Jamie has already opened our eyes to the truth this weekend, with an old Joan Peters interview which reminds us to be more careful when considering sources and evidence. Well quite. Following this, I thought i’d post this Alan Dershowitz interview from earlier this year, which warns against the anti-Israeli bigotry of Jimmy Carter, and consigns to the hard-left anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the ‘universal admiration’ of Yithzak Rabin. See the pathway, my friends.
Condoleezza Rice has insisted that the interceptor missiles the US is installing in a silo on Poland’s Baltic Coast are “defensive” and “not aimed at anyone“. Russia argues that, in reality, the system serves to undermine its own strategic deterrent. Whilst the US may, with some ease, paint a programme designed to halt incoming missiles as defensive, we should consider the wider strategic implications of such a move. The point of a deterrent is to make any potential aggressor think twice before attacking; a missile attack by the US on Russia would currently be unlikely because Russia can counterattack and cause comparable damage to the US. If the US has moved to neutralise the potential of Russia’s deterrent system, by blocking any missiles from Russia, then it has given itself a significant strategic advantage; it may attack with relative impunity, and therefore affords itself a significant power-advantage.
Russia would appear to have some reason to feel defensive at this point. The blame for the conflict earlier this month was laid almost wholly at its feet, despite the reality being both more complex and more balanced (on this, see Gary Leupp and Charles King). NATO’s continuous move eastwards, likely eventually to encompass Georgia, challenges Russia’s self-perception as a Eurasian power and may see it attempt to boost its support in other regions of the world. Dmitry Medvedev’s wish to deploy Russian missiles in Syria is perhaps the latest example of this attempt by Russia to expand its influence, and to escape the corner into which the US seems determined to push it. The Syrian deal is comparable with the US-Poland system, although such comparisons escape a media which is able to publish the stories side-by-side without addressing the hypocrisy of a mixed reception.
Russia is far from a benign power, and surely harbours its own imperial ambitions (as does any state with the capacity to enact its plans). The danger is that western aggression (and the missile shield system can only reasonably be seen in this light – imagine a Russian plan to station boats around the US laden with interceptors) will force Russia to seek more extreme methods of preserving its deterrent; a situation which could see the weapons falling into the ‘wrong’ hands (not that there are ever ‘right’ hands for weapons to occupy). The US’s manipulation of Europe (which Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues is crucial if the US is to maintain its global primacy) is forcing Russias hand. Condemning Russia, and painting it as dangerous when it speaks out against ‘defensive’ measures is not productive, and distracts attention away from the real imperial danger.
I haven’t posted in a week or so, largely because I’m on holiday in the South of France, and because I’m working on a longer post about the Climate Camp. This said, I have to flag up the incredible voyage of the Gaza peace boats, as well as the delightful hypocrisy in the response from the defence ministry, who claim that
“You can demonstrate, that’s OK with us. But you are not allowed to break international law.”
The beauty of this project is that it shows the alternatives to waiting around for a lull in government inertia. The response of the international community to the crisis in Gaza has been a mixture of general approval and mild criticism, but the countries that matter have supported Israel wholeheartedly. Earlier this year we were shown that the citizens of Gaza have the power to tear down the walls of their oppression. Here, we see that citizens of the world can take part in this mass struggle against oppression.
I’ve finally found the time to read Patrick Cockburn’s wonderful book, which brings together his invaluable observations from the last five years in Iraq. I strongly recommend it, not least because the bravery which goes along with reporting from this part of the world deserves some reward. Cockburn’s personal and accessible narrative showcases the courage required of anyone who has voluntarily travelled to Iraq to bring back the real story of the US and UK-sponsored occupation.
One of the principle features of the book is its personal and anecdotal flavour. Cockburn constantly ensures that all levels of the conflict – from international politics, to internal sectarian divisions, to personal experience – are covered. Without all of these angles, the situation cannot be fully understood. He also shows how the rhetoric of the US and the UK has been doctored to tie in with their domestic political situations. This is how Prime Minister Allawi was forced on several occasions to retract what he had said previously; it did not tie in with the more positive story the coalition of the willing wished to present.
Cockburn’s story is carefully nuanced; he does not heap blame on the US and absolve all other parties. He is particularly critical of the Sunni insurgency, and its destabilising war against the Shia population. His connections with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish Iraqis, as well as foreign journalists and US bureaucrats, help him paint a very moderate picture of a radical situation. Nonetheless the critical situation is ultimately laid at the feet of the West. Cockburn, who has long covered Iraqi affairs, seems particularly concerned with the fact that the invasion was designed by elites with little knowledge of the complexities of the country. The imperial clique in Washington was of the opinion that such luxuries were not necessary or even desirable. The reader is shown that such arrogance inflamed an already catastrophic situation; important figures were ignored and marginalised, whilst long-term expatriates, who no longer had sufficient connection to their country, were pushed into positions of power. The arrogance has also translated into a prevailing opinion within the US that there is an elusive ability on the part of the coalition forces to ‘get it right’; however as Cockburn shows in the book and pointed out in last Monday’s Independent, “the US does not control the political weather in Iraq”. Cockburn also criticises the US for its preoccupation with the insurgency, which, whilst understandable, meant that the growing crime and day-to-day instability in the country was ignored. Roadside bombs affect the political situation in America, but it is the kidnappings, robberies and corruption which tear apart Iraqi society and delegitimize the occupation.
Cockburn’s book provides a much needed wide-angle view of the situation in Iraq; a perspective which can be hard to come by, overwhelmed as it is by the daily news of death and destruction. Whilst it is occasionally a little light on the sources, and devoid of the statistics that would add weight to his recount of the terrible situations with which he has become all to familiar, this can be forgiven. It is the human touch that makes this such an important book. To understand the insurgency, and to understand where the country may turn next, it is important to understand the mood, mindset and motivation of the Iraqi people. Cockburn provides this in droves.
I’m sure I’m not alone in being irritated by Polly Toynbee. It’s not her intent I have trouble with – her tireless fight for a fair, just and equal world is to be celebrated. My gripe comes from her moderation. Whenever one reads her articles, there is a sense that she is hoping for a slightly more benevolent government, who will realise the sins of the past and kick the minimum wage up to £6. I agree that governments can help to alleviate the problems of the world, but they cannot be the ultimate solution, for reasons that will make up another blog post I’m sure. This is all really just a drawn out introduction to me recommending her article in Monday’s Guardian, which is really a condensed version of her new book, Unjust Rewards. The book and article see Toynbee interviewing Lawyers, Bankers and other such parasites, to examine their opinion on society, taxes, and the poor. The results appear to go beyond what were already pretty low expectations:
How much, we asked our group, would it take to put someone in the top 10% of earners? They put the figure at £162,000. In fact, in 2007 it was around £39,825, the point at which the top tax band began. Our group found it hard to believe that nine-tenths of the UK’s 32m taxpayers earned less than that. As for the poverty threshold, our lawyers and bankers fixed it at £22,000. But that sum was just under median earnings, which meant they regarded ordinary wages as poverty pay
One banker, bearing a distinct resemblance to Mr Scrooge, said: “People don’t starve in this country – it’s OK. Compared with other countries, here you don’t go hungry because you can just go and get money for free.” Some thought benefits already too high. One banker said he thought a family of four receives “say, £3,000 a month in their hands, and they’re somewhere miles up north. They’re not going to earn that sort of money, so where’s the incentive for them to go out to work?” In fact, a family of four would in 2008 receive a net total of £1,328 a month.
Whatever, the poor didn’t deserve it. Masters of the universe our groups might be, but their outlook was pure Daily Mail: “Single people . . . get pregnant and get a flat and more money. You just see everybody pushing prams, then they’ll get more income and a little flat that they can stay in for life.” There was much talk of the perverse incentives for single parenthood, with one banker complaining that the 18-year-old mother on benefits “doesn’t get that much less money than another 18-year-old working in a shop”. It didn’t seem to occur to this speaker that the shop worker’s pay might also be too low. They were contemptuous of anything that gave extra money directly to poorer people: “This thing of giving pregnant women £200 for dietary supplements. Like, as if they’ll really spend it on fruit.” Most were adamant, along with this banker: “We don’t think just chucking money at the welfare state is the answer.”
I’d like to think this Victorian and ignorant attitude was merely a statistical anomaly, a sampling accident which meant that Polly had accidentally ended up interviewing Patrick Bateman. However after three years at Warwick the views expressed sound only too familiar. As with Hard Times, it looks like Toynbee has again done us a favour in exposing in detail a murky and despicable aspect of modern British society.
The police are insisting that their raid on the Climate Camp at Kingsnorth, in which they confiscated rope and board games, was carried out in the name of preventing lawbreaking, and that they are only too keen to police lawful protest. They have no desire to intimidate and scare people off. Whilst this may be true for some of them, the reality is that their actions are likely to mean that some people are less likely to turn up, particularly if this were to be their first time at an event like this. The actions also point to a broader structural problem with the police at such events.
Whilst the confiscation of items like rope was probably carried out to look effective (it’s a camp site, there’s rope there!) it is highly likely that the law will be broken this week, with or without the disabled access ramps which have been seized. I am of the opinion that, if the law favours those who pump carbon dioxide into the air at unsustainable levels, then the law is wrong and should be ignored. More to the point, if the state authorities aren’t going to prevent companies and corporations from pursuing projects which cause great harm, as a new coal plant from E.ON would, then it is the responsibility of citizens to do so.
The problem with this is that if the police are only ever going to uphold the strict word of the law, then they will become tools of the state and of the unjust laws that state is pursuing. The police will stop us from shutting down the Kingsnorth power station because, whilst they support lawful protest, they do not support unlawful action. I realise that they are not allowed to do anything else, their task is enshrined – hence it being a structural problem.
Laws which fail to ensure security and quality of life are not worth following or upholding. A few protestors might be unsettlling in the short term, but they are nothing compared to what the effects of allowing E.ON to (legally) build their coal plants would be. Nazi Germany gave us a stark example of how ignoring the law can be an absolute moral duty (a duty which many sadly failed to carry out). Whilst I’m not saying that we are in such a situation, it does help to remember that the law is not immutable, and that the rule of law is not an absolute concept. Breaking the law won independence for the colonies, it carried the Civil Rights Movement forward, and it ended the Vietnam War. Unjust laws should be ignored – how else can we ever build respect for proper laws? If they have no moral and utilitarian content, then they have no purpose beyond testing our subordination.
If the government won’t shut down E.ON, then ordinary people have to do it. If the government decides to renege on it’s duty to protect its citizens, then its laws cease to have relevance and purpose. The police will insist that they are ‘only doing their jobs’, but this is an argument with little real content. The Evening Standard will scream that we are terrorists, and fabricate stories to show the world that we can’t be trusted, but they will, as usual, be wholly wrong. We are simply people who have recognised that their government is failing to protect them, and that if they do nothing about it, then it is up to ordinary citizens to take over the reins. Come join us!
Edit: My girlfriend, trying to enter the camp at the moment, has just told me that the police have formed a line across the entrance, and are not letting people/food/bags in. I’m sure they will soon stop this particular distraction. Like so many other small irritations, it forms part of the project of making it harder and harder for us to camp and to act. What they will realise, as they did with Faslane, is that our resolve to make life harder for their system goes far beyond anything they’ve got!
Edit edit: Maybe they’re keeping them out because Arthur Scargill’s speaking this afternoon? They don’t want a whole new generation of trade unionists to fight.
During the slow news period which characterises the British summer, we’re treated to an increase in the amateur Kremlinology that passes for journalism in today’s news-on-demand culture. A quick glance at today’s Times shows up articles on how Obama may be too thin for US voters,* on how to interpret the books that Tory MPs are reading on their holidays, and on Boris Johnson’s distant blood relation to the royal family (not online yet). This fascination with the lives and personalities of our politicians is perhaps symptomatic of the representative system we live in. What is interesting is how it translates into a facination with personal scandals.
Political conversations have become dominated by shock and outrage at the latest corruption or sex scandal. Whole books and careers are dedicated to exposing and condemning such activities. There’s nothing inherently wrong with condemning politicians (or indeed anyone) for blatant disregard for moral conduct. However, when we focus on the personalities, there is an implication that our political system would be fine without these corrupt politicians. Such thinking obscures the fact that such problems are a natural sympton of the society we live in.
The latest scandal is always shocking. Commentators are appalled that Blunkett used ministerial privilege, and that Ian Blair gave the contract to a friend. When it happens constantly (as it has over the past fifteen years) the problem is presented a downturn in moral conduct in modern society, and poor delegation by those appointing the offenders. Boris Johnson, who has been involved in his fair share of scandals, was quick to fire Ray Lewis because of “financial misconduct”, to show that there can be no impropriety under his watchful eye. This is highly misleading; if the likelyhood of being found out were a sufficient deterrent, then corrupt practice would be a thing of the past. Instead, malpractice, ranging from a councillor skimming a few quid, to Berlusconi rearranging a country’s legal system to suit himself, is endemic.
This is not because of a few bad eggs. New Labour, and the Tories before them, have shown that payoffs and privilege can corrupt an entire government. To find the answer we have to go back to Lord Acton and his observation that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and to the namesake of this blog Percy Shelley, who said that “power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate’er it touches”.
When individuals rise to the top of the hierarchy, there is a feeling, well explained by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite, that they occupy a higher plain than those below them. Their actions are inherently justified. Those around them are doing it anyway, it’s the way things are done at the top, why get left behind? Such arrogance peaked with Richard Nixon, who famously insisted that “when the president does it, it’s not illegal”. We can criticise these people all we like, but the reality appears to be that they are products of an elite plateau which teaches its members that they are special, and that they are powerful. Power corrupts, and people start believing their own myths.
Barack Obama was criticised this week for being arrogant. Assigning such a term to any man who believes they have the capacity to be President of the USA is an impressive way to understate a situation. If we insist on having humble, loyal, honest and moral leaders, then we are begging for deception. The powerful are rarely any of these things, and never all of them. Our political system elevates some individuals into positions of great power, and from here they can and will do terrible things. Whenever we are shocked at the individual, we have missed the point. The focus should not be on achieving a system of pure leaders, but on abolishing the hierarchies which produce corruption and contempt for the voters. Anything else is a waste of time, a red rag which directs attention from the structural problems of modern society. It creates an obsession with personalities that has little or nothing to do with making the world a better place. We should criticise corruption, but through a broader critique of the system which produces it.
* The Andrew Marr show assured us that all may not be lost; he’s a heavy smoker, which apparently plays very well.
I’ll write a proper post on this later today, but there’s a superb article in yesterday’s Guardian by Andrew Simms, examining our proximity to the fabled ‘tipping point’ for climate change, and the potential to shift our economy into reacting to the greatest threat humanity has faced in recent history.
The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere today, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, is the highest it has been for the past 650,000 years. In the space of just 250 years, as a result of the coal-fired Industrial Revolution, and changes to land use such as the growth of cities and the felling of forests, we have released, cumulatively, more than 1,800bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Currently, approximately 1,000 tonnes of CO2 are released into the Earth’s atmosphere every second, due to human activity. Greenhouse gases trap incoming solar radiation, warming the atmosphere. When these gases accumulate beyond a certain level – often termed a “tipping point” – global warming will accelerate, potentially beyond control.
Faced with circumstances that clearly threaten human civilisation, scientists at least have the sense of humour to term what drives this process as “positive feedback”. But if translated into an office workplace environment, it’s the sort of “positive feedback” from a manager that would run along the lines of: “You’re fired, you were rubbish anyway, you have no future, your home has been demolished and I’ve killed your dog.”
The challenge is rapid transition of the economy in order to live within our environmental means, while preserving and enhancing our general wellbeing. In some important ways, we’ve been here before, and can learn lessons from history. Under different circumstances, Britain achieved astonishing things while preparing for, fighting and recovering from the second world war. In the six years between 1938 and 1944, the economy was re-engineered and there were dramatic cuts in resource use and household consumption. These coincided with rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality. We consumed less of almost everything, but ate more healthily and used our disposable income on what, today, we might call “low-carbon good times”.
A National Savings Movement held marches, processions and displays in every city, town and village in the country. There were campaigns to Holiday at Home and endless festivities such as dances, concerts, boxing displays, swimming galas, and open-air theatre – all organised by local authorities with the express purpose of saving fuel by discouraging unnecessary travel. To lead by example, very public energy restrictions were introduced in government and local authority buildings, shops and railway stations. This was so successful that the results beat cuts previously planned in an over-complex rationing scheme. The public largely assented to measures to curb consumption because they understood that they were to ensure “the fairest possible distribution of the necessities and comforts of daily life”.
There is no point in postponing action until the economic downturn has levelled out. If we don’t change our lifestyles now, we’ll look back on these as the glory days.
Dion Nissenbaum, on the relative impunity enjoyed by Israeli soldiers in the territories, is well worth reading.
Also, check out Steve Clemons’ interview with Mustafa Barghouti. On Obama he unfortunately pulls his punches, but his statistics and observations on the post-Annapolis environment are crucial.
“What happened since Annapolis is really shocking. Since Annapolis, the rate at which Israeli settlements expand in the West Bank is twenty times more than before. Since Annapolis, the number of Israeli military checkpoints have increased from 521 to 607.
Since Annapolis, the number of Israeli attacks on Palestinians have increased by 300%. During the whole year of 2007, 404 Palestinians were killed, and 10 Israelis, or 15 Israelis were killed. During the period since Annapolis, 520 Palestinians were killed, including 70 children.”
The Serious Fraud Office won its Law Lords appeal today against a court ruling that it acted unlawfully in halting a corruption inquiry into a lucrative arms deal between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems. The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) took the case to the House of Lords after the High Court upheld a legal challenge brought by anti-corruption campaign groups.
Jonathan Sumption QC, for the SFO, told five Law Lords at a hearing this month that its director made a “legal and appropriate” decision to stop the inquiry in late 2006 after receiving threats from the Saudi Arabian government to withhold cooperation on critical issues of anti-terrorism. “The SFO director was convinced that Saudi Arabia wasn’t bluffing,” he said.
Because if they were really telling the truth then it’s just extortion, which is fine. If you get caught by the police carrying a knife, you’d better hope you’re providing the government with information about terrorism, else you’re going down. If you’re thinking of committing any crimes, make sure you’re in a position to threaten our ‘national interest’, and slow our ability to investigate terrorism. If you can do this and still be classed as an ‘ally’ etc, then you get extra points!
I feel for the SFO. They got to have fun building a case against BAE, sending rude legal letters and making impressive speeches. Now they have to defend the fact that they stopped investigating them, even though they knew that BAE are crooks, purely because Blair can’t remember how a legal system is meant to work. And on it goes.