Thursday 31 January 2013

Laughing at Dinosaurs

No Joke

The Art of Donald McGill is one of George Orwell’s most brilliant and perceptive essays.  It’s a dissertation on the naughty British seaside postcard – now I think a thing of the past -, on forms of ribald humour that most likely escape people who are not native to these islands.  Towards the end he makes the following observation;
I never read the proclamations of generals before battle, the speeches of fuhrers and prime ministers, the solidarity songs of public schools and left-wing political parties, national anthems, temperance tracts, papal encyclicals and sermons against gambling and contraception, without seeming to hear in the background a chorus of raspberries from all the millions of common men to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.
When the author was writing the common people may very well have responded to the pompous and the high-minded in the fashion described.  They may also have done so in their millions, but if they did they did it, by and large, privately and in isolation from one another, especially if their destinies were governed by despots. 
Now it’s different; now we have Twitter, millions of raspberries blown in the face of the latest absurdity from those formerly used to public reverence.  It’s a form of freedom that manages to transcend the limits imposed on everyday expressions of dissent.  Even those who live in authoritarian states, at least where tweeting is allowed, can express a view reasonably free from detection. 
I was thinking of this on reading about the latest absurdity by Saudi Arabia’s morality police.  Yes, the country has a morality police, bearded auxiliaries employed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.  They are more familiarly known to Saudis as Hayaa.  In Damam on the Kingdom’s Gulf Coast they recently marched into an education exhibition featuring models of dinosaurs, turned off the lights and ordered everyone out.
The reason for this heavy-handedness is unknown.  Perhaps because it was being held in a shopping mall, one of the few places that Saudis of both sexes are able to mix publicly, something that’s bound to attract the attention of these absurd guardians of rectitude.  But no sooner had the exhibition been closed a new Arabic Twitter hashtag, @Damam-Hayaa-Closes-Dinosaur-Show, appeared.  Before long it was attracting dozens of theories, many of them hilarious, some of them ribald.
Perhaps, one went, there is a danger that people will start worshipping dinosaurs instead of God.  No, said another, it’s only a temporary measure until such time as the male and female dinosaurs have been separated.  The real problem, said a third, was that a female dinosaur had been caught in public without a male guardian. 
Some Twitters saw it in political terms – “It’s not as if we don’t see dinosaurs in newspapers and on TV in the government every day.” Another suggested that it would be better to go after the dinosaurs in gilt-trimmed cloaks, a form of dress favoured by senior sheiks.
For still more it was all about sex.  One of the exhibits depicting a dinosaur riding on the back of another was declared to be sexually suggestive, an obvious example of a Westernising influence.  “I confess”, one penitent declared, “I saw a naked dinosaur thigh and felt aroused.”  Another attempted to enlighten the Hayaa – “No, no, that long thing is a tail.” 
A great many challenged the real dinosaurs – the religious police themselves.  “They worried that people would find the dinosaurs more highly evolved than themselves.”  Another wrote, “Hello Stone Age.  We have some of your people – can you please come and collect them.” 
How true it is that laughter is the best weapon against the killjoys, the moralists and the dogmatists of this life, all those who take themselves so seriously that they simply can’t be taken seriously. 

Wednesday 30 January 2013

With charity for all

At the end of 1862, in the wake the Union victory at the Battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln took a bloody and ugly Civil War to a far higher level – he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  In bold and ringing words it was declared;

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...

I first heard this recited at the end of one episode of Ken Burn’s excellent TV documentary on the Civil War, contrasting images of brutalised slaves and black Union soldiers, all against a rousing chorus of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  It was an emotional moment.

Emotional indeed.  The only thing is that the proclamation itself, for all its nobility, was a wartime executive order, one based purely on the authority of the President.  It was not the law of the land and - without the sanction of Congress - it had no abiding legal validity.  In other words, those slaves forever free might just as quickly have been back in chains if the war had been brought to a quick conclusion and the President’s authority challenged by the courts.  Emancipation Proclamation or not, slavery was still the law of the land.

It was the movie Lincoln that brought this simple truth home to me, one that I had previously overlooked.  I’ve always admired Stephen Spielberg as a director, one of the great masters of the cinematic medium.  In Lincoln he has surpassed himself, just as Daniel Day-Lewis has in his depiction of the sixteenth President of the United States, at once full of folksy wisdom and political shrewdness of an unparalleled order.  The screenplay by Tony Kushner is a commendable reduction of Doris Kearns Godwin’s monumental The Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln down to manageable cinematic size.

Lincoln is not a biopic, not a log cabin to White House odyssey.  It is, rather, a bold focus on a narrow window of Lincoln's  political life – the attempt in January, 1865 to get the House of Representatives to pass a Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, already approved by the Senate, abolishing slavery altogether. 

This is real touch and go stuff; for the House has previously rejected the measure and the War is drawing to a close.  It’s quite conceivable that the struggle could have ended with the status quo ante bellum, settling nothing at all but the Southern States continuing membership of the Union. 

Even without the Southern representatives in Congress the matter is not clear cut.  Even within the President’s own Republican Party the matter is not clear cut.  The Radical Republicans, headed by Thaddeus Stevens – a scorching performance by a bewigged Tommy Lee Jones – believe in the equality of all.  But the Conservative Republicans, headed by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), are content to leave slavery in place, if only the war can be brought to an end. 

Sniping from the sidelines is the Democratic opposition, headed by George H. Pendleton (Pete McRobbie) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).  Many of them are Confederate sympathisers; some of them are outright racists.  But so, too, are many on the Republican side, which forces Stevens to hold his oratorical fire on the issue of equality of the races during one crucial debate, simply to ensure that the Amendment stands a chance of passing. 

Overseeing it all is the President, the consummate ringmaster, well able to resort to high-minded rhetoric, political intrigue and wheeler-dealing as the occasion demands, even if it demands paying off opponents with promises of office.  All the balls are in the air.  Not only does he have to manage his party, his cabinet and Congress, he also has to manage his wife!  Here we have another great performance, Sally Field as the highly strung and borderline crazy Mary Todd Lincoln.  The scene between her and Stevens, whom she hated, at a White House reception positively sparks! 

Lincoln is my sort of move, an intelligent, well-crafted and highly literate depiction of one of the great crossroads in American history.  Although the President, to gain the support of the Conservative Republicans, has had to invite a Southern peace delegation north, unbeknown to Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn), he does his best to make sure that little progress is made, either in travels or in talks.  The truth is - something I had not previously considered -, until such time as the Fourteenth Amendment is passed, for the President the war had to go on.

I don’t want to give you the impression that Lincoln is a high school history lesson; it’s not. Despite the narrowness of focus it’s as exciting a piece of political drama and intrigue as I have ever seen.  There are also some wonderful comic moments, particularly those involving a team of none too scrupulous lobbyists, headed by James Spader as William Bilbo, on a mission to approach wavering Democrats with offers they can’t refuse!   

I really can’t praise Day-Lewis’ performance too highly, a statement I suspect is in danger of turning into a cliché.  I will be amazed if he is not recognised at the forthcoming Academy Awards, but the Academy has a track record of amazing me.  This is Lincoln as I imagine Lincoln, full of unaffected charm and cracker barrel wisdom, backed up by shrewdness, by an intellect as sharp as flint and by a natural ability to read and manage people. 

It should also be stressed that both director and actor have done an excellent job in chipping away at the legend to give us a wholly plausible human being.  Lincoln does not walk on water; he is shown as a tough political operator, as canny as they come; Honest Abe at one moment, Machiavellian Abe at the next.  The actor carries the man to perfection, even in the quiet, unassuming tones of his voice, quite a leap, since nobody alive has ever heard the real voice!

To manage a war, to manage a government, to manage a cabinet, to manage Congress, to manage all of this and the pressures of domestic life is the task of a Titan.  Lincoln captures something of the scale and sweep here, the narrowness of focus notwithstanding.  Spielberg handles his subject with masterful ease, eschewing some of the showmanship that he is noted for in past movies.  Even when we fast forward to April 1865 the end comes not, as one might have expected, in Ford’s Theatre, but another theatre altogether, where a show attended by Lincoln’s youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) is interrupted with news of the President’s assassination.

The movie finishes with a flash back to the second inaugural address, those wonderful words by a man who really did have malice towards none and charity for all.  At this point my tears are liberally flowing.  I had to wait until the end of the credits before risking a public appearance.   

Tuesday 29 January 2013

Nuclear Facejobs

So, North Korea has announced plans for further rocket launches and a nuclear test as ‘New phase of the anti-US struggle.’ The official communiqué could not make it any clearer;

We do not hide the fact that a variety of satellites and long-range rockets will be launched by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea one after another, and a nuclear test of a higher level which will be carried out by it in the upcoming all-out action will target against the US, the sworn enemy of the Korean people. Settling accounts with the US needs to be done with force, not with words. The world will clearly see how the army and people of the DPKK punishes all kinds of hostile forces and emerge as the final victor while following the just road of defending its sovereignty.

I know, I know; the prose is not very elegant, but surely it creates a mood of dread? The hermit state really does seem intent on settling accounts with America but, contrary to assertion, not with missiles but with a lethal barrage of...words. Yes, let’s bore the hostile forces to death with intercontinental verbal incontinence. Quick; take to the shelters; here comes a dirty bomb of nouns and verbs!

Do not be too concerned by the latest petulance from Pyongyang. As far as real intercontinental capability is concerned, it’s almost certain that the country lacks the capacity. Of course it can still do a lot of damage with short range weapons aimed at South Korea and Japan. Still, look at the facts. Regimes that plan aggressive actions do not generally announce their intentions in advance. Look out, America; here we come: the Imperial Japanese fleet is on its way to Pearl Harbor.

It’s getting just a bit boring, this pseudo-nation behaving like a petulant child. We’ve been here before, in 2006 and again in 2009, nuclear tests that provoked international outrage. But there was no advance publicity with these past travesties, no bluster, no suggestion that the regime was set to punish ‘all kinds of hostile forces.’

The truth is Kim Jong Un, the Fat Leader, and his military chiefs are a bit like a collection of mafia dons, making an offer you can’t refuse. No test, no missile, and no words, just as long as the price is right. After all, this is a country that can build weapons but can’t feed its own people.

The biggest threat North Korea presents is not its weapons arsenal but itself, and the greatest threat is not to the US but to China, its ostensible ally. The Chinese, infinitely patient, are beginning to lose patience. They have had enough of their blustering and adolescent neighbour. But there is only so far they can go in expressing disapproval, least the baby starts howling and throwing his toys out of his pram.

Beijing said naughty, naughty after the last nuclear test, punishing baby with a series of sanctions that were not sanctions. The latest hot air is a cause of renewed embarrassment. But China can’t go too far in reigning in the Fat Leader. His ultimate threat is not the explosion of his nuclear arsenal but the implosion of his own benighted nation, causing millions to flee over the border, the stuff of Chinese nightmares.

Meanwhile the reports that the Fat Leader has been having plastic surgery to look more like the Great Leader, his dead grandfather, are entirely wrong. This falsehood is a hideous criminal act that the party, state, army and people can never tolerate;

Those hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the nation should not expect any mercy or leniency. Time will clearly show what dear price the human scum and media in the service of traitors of South Korea, slaves of capital, will have to pay.

Would it, I wonder be as high as the price for a nose job? Oh, well; I can’t say I haven’t been warned. Even as I write a severe incontinent reprimand is winging its way in my general direction.

Monday 28 January 2013

Daft Dominion

Here are the facts. The year is 1952. In the east the German war with Russia, now eleven years old, shows no sign of ending. On a line roughly extending from Lake Ladoga in the north-west to the Caspian Sea in the south-east, the struggle is in stalemate, a contest punctuated by blows and counter blows which settle nothing.

In the west Britain, having made peace with Germany after the brief war of 1939-40, is governed by a crypto-fascist regime headed by Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, the press magnate. Oswald Mosley, whose fascist party made substantial gains in the rigged parliamentary election of 1950, is Home Secretary, in charge of the normal police and black-shirt recruited auxiliaries. Enoch Powell is Secretary of State for India, where Britain is still fighting a rearguard action to retain the Jewel in the tawdry Crown. Under the Treaty of Berlin, which ended the western war, the Isle of Wight has been turned over to Germany as a base.

In Berlin, Hitler, suffering from increasingly acute Parkinson’s disease, is nearing the end. The future is uncertain, with no clear succession. There are those who want to end the hopeless war in the east; there are those, chiefly in the SS, who want to carry on the struggle against the Slav ‘sub-humans’ until that elusive final victory.

We are, of course, in past futures, a foreign country which did things differently; we are in the country of C. J. Sansom’s Dominion, a ‘what if’ novel along the lines of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Len Deighton’s SS GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland.

The premise is a plausible one. The novel opens with a real historical scene, the meeting in the Cabinet Room of 10 Downing Street on 9 May, 1940. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, has announced his intention to resign, discredited by Britain’s disastrous campaign against the Germans in Norway. The contenders are Halifax and Churchill. Halifax, the Foreign Minister and a noted appeaser, is favoured by Chamberlain, the King and most of the Tory Party. In real history he demurs. In this history he does not. After the German invasion of the West, and the disaster of Dunkirk, Halifax makes peace, entering into a treaty of friendship with Britain’s former enemy. Churchill withdraws, eventually to lead a Resistance movement against the new Vichy-style regime, headed in succession by Halifax, David Lloyd George and finally Beaverbrook.

Dominion is the first book that I’ve read by C. J. Sansom, though I’m told that he is well-respected for his Shardlake series, historical novels set in Tudor England. He has a doctorate in history; so, if that’s any measure, he is qualified enough to treat the subject with imaginative insight and a high degree of verisimilitude and empathy. Does he? Well, now, that’s the key question. At the risk of trying your patience I’m going to begin this review by looking at the justification for the premises contained in the novel, set out in a Historical Note at the very end.

Actually, if you are at all interested in the context, I would suggest that you begin at the end. It’s the key to all that goes before. It shows the author as a man with a mission. He has, in other words, a political intent; his novel is not merely for shallow entertainment. Rather it has a didactic purpose, namely to warn you against the dangers of nationalism and fascism in the real historical present by showing you nationalism and fascism in a fictitious historical past.

I suppose that this book might be compared, at least superficially, with It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel warning of the dangers of fascism in America. It could have happened here, that’s Sansom’s point. But could it have happened in the way he describes in Dominion?

You see, what he gives us is an Anglo-Saxon version of Petain and Laval’s Vichy state. It’s really all based on a shallow idiocy of perspective, if I can put it like that. George Orwell, who also feared a form of fascism in England, was altogether more subtle than the inept Mister Sansom, at pains to advance his left-wing credentials. “What sickens me about left-wing people, especially left wing intellectuals”, Orwell wrote, “is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.”

My own doubts were raised early. Beaverbrook, in real history, was a close friend of Churchill and an effective minister in his wartime cabinet. In Dominion this same Beaverbrook is a man prepared to hand over Britain’s Jewish community to the Nazis. In justifying his portrayal, Samson quotes Clement Atlee, the post-war Labour prime minister, who said that the press baron was the most evil person he had ever met. Really? Is this the same Beaverbrook that Michael Foot, a former Labour leader and respected leftwing journalist, describes with such warmth and affection in his essay collection Debts of Honour?

Then there is Enoch Powell, the bête noir of Samson and his kind. His real credentials were impeccably anti-fascist, an opponent of appeasement and a man who returned to England from a comfortable academic position in Australia specifically to fight against the Nazis. The idea of him collaborating with Oswald Mosley is laughably absurd. Samson has simply advanced beyond his fictitious present to a real future, to Powell’s 1960s warning over the possible effects of mass immigration. He has then projected back again; for, as we all know, concerns about immigration equals fascism.

Powell, who only entered Parliament in 1950, was an admirer of British rule in India, that much is true, but by the early 1950s his imperial convictions were weakening. The depiction of him in Dominion is, quite frankly, childishly inexact. By Sansom’s measure Churchill might just as readily have been Secretary of State for India in a Beaverbrook cabinet, given his own past political commitments, his past refusal to countenance any form of independence for India.

So, what is there to say about Samson’s imagined Britain? It’s a drab place, economically depressed, a country in debt, a country that is no more than a satellite of a Continental superpower, a country where independence is all but a fiction, a country with an uncertain future. This is Vichy Britain, the only model the author seems to understand, a country whose cowardly leaders are prepared to hand over some of its citizens to an uncertain fate.

But Vichy was not the only model to hand. In real history there was Finland, an ally of Germany in the war against Russia, but one that preserved its democratic polity and refused to play any part in the Holocaust. Then there is Denmark, the ‘model’ protectorate, a country occupied by the Germans but one that still managed to undermine Nazi policy towards the Jews.

It’s perfectly true, in a world of limitless possibilities, that Samson’s alternate is just as valid as any other alternate, but does it stand up to scrutiny? My alternate is that if Britain had exited the war in 1940, instead of 1945, it would not have accumulated the massive debts, particularly to America, that so crippled its post-war economic performance.

Even in Sansom’s world the country would surely have done much better. There is no objective reason why it should have been so poor. Although allied to Germany, it was not involved in the war with Russia. Why on earth would the Germans have erected tariff barriers against British produce when such produce, particularly in armaments, would have been vital for the continuing campaign in the east? Sansom’s model makes no logical sense.

The truth is that Sansom’s depiction of a sad, indebted, economically and politically dependant nation is far closer to our contemporary political realities; a grubby Britain, a country increasingly uncertain of itself, a country falling to bits, a country tied to the European Union, an organisation the author clearly approves of.

The Historical Note, incidentally, which starts off objectively enough, ends up as a carpet-chewing rant against nationalism in general and – would you believe it? – Scottish nationalism in particular! Nationalism and patriotism, in Sansom’s view, are close kin to fascism. We are back in the mental world of those 1930s intellectuals who, when it came to understanding fascism, understood exactly nothing

I’ve tried your patience too far. The historical stuff may be of no interest at all to you. You have one question only: what of the novel, what of the story; is it any good? Yes, well, it is in part, now and again a bit of a page turner. Ignore the political manipulation – unfortunately I can’t - and you might actually enjoy it. The problem is that it is overlong and repetitive. More than that, the whole superstructure rests on an astonishingly weak base. The core plot device, the heart of the story, is as weak as marshmallow.

It centres on one Frank Muncaster, a geologist, who has learned a ‘dreadful secret’ that turns out to be no secret at all. I’m not going to tell you what the ‘dreadful secret’ is, simply that the Germans are anxious to find out, though what earthly good it could have done them is anybody’s guess. Muncaster learns his ‘dreadful secret’ from his physicist brother, who happens to be working with the Americans. In the contretemps that follows, the said brother is pushed out of the window of Muncaster’s flat, while he proceeds to wreck the place (why?), all the time shouting about the end of the world.

It turns out that Muncaster is the sort of fellow that a goose would say boo to, so his actions, to say the least, are just a tad out of character. But on his hissy fit all else follows; the Gestapo follow, the British fascist police follow, the British resistance follow; Churchill himself follows. Quick, let’s find Frank; our war in Russia depends on his ‘dreadful secret.’ Quick, let’s find Frank; let’s discover the ‘dreadful secret’ or get him away safely to America.

I’m really trying not to laugh as I write this, but there is so much in Dominion that is laughable; the lost and found chase through a thick London fog, Keystone Cops-style, is particularly funny. Poor Muncaster, freed from a loony bin, is aided by an assortment of individuals – David Fitzgerald, a civil servant and member of the resistance who befriended the forlorn chap (oh, just how many times do we heed to be reminded of his rictus smile?!) while they were at Oxford together. He is aided by Ben, a nurse at a lunatic asylum and a homosexual Scottish communist, also a member of the resistance, ye ken. He is aided by, of all organisations, the Fire Brigade, an organisation with impeccable left-wing credentials, which rides to the rescue through the fog!

And so it goes on, from high tension to low comedy, a series of increasingly implausible encounters. The scene on the beach below Rottingdean on the Suffolk coast takes verisimilitude to the Senate House, the SS headquarters in London, and tortures it out of existence. In the end Frank takes himself and the ‘dreadful secret’ into oblivion, an action, if taken earlier, that would have saved several hundred wearisome pages.

As a novel Dominion is real boys’ own stuff, difficult even for boys to swallow. In almost 570 pages of text the only believable character, the only character with any real human depth, is the world-weary Gunther Hoth, the Gestapo agent on Muncaster’s tail. There would seem to me to be a spot of plagiarism here, for he is simply a more ideologically committed dimension of Xavier March, the detective from Robert Harris’ Fatherland.

Dominion is based on a bogus historical premise; it’s based on the character assassination of real people. As a novel it’s too long, it’s repetitive, the characterisations are weak, the encounters unbelievable, the narrative plodding, as thick at point as the London fog and the fog in the author’s mind.

Samson does not write badly; he just doesn’t write very well. If he were not already Mister Shardlake I am convinced that this book would have gathered rejection slips rather than accolades from the likes of the Guardian and the Independent. Quite frankly, it’s a shallow and immature book, no more than a vehicle for the writer’s political prejudices. If you like alternate history and political thrillers go to Fatherland instead. It’s infinitely superior.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Damming Daming

What, no job?
I began this year by writing about the rape, mutilation and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Last year I wrote about Amina Filali, a sixteen-year-old Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her rapist as a way of preserving her family’s ‘honour.’ Subject to continuing abuse, she killed herself in a particularly horrible way – she swallowed rat poison.

Rape is a dreadful crime, even when it isn’t accompanied by additional acts of brutalisation and violence. It is an act based not on desire but on hatred, on the worst forms of human depravity. Women everywhere deserve the protection of the law. Potential rapists need to understand that, if caught and convicted, they face the severest of penalties. Instead the law, as in Morocco, simply adds to the crime, often by stupid insensitivity on the part of judges and senior legal officials.

The whole world was shocked by the savagery of the Delhi attack, which saw the victim disembowelled. One would have thought that a new sobriety would have descended, at least for a time. Alas, the whole world did not include Indonesia, or at least it did not include Judge Muhammad Daming Sanusi.

Daming, a judge for twenty-four years, serves as head of the South Sumatra High Court. Earlier this month he was in Jakarta, the capital, being interviewed by the House Commission for a possible place on the country’s Supreme Court. This is clearly a serious position for serious people, and who could possibly be more serious than a senior lawyer? After all, they are the guardians and upholders of the law, the protectors of the innocent. Who could possibly be more serious than Daming? Well, the answer has to be, just about anybody.

During the course of the interview he was asked whether the death penalty in rape cases was a necessary change to the law, which at present carries a maximum sentence of twelve years imprisonment. "Both the victims and the rapist", he responded, "might have enjoyed their intercourse together, so we should think twice before handing down the death sentence." Apparently, after a moment’s silence, the panel laughed. It was all a great joke, a joke that just happened to have been made not long after an eleven-year-old girl died after being gang raped in broad daylight in the streets of Jakarta.

Unfortunately the ordinary people of the land, those without sound legal sense, or a sense of humour, failed to see the joke. Thousands took to Facebook and Twitter. The condemnation of Daming was damming. Those who previously laughed discovered, on reflection, that it wasn’t so funny after all. Politicians from the country’s main parties said that they would not support his candidature. He himself, in a contrite and tearful public statement, said that his remark was merely intended to ‘ease the tension’.

"I have three adolescent daughters", he said, ‘and one of them told me that she is very embarrassed and that she felt as if she did not know me at all." He knows her, though; he knows that she might enjoy being forced to have sex. Oh, but wait a minute; it’s never one’s own that are the subject of such observations; it’s the children of others, those who do not matter.

Commenting on his words, the Indonesian Child Protection Agency said;

Has Daming felt what it’s like to be a rape victim or a member of the victim’s family? It’s extremely inappropriate for a Supreme Court judge hopeful to joke about the suffering of people and their feelings.

The sad thing is that this is not the first time that a senior public official has been responsible for such crass insensitivity. Rape is a crime, you see, where the victim is at fault. Last year Fauzi Bowo, the governor of Jakarta, advised women against wearing ‘provocative clothes’ while using public transport just to avoid being raped. This came in the wake of a series of sexual attacks on public minivans, including that of a university student who was subsequently murdered.

Apologies, tears and family disapproval notwithstanding, it’s all too late for Daming. On Wednesday the House Commission appointed eight new justices. He received not a single vote. But the matter does not stop there. On Friday the Judicial Commission, Indonesia’s highest legal authority, recommended that he be dismissed from his existing post. Imam Ashori Saleh, the Commission’s deputy chairman, said that Daming should be removed because his rape remarks breached the judicial code of ethics. The Supreme Court now has fourteen days to decide his fate.

The fact of the matter is that he has become a political embarrassment. Personally speaking, I have little doubt that if this business had been confined to Indonesia’s old boy network of lawyers and politicians the whole thing would have passed without repercussion. It just a little levity, after all, no need to let some casual words detain us unnecessarily - Judge away, Judge Daming. Alas, the levity made an ass of the law and a laughing stock of the victims of crime. Sometimes, just sometimes, ordinary people can make a difference, if their voice is joined in common purpose.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Grits Southern

For me Quentin Tarantino is a director of extremes; he pushes me to one extreme or the other. I loved Pulp Fiction, a clever, insightful black comedy, as much as I hated Inglorious Basterds, a juvenile and stupid travesty. I almost gave Django Unchained a miss because of my distaste for his bastardised view of Second World War history and because I’m really not that keen on the Western genre.

I was persuaded to go against my taste and my inclination. I am delighted to report that my taste and my inclination were wrong. Django Unchined is Tarantino unchained and he is quite brilliant. Set before the Civil War, this is a remodelling of the old Spagetti Western format as Grits Southern!

In some ways it has the same aim as Inglorious Basterds: it offers a retelling of history, a sort of retrospective revenge movie, with the victim in command. But this time it works. It’s far more than a childish pastiche. It’s a clever, wells-scripted, well-acted, well-scored and, at points, hilariously funny movie despite the darkness of the subject matter. I think this is possibly the most enjoyable pulp history that I have ever seen. It’s obvious that the director had great fun in making it, conveyed to the audience with consummate ease.

We are in the ante-bellum South, 1858, to be exact. The movie opens with chained slaves being escorted half-naked through a freezing Texan night, all bearing the marks of past whippings on their backs. The fate of one of them, Django (Jamie Foxx) is about to change for the better in the most unexpected way.

The party, headed by two slavers, comes across one Doctor King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), an itinerant German dentist who is really a bounty hunter. He needs Django because Django knows the identity of three men he is hunting, and what Doctor King Schultz wants he gets!

The director has managed to obtain superb performances from both Foxx, as the taciturn Django, and Waltz, as the dapper and loquacious Schultz. They are point and counter-point, a perfect harmony of contrasting parts. Although the dentist who is not a dentist disapproves of slavery, he only obtains Django’s release, in the first of the movies violent confrontations, for entirely cynical reasons. After all, like the slavers, he himself is involved, as he puts it, in “a flesh for cash business.” But his evolving relationship with Django takes him to a deeper level of humanity.

Their joint odyssey begins. Django is transformed from slave, to servant, to student, to business partner and finally to friend. Schultz gets himself with consummate ease into seemingly irretrievable situations – at one point he shoots a town sheriff at point blank range – and with consummate ease talks his way out again. After despatching the three hunted men on a plantation, the two are chased through the night by a large mounted group of proto-Klansmen. The scene itself is wholly superfluous, because it adds nothing to the action. No matter; it’s quite hilarious, Monty Python-style, with various members of the gang moaning and squabbling about the size of the eye holes in their hoods!

With the friendship between the two leads deepening, the action moves to a higher plain – the search for Django’s wife, a fellow slave named Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). It turns out that she is being held in a Mississippi plantation called Candyland, owned by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose rotten teeth are as rotten as his soul.

Candyland is anything but sweet. It’s a kind of slave hell made all the more hellish by a vicious white racist, an excellent performance by DiCaprio, an actor I’m used to seeing in more romantic and heroic roles. It’s a place where men are torn apart by dogs, where they are butchered and castrated; it’s a place where they engage in ‘Mandingo fighting’, viscious struggles to the death simply for the pleasure of their master. No sooner have they arrived than the visitors witness a fight in the big house, where the injured loser is dispatched with a hammer.

Here the director recreates slavery as a dreadful abomination, a sadistic crime against humanity. Of course it was an abomination, but rest easy you people who have been trying to discover in chat forums if ‘Mandingo fighting’ was real; it wasn’t. Southern slavers may have been callous but they weren’t stupid. Slaves, after all, cost money, a lot of money. Ironically it was only after the peculiar institution was abolished that some of the more dreadful Southern atrocities began. Slaves were an asset, an investment; free black people were not.

Candie is a racist and a white supremacist. So, too, is his butler Stephen, except he is as black as the night! In what was for me the most startling and unsettling performance of the whole movie, Samuel L. Jackson creates what can only be described as an Uncle Tom from hell. Blacker than black, his scary presence is as compelling as his stare is baleful, masterful in every regard. He haunts Candie like some dreadful familiar.

There is a wonderful ambiguity here that stops the movie turning into a simple white bad black good narrative. The greater monster, perhaps, is not Candie at all, loathsome as he is, but the malevolent Stephen, whose power and influence is based on the inhuman disregard for the suffering, torture, mutilation and murder of his own people. More than that; he is an active participant in their suffering. The death of Candie at the hand of Schultz is gratifying; the death of Stephen at the hand of Django more gratifying still.

If you know Tarantino you will know his fondness for lurid depictions of violence. In this regard Django Unchained does not disappoint. There is also the liberal use of the n word (Stephen is particularly adept), another feature of the Tarantino franchise. So, too, is playful anarchy and the big bang, none bigger than the destruction of Candie Land. Overall the transformations are stunning, none more stunning than the transformation of Foxx from a mono-syllabic victim into assertive folk hero. The apprentice has outlived and out-mastered the sorcerer.

Tarantino tells it like it was. Actually, no, he doesn’t, but he tells it how he would want it to be, in a vicarious and deeply satisfying manner. Who does not dream of that power, the power of the dream factory? Django Unchained is a powerful film, a mature piece of cinema created with a child-like lightness of touch. It’s a movie made by a man who knows movies, a man who manages to create art out of pulp.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

China’s Ancien Régime

Last August, in China’s Hunan province, a woman by the name of Tang Hui was sent to a labour camp, sentenced to eighteen months‘ re-education’ for “seriously disturbing the social order and exerting a negative impact on society.”  Why, you may wonder, what was her crime?  Simply that she had repeatedly petitioned officials, saying that the sentences passed against the men who had kidnapped, raped and forced her eleven-year-old daughter into prostitution should have been more severe. 

Times have changed, even in China.  In times past Tang Hui would simply have vanished into night and fog.  In times present thousands went online to protest on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, which really is turning into the true voice of the people, protesting against the corruption and complacency of the country’s communist oligarchy.  She was released but the protests against the obvious injustice of the legal system have not gone away.

It was Mao Zedong, one of history’s most revolting tyrants, who set up China’s ‘reform through labour’ system, known as laojiao, in 1957.  It was a way of dealing with people who had offended the communist authorities, all the better since it did not involve the inconvenience of any form of due process. 

People can be locked up for four years simply on the whim of some petty official or other; in the past because they were supposedly ‘counter-revolutionaries’, in the present because they are perceived to be a nuisance.  At a conservative estimate some 160,000 are said to be languishing in laojiao labour camps. 

The paradox of Chinese communism is that it reproduces, in its own unique way, the abuses of the Ancien Régime.  Yes, indeed.  Those of you have read Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities may recall the fate of Dr. Manette, imprisoned in the Bastille by means of a lettre de cachet.  These documents, often issued blank, with a name to be added later, were used by the powerful to imprison people without trial or an opportunity for defence.  Laojiao is possible the closest thing the modern world has to lettre de cachet.  But the various Bastilles it supports are far fuller than they ever were in the good old bad old days in France

Things move slowly in China when they move at all; politically they move with all the urgency of a glacier.  Earlier this month a senior legal journalist claimed in a microblog that the government was getting ready to abandon the whole system.  Soon after laojiao consigned his tweets to silence.  Instead Xinhau, the official news agency, said that the government would “advance reforms” this year.  Yes, well, I think we all know exactly what that means. 

Soon after the release of Tang Hui a poll of some 20,000 internet users recorded a 98% verdict in favour of abolition.  I can’t be certain, of course, but I imagine the 2% who voted in favour are placemen and stooges of one kind or another.  No matter; for the poll was deleted, causing some to remark that it too had been sent to a labour camp. 

Tang Hui was lucky; her case attracted public attention, too many people to be sent comfortably off for ‘re-education through labour.’  But there are many thousands still languishing in camps, fellow petitioners, House-church Christians and others who have attracted the eye of disapproval.  It’s simply a way of silencing any form of dissent by those who don’t really qualify for the big Dissident label.  No, these are the petty people, the little people who can be incarcerated often just to settle a local vendetta. 

Just imagine a legal system where you can be picked up by the police because the local sheriff does not like your face.  Just imagine being used as slave labour by camp officials for their own personal profit.  Just imagine injustice.  Just imagine China.   

Tuesday 22 January 2013

England’s Odd Couple

 I recently watched on BBC iPlayer the third part of Simon Schama’s interesting documentary on the history of Britain, though this particular instalment was entirely devoted to English affairs.  Specifically it focused on the turbulent relationship between Henry II and Thomas Becket, Chancellor of England, Archbishop of Canterbury and eventual saint. 

I admire Schama, a reasonably decent telly historian.  Unfortunately the telly history format inevitably lends itself to silly sound bites and glib judgements.  There was one point in the narrative where the glibness was beyond silly.  It came in the aftermath of the infamous 1170 murder of Archbishop Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. 

“All our modern instincts”, the historian said, “seem to say, oh, come on, look at Henry and you find reality; the guardian of the common law, the engineer of government, the smasher of anarchy…and you’d be quite wrong.  Becket, headstrong, infuriating, over the top theatrical Becket made a huge difference.  His view of the church lasted; the Angevin Empire did not.”

Alas, Mister Schama, it is you who are quite wrong, blindingly so!  Yes, of course, the Angevin Empire, that collection of dynastic estates that stretched from England’s northern border all the way south to the Pyrenees, is long gone, but so, too, is Becket’s view of the church.  It was Henry’s view that prevailed, not that of the arrogant archbishop.

Let’s be clear about what we are dealing with here.  Oh, how I resent the skewed view of English history that over amplifies the eighth Henry over the second, a figure now virtually unknown aside from his relationship with Becket.  Henry was, in my estimation anyway, the most significant king in English history.  He was not so much the guardian as the architect of our common law.  He was certainly the great engineer of government and the smasher of anarchy.

And now Becket, what did he represent exactly?  It’s best that you free your mind from any notion that the twelfth century struggle between crown and mitre was over any deep principle of faith; that it represented a desire for religious freedom over state power.  It did not. 

England then had two laws; the law of the land and the law of the church.  Henry saw no reason why churchmen should enjoy extraordinary privileges not extended to others.  Clerics at the time, even those accused of the most serious crimes, including murder and rape, were much more leniently treated by their own courts.  We have seen, by modern example, to what ends the church will go in protecting its own.

For Becket martyrdom was the ultimate goal, the ultimate political gesture.  It certainly secured the ‘liberty’ of the church for centuries after his death – though at the cost of a growing national mood of anti-clericalism - until another Henry appeared.  Becket, as a saint, may have been a heavenly success but in the long run his cause was an earthly failure.  He most assuredly did not make a huge difference.  In the end his shrine, along with his principles, vanished in the Reformation.  Even Charles I, the only Anglican martyr, who also sacrificed himself on a point of religious principle, considered him a traitor. 

Bullying and brutal Henry may have been, but he was simply trying to redress a balance, strengthening a state that had lost so much ground during the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda.  An over-mighty church was as bad as an over-mighty subject.  Becket, the great commoner, had the misfortune to combine both dangers.  He may have been a good subject of the Pope, but he was a bad subject of the king.  Becket, if you like, represented an extraterritorial power.  Henry represented England.  

Monday 21 January 2013

If the Sun Rises

In June of last year the Paraguayan Congress removed Fernando Lugo from the presidency.  This red bishop and so-called ‘liberation theologian’ was impeached for various offences.  Predictably the move was immediately denounced by the leftist regimes in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, who described it as a ‘coup.’  Paraguay was immediately expelled from Mercosur, a local trading block, the recommendation being made that it should also be expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS). 

That same month Hugo Saguier, Paraguay’s ambassador to the OAS, came out fighting.  Speaking directly to the representatives of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, he said “If you want to form a new Triple Alliance go ahead.”  In a moment of passion he had conjured up one of the blackest spectres in South American History – the War of the Triple Alliance. 

I don’t suppose there were too many people in that hall who knew what the ambassador was on about; I don’t suppose there are too many people outside of Paraguay who know what he was on about.  But inside that country that dreadful war has left a lasting memory, a war that came close to destroying a nation, a war that continues to shape its modern destiny.

It began in 1865, just as the American Civil War was coming to an end.  Like that conflict, it was to last for five bloody years, years which saw the decimation of Paraguay.  Federico Franco, Lugo’s successor as president, recently referred to the war as a ‘holocaust.’  This is a word that has suffered from a serious dilution of meaning, but in Paraguay’s case it may very well be justified. 

The country’s enemies were the same as today - Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.  Today Paraguay is of little importance in international and regional power politics.  It was different in 1865.  Then the country was rapidly emerging as a dominant economic and political force.  Unfortunately it was governed by one Francisco Solano López, a vainglorious individual with a Napoleonic ego, one far too big for his little land-locked nation.  For the greater glory of López the country found itself at war with a trio of local enemies, Brazil leading the way.

This was a David and Goliath struggle but the victor was not David.  For the participants the conflict rested on a single point of honour: for the allies López had to go; for López López had to stay. 

Unfortunately for him Paraguay could not match its opponents, either in soldiers or in modern armaments.  But even after Asuncion, the capital, fell in 1868 López would not give up.  Facing external enemies, he also imagined enemies within.  In a mood of paranoia, he had thousands of supposed opponents imprisoned and tortured, including his own mother and sister.  His brother was among the hundreds executed, many cut down by lance to save ammunition. 

Every man who could be mobilized was mobilized.  No work was done in the fields, mass starvation along with disease being added to the country’s misery.  In a last desperate attempt to stave off defeat López recruited an army of children.  In a move that would be bizarrely comic if wasn’t so tragic he armed them with sticks painted to look like guns and made them wear false beards.  With their uniforms worn to nothing, the child army fought naked.  In one battle 2000 perished, the anniversary of which is celebrated in modern Paraguay as Children’s Day.  

The war finally came to an end in March 1870, when López was cornered and killed.  “I die with my fatherland”, he is alleged to have shouted, arguably the most honest statement in his entire life.  For Paraguay was all but dead.  Although it cannot be established with certainty it is estimated that 90% of the country’s male population had perished in the course of the conflict.  By 1870 only 29,000 males over fifteen were left.  According to one observer the survivors were “living skeletons…shockingly mutilated with bullet and sabre wounds.” 

Oddly enough, given the suffering he had inflicted on the country, López eventually rose from the grave as Paraguay’s national hero, a symbol of indomitable resistance.  In the 1930s, after a victorious war with Bolivia, the country’s other neighbour, his remains were moved to a shrine in Asuncion.  The celebration of López reached new heights during the lengthy presidency of Alfredo Stroessner, a sort of modern incarnation of the country’s single-minded cuadillo.  In the recent Mercosur conflict  López was invoked as a symbol of national pride and independence.  “We won’t accept foreign tutelage”, said President Franco.  “This is a poor but dignified country”, he continued.  “It’s poor as the result of an unjust war.” 

The depopulation of Paraguay had interesting consequences.  Various post-war governments tried to attract immigrants, offering free passage and land.  Utopian colonies sprung up, including Nueva Germania, established by Bernhard Förster and his wife Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, the sister of the philosopher.  It was here in 1931 that the descendents of the settlers founded the first Nazi Party outside Germany.  Josef Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz camp doctor, was later to find temporary refuge in a colony that, despite its German associations, had long since merged into mainstream Paraguayan culture.

The chief legacy of the War of the Triple Alliance is a prevailing mentality of victimhood, of a country and a people subject to the vagaries of circumstances, of forces beyond their control.  This finds an echo in Guarani, Paraguay's main language.  In this future time is uncertain.  The word for tomorrow, for example, simply means “if the sun rises.”  Let’s hope that the sun continues to rise on Paraguay.  

Sunday 20 January 2013

Poor Mexico

Are you American? Then you must be concerned about war. Oh, not some distant conflict, not Afghanistan. No, the war you must be concerned about – surely you must? – is the war on your southern border. Yes, it’s the war in Mexico, that unacknowledged Vietnam.

The war on terror (what a disaster that has been) is bad enough; the war on drugs has been even worse. It’s the sheer savagery of the Mexican conflict that disgusts me, the mutilations and the murderous sadism. Do you know how many people have died in the drugs war? The official estimate to date is 50,000 but those who know about this sort of thing believe that the true total is twice as many. The victims are not soldiers by and large. As Mary Wakefield writing in the Spectator said, they are young boys, babies, mothers and husbands. Severed heads and decapitated bodies are a regular sight on the streets. That's the reality of modern Mexico

Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s drug-busting former president, was a man with a mission. He came to office with a single aim in mind, a crusade, if you like. He would crack down on the big drug barons in order, he said, ‘to restore moral order.’ But the drug cartels are a bit like the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology: cut off one head and two more appear. Kingpins were killed, yes, but their organisations simply fragmented. More and more gangs has meant more and more crime. Murder, extortion, rape and kidnapping are now pretty much part of the daily scene.

The problem, as I’ve written before, isn’t really an internal one. The anti-drugs crusade was predetermined failure simply because there are factors beyond the control of the Mexican authorities. The biggest factor of all is the insatiable demand for the produce of the cartels north of the Rio Grande. The drug war in Mexico, in other words, is fuelled by American consumers.

So much money has been wasted and so many lives have been lost in attempting, Canute-style, to hold back an inexorable tide. The American government, aware of the problem, attempted to help Mexico build a dyke. Billions was spent on supporting Calderon’s crazy crusade. American money was spent, for example, on Los Zetas.

Who are they, you may wonder? They are Mexico’s elite Special Forces squad, trained by American and Israeli specialists in such talents as intimidation, ambushing and marksmanship, all as part of the struggle against the drug lords. There is only one problem. Some years ago the organisation set up in business for itself. In what, exactly? Why, in drugs. Nobody does it better than Los Zetas, and nobody butchers children with such professionalism and aplomb. The more your tax dollars are spent on training Special Forces, the more Los Zetas benefit from fresh recruits.

There is an added irony here. Several States of the Union, Colorado and Washington leading the way, are anxious to legalise cannabis. There is Mexico, vainly struggling to contain a problem while its northern neighbour seems to be giving a green light to the cartels, over 40% of whose business is selling cannabis to gringos. When one thinks things can’t get any crazier, why, they do.

Organised crime is now the single most serious problem facing Mexico. Americans know, or should know, all about organised crime and Prohibition. Just consider your own history, consider what a leg up the gangsters were given in that brief decade last century when alcohol was banned.

Mexico has had Prohibition for decade after decade, with the results I have touched on above. The monster has grown to unimaginable proportions. Only legalisation will cut it down to size. But who has the courage to take that bold step? Alas, poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States.

Thursday 17 January 2013

May the (Gay) Force be with you

England is turning towards the Dark Side! Details of the 2011 census, published last month, reveal that the number of people who identify themselves as ‘Jedi Knights’ has fallen by more than half since the census of 2001. The Force, sad to say, is weakening, with a mere 176, 632 classifying their religion as Jedi compared to over 330,000 light sabre wielders ten years ago. Master Yoda, noting the trend, said “Concerning, this is. Look for the Sith Lord, we must.”

Yes, indeed, the trend is alarming, though it is encouraging to note that Jedi still tops the “alternative faith” stakes, only behind Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism and Buddhism in popularity. They are well ahead of the true Dark Knights, the Satanists, who managed a mere 1,893 adherents, and the Scientologists, with only 2,418 Thetans. My, my, that's all, despite Tom Cruise.

But the prophet who must be most pleased by the figures is Master Richard Dawkins, the atheist-in-chief, whose religion is clearly the fastest growing, with as many as 14,000,000 people in England and Wales of no faith. On the contrary, dear ones; your faith offers the greatest certainties of all!

Mainstream Christianity is still top of the pops, though the number of people identifying themselves as such has fallen from seventy-two to fifty-nine per cent since 2001, leading to claims that their number could fall below fifty per cent of the population in six years time.

The other downward trend is in marriage. It seems that gays have fallen in love with that venerable institution when everyone else is falling out of love. For the first time since the national census was founded in 1801 married couples are in a minority. Never mind; soon the homosexuals will come and make up the numbers.

Now there is a thing.  We had decade after decade of gay liberation, a mighty struggle that brought forth…a pathetic mouse.  Gay marriage is now a flag ship Tory policy, Prime Minister David Cameron waving his little rainbow flag.  Gay love and gay marriage go together like a horse and carriage.  Oh, but there are dissenters, and they are not all Christian fundamentalists.  There is Rupert Everett, a gay actor or an actor who is gay, who said recently that he loathed heterosexual weddings;

…the wedding cake, the party, the champagne, the inevitable divorce ten years later, is just a waste of time in the heterosexual world.  In the homosexual world I find it, personally, beyond tragic that we want to ape this institution that is so clearly a disaster. 

Not so, says Cameron, who hopes that gay couples, all complacent and middle aged, will soon form the backbone of the modern Tory Party, a new rainbow county set.  Who else, one has to ask, is left?   

Meanwhile, back in the heterosexual world, the Daily Telegraph reports that Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge who started the Marriage Foundation campaign group to promote the institution, said the decline in the number of married couples was a “worrying” trend likely to lead to more family break-ups. He has previously described the scale of family breakdown as a “complete scandal” and warned that people were “recycling” partners instead of trying to fix their marriages.

Oh, well, recycling is the great trend of the age, bed-hopping non-Christians leading the way. This, I have to say, includes Pagan and Wiccans like myself, behind the Jedi, yes, with a professed 68,386 adherents, but making a steady ascent. The beauty of my religion is that it has no rules, other than to take pleasure in pleasure. When we start to follow gays into a parody of Christian marriage I really will know that the game is finally up; that knitting, bring and buy sales, a semi in the suburbs, the rotary club, dogs, slippers and the Tory Party is all that remains. 

May the Force be with you, in whatever shape it comes.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Castles made of Sand

There is a Japanese proverb which goes “Vision without action is a daydream; but action without vision is a nightmare.”  It serves, so far as I am concerned, as the prefect epitaph for the Second Iraq War.  I cannot conceive of any action in either American or British history more abysmal than the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  It was a monumental error of judgement, the consequences of which are likely to remain with us for generations to come.

Simon Heffer and Charles Moore, two of my favourite press columnists, have expressed some admiration in the past for Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister who took this country into one gung ho war after another, the prime minister who took us into Iraq. 

It perplexes me that anyone can have a good word for Blair; it perplexes me why people are not angrier over the damage he and Gordon Brown, his Chancellor and successor, did to the strategic and political interests of this country.  Quite apart from their other sins, Blair and Brown, the two Bs, bear joint responsibility for possibly the worst military humiliation in British history.  I’ll elaborate on this point a bit later.

Iraq, of course was essentially the third B’s war, the B in question being George W. Bush.  I’ve not long finished The Endgame: the Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.  This important book is essentially a history of American involvement in Iraq, which probably means that it will have a more limited readership in England.  If so this will be a pity, for the authors have important and uncomfortable things to say about British involvement also.  

Although The Endgame, as the title suggest, purports to be an account of the final stages of the war in Iraq, it’s actually a very good narrative of the course of the entire conflict, exhaustive in its attention to detail.  The authors, who work for the New York Times, are military specialists rather than professional historians.  In some ways this accounts for both the strengths and weaknesses of their book. 

As a blow by blow inside view of the military and strategic challenges faced it’s a superlative chronology.  Unfortunately Gordon and Trainor have left themselves little time to stand and stare, resulting in a weakness in analysis.  Still, given the range of resources used, including classified cables and personal interviews, The Endgame is bound to serve as an invaluable mine for future generations of historians. 

War, as Carl von Clausewitz observed, is the continuation of politics by other means.  If so, the political comprehension of Bush and Blair was utterly abysmal. It was the soldiers on the ground, as well as the Iraqi people, who suffered as a consequence of their ignorance.  To slightly adapt the Roman historian Tacitus, in invading Iraq the American president and the British prime minister made a desolation and called it democracy. 

There were a whole series of political, cultural, religious and historical factors that should have urged caution.  Saddam Hussein was a wicked despot; of that there is no doubt.  But to believe his removal would lead to a brave new world of freedom and democracy is stunningly naïve.  The truth is that Iraq is not so much a nation as a hornet’s nest.  The invasion of 2003, with little in the way of forward political planning, simply set the hornet’s buzzing.  The West won the war only to lose the peace.

The only virtue in Bush is that he kept his nerve and listened to his military specialists.  With the situation almost out of control, the President committed extra fighting forces, ably commanded by generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno.  The so-called ‘surge’ of 2007-8, the account of which is at the heart of The Endgame, effectively broke the back of the al-Qaeda led insurgency. 

The surge was important in recovering the honour of the US military; it was even more important in winning over Sunni tribes, disgusted by the extremism of al-Qaeda, their former shield against Shia extremists, and the foreign fanatics it had introduced into the country. As Gordon and Trainor say of the surge, it was a military event that succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in tamping down sectarian violence and breaking the back of both Sunni and Shia terrorism. 

The relative success of the American surge stands in sharp contrast to British performance in the south around the city of Basra.  In time to come I am convinced, as I suggested above, that what happened here will stand alongside the most serious defeats in British military history.  It was more than that: the British Army was humiliated.  The fault is not that of the soldiers, who did their duty in the most extreme circumstances, but sections of the senior command.  The fault, above all, is that of Blair and Brown, who gave the army a task and then starved it of the resources that would have ensured its successful completion. 

As the Americans reinforced Baghdad, the British withdrew from Basra, leaving it to murderous anarchy.  As the Americans successfully negotiated with Sunni leaders, the British surrendered abjectly to the Shia fanatics of the Mahdi Army.  The appeasement did little good.  Even in the base around Basra airport, British troops came under sustained mortar and rocket attack.  The insurgency in the south was only broken after Petraeus sent American forces to back up the regular Iraqi army.  Meanwhile the British division commander was off in Switzerland for a spot of skiing.

The authors rightly blame the timidity of the British government for the Basra fiasco.  But the chief political culprit of The Endgame is George W. Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama.  This was not his war, as he was quick to demonstrate in coming to office in 2009.  The chief focus on the 'war on terror' (what a disaster that has been) was shifted away from Iraq and back to Afghanistan.  American troops were gradually withdrawn from the former with the result that all the gains of the surge have effectively been squandered.  Now al-Qaeda is back; now Iran uses Iraqi airspace to send military support to the beleaguered President Assad in Syria.  All this effort, all those lives for what exactly? – for precisely nothing.  Castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

A Helluva Place

The Christmas double issue of the Economist was hellish.  There is nothing unusual in that, you may conclude; this publication is usually hellish in one way or another.  Abandon hope all you who read here!  Actually it was hellishly good, or at least there was a hellishly good article on hell (Into everlasting fire), helpful accompanied at the end with a traveller’s Rough Guide.

There was no by-line, so I do not know who to thank.  Perhaps it was a collective effort by Economist imps, specialists in Pandemonium.  Well, specialists in getting things wrong.  Yes, indeed, this is the paper that brought us Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi by appointment!  Oh, never mind the hell of Egypt under the Brothers; let’s get back to hell.

Hell has a history, a somewhat cyclical one.  Those ancient Greek and Roman sages were rather contemptuous of the whole idea.  Cicero said that not even old women believed it anymore and Seneca thought it was a fable for underage boys.  It was Christianity that revived the hothouse, adding a touch of fire and a dash of brimstone, a sort of fork pronging the terrorised into belief.   

Now hell is other people, Jean Paul Sartre said, a wholly understandable observation to those of us who have been trapped in the London Underground in the summer, or supermarket checkouts, or department store sales.  Hell is being made to sit and watch comedians and celebrity specials on Channel Four! 

Those of us who have travelled in America’s Southern Bible Belt will know that hell for some people really is hell, not a metaphor but an actual place, with the fire, the forks and the forkers.  “Hell is real”, periodic billboards announce. 

Those of a less certain frame of mind than Baptist fundamentalists are not quite so sure.  The Vatican limply defines hell simply as a state of absence from the love of God.  Not so the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which is rather given to the old time religion: it’s good enough for them.  Apparently only atheists and Epicureans do not believe in hell! 

Hell, as the Economist says, was for hundreds of years the most fearful place in the human imagination.  It is also the most absurd, as Cicero and Seneca recognised.  Humanity has been adept at devising all sorts of frightfulness over time, massacre, degradation, suffering and torture in every imaginable degree, even a few that are not imaginable.   It really is the most awful cheek to attribute the ultimate frightfulness to God! 

The traditional view of hell, as a place of everlasting torment, was clearly created in our image not God’s.  How on earth, or how in hell, the dilemma goes, can a loving God inflict everlasting and gruesome torment on his errant creatures with no possible hope of redemption?  The worst thing of all is that hell, according to some theological interpretations, was already in existence before the creation of humanity, a sort of everlasting Auschwitz ready to receive cattle trucks full of those unwanted by heaven.   In Auschwitz death at least brought release.  In hell there is no release. 

Much of our image of hell is drawn not from the Bible but from the poets, two poets in particular – the Catholic Dante and the Protestant Milton.  In the Divine Comedy Dante describes a hell of nine circles.  But hell is a place of many more mansions than that.  In Burmese Buddhism there are – wait for it – no fewer than 40,040, one for each particular sin, sins like chicken selling and eating sweets with rice.  My goodness, eating sweets with rice – the horror!, the horror!  Pregnant women really do need to be mindful of those cravings. 

And so it went on, the burning, the screaming, the flaying, the eating alive by demons, all the excruciating tortures that the human imagination could devise, at least it went on until the seventeenth century when it vanished in a puff of rational smoke. Rene Descartes, who thought therefore he was, thought that the soul was immaterial and thus beyond pain.  Now we turn full circle, all the way back to Cicero, who wrote that “It is but our own fraud which frightens us; it is our own evil thoughts that madden us.”

Hell is not other people, you see; hell is oneself.  “I sent my soul through the infinite”, Omar Khayyam, declares, “some message of that afterlife to spell, and by and by my soul returned to me, saying ‘I myself am heaven and hell’”  This is a view echoed in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, where Satan, recast as the first and greatest rebel in history, says “Which way I flie is Hell: my self am Hell/The mind is in its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” 

So you’ve always wanted a holiday that never ends?  Hell, as the Rough Guide says, is your first resort and your last.  Oh, don’t bother with the sun cream.  The jabs, moreover, are helpfully provided by our on site representatives.  You are guaranteed a helluva time.