be allowed to disturb the peace and stability of the 'modern world.' The issue isn't about what the events of Egypt means for the rest of the world, but about what they mean for Egyptians. It is alarming to realize that too many including the prominent members of the Obama administration haven't learned from the greatest mistakes of the past. Doing so would have taught them that tolerating wrongs to avoid the worst never works in international politics for the simple reason that it legitimates the worst by delegitimating the moral arguments against it.
Thus, tying to the fall of Mubarak to the nuclearisation of Iran and of the whole middle east is like tying the fall of Louis XVI to the rise of anarchy in Europe and of the reign of terror. History isn't gastronomy and Egyptians are thus neither ingredients nor slaves of a predictable or controllable future.
It's almost Thanksgiving and the one thing I'm thankful for after reading this is that I have never been able to take Pascal Bruckner seriously:
These are all dark episodes in the respective national epics that have to be explained, brought to light and made known to everyone. This work of memory is the greatness and the honor of free governments.
The paradox is that democracies seem more corrupt and criminal than other governments because they admit their faults, whereas tyrannies conceal them and represent themselves as irreproachable.
But this culture of suspicion is always in danger of degenerating into vilification and facile defeatism. The critical spirit then devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalization, taking a gloomy pleasure in destroying itself that leaves nothing intact. Hyper-criticism ends in self-hatred and leaves nothing but ruins behind.
That is more or less the current state of France, which is brooding on its failures and lost grandeur, and throwing itself into strikes that are not signs of vitality but rather of exhaustion and national depression.
Although sometimes a particularly serious crime must be expiated, a community cannot excuse itself for existing unless it dissolves and disappears. History consists in common remembering and forgetting, in the cancellation of the blood debts that human societies contract with one another.
The problem with Bruckner is that he has never been able to separate the concept of guilt with the one of responsibility and that there are things that he refuses/is unable to know or to see because he is too emotional to comprehend and accept the Sartrean notion of the dirty hands. Hey Pascal, on peut être responsable sans être coupable, to get it just reread Camus's l'Homme révolté.
Pertinent words from Tim Black:
(...)the thorny significance of Guantanamo Bay, its provision of orange jump-suited grist to the anti-war mill, has little to do with the Coalition of the Willing’s ineptitude. That is, it’s not because security services and intelligence agencies have proved rubbish at keeping things hidden that the treatment of so-called enemy combatants has become such an issue. Nor is it a product of the often-repeated cross-government mantra of openness, transparency and so on. Rather, the unrelenting focus on Guantanamo Bay, with its steady stream of detainees-cum-plaintiffs, testifies to something else: the West’s inability to execute the ‘war on terror’.
Again, this is not due to incompetence. It is to do with the incoherence of a war that many, certainly in liberal elite circles, have come to see as insupportable. It is just not seen as legitimate. (...)The ‘war on terror’, however, has proved an angst-ridden, mission-doubting affair. And, as a result, the treatment of those detained in its name has lacked anything resembling justification. This is why rather than appearing as enemies, as terrorists intent on destroying Western civilisation - despite the best efforts of TV series 24 - the detainees have come to appear as victims of US-led, UK-backed barbarism.
Sugary excerpt of the morning is from Professor Kenneth Anderson:
I continue to find mystifying the Western academic international law world’s infatuation with the ideals of the diminishing importance of states and membership in states. Particularly when that mostly seems to refer not to a universal aspiration, but only to the inability of the leading Western-states-in-decline to persuade themselves to exercise the coherence that makes states socially useful - and that largely through the cultural and class predilections of the political classes of those societies. When are we going to see proper analytic attention to the Globalized New Class as a phenomenon? In any event, the rising new powers understand that states are about coherence, and that the constant struggle of most states, most of the time, is to remain coherent and prevent “disaggregation” of the state into internal groups of power and “public choice” struggles for primacy and the resources of politics to economic ends.
Disaggregation is attractive to many Western intellectuals, I’d suggest, however, because our species-being, so to speak, has gradually come to be purely contractual free agency. We gave up on any kind of “fiduciary professional” model of the intellectual when we discovered that we could leverage our knowledge skills, at least until China and India caught up, across a needy global economy. It required freeing ourselves from the strictures of local communities; but the opportunities for globally marketizing our professional expertise being very large, we have moved a long, long way from RH Tawney’s post-war British model of the professional as community leader through expertise.
I'm flustered by Professor Anderson's use of the terms "West" and "Western" for I have no idea what he means or rather I don't think that the assumptions that he makes in using those terms are relevant or even justified. That said, Professor Anderson is simply dancing around the central issue, which is as Jean-François Bayart would that the State is the product of Globalization and neither its victim or nor its enemy combatant. The issue never really is whether the State matters, but rather what it can do and ought to do. Incoherence always occurs when there is an understandable and I would argue an useful disharmony between two.
In international politics, too, memories roam and fuel conduct. Take the very moving film about a white farming family in Zimbabwe this week. What was the back-story, the historical decisions and power grabs that created the civil enmities? We Ugandan Asians were cruelly dispossessed by Idi Amin in Uganda, but we too must ask why so many Africans ended up hating us – our racism and economic greed consumed them and they then behaved abominably. And the British need to acknowledge their role in the making of leviathans like Mugabe and Amin.
According to Alibhai-Brown's logic, the original sin is always more important than anything else that follows and the real culprits are never doers who fit a particular profile or share a certain history but rather those who should have stopped them or who enabled them or had the power over them once upon a time. In short, Mugabe and Amin were creatures of the Brits who don't have the right to judge them because they are the original sinners.
Scary and distressing logic, which divides the world between the powerful who are always guilty of something because the sinful past and the weak who always have an excuse for doing the unconscionable. In short, the notion of sin in politics is a limited, destructive and misguided one which just facilitates intellectual masturbation and other self-indulgences.
Quote of the day is Melanie Phillips :
(...) in certain areas science has overreached itself by trying to play God, and as a result has turned into an ideology. Contrary to popular myth, Western science was not created by Enlightenment secularism. It grew out of the revolutionary claim in the Bible that the universe was the product of a rational Creator, who endowed man with reason so that he could ask questions about the natural world. With the rise of secularism, the striking thing is that people didn’t lose the drive to believe. They stopped having religious faith — but that drive was diverted instead into the creation of a wide variety of secular religions, otherwise known as ideologies. But these are the true enemies of truth and reason.
I agree with Kenan Malik on this:
what we now regard as "Western values" – individual rights, secularism, freedom of speech – are modern values, distinct from those that animated European societies in the past. And it's not just medieval Europeans who would reject contemporary European values. Many contemporary Europeans do too. The British writer Melanie Phillips is militantly hostile to what she sees as the "Islamic takeover of the West" and what she calls "the drift towards social suicide" that comes with accepting Muslim immigration. Yet she is deeply sympathetic to the Islamist rejection of secular humanism, which she thinks has created "a debauched and disorderly culture of instant gratification, with disintegrating families, feral children and violence, squalor and vulgarity on the streets." Muslims "have concluded that the society that expects them to identify with it is a moral cesspit", Phillips argues. "Is it any wonder, therefore, that they reject it?" Caldwell, too, thinks that while the West's current encounter with Islam may be "painful and violent", it has also been, "an infusion of oxygen into the drab, nitpicking, materialist intellectual life of the West", for which we need to express our "gratitude".
There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history in opposition to Islamic values. Nor indeed is there a single set of western values today. The very values against which radical Islamists rail – the values of secular humanism – are the very values that so disgust some of Islam's greatest critics.
The west's proudest export to the Islamic world this past decade has been democracy. That is, not real democracy, which is too complicated, but elections. They have been exported at the point of a gun and a missile to Iraq and Afghanistan, to "nation-build" these states and hence "defeat terror". When apologists are challenged to show some good resulting from the shambles, they invariably reply: "It has given Iraqis and Afghans freedom to vote."
I'm wondering if it is possible to argue with a straight that Afghanistan and Iraq are sustainable democracies, meaning that their citizens have as many political choices as Americans for example.
Democracy, like any other political system, is ultimately about power. And for those with power it becomes a means of retaining their position. For authoritarian regimes in particular, with control of the registration and voting procedures, elections are used as a means of asserting their authority not a way of challenging it. It is what is happening in Sudan and in Burma. It's how President Karzai saw it in Afghanistan and how President Mugabe took it in Zimbabwe. Far from being threatened by the vote, they see it as a stick with which to beat back domestic opposition and foreign criticism.
The trouble is that so much of Western pressure on countries to introduce democracy actually aids authoritarian regimes in this approach. Elections are made the condition of approval of aid or diplomatic relations. They are then seized on as a useful gesture by the governments concerned, who see that they can turn them to their own advantage, while other power groups look to them as a means of furthering their own interests.
Of course the outside world tries to ensure fairness with observers and rules. But they are inevitably caught up in the politics of place which they don't usually understand and have little control over. Worse, the desire by the Western world to show progress and open up communication means that they are very reluctant to call a dud election a sham.
I agree with Adrian Hamilton that Democracy is a means, not an end, and that realities on the ground matter, but I disagree with his attempt to make particularities an universality without placing the emphasis on the fact that matters, which is the consent of the governed.
Pertinent observations from Adam Curtis on Afghanistan and the Taliban:
There is a growing sense in the West that we no longer know what we are fighting for in Afghanistan. The question that is almost never asked is what they are fighting for? What do the Taliban want?
We are told that we are fighting to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe and America. But the reality is that the Taliban have no interest in attacking the West. In the public imagination and in much journalism the Taliban are seen as exactly the same as political Islamists such as bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. The truth is that they are the very opposite of each other.
The radical Islamists see themselves as modern revolutionaries. They want to reshape Islam and fuse it with the modern world of science, technology and mass politics to create a new kind of society. The Taliban rose up because they thought the Islamists had failed to do this. And instead the Taliban decided to go back into the past and try and reinvent an old world.
My observation is while I believe that Afghanistan is not a winnable war, I'm wondering whether the sole consideration about assessing the Taliban should be the threat that they pose to the 'west.' In any case, that's a choice for the Afghans to decide. Still while agreeing that humanitarian intervention is a thing of the past, I'm thinking/hoping that they ought to be a way for other countries to show that they disapprove of the values of the Taliban without belittling the Afghans and using well-intentioned paternalism.
I agree with this:
America must recognise that not all the terror its suffers from abroad is the work of terrorists. Since the destruction of the twin towers in 2001, the West has been so consumed by terrorism that it has focused insufficiently on criminality. Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions,North Korea, Albania, the Balkans — these and other failed or failing states demand at least as much of our attention. If oil-rich but tottering Nigeria, for instance, were to tumble, the impact on both Africa and the world would be catastrophic.
These are not necessarily terrorist havens, but their actions can have terrifying consequences for the West none the less. It is time the war on terror was matched more rigorously by a global war on crime.
I think that the single-minded focus on terrorism has been to the detriment of the fight against so many crimes, which have also dangerous consequences. The point is that single-mindedness is never an effective way to ensure security and political stability in a world that is too integrated, too complicated, too interdependent for its ills to be solved solely by the 'war on terror.'
In France, where there is an inflamed debate on the matter right now, the first investigation carried out by the police last year found that there were 367 women in France who wore burka or Niqab – 0.015% of the population. This was so low that the secret service was told to count again, and came up with a figure of 2,000; in Holland there seem to be about 400, and in Sweden a respectable guess suggests 100. The most fascinating figure of all, though, came from the Danish researchers, who actually interviewed some of the covered women. Most were young, or at least under forty, and half of them were white converts. I think this makes it entirely clear that in modern Europe the burka is not an atavistic hangover, but a very modern gesture of disaffection from and rejection of society, which appeals to a certain kind of extreme temperament.
If those stats are right, it means in my opinion that banning the Burka/burqa is even more of an invitation for women who want to make a point to wear it as an act of defiance and of rejection of 'modern' society. The question that I have then is whether the Burqa/Burka becomes less threatening to the usual suspects if it isn't a symbol of women's submision or of a proof of Islamisation, but simply an instrument of rebellion? My answer is that it doesn't matter for what a woman wants to wear is her business and should never become a matter for the state or for a religion.
The Obama presidency has been a shock to Europe. At heart, Obama is not a Westerner, not an Atlanticist. He grew up partly in Indonesia and partly in Hawaii, which is about as far from the East Coast as you can get in the United States. “He’s very much a member of the post-Western world,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund.
I'm still wondering whether what you symbolize is more important than what you do or who you really are.
The Congolese embassy, a shabby unassuming building at the insalubrious end of Gray’s Inn Road, is very different again. I used to go there regularly, on jobs from mining companies asking permission to get digging. Occasionally, I’d share the waiting-room with immaculately dressed Sapeurs, flamboyantly suited and booted fashionistas who’d wait in line clasping ornate canes and wearing Davey Crocket hats. More often than not, I’d be alone. But I’d often clock up an hour’s waiting while the correct stamp was being located, or the right person came back from lunch. I don’t know if any of the visas I subsequently delivered turned out to be fakes.
The embassy was set alight in 2007, in an arson attack allegedly perpetrated by supporters of Combattants de Londres, a group dedicated to preventing Congolese musicians who support Joseph Kabila from performing in Europe. Embassy staff were evicted from their homes in 2008 as no one had paid the rent. Ovens, clothing and furniture filled the embassy’s waiting room for months. The hallway leading into the building remains blackened by fire, and the burnt smell still lingered in the air the last time I was there.
Something is wrong with this reality, but I don't have the words to formulate it because I believe that it would be too painfully simple to say that we are uniquely the product of our environment.
Toby Young, my favorite judge of Top Chef, defends Geert Wilders in the Daily Telegraph by arguing that he is a freedom of speech warrior:
are the Dutch people just fed up with being told they’re not allowed to criticise Muslim extremists because to do so is “Islamophobic”? As a defender of free speech, I don’t believe for one moment that the Koran ought to be banned. But if I was a member of the Dutch electorate I would vote for Geert Wilders’ party nonetheless because I don’t think he deserves to go to jail for 16 months just for arguing that it should.
Wilders doesn’t really want to ban the Koran, of course. It’s a theatrical gesture — a situationist move — designed to underline the absurdity of trying to limit freedom of speech on the grounds that certain words or phrases or images might move people to violence. What Wilders is saying is that if you believe the critics of Muslim extremism should be silenced because their words might incite religious hatred, then, logically, you ought to ban the Koran on the same grounds. It’s not a serious suggestion, so much as a reductio ad absurdum of a completely untenable, illiberal position.
It is for precisely this reason that I have always believed that European countries are wrong to attempt to censor what they consider to be hate speech or speech denying certain historical events such as the Shoah. Hate-speech laws or any other laws that try to limit free speech based on its content always make the extremist the victim. Moreover, they force people such as Toby Young who likes to provoke and who believe that freedom of speech is the most sacred of values to defend Geert Wilders without seeking to see behind the trees. Guided by his orthodoxy about free speech, Young is convinced that Wilders can only be right because that it is always absolutely unjust to try to shut somebody hate because society doesn't like what he is saying or finds it too distasteful. It isn't an erroneous positon to take, just a limited and an absurd one because the conclusion seems to be that victims of censorship are always and absolutely right or rather they cannot be right or even extremist.
Pankaj Mishra argues convincingly, I have to say, that the United States and the "West" still have imperial reflexes, which are preventing them from acknowledging the realities of the post 9/11 world, an era where the East and the rest of the world are no longer scared of them and have their own ideas about how things are going to be. Sugary excerpt:
Decolonisation seems to have dented little the sense of superiority that since 1945 has made American leaders in particular consistently underestimate the intensity of nationalist feeling in Asia and Africa. In proposing cash bribes for the "moderate" Taliban, the Obama administration reminds one of FDR's bright idea about the original inhabitants of Palestine: "What about the Arabs?" he once asked the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. "Can't that be settled with a little baksheesh?"(...)The Chinese, Indians, Iranians and other emerging powers too have an idea of what they owe to themselves: the richness of the world that the west first claimed for itself. But while getting what they want, they won't claim the sanction of a superior morality and civilisation. Indeed, the long and appalling history of European hypocrisy in Asia and Africa may be why Beijing dispenses altogether with talk of Chinese values as its strikes deals with nasty regimes in Africa, and why even democratic India keeps mum about the advantages of regular elections as it tries to offset Chinese influence over Burma's military despots.
Reading Mishra's article forces me to ask myself whether America's most influential mark on the world was that it made it so cool and often so stylish to be a hegemon that now every country wants to be one and to exercise power in the same way. I'm coming to the realization that the post 9/11 world is one with a bunch of countries who have fallen in love, whether they want to be admit it or not with the American style of power, even as they resents it when it affects them. America is John Wayne and we know that there was a time when every man, no matter where he came from, wanted to be John Wayne even when he hated the fact that he was killing "Indians" and shooting from the hip without much finesse, sophistication or awareness of the sensibilities of others.
Christopher Chivvis argues that Europeans are bad at Nation-building when it ought to do its best to be good at it to make a necessary contribute to wars which America is fighting most alone in the name of the "West" since it is so unwilling to fight in them:
Civilian work is now widely recognized as an essential ingredient in addressing security challenges around the world. Weak states need people who know how to investigate a murder, run a prison system, collect customs and other taxes, and generally keep a state bureaucracy up and running. There is little point in pacifying a country militarily if its infrastructure, courts, fiscal controls, and health systems are so feeble that chaos returns the moment the troops leave.
Europe seems particularly well-suited for this kind of work. Not only is the European Union the gravitational center of Europe's foreign economic power, Europe is home to some of the most skilled legal, administrative, and law enforcement experts in the world.
Unfortunately, the European Union is failing to live up to its potential. Unless it expands its efforts by taking on more ambitious projects, with larger staff and bigger budgets, the age-old dream of transforming the EU into a civilian power will falter, just as its military prowess continues to decline. NATO -- and the mission in Afghanistan -- will suffer along with it. In its first five years of existence, the EU sent civilian experts to 13 war-torn countries. This sounds impressive, but the vast majority of these missions had fewer than 80 staff members, and most lasted less than a year. Some had little or no impact on the ground.
Is it just me or does Europe seem like the perfect scapegoat for the lack of a viable military strategy in Afghanistan and elsewhere that would lead to victory? What Chivvis does is too easy and in a way cheap because it blames Europeans for been bad at something that it is hard to be good at especially when their countries have an history of being colonizers. I guess one gets historical amnesia when one is looking for culprits.
The Economist has a great article on the ex-Communist Europeans countries and the fact that they are leaving their History behind as they move forward:
For the past 20 years, the countries of this region have been involved in what might be called "therapeutic historiography": tearing up old communist propaganda versions of history, and writing new ones. That has been an exhilarating, messy and sometimes disconcerting process. For Estonians and Latvians, for example, it meant the chance to honour those (heroes or victims, but not villains) who fought against the impending Soviet occupation in 1944-45. Yet many outsiders see these men as no more than Nazi collaborators: they wore uniforms of the SS, the epitome of wartime evil, and served alongside some war criminals. Context and comparison (far more Russians than Balts fought on Hitler's side) become irrelevant.
Slovaks and Croats want to de-demonise their wartime republics (Nazi puppet states from one viewpoint, a snatched breath of national regeneration from another). Germans and Jews, once seemingly vanished from the region, have emerged from the shadows (and from abroad), with their own unhappy memories that undermine the self-righteousness of both Communist and ethno-nationalist versions of history.
(...) Now central and eastern Europe may be joining the club of the ahistorical and apathetic. Historical rows are already the exception, not the rule. Poland is the signal example.
Usually, when the past is a source of shame or rather cannot be one of pride, it dies for those whose memory is too fresh to reinvent it. It is a lot easier to become ahistorical and even apathetic when you believe that the present is better than the past and than the future will be even better. The point is that former Communist countries for the most part feel that they are a lot to look forward to and that they may even be the future of Europe to make an indirect reference to Rumsfeld's provocative statement that there was an old and a new Europe.
No comment necessary to discuss this "it is US against Them" mindset illustrated by Marty Peretz's comments except a brief one to wonder about its policy implications and its usefulness, well maybe those are just foolish/wimpish considerations:
Why are so many liberal Democrats reluctant to concede that there is an intricate international network of ideological gangsters who recognize each other as ikhwan? These brothers do not define themselves by nation. They define themselves by religion, although there are many hundreds of millions of Muslims who are defined out--and define themselves out--of the bloody fraternity of the faithful. Sometimes, they too are stigmatized as enemies, which means they are also targets. And, of course, there are the boundaries of sect, in which Sunnis commit mass murder of Shi’a at prayer (and vice versa).
Then there are the other designated victims: outsiders … us. Not just Westerners and certainly not just Americans. Or Jews, for that matter, although they have a very special place in the demonology of Islam, and particularly in the armed demonology of Islam. Jihad.
James Bowman on what it means to be a real man and the fact that it has to do with primitiveness (that's my characterization):
A hundred years ago, when the Western honor culture still existed, it was well-recognized that part of what it meant to be a real man was to respect women and to be ashamed to pick on those weaker than or different from oneself. It also meant being able — in a now almost forgotten phrase — "to hold one’s liquor" and, where the honor culture was at its strongest, it also meant being good at one’s studies. There may never have been a very large number of those who could be described as "a gentleman and a scholar," but there were few who didn’t recognize that having such a description applied to oneself was one of the highest of compliments.
When I read something as uncultured as Bowman's assertion, my first instinct is to appeal to the guy upstairs that only lives in the imagination of the unimaginative and then I just come to the realization that the real problem here is that only men are allowed to find honor in their primitiveness even when it means embracing the beast within.
Aaah, it never stops, but "it" I mean the paternalist and irresponsible assertion that Haïti has been a country doomed from the very start of its existence (unlike the US?) and that its sad present is the fateful consequence of its cursed history. Here is another example from Christophe Wargny in Le Monde Diplomatique:
Haiti continues to pay dearly for the circumstances surrounding its unwanted birth, between 1802-4. The West, led by Napoleonic France, attempted to kill this bastard child of the French Revolution, and it endured a terrible war of independence. Haiti had the only slave revolt that led to the creation of a state, born through rejection of French colonial power.
France could not accept such defeat, which represented a stain on Napoleon’s reputation as well as the loss of commercial revenues. Saint-Domingue, as it was known, was in 1789 France’s wealthiest colony, producing half the world’s sugar. Nineteenth century Europe could not tolerate such emancipation. Nor could the infant US, a land of slave owners, cope with the idea of such a nation at its gates. There was only one solution: to forbid it to exist.
Thought-provoking point from Paddy Hillyard in his long essay on the difficulty of defining terrorism, which advocates the replacement of terrorism, bu the term "political violence":
By defining many different and disparate politically violent groups together under one label, a relationship is established where none may have existed in the past. The label itself enhances the status of every minor group and encourages the further use of political violence. The enemy, “Al-Qaeda,” has been constituted as “the other,” making it easy to capture under its umbrella a whole range of acts of political violence which have very different motivations and contextual features, but all supposedly coordinated by a man in a cave who gave up using a cell phone years ago. The term “Axis of Evil” has extended the umbrella to include the PLO, Fidel Castro, the Sandinistas and more recently Iran and Yemen. A further discursive turn occurred with the use of the adjective Muslim or Islamic in front of the term creating dozens of suspect nations, thousands of suspect communities and millions of suspect individuals.
There is nothing in new appending an ethnic or racial description to terrorism. During the troubles in Northern Ireland journalists and some academics used the term “Irish terrorism.” The detention process for many started with a form stamped with the words “Irish Suspect” — a term sufficiently ambiguous as to which is the noun in the phrase — that a police officer could either consider the individual in racist terms or the whole of the Irish race. At UK airports and ports Irish people were separated out from other passengers for checking with signs that stated “Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland passengers this way,” further increasing the general public’s suspicion of Irish people. Security experts are now arguing that the same procedures should be introduced at all airports for Muslims.
The issue is that almost everybody stops to be rational when it comes to their safety. Terrorism is a term that is as popular as the use of the word "evil" in America because it is simple and because it appeals to whatever within our human nature that will always want to be safe rather than to be sorry. It just happens that the ethnicization of terrorism is about being safe and will never stop as long as people believe that it works and that it is simply based on common sense.