Friday, February 23, 2007

Blog like an Egyptian

The next time one of the liars who lead us claim that they are fighting the war on turr to defend our "values", remind yourself that shoulder to shoulder with us in that fight is Egypt.

Abdel Kareen Soliman is a blogger. He was a uni student until his uni expelled him. It expelled him for having a bit to say about his uni and about Hosni Mubarak, the hardman who runs Egypt. Standard stuff, you're thinking, the grist of blog mills the world over. Yes, but in Egypt, you get four years' chokey for it.

A couple of facts about Egypt: it's the kind of place in which the coppers can rape you with a stick, and you get punished for it --three months for resisting arrest (a novel method, to say the least, to use your arse to prevent the copper from giving you a righteous clobbering with his truncheon, as is Egyptian policemen's wont); it's also the kind of place the US thinks should be supported with $1.3 billion of military aid a year, and another $800 million of other aid.

Still, at least Mubarak believes in democracy. Hooray! Well, he has elections at least. Until recently, the choice was between Mubarak and Mubarak, with Mubarak winning, but sniffing the wind of change, he allowed others to stand against him last time. He didn't allow their votes to be counted, but hey, let's not quibble over the details.

Here's what I want. We do not prop up governments that imprison bloggers. We do not give torturers weapons. Go to these places and build roads: yes. Train people to maintain the roads: yes. Pay vicious crooks to keep the peace: no. But what I want is a mirage. The people who paid to put W in power do not care about human rights. They have no dollar value.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Beyond parody

Why do we laugh at the right and call them wingnuts? Because of pieces such as this. Here is a rightist "thinker" suggesting that anyone who is in the least bit liberal or progressive is actually a secret Marxist.

Kimball writes:

Both communism and the New Left are alive and thriving here in America. They favor code words: tolerance, social justice, economic justice, peace, reproductive rights, sex education and safe sex, safe schools, inclusion, diversity, and sensitivity. All together, this is Cultural Marxism disguised as multiculturalism.

Erm, hold on. Those aren't "code words". Those are the words for those things. I mean, if "peace" is communist, colour me pink.

You couldn't make this shit up. If you were writing a parody of rightist nutterism, you'd read this and straight away realise that you were not up to the job. You simply cannot beat this.

Hungary's youth, having been fed a steady diet of values-neutral (atheism) and radical sex education while simultaneously encouraged to rebel against all authority, easily turned into delinquents ranging from bullies and petty thieves to sex predators, murderers, and sociopaths.

Erm, what, all of them?

Consequently, and by extension, [cultural determinism] also rejects the first principles of our liberty enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. These are our "unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Cultural Marxism must reject these because these principles of liberty "are endowed by our Creator," who made man in His image.

Erm, but couldn't it derive the same principles from a different source? This is the whole problem with this kind of thesis: it takes a black and white view of everything. You "love freedom" or you're a communist. But you must "love freedom" in exactly the same way I do. This thinking informs the neocons. They have a set of ideals -- not all of them by any means distasteful -- but they believe that there is only one way to worship their particular idols. Other models are just evil. Of course it also informs extreme left nutters too. They have the same "my way or the highway to hell" mentality. True believers tend to. It seems to me that without doubt the exercise of the intellect is doomed to be stunted; it works better unrestrained than it ever will following tramlines.

Learning experience

I don't want to be rude, but if you are going to write an article about "What the West Can Learn From Islam", I do think you should include, erm, what you think the West can actually learn. A history lesson is nice, and it's always lovely to see the names of the Muslim philosophers of the age when Islam was actually a (fairly minor) force in philosophy dropped, but where are the things the West can learn?

Given that Muslim philosophy bogged down in a dead end of neoplatonism, that its jurisprudence is less developed than ours, and that its structures and influence have produced societies that are dysfunctional and passive, I'd suggest that "not much" is not a totally unfair answer. This is not a question of cultural supremacism. It's just what it is. As Ramadan is pointing out, Islam is profoundly conservative. Is what the West should learn that Medina in 800 or so is a great model for society? That we'd all be happier if we'd just submit to God and allow a strong leader to run the place? If not, what?

And this struck me:

Much is made of pluralism, of equality, of racial nondiscrimination, and yet a great many Western societies have chosen to apply an "ethnic" or "Islamic" label to social problems rather than devising political and social responses to social crises. The upshot is that Muslims, even though they are citizens, are seen as a problem rather than as partners in a solution.

The problem is though that 7/7, for instance, is difficult to define as impelled by a "social crisis". And when people are killing their peers because either they feel kinship with the people of Iraq that our government is involved in mistreating or they do not feel they can accept the values and mores of our culture, such as they are, because of a particular reading of the strictures of their religion, well, is that not a problem with Muslims of a sort? I don't draw the same conclusions from that recognition as, for instance, the haters on the right do, but I recognise that the problem is at least in part rooted in a cultural disjunction. Ramadan is quite jolly about it: he believes that the "tension" in Western societies may well be positive, providing a chance to renew the commitment to diversity.

Well yes. But my "commitment to diversity" does not really stretch as far as a commitment to thinking it's okay to urge the murder of your peers, or to kill them. And I'm not sure that I feel particularly tolerant towards those who want to make women second-class citizens (to the extent of mutilating them even) and want to pull our society back to their idea of paradise on Earth (my idea of paradise would never exclude music or dancing, and I don't see why I have to be particularly tolerant towards those who don't just want that for themselves, but want to impose it on me too).

And can we learn from Islam how to accommodate these tensions? No, actually, we can't. Most Islamic countries deal with minorities by oppressing them severely.

Ramadan ends by saying:

Seeking out what Muslims love, how they love, and the nature of their aspirations can be the beginning of a difficult but respectful encounter.

The question that begs is why the West would want a "difficult encounter"? Europeans have done difficult. It proved very painful for us. These days we have a more relaxed approach to our differences. An acquaintance with Muslim thought will not open a door for you to a new world of experience and interesting ideas. Sorry but it doesn't. A wealth of art, yes. A fresh perspective in some ways, yes. An interesting history, yes. But as a learning experience, it is mostly a cautionary tale.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

On the freedom road

This is an interesting discussion on how the left should approach Iran.

It's a question much debated recently, because the left is again caught in a bind. Whereas we naturally would support those groups in Iran struggling for women's rights, the rights of minorities -- in particular, the Kurds, Arabs and nonShias -- and human rights in general, this puts us on the side of the imperialists, who may (or more likely may not) goals that we support by means we absolutely do not. It's tough even for moderates on the liberal side, and some, such as the sadly Islamophobic Third Camp are making clear that they support one not the other. It doesn't help that one has to distinguish carefully between those who are fighting for rights we would support, and those who are fighting for things we do not want to see. Some of the "exile groups" that the US supports are just as nasty as the theocrats. Do we really want to end up doing what we've done in Iraq, and choosing which bad guys we will back to the hilt once we remove the incumbent bad guy?

Complicating matters is that Iran is not just going to turn into a secular state overnight. It does have elections, and people vote for theocrats. This is something that needs to be understood. You can't just make people all freedom loving and liberal overnight, and you have to question whether it is right to fight to bring in norms that most people in a place do not support (a different matter from supporting the fight to bring in norms that a minority prevents the majority from adopting). The Islamic republic is not horribly unpopular, and it is not the case that a vicious state represses the masses. It is a nation divided, and we must take some care that we are not just picking sides in a war for values that we do not in any case always live up to ourselves. (The situation is very different in Sudan, where a minority that holds state power is murdering the majority population, which both left and right are largely ignoring for whatever reason. This is the shame of our age: that we have destroyed Iraq in the name of "freedom" or whatever bullshit we are currently destroying it in right now, but we will not stop the continuing genocide in Darfur. I'll be blogging more about Africa when I have the energy. Its not being in the news too often means that it's not always salient, but it should be.)

The worst case is that the left is painted as supporting Iran, or actually does support Iran, in this conflict. (By Iran, I mean the regime of course, not the people of Iran.) Not sufficiently distinguishing the parties involved in Iraq has led to the suggestion that we support murderers because we say that the Iraqis have a right to resist the occupation. (In truth, distinguishing good from bad in Iraq is extremely difficult, and the Americans often resemble nothing so much as another militia, rather than anyone who is actually in control.) It's important to be clear that opposing military action is not the same as endorsing the Ahmedinajad government.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

And yet

Here is the problem with Israel. I sympathise with the Palestinians, think they should have a state, even think the Israelis have been bad boys. All of that and yet.

No one talks about the "and yet".

Many want an Islamic state.

Hands up everyone who wants to live in an Islamic state. No one volunteering?

That's the first part of the "and yet". I'd rather live in Israel than any Palestinian state. When, if, Israel gives up the West Bank, as it should, paradise won't spring into place. Many people there want women in niqab, hatred towards Christians and "materialists" (that's you and me, dude), handchopping, lash the boozers, conform or die. Well, that's their choice, but I'm not getting behind it. I'm not celebrating it, I mean. I'm for self determination but I do not cheer bad choices.

And I do celebrate the freedom and the progress that Israel represents. The left, all of us, could do with noticing that in an arena full of dictatorships, intolerance, disastrous regimes that do nothing but hurt their people, there is one place that is not like that. Yes, it's been backed by Western money. Yes, but the people there have worked hard to make the place work.

And they voted for Hamas.

Okay, I understand "resist Israel". I sympathise somewhat with that. I understand that feeling runs high because your grandpa owned land in the Mandate and the Jews ran him off it. But Hamas is not your neighbourhood social group. It wants Israel destroyed and all Jews killed. It has not given up its charter. It has not renounced its aim to destroy all Jews, no matter how long it takes.

Israel's reluctance to deal with Hamas is understandable, even though Hamas will accept peace. You're going to be feeling that no matter how long "temporary" is, a temporary peace with people who have avowed to kill you and everyone like you is not wholly desirable. Egypt, when it signed a peace deal with Israel, did not caveat it by saying "we're only signing this because we can't destroy Israel, and we will do so when we're able". It made peace in good faith. I can understand not feeling Hamas will.

Of course, the Israelis use and abuse that. They have long taken legitimate security concerns and twisted them into extreme positions, sometimes with a healthy dose of their own racism.

Yeah, but the original concerns are not ill founded. We forget that all too often. We sometimes hear that Israel's foundation was a "mistake". I think it was (although I think that now the mistake has been made, there's no going back). But it was a mistake partly, maybe even mostly, because Israel is surrounded by irredeemable shitheads. That's not an expression of Islamophobia. I don't have a problem with Islam. It's an expression of will you fucking look at those bastards? Look at Egypt, Syria, Jordan. Write a blog like this in any of those places and you won't be able to sleep at night, waiting for the knock at the door.

Nothing in this life is clear-cut. Nothing. There are always "and yet"s. Forgetting that is wrong; sometimes, it's even inhuman. The world will rarely actually be judgeable as black and white, even if we paint it that way. I'm aware (painfully so because I have a correspondent who sees the world in black and white and gives me the other side of it) that seeing the world that way can feed those whose interests are served by boiling out the nuance from an issue: extremists of all hues, charlatans, the people liberals like me oppose, have died opposing.

I am not forgetting the "and yet". I am supportive of the Palestinian cause. But I am supportive also of the aspirations of ordinary, day-to-day Israelis, the people who made the desert green, who built a functioning, democratic state in a place where no state functions without terror and heartbreak. They are people to be celebrated, not hated, and our desire to support those who are oppressed should not lead us to hate those who do not deserve it.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Wincing the night away

Sometimes a record will have mixed reviews to the extreme, so that half the reviews hail it as the band's, if not history's, finest; the rest slam it as an indulgence, not as good as (fill in name of band's previous album) or just plain terrible. Often this is caused by the record's being so awful that only its mother and fanbois can love it. It's fair to say that The Shins' Wincing the night away has had that kind of mixed reception. So (bearing in mind that I am a huge fan of The Shins) let's ask, is it winner or wincer?

I think it comes down to how many times you've listened to it. If you listened once, and did not give it another go, you might be put off by the production and the subtlety of James Mercer's songwriting, and perhaps by the darker edge that hides the Beach Boys influence that had been prominent on Chutes and Oh inverted world. The tunes are not in your face, and The Shins have discovered a mild experimentation (they have bought a reverb pedal and a keyboard). But listen to it a couple more times and what is revealed?

The truth is, it is an album easily the match of their first two. And that is saying something. It begins unpromisingly, with smothered, reverby mouthings, but Sleeping lessons, which had threatened to be plodding Shins, fires up into rocking Shins. Australia keeps it rocking, typical Shins straightahead rock. The intricate, clever melodies that made Chutes too narrow such a pleasure are there present and correct on the clever Turn on me, the brilliant Girl sailor and the single Phantom limb, which is up there with Saint Simon as their best work. That chorus just eats into you, until you feel you cannot breathe until you hear it again.

The couple of experimental songs in the middle that have drawn notice are simply Shins' songs with a fresh arrangement, particularly Sea legs, which sounds like Mercer ran into Beck. I think reviewers have been upset that The Shins did not simply make another Chutes, but it's not as though they made a whole album of Brazilian hiphop. There's nothing radically changed at all. Just a set of excellent songs -- probably all round a better set than either of the first two, which each had the odd duff moment (and Pam Berry on the new album is a song you'll be glad only goes a minute).

Yeah, I love it. Colour me a Shinstruck fan but I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-crafted pop. In a couple of places, I might have wished that the producer had not treated Mercer's voice so heavily, but this is like complaining that you don't like the singer's shirt at a gig. For me, The Shins are as good as it gets right now, and Wincing gives more reasons to believe that.

No promises

The latest cause of outrage among American progressives is that Democratic politicians will not say that they won't bomb Iran. They are queueing up to say that they won't take any options off the table.

Now, it is unhelpful to say this, and they're only doing it to posture, and it's true that engagement with Iran is far the best course. Yet they are right.

Chirac, in his mistranslated and misunderstood comment, said that it would not matter so much in itself that Iran had a bomb or two, because it could after all never use it (he said that Israel would raze Tehran about ten seconds after the rocket left the launchpad) and there would be a state of mutual deterrence between Iran and Israel, but that the proliferation it might spark off was the real problem. The progressives have jumped on this notion.

Well, Chirac didn't get where he is today by being a thinker, so why expect him to start? The problem is not the first Iranian bomb, the second or even the hundredth. It's the one that some Jewhating nutter slips to Hezbollah. You do not need a rocket to deliver a nuke (the only ones so far delivered were of course dropped from planes). A truck will do nicely. The assumptions that there are a/ no nutters with access to Iranian materiel who would supply bombs to terrorists and b/ no terrorists who hate Jews sufficiently to atomise Tel Aviv are two that I wouldn't make if I were responsible for Israel's security, on account of the situation in Iran's being quite unstable and of there being plenty of nutters who would be up for the job. Suicide bombers want to create outrage and disproportionate responses. Islamic Jihad rejoices when Israel murders Palestinians because it is taking its revenge for a suicide attack. As I noted, this is a large part of the aim of the suicide bomber: make your enemy despisable. If Tel Aviv were nuked, and Israel retaliated by destroying Tehran (which I hope it could be persuaded not to do), the papers would be full of pieces painting the Israelis as the embodiment of evil, and asking why they felt justified in doing it when they couldn't prove Iran was responsible. Count on it. What you would read, amid the expression of regret and sympathy for Israel, would be an expression of hatred for it.

What the progressives want is for Clinton, Obama et al to make an unequivocal promise not to attack Iran. Sadly, I think that would be a mistake. I don't want Iran to be attacked or think it will need to be, and I don't think there's any need for the ridiculous rhetoric that is being spewed on the subject. But I do think that if there were credible (ie not made up and probably not supplied by Israel) evidence that Iran had a capability to make nuclear weapons within months (not the many years it is currently at), removing that capability might be the right thing to do. I do not think we should gamble Tel Aviv on finding out that we were wrong.

Friday, February 2, 2007

On suicide bombing

The recent suicide bombing in Israel set me thinking. I have recently been reading around in Israeli and progressive literature, pro and anti the occupation. I realise I disagree deeply with a fondly held view of some progressives, because it is based on untruths.

The line that I find difficult is this: suicide bombers represent the only means for a liberation movement to fight an oppressor and these poor boys are just so humiliated and downtrodden that they feel there is no other way for them.

Neither of these things is true. That the left, with its long history of protest and activism, can believe the first, is simply astonishing. I have a single word of admonishment for those who find themselves supporting the murder of civilians: Gandhi. Gandhi faced a murderous and oppressive imperial force, a coloniser more brutal than Israel has ever been, and stood against them with what? A loincloth and a steadfast belief that presenting their wrongness to them would shame them into doing the right thing. He did not urge the bombing of anyone.

I think it is important, given the current political climate, given too that the left has slid into a quasi partnership with some horrible people (in some cases, sharing a platform with Islamists who would, given the chance, remove the very rights and privileges we fought so hard for!) to say that we do not condone the murder of civilians in any cause.

I am not driven to my views by Islamophobia. Far from it, I'm fairly sympathetic to Islam. But I am not at all sympathetic to the view that the correct way to structure a society includes the repression of women, the smothering of dissident views or the hatred of outsiders that has seen Jews and other nonMuslims often suffer as badly at the hands of Muslims as they did at those of Europeans through the centuries (regardless that the Jewish experience in the Muslim world has not been as bad as it has in Christendom -- and it hasn't -- it still has not been a joyful union of people; and the knowledge that at any time, you can be scapegoated for all things unfavourable and hurt, punished or murdered does not allow people to live in the security that should be afforded all of us).

So the first untruth that I deny is that suicide bombing is a legitimate means of fighting oppression. I do not believe it. I believe it is a shock tactic, a means of creating outrage, that some men have created because of its psychological effectiveness. (What better way to hurt Jews than to force them into wrongness by making them fear and despise all Arabs as potential murderers -- and in recent times, has the use of the tactic not made us susceptible to the same thing? By making death something that anyone can deliver, people are forced to fear everyone of a particular type. I do not believe that Israelis, or us, can be considered solely culpable for fearing Arabs, wanting them controlled, holding them in suspicion. This is one of the aims of suicide bombing, and it is very effective.)

The second is that it is carried out by the downtrodden, the humiliated, those with nowhere to go. But studies of suicide bombers (particularly the work of Scott Atran) do not bear this out. (Nor does simply looking at the biographies of those involved: more often than not middle-class, educated men, angry but not necessarily personally affected in the deep way that the stereotype suggests.) They may feel that this is the most effective way they can use themselves in the cause they believe in, but they are not generally desperate men who feel they have no future.

Here is the thing. We have a one-eyed focus on the wrong the Israelis do the Palestinians, and become wrapped up in our desire for a narrative with good guys and bad guys. (This is how human beings are, a natural thing. We are hardwired to divide the world into ingroup and outgroup, and we find it hard not to categorise people in these simple terms. But once we are aware that we do that, we can try to move beyond it, of course.) And Israel has done bad.

But the other day three human beings were murdered in Eilat, three more families were robbed of people they loved. My mind wanders to the Israeli girl I met in Xi'an, gentle, bewildered by the hatred she felt not only from the Palestinians but from the West, towards her personally, someone who wanted justice for all and felt frustrated that she must bear the burden of association with those who do not. I think, I cannot believe in the rightness of her being killed. I cannot twist anything I hold dear into a belief that that would be right. I do not care who is oppressing you. It will never be right to kill the innocent to gain your freedom.