Wednesday, February 10, 2016


The last convulsion within capitalism was caused by America's 'un-performing' debt. The one just getting under way will largely be the result of China's, which has been estimated to be $5 trillion or 22% of all loans and equivalent to half that nation's economic output. It is also five times the not inconsiderable $1 trillion of toxic debt around Europe. 

Since the crash of 2008 the Chinese banking sector has grown its assets from $9 trillion to around $30 trillion, so nobody will have to wait this time for Wall Street to over-extend itself once again. 

The bad news from all this is that when the stock market crashes in election years the US almost inevitably changes administration - so President Trump here we come. If only because he does the whole 'winning' shtick better than Charlie Sheen...

Bug in the system

I was recently watching a political panel discussion on one of the US cable news networks when, by way of aside, one of the guests launched into a bombastic tirade about the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster. 'Fascist dictator, blah blah...' 

Just like many students at Oxford University he had fallen into the fallacy of thinking that the man and the statue of the man are precisely the same thing. The statue outside Parliament is surely not of the historical Lord Protector as such, but of the man as he was re-imagined by the Victorians. 

Yet Americans have good reason to fixate themselves on this rather dark personage from English history. Trump's ascendancy appears to signify the culmination of an alarming recent drift towards fascism on the starboard side of American politics - but listen closely to the rhetoric of the Christian right and you will start to hear the same backhanded pleas for tyranny behind all those chest-thumping adjurations of freedom that long ago accompanied the rise of Cromwell. It’s the original, ineradicable bug in the puritan prototype. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Two kinds of unbeliever...

A good deal of seemingly judicious anti-Islamic opinion is little more than bigotry dressed up as secular high-mindedness of one sort or another.

One should be aware however that there is a certain kind of secular outlook that maintains itself by feeding off the more traditional, ‘primitive’ sort of religious devotion.

It’s as if there were essentially two ways to be an unbeliever: the more self-contained or introverted way, and the more outward-facing way, that constantly plays off other people’s metaphysical wrong-headedness.

Islam — along with good ol’ gun-totin’, evolution-denying Pentacostalism in the US — has made itself available as the perfect foil for this sort of sparring just as the traditional religious outlook in western Europe has disintegrated into untold wishy-washy kinds of near-agnosticism that the more earnest kind of atheist finds it hard to get his or her teeth into.

I’m not sure that there are many purely self-contained unbelievers out there. I strive to be one myself, but it’s undoubtedly hard not to feel just a bit provoked by the resurgent irrationalism and militant ignorance out there in the ether today.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to postpone the contemplation of the deeper, darker implications of a godless universe by instead spending one’s time blaspheming against multiple faith traditions.

It should possibly come as no surprise that Europe’s most visibly secular nations — France, Denmark etc. — have become the channels of Europe’s most overtly xenophobic currents.

What is getting lost in all this is the comprehension that the ‘ignorance’ of someone who is already at multiple disadvantages including relative poverty and discrimination is frankly an embarrassingly soft target, and that rational unbelievers have something of a duty to prioritise going after the sort of dumbness for which there is hardly any excuse.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Great noshspots of Central America #1: The Coctelería Cajun

Located in what is essentially the armpit of the Yucatán in more ways than one, Ciudad del Carmen is perhaps not over-brimming with highlights for the casual visitor, but this ever-buzzing restaurant is undoubtedly one of them. 

The thing is that the Gulf coast of the peninsula is know to serve up the finest seafood anywhere in this region - especially shrimp - and there's possibly only one other joint in Campeche where I would perhaps prefer to partake of it. (For another day...)

The Coctelería Cajun is traditional, basic and very popular; the apparent cheapness of the decor and associated ambience ought not to deter. Wooden tables and chairs are crammed into a walled off front yard with an especially high turnover between midday and the late afternoon. 

A few caveats vis-a-vis my earlier, rather disparaging remarks about the location. The Isla del Carmen sits on the beautful Laguna de Términos just shy of the point where the peninsula bleeds into Tabasco. It is linked by an undulating causeway to Isla Aguada to the north, which is indeed a perfect place to take in the charms of the more unspoiled stretches of Yucatán coastline. 

The city itself has a compact historical casco with some fine pastel-painted casonas worthy of the state capital itself. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Kate del Castillo....

The Mexican soap star is really circling the drain now...

What strikes me about this particular 'celebrity' interview - possibly the most ill-conceived attempt to intervene in the discourse by a person other than an actual public intellectual since Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam - was that none of the three named protagonists had a good enough reason to take the implied risks, possibly because they simply hadn't thought them through. An article in Rolling Stone magazine was certainly not sufficient cause, on paper at least.

Fonda could at least more easily couch her presumption in humanitarian terms even as she, as Penn has now done, blithely dis-respected all those who put their lives on the line against a national foe.

All three were undoubtedly successful in their existing fields, but surely had a significant itch to be something more. El Chapo might have had the hots for Kate, but was clearly also smitten with the ability of her character to live a life of apparent legitimacy amongst the sheikhs and oligarchs of Marbella. 

Ironically, while the capo craved her existence, del Castillo now seems set to end up with his...

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A compromised ideal

The ideas many of us in the West share about personal autonomy, democratic government, private property etc. that fall under the wider banner of liberalism emerged under the aegis of the Christian Reformation and were given a very significant leg-up by the rapid expansions of capitalism and colonialism.

We hold many of these ideas very dear, and imagine that the world would be a better place should they one day be adopted universally...and yet, sadly, there is just no getting away from the fact that they are irrevocably entangled with both the distortions of religion and the ascendancy of a certain type of wealthy elite.

This has never really prevented us from doggedly pursuing the oxymoronic dream of a purer pluralism.

The local archetype

I say this not without a modicum of self-reproach and retro-repentance, but it's quite incredible how almost every male ex-pat I come across (and then, duly avoid) in this town, is some sort of narcissistic middle-aged man-child...

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A few words on fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is an outlook that habitually fuses religious and worldly motivations, so we should be extremely cautious before taking the self-justifications of any fundamentalist at face value. 

Just because the Paris attackers claimed to be acting in the interests of their faith should not blind us to the fact that a purely religious interpretation of what they did is perhaps the least plausible. 

Relevant thinkers in our own political back-story such as Hobbes and Harrington looked upon the partisan fanatics of their own days and understood that much of their assertion of divine sanction was most often a mere cloak for barely-sublimated earthly objectives. 

On this day that Americans cast a rose-tinted glance back at their fundamentalist founding fathers, let us remember that the great irony of Puritanism was that in seeking to impose a fixed and intolerant vision on society, it created just the right amount of abject chaos that pluralism and tolerance were able to take shape, largely inadvertently, and to be accepted as important elements of social cohesion. 

Up until this point the only known solution to the largely negative impact of competing worldviews in post-medieval Europe had been autocratic rule. Nobody really pushed freedom of conscience as a political programme until it became rather a fact of life by default. In banning dancing, music and the like, the Puritans were in some senses Talibanesque, but they were beset by so many theological contortions, that they ended up with little option other than grudging mutual acceptance. 

In a week in which the British Parliament gets ready to vote on whether bombing should be part of the long-term solution to fundamentalism in the middle east, it should be noted that in many instances totalist systems are inherently self-degrading. It's just a shame that the Nazi metaphor continues to trump all those others, where all the pluralists had to do really was sit and wait. 

Anyway, it's a matter of record tat out of the intolerance of the men and women who sat down to munch on the first Thanksgiving turkey, there would emerge a current within western thinking where noncomformism and dissent could mean something more like common sense than customised delusion and bloodymindedness.  

Of course, in much of America it still means...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Homeland, Season 5

Many aspects of popular culture in the English-speaking world today appear to have been crafted to erect an invisible wall keeping us locked within our localised realities. Even the travel shows appear to whispering 'stay at home' subliminally. 
Some people have quipped that Homeland has the wrong title for a show now seemingly set anywhere but the terra firma of mainstream American life. But that would be to miss the clear underlying, reverse-psychology payload of a show that wants its viewers to understand that in foreign parts only the US embassy and its associated compounds are secure - and as as we saw in Season 4 back in the 'hell-hole' that is Karachi, sometimes not even them. 
This time out Carrie has been visiting Beirut, one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan urban environments around the Mediterranean, here depicted as marginally less attractive as a weekend break destination than say Kabul or Mogadishu. Along the way even Berlin has been receiving obliquely some of that Stephen Fry in Central America treatment. 
In this sense 'Homeland' represents the full about-turn within the modern espionage genre, for which distant locations always used to be 'exotic' and 'exciting', but now these adjectives seem to habitually carry the hidden suffix 'dangerous' in parentheses. 
I'm looking forward to 007's forthcoming jolly in Mexico City, because the Bond franchise is still grounded in its ancient 'anywhere but dreary London' premise, and still doesn't quite push the message that a license to kill is probably a prerequisite for any form of travel to the Latin America or the Middle East.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Pausing for pity

Otto looked utterly exhausted as he left the court today, his voice strained. He claims he could easily have escaped into exile, but has chosen to face the music.

It's hard not to feel sorry for him — and his abandoned dog in spite of everything. The spectacle of the mighty fallen is always somewhat disturbing.

I don't think I could ever muster the same kind of compassion for that gangster and clown Manuel Baldizón. 

I think Otto more or less believes the self-image he has consistently projected - as a man of honour. He must have thrown all the bad stuff into a little box at the back of his psyche.

Whatever happens now he's royally screwed. Even if he can convince a judge that the conspiracy was going on all around him and he really had no active part in it, they will get him for 1982 now. He'll be the surrogate Rios Montt in no time at all. 

And then there's Gerardi, and any other skeletons they find in his cupboard now that he has been deprived of immunity.

He's fully stretched out on the public altar of sacrifice and it really doesn't matter what he did or didn't do, because he has become a living symbol of the past 60 years that has to be ritually purified from the body politic.

The media have started to address him as 'General' once again...

What's next?

The levels of contagion to the north and south will be fascinating to observe.

Mexico had a convoluted revolution which began before WWI and ultimately resulted in a long-lasting one party system that in its latter phases paid lip-service to democratic values and practices, but was widely referred to elsewhere as 'the perfect dictatorship'. 

It is almost twice as wealthy as Guatemala with a well-resourced state and the levels of public-sector larceny perpetrated by the outgoing regime here might not cause such an unsightly dent up there. 

Yet Peña Nieto's public persona has something of the Baldetti about it...

To the south El Salvador and Honduras have many of the same problems, often in an even more pronounced state, but they appear to have already missed the boat in terms of confronting them as a united pueblo. There is now an entrenched polarity in their political discourse between populists and those in favour of more transparent system, as in Venezuela.

The same could happen here if Baldizón 'cause' is allowed to prosper. And yet, worryingly, all kinds of unpleasantness could also yet tarnish Guatemala's spring if the strict letter of the law is observed and his Líder party debarred from the election with just three days to go.

The protest movement clearly has great momentum and is unlikely to be thinking in terms of this kind of practical compromise right now.

Thank you Roxana!

Guatemala was fortunate in its ex-President's choice of running mate. Her obvious doltishness and blatant disregard for even the most basic of veneers, turned what would otherwise have seemed like those all-too-familiar and disregarded grievances about corruption into something that diverse sectors of Guatemala could really get their teeth into  and more importantly generate further awareness through a combination of youthful outrage and mordant satire on social media. 

Linea 1 y Linea 2

With all this talk of corruptos and corruptores we need to be keep an eye on some important distinctions. 

If I am head of state and a businessman pays me a backhander in return for an important contract, the private sector side of this deal could be characterised as the corrupter. But if as head of state, I establish a system whereby businessmen of all sorts can get a discount on duties, I become the primary corrupter.

In the first instance the businessman pays a premium to secure a contract and the politician pockets the premium. Only in certain hybrid cases - such as lake Amatitlán - is there a significant social cost to this sort of graft. 

But when the government itself is set up as a scam, the social cost operates on a multiplier as schools want for books, hospitals lack medicines etc.

Of course there are all sorts of criminals in Guatemala, some very well organised and deeply entrenched in the commercial sector. But there is a very significant category distinction between theft and treason, which is reflected in the criminal penalties which apply. 

Otto acted as a traitor. His actions subverted the rule of law, plundered public resources from the state and led, not-so-indirectly, to actual deaths. 

He was not just the hapless mayordomo of the real capos who have now sacrificed him. He was the head of state. To suggest otherwise is to pander to his own self-serving rhetoric about the corruptores around government. 

What hope can anyone have for improving this society if the chief executive is not on board with the project in both thought and action?

Table Talk

Prince Phillip once famously observed that the Chinese will eat anything that has four legs as long as it isn't a table. This little witticism sprung to mind this morning when a Japanese friend messaged me with the seemingly innocuous question 'Is there anything you don't eat?'

However, given that the last time we shared a table together (no, not that way...) was when he led me into Shinjuku's 'Piss Alley' for some horse sashimi  surely at least in part a bate the Brit exercise  I might have to prepare a shortlist of non-comestible quadrupeds for all such enquiries in future...

Don't dismiss the consensus narrative

Perceptions and narratives are very important to the course of history. If one simply complains that the beliefs of historical actors are a poor facsimile of reality, one is missing the chance to fully understand their impact on events in real time. They inform the discourse, and in doing so, shape the landscape of possible actions.

Right now a narrative has formed around the meaning of this week's events in Guatemala. It goes a bit like this...

The country has come full circle since 1954. Back in the early 50s it was a beacon of political possibility for the whole of Latin America, with newly-established systems of public health and education. But then the US intervened to remove the democratically-elected, reform-minded government and a protracted civil conflict ensued in which perceptions of possibility were often violently constrained.

Now Guatemalans have made it back, after 60 difficult years, to roughly where they were before. Once more a beacon of hope for the region, this nation remains a far from a completed project, but its citizens are once again free to pursue a better future.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Hearts of Darkness

I read an article last night that suggested that all ordinary middle class Americans who moan about the death of Cecil the lion and are not either veggies or vegans, or at least completely disgusted by the mere thought of battery-caged chicken, are actually complete and utter hypocrites. Rather tellingly, this opinion piece was on an investment website targeting rich white men. 
This is misdirection, pure and simple. This issue at hand would perhaps be more easy to comprehend and reject if there were no unfortunate, 'much loved' animal involved. 

Think about the movie Hostel - an extreme vision of how men with money behave outside their normal territorial/legal boundaries. And consider how hard it has been to dispel the suspicion that the deaths of hundreds of women in and around Ciudad Juárez are the grisly consequence of some sick sport undertaken by men who have grown just a bit tired of golf. 
As an example from lower down the spectrum one could point to the gringos one regularly sees here in Antigua driving around fully intoxicated. It's as if they feel that the norms of law-abiding behaviour somehow don't apply. And one suspects that this is unfortunately the main reason that many American men choose to reside south of the border. (One of the first American ex-pats to spend a chunk of his younger years in Antigua Guatemala - Gore Vidal - did not set the very best example to those who followed. Think Lord Byron in Albania.) 
INGUAT could even target these people with an ad campaign: "Come on down and experience that same exhilarating feeling of untouchable privilege that back home only the 1% can tap into..."

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Polling Day....

At the end of WWII scientists went about trying to understand why human beings do really bad things - especially when told to do by authority figures - with a new urgency. 
The psychological tests done then and repeated again and again over half a century have revealed the following with some consistency: When asked to do something morally repugnant by an authority figure, only 10-20% of people take up the offer to be given something else to do instead. 70-80% do what they are asked to do and 10% go a bit further, adding their own customised cruelties to the process. 
I have always taken these results to indicate that around 70% of a given population (or workforce!) will put up with whatever rotten system they are obliged to live under - and occasionally participate more actively therein. The likely combined proportion of the vote enjoyed by the two main Westminster parties as we go into the election today indirectly supports this research. 
Perhaps Russell Brand is in a sense right about the state of our political systems, but wrong in his further explanation and prognosis. Like many Guatemalans he fails to see that the problem is not the political elite in isolation. One has to factor in the self-defeating attitudes and behaviours of a large part of the democratic electorate. 
When it comes to moral responsibility many large companies today operate an individual opt-out system, which, interestingly enough, was pretty much what the Nazis did as well. In 'Ordinary Men', Christopher R. Browning examines the case of some German policemen who were sent to the Ukraine, where they were quickly assigned to genocide duties. These guys were in the main working class social democrats with minimal Nazi sympathies before the war. It was explained to them that if they objected to killing Jews, they could ask to be transferred to other duties. Around 10% did. 
The self-exclusion system does of course effectively pre-empt any questioning of whether the collective itself is on completely the wrong course...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Diversity Problem

Western Europe had a more or less unified worldview until the end of the fifteenth century. There were variations within this 'eucumene' and some of them were treated pretty brutally, while others were allowed to contribute to the society's inner dialectic. 
When this universal way of dealing with reality started to disintegrate, whole societies were pulled apart and many hundreds of thousands died in the resulting wars of religion. Diversity it seemed, was not a good thing. 
The Western world thus had to develop a number of treatments for the pathological and chronic civil disorder that significant, uncontrolled differences of religious opinion had brought forth. One of these was the coercive state, but of course this introduced tensions of its own. 
At the end of the eighteenth century there were a couple of revolutions which pointed to two contrasting long-term solutions to the problem. The first  the American  was grounded in the notion that people could hold very different opinions about the meaning of life and not want to do horrible things to each other. The second  the French — explored the possibility of an alternative, secular, one-size-fits-all system. (Get with the programme or the representatives of the collective will indeed do horrible things to you.) 
In the course of the twentieth century these two strands of western political thinking engaged in a near apocalyptic confrontation, and after the biggest body count in history, victory appeared to belong to the liberal, pluralistic approach to human diversity. 
But look closer and the situation has proved to be more problematic. A significant minority within the tradition of the American revolution have been putting themselves about in a more dogmatic and altogether less tolerant fashion. It could also be said that the totalitarian approach had not so much been conclusively defeated on the battlefield or in the debating chamber, but had instead collapsed much like the earlier medieval consensus as a result of failing to respond to the totality of human aspiration. 
The bloody conflict between the two western secularisms brought an end to the region's imperial ambitions and as a consequence, peoples with a very different historical experience of the same basic problem and its related coping mechanisms started to migrate into the heart of western Europe. 
This did not initially set off a new outbreak of the old pathology until the world's economy started to globalise and geographical barriers between cultures were effectively compromised by what the optimists dubbed the information super-highway. 'Progress', that great utopian goal of the liberal society, now appears to be seriously threatened by the disordered timelines of contemporary reality. 
Many people look at the 'threat' posed by political Islam today and instinctively refer back to the medieval 'clash of civilisations'. In this type of discourse 'medieval' equals primitive, but in fact the Islam that confronted the unified Christian doctrine of that period was in many ways far more rational and sophisticated. It was also a key part of the intellectual trajectory of the West in the years before the generalised splintering of perspectives. 
The Islam which is today seemingly reopening the West's old wound is a strange combination of distant historical and geographical throwback with a religious reworking of the totalitarian project. In other words a two-pronged mutant antagonist for the rather naïve view that things will now sort themselves out to the advantage of pluralism without the need for further conflict - because the advantages of cohabiting with people who see the world in a fundamentally different way are 'obvious'.
Meanwhile, is it any wonder that the intrusive, coercive state threatens a comeback?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Welsh wally comes to Guatemala...

Every time one of those - admittedly flawed - surveys of global happiness is published, the nations of Central America figure close to the top of the chart. 

And yet every time an article appears in the global media about Guatemala, or indeed some of its neighbours, readers are invited to consider these countries as encapsulating all their worst dystopic social nightmares: murder, child abuse, corruption etc. etc. I used to put this down to ignorance or at least the love of sensationalism within the western media, but this week, with the release of that despicably manipulative Michael Sheen video I am starting to detect something more deliberate. 

I can't tell you how sick I am of articles which suggest that the insecurity that Guatemala experiences today is a continuation of the 'civil conflict' of 1960-1996 which, it is commonly suggested, normalised the population to high levels of violence. This is complete and utter BOLLOCKS. Next-door Belize was a nice ordered place run by the Brits during most of the same period, and yet today has an even higher homicide rate. As does Jamaica for that matter, or indeed the US Virgin Islands, neither of which, tellingly, are targeted by the media as western hemisphere equivalents of Somalia. 

No, this violence is largely a consequence of America's cack-handed 'War on Drugs' and has little connection with Guatemala's long struggle to restore political legitimacy. 

Growing up in 70s Britain I was exposed to more political violence than my Guatemalan wife and the rest of her family. Three IRA bombs went off close enough to my home to shake the walls so violently that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that I was a little traumatised. 

The Guatemalan civil war was in contrast very un-Syria like. The vast majority of the urban population could be forgiven for going about their lives as if nothing much was really happening. For two decades the regular army engaged various rag-tag guerilla outfits in the hinterland. In the latter stages of the conflict, thanks in large part to an American counter-insurgency doctrine derived from its Vietnam experience, there was a scorched earth campaign in the predominantly Mayan provinces of Guatemala now widely characterised as genocide. But today, these are the very regions of the country where violence and insecurity are less pronounced than in the metropolitan core. So, these apparent crimes against humanity surely cannot be said to have lastingly accustomed the local population to placing a low valuation on human life.

The one connection that can be made between the civil war and the present condition of the country relates to the way it was wrapped up. The UN insisted that as a condition of the peace accords, that the Guatemalan army should be dramatically reduced in size. As a consequence of this well-intentioned imprudence - not unlike the equally dunderheaded American disbandment of the Iraqi army in 2003 - the country was suddenly flooded with out of work majors and colonels who immediately took up with organised crime. 

Back in the 1980s UNICEF's biggest beef against Guatemala was infant mortality. This problem has receded and as a result the population has grown by 2m in two decades. 1m Guatemalans also now live legally and illegally in the US. The economy grows at a healthy 3-4% rate per annum, but this is still not enough to provide sufficient economic opportunity for all the young people. 

The timing of the UNICEF film to coincide with Joe Biden's visit last week is surely no coincidence. The Central American nations have asked for $15bn to deal with the issue of economic migration - especially that of unattended minors - and one has to surmise that the Obama administration has an interest in finding a way to maximise the private contribution to the forthcoming inflow of funds. 

The broader issue of population dynamics and economic migration is one that American culture and politics are simply not geared up to face in an honest manner. The Republican party is racist at heart and would rather build a bigger wall along the southern frontier. Meanwhile the Democrats have found a way to deal with the problem is via a disturbingly paternalistic reflex - the surplus humanity can be only admitted into the USA via adoptions or, failing that, by considering all Central American children as 'refugees' from hopelessly endemic violence. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Take out the train?

ISIS has become a kind of memetic ebola for the gloablised, terrorised world. The predominant discourse emanating from the western media makes this clear: the 'death cult', they would have us understand, is a kind of mind virus from which no (muslim) person is safe. The message we are supposed to be taking from this is that it doesn't matter that the vast majority of so-called ordinary muslims are appalled by the way the caliphate carries on, they are nevertheless deemed SUSCEPTIBLE - and rather like the hapless passengers on that train in 'Cassandra Crossing', the small portion that are actually infected with the deadly plague should not be taken as an indication that the authorities' response ought to be proportionate and discriminating.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

I can't make up my mind about Flanagan's Man Booker winner. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but on another, grumpier, day I might have awarded it three or even two. 
The overall effect of the story is undeniably 'powerful', yet I think this, coupled with flashes of brilliant writing, disguises the deeper flaws. The structure is patchy and seems to conform to no particular logic or set perspective. This was a doubt I picked up early on and dragged with me through the compelling mid-section and beyond. None of the characters really amount to very much either. The whole young officer's affair with married woman detour reeks of Birdsong, a comparison that ends up flattering the Faulks novel more. 

The two late chapters that specifically sketch the post-war psychologies of the Korean camp guard and Nakamura, the Japanese commandant, come across as artificial set pieces - and the novel has plenty of these, including a forest fire in Tasmania that is just a bit too Michael Bay for my taste. (And thus a blatant piece of Tinseltown bait.) 

I've read that Flanagan was attempting to retell his own father's experiences on 'the line'. My suspicion is that one of the ordinary soldiers (the bugler perhaps) is the real cipher for his father's story and that the figure of Dorrigo Evans is the more contrived and conflicted protagonist that the author presumably thought such a tale would require.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Ched Evans Saga

Another day another unreconstructed British male has been forced to apologise for opining that Ched Evans was 'probably innocent'. Expressing an opinion on this issue is clearly a potentially hazardous business, but I can't resist the temptation, because the case is so revealing about contemporary British attitudes to things like sex and celebrity, justice and forgiveness. 

As the victim had no memories of what transpired at the Premier Inn, it's clear that unless subsequently assisted by a hypnotist, it must have been her who first started this game of assessing the probabilities. This leaves Evans and his co-defendant Clayton McDonald as the only witnesses to the sexual encounter they had rather naively fessed up to the day after. How anyone else is able to make any authoritative judgments regarding the probability of what happened is beyond me. It was a straightforward case of their word against her silence. As far as the facts go, nobody else can have an opinion that gets much beyond speculation. 

Anyway, someone must have failed to brief the jury on the standard legal nicety of 'beyond reasonable doubt', as set aside any obvious doubts they did, concluding that while a nineteen-year-old girl who has consumed four vodkas and a sambuca would NOT be too drunk to consent to sex with one footballer, she would however be too drunk to consent to have sex with a second footballer who showed up a bit later and joined in. The level of drunkenness had presumably not changed, just the number of simultaneous sexual partners. 

In the absence of facts character had to be judged here - the jury had to decide whether - according to modern British sexual mores - which member of the threesome was the person of bad(dest) character. 

If both footballers had been found innocent as charged, the implication would have been that the victim was the sort of girl who was generally up for it. Conversely, if both footballers had been found guilty as charged, all possible suggestion that she was anything other than a chaste young woman waiting for Mr Right - until that last little shot of Italian fire water ruined everything - would have been dispelled. 

But the jury would have understood that under normal circumstances people who do stupid things when drunk tend to appear up in the dock not beside the QC for the prosecution, and so probably figured out quite quickly that the solution to this moral dilemma might just be to find only one of the two lascivious footballers guilty. Which is what they did. 

And the problem for Ched Evans is that he had left himself open to character judgments whatever the jury thought about the behaviour of his victim, or indeed his co-shagger.  At the time he had a long-term girlfriend and yet there he was cruising around a small town in Wales unable to resist the temptation of a spontaneous threesome in a cheap hotel. An obvious toe-rag if ever there was one. 

And thus, as the only way to ascertain the facts of the situation was the assess the moral worth of each of the three participants, Evans would come under this scrutiny pre-compromised, not only because his behaviour was unethical regardless of the facts - which could only be surmised - but because as a minor celebrity of the sort we all have a love-hate relationship with, it was always going to be easy to present him with the bill for that particular pact with the devil. 

Was Ched Evans guilty of rape? Only he knows, really. He clearly thinks otherwise. Is he a chap of low character? The British vocal majority thinks so, and in spite of the underlying prudishness of the verdict that put him in jail - Britain's vocal majority is almost certainly right on this one. And unfortunately for Evans he sits close to a tipping point: not quite talented enough to be forgiven by default and not quite un-famous enough for nobody to care. 

Is this sufficient reason for him to be denied a lucrative new contract with the devil? It's a tricky one. As he has been so sure he is not a rapist, he has failed to apologise for being a scumbag - the real reason he was convicted, dressed up for the benefit of legal precedent as an evaluation of intoxication levels vs capacity for consent that seems the more nebulous the more you think about it. This failure to fess up to being a bit of a degenerate, coupled with Wednesday's cack-handed non-apology, only compounds the problem. 

The diabolical contract of celebrity involves a certain degree of hypocritical pretense that the ball-kickers we pay an extraordinary amount of money have to be admirable to children. Ched Evans 'the convicted rapist' is going to be hard to repackage as an idol. And even if his conviction for rape were one day overturned, we'd still have no real reason to re-assess his character would we? The comparatively blokey north of England might not care too much about this, but finds itself joined up to the same media and communications network as the rest of the country. 

The case has certain echoes of the Oscar Pistorius trial. There we saw a judge rather than a jury tackle a similar dilemma. Clearly the principle of 'reasonable doubt' was not lost on her, so as far as the facts as known were concerned, she could do nothing else but find Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder, while leaving herself with just enough leeway for jailing him for his obvious character faults anyway. He won't be a sponsor's dream when he gets out either...

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Conscious cluelessness

My family and the families of the majority of the people I grew up with have been bourgeois for several generations. This means that as the years march on by, stuff that was acquired maybe a century ago in the first flush of affluence trickles down towards us. 

To take just one example, my peers and I tend to have a basic understanding of the value of silver. I mention this because my recent visit to Taxco  Mexico's traditional hot spot for the mining of that precious metal and the fabrication of artifacts from it — left me scratching my head a little. All tours to the city are obliged to stop at one of the big workshops on the outskirts. Arriving visitors are handed a basket, plied with tequila and encouraged to start loading up with trinkets. However, in my own case, the prices on the labels represented a rather obvious barrier to participation. 

For instance, I spotted various sets of newly-hewn cutlery that were on sale at an average price of $12,000. Now I happen to know that a set of top quality antique silver cutlery can be purchased on ebay for less than a fifth of that. Surely these Mexican artisans, working right beside the famous Taxco vein, would be doing a brisker trade if they passed on some of their lower costs and thus offered visitors a clear proposition in terms of value? One that say pandered to the notion that they might have taken the time to become informed before entering the fray? 

It's the sort of misgiving I often feel about the manner in which prices are set in parts of Central America...

La Tostaduría Antigua on 6a Calle Poniente sells a pound of coffee for Q200 (softening the blow with the nonsense offer of a free cup of coffee with each bag purchased). This is pricier, almost incredibly, than a pound of the finest gourmet coffee from the Zelaya family's Finca Santa Clara....all the way across the ocean at Fortnum & Mason in London. And that comes in a tin that's worth forking out ten quid for in itself! 

The 'Fortnum's Test' can be applied elsewhere: a slice of Manchego cheese will be both more expensive and less yummy for example when purchased from Antigua delicatessen Pal Paladar than when acquired at its more illustrious equivalent in Piccadilly. 

These enterprises appear to have made the conscious decision to price their product according to what they deem a certain target consumer is able to pay, as opposed to say the underlying economics of their own business model. The prevalence of this tactic would suggest that it must, to some extent at least, work. 

Tellingly, the members of our tour group in Taxco that appeared to have the least concern for value were the Chinese. And this got me thinking about how it's the newly-emerging middle class that is possibly the easiest social group to exploit economically, because their otherwise rational purchasing decisions are so often scrambled by the need to reinforce status through consumption. In short, a group for whom spending  and being seen to spend  is often an end in itself. Conscious cluelessness, if you like. 

Guatemala has its own, albeit more fragile version of an emerging middle class, which one can detect most easily by looking for strange distortions in the relationship between price and value on the 'high street', especially here in Antigua, and in the more aspirational product areas. 

The wine trade is a particularly illuminating example, though much of what can be said of it could also be said of the restaurant business for which it might act as a handy analogue. For a start, most of the quality and value-for-money is to be found around the lower price points. Indeed, pretty soon after the bill or receipt reaches a certain threshold, the quality will tail off dishearteningly into mediocrity. 

A wine costing in excess of Q60 at the Bodegona will quite often be nowhere near as tasty in terms of quality or value as those sold for less.  Now, over the past ten years this venerable supermarket-substitute has increased the range of different wines it purveys, but this has had no real impact on the underlying value structure. In fact, five or so years ago when the selection on the shelves had at least the appearance of restricted variety, some really very good wines would occasionally  and all too briefly  turn up in the mid-price bracket. (e.g. Marques de Riscal...).

There are a number of obvious reasons for this. Take firstly the demand side. Many young Guatemalan consumers of plonk are the first generation in their family to do so and are often aware of the cachet that comes with this. They did not grow up in a major wine-producing country and were usually not introduced to the habit by well-informed parents during their adolescence. Thus they are more likely to be swayed by price as the predominant yardstick of quality, because it's the per bottle cost that has been acting as a limiter on the extent of their experience of different wines. 

Then the supply side. Wines imported from European countries such as Spain, will tend to be more expensive in order to reflect the transportation overheads. So, like the Manchego cheese at Pal Paladar, it doesn't really matter if it is a rather lacklustre product in the refrigerated display, because the premium seemingly derives from the distance. 

Most of the wines on sale in Guatemala hail however from the bottom end of South America, where the more interesting low-volume vineyards sell most of their best vino up front to the restaurant and retail sectors of the developed world. That leaves a small ocean of surplus, less delicious stuff that needs to be branded up ('Frontera', 'Casillero del Diablo' etc.) and flogged at developed world prices here to the likes of Guatemala's only partially-discerning consumers. 

In Antigua it's the particular combination of visiting and ex-pat gringos combined with a young, aspirational middle class that makes this sort of marketing so prevalent. The gringos can't spot the problem with the price because they are used to paying  in a largely non-transparent way  taxes on the sale of alcohol which have no equivalent here, and the local, nascently-sophisticated yuppies can't spot the problems with quality and value because there is so little superior, affordable wine on sale here. 

Having a significant chunk of population that will pay whatever you ask for your product regardless of value has always worked well for perfume manufacturers. It may indeed account for the resemblance of certain Asian cities like Hong Kong to hypertrophied Duty Free shops and China's rampant economic growth on a wider scale might be said to owe a great deal to the demographic that lives to spend. Conversely, the apparent faltering of the US as global economic leader might be put down to the fact that relative affluence is now less of a novelty for many American families that make up the middle orders. 

Yet here in the developing world I would contend that a system which pays the emerging middle classes salaries which reflect local conditions and yet encourages to spend as if they resided in the developed world is one that is not only going to leave that group permanently over-extended and vulnerable, it is also going to widen the chasm between them and the less upwardly-mobile classes in the agricultural and informal sectors  a phenomenon which does not strike me as the best way forward for the Guatemalan economy in terms of even development. 

Here in Antigua a fila of pan frances at almost any bakery costs Q2, yet an order of Naan bread at our local pseudo-Indian eatery Ganesh will set you back Q25. Bear in mind that this is not a piece of flatbread that has been baked to order in an open stone oven in the traditional Indian manner, but rather something that is highly likely to have been removed from the freezer and warmed to approximate-palatability in a microwave for several minutes. 

Not only will whole swathes of the population find it impossible to overleap this, on the face of it, somewhat absurd and counterproductive pricing chasm, they would not be far wrong should they conclude that its hardly worth the bother anyway, as it represents for them, to use the appropriate British phrase, a bit of a rip-off. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

¨The old imperialist-based union is bust...¨

This piece in today's Guardian by Irvine Welsh is fairly typical of the sort of opinion which has been getting my back up in the last few weeks. 

There's much talk of how Scotland has been covering itself in glory, putting on such a fine show of people power and 'true democracy', yet hardly any mention of the thuggery deployed by the YES campaign or the general spectacle of provincial small-mindedness behind this shining example to the world. 

At times it has been like being transported back to the 80s: class war, but this time with an ethnic-nationalist edge. Perhaps another reason it has felt like such a throwback is the discourse of the pro-independence campaign has resembled that of a middle-aged bloke who still thinks and speaks like a twenty-year-old student. 

It's a worldview where greed and incompetence are the only characteristics of the world's greatest financial service industry, where the UK is an 'imperialist' structure (I suppose under this same logic the EU is the Fourth Reich!), the BBC is primarily an establishment mouthpiece, the oil of the North Sea would belong to me the day after I move to Edinburgh and all that can be said of Westminster politicians is that they are inherently both elitist and corrupt. 

Some of these people need to seriously grow up and ditch this pathetic posturing. Guys, you don't live over here in Latin America; instead you enjoy the quite extraordinary privilege of being citizens of one of the world's most open and mature democracies.*

Anyway, it's just an enormous shame that old historical boundaries provide 10% of the British population with a license to carry on in this thoroughly childish manner. 

*Ironically perhaps, in the form of Salmond and the SNP they have just narrowly avoided rule by a Latin American-style populist demagogue.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Blue state?

The idea of reorganising our national boundaries to allow Scotland to 'manage their own affairs' sounds sort of fair until you think of doing the same thing in say the USA: along red and blue state lines. It surely wouldn't resolve most of the deeper issues, in fact it would create a kind of artificial barrier between them, so that the longer term positive effects of political contention would be dampened. 

Red staters would get to keep heterosexual-only marriage, Fox News, 'Freedom' and cohabiting humans and dinosaurs, while the blue-staters could have abortion, socialised medicine, a limp-wristed foreign policy and as many Guatemalans as they can handle. 

In the short term at least, it's hard to see how you would not end up with one essentially Republican-dominated nation and another contrastingly Democratic one. And suppose it was the right-thinking folk of the likes of New York and LA that decided to erect a definitive political barrier between themselves an those 'effing' rednecks in Alabama and Wyoming, would it not occur to them that they were selfishly cutting loose and thus politically condemning all the people over in Hicksville who either currently share their liberal values or might some day come around to doing so? 

Back to Scotland. The differences here are twofold. Firstly, in the last decade or so the clash of values has been much less of a 50-50 thing than it has been over in the States; where each ideological block has appeared to have a roughly equal chance of grabbing the executive branch. It seems that the Scots feel about Labour now as east coast Democrats might feel if their party colleagues in the fly-over states had started denying evolution just to get into government. 

Secondly, while the resentments in the USA have been stoked by all sorts of devious populists, in this respect Alex Salmond has a clear advantage in that he has been able to repackage them along slick nationalist lines.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Palestinians in Gaza vs Cubans in Miami

Let's just consider for a moment the similarities between the situation of the Palestinians in Gaza and the Cubans in Miami. 

These are far from perfect analogues, yet somehow I think the comparison is instructive, not least because one consistently exercises the conscience of well-meaning European chatterers in a way that the other never has, or will. 

Here are two exiled communities that woke up one morning and found that a new state founded on a wholly antipathetic worldview had popped up  seemingly out of nowhere  and taken everything from them. Deprived of all their property they had to flee to a neighbouring territory, where they have spent more than half a century harbouring an essentially irrational belief that one day they will return to their homeland and all will be restored to them. This will of course never happen. The world moves on. 

So, the originating historical 'injustices' underlying these two situations do bare some comparison, whether progressive-minded people like it or not. 

The similarities tend to end there of course, because in Palestine the new state and the exiles have been engaged in determinedly bloody conflict ever since. 

It is also true that none of the friendly neighbouring powers stepped in to welcome and integrate the Palestinians in the same way that United States did with the anti-Castro Cubans. And now, after several generations, both the longing and the hostility is starting to wane as younger, US-born Cubans start to rethink their identity. 

Something a Norwegian friend of mine said about resisting conquest the other day got me thinking. He was referring to his own family and resistance to German invasion during WWII. The implication was that conquest is always a bad thing and that violent resistance to it is always the most admirable approach. 

The trouble here is that the behaviour of Germany in the last century now has a highly distorting effect on any attempt to draw usefully balanced lessons from the historical past, whether the issue under consideration is appeasement, ethnic cleansing, or indeed civilian casualties from bombing.* Sometimes one has to force oneself to look a bit further back in order to achieve a proper perspective. 

In a world full of murder and mayhem there's no denying that Palestine too has a massively disproportionate hold on the consciousness of educated outsiders, plus a claim to geopolitical significance that is in some senses dangerously self-fulfilling. 

Victims of US drone attacks in Pakistan can surely only dream of the attention that those of Israeli missile attacks have been getting these past few weeks. 

The island where I was born was subjected to multiple invasions and conquests in its early history. First came the Romans, and of course that hilarious 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian accurately pinpoints some of the obvious paradoxes behind this particular variety of subjugation. 

When Roman imperial power in Britain collapsed the islanders were Christian in faith and the legend of King Arthur suggests that they were none too pleased with the arrival of the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Many fled into the far corners of the land, effectively creating Wales and Cornwall — the Gaza Strips of Dark Age Britain. 

DNA evidence nevertheless suggests that the majority stayed put, and as the Anglo-Saxons took up Christianity, they in turn adopted early-English. Both sides adapted to the change at the top and got on with their lives, in part because in the end there was no fundamental conflict of worldview to keep them at each other's throats. 

Then in 1066 two alternative versions of my Norwegian friend's ancestors decided they wanted to take over political control of England. The first lot  the authentic variety  were quickly defeated, but the second of these simultaneous invasions, led by Francophile Norwegians, aka the Normans, was successful. 

These French-speaking Norwegians are possibly the most intriguing race of conquerors in the history of the world. Utterly brutal in achieving their goals, once settled in their newly-acquired territories they usually revealed themselves to be highly open-minded and adaptable. The societies they established in southern Italy and, most notably, Palestine, were astonishingly pluralistic and tolerant from a cultural (and religious) perspective. Conquest in these territories looked briefly like what we moderns would call a win win, even for the Normans' Jewish and Muslim subjects. 

In England they took control of the state and all the land, leaving the previous elite with nothing. The conquered were not displaced however; they stayed and kept their language and some of their traditions and ultimately it was the Normans who ended up speaking English, just as they had switched to French on the continent. 

Norman civilisation was at once both superior in some respects and inferior in others to that of the societies that fell under its sway. The Normans themselves seemed to get this and applied their stranglehold in a manner that can look oddly malleable to us today. At one stage they even set their sights on Constantinople. Perhaps their only real cock-up was Ireland, the long-term consequences of which have been lamentable.

Norman rule in Palestine was short-lived partly because a new race of recently-arrived and recently-converted Muslims  the Seljuk Turks — brought a fervently Jihadi perspective to ownership of the Holy Land. And so it has continued. The Normans had jumped on the Holy War bandwagon as a means to an end. For subsequent would-be conquerors of this very troubled part of the globe the reverse has more often been the case. 

Could Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims ever find a way to cooperate in fostering a tolerant, pluralistic society of the kind the Normans specialised in? Right now this seems the least likely outcome, and yet of course it is the only one that could provide a pathway to lasting peace. 

* More French 'innocent civilians' died on D-Day than American soldiers i.e. more than 5000. If someone had filmed them their dead bodies would have looked much like Palestinian dead bodies this week. 

Friday, June 13, 2014


One reason that I find the upcoming anniversary of the outbreak of WWI so pertinent is that many of the anxieties floating around in the culture a hundred years ago have their analogues in our own. To listen to the likes of Nigel Farage, Pope Francis or any number of contemporary public opinionators is akin to tuning into a modern rehash of the litany of existential fears that gripped the West at the beginning of the last century - selfishness, secularism, materialism, homosexuality, aliens in our midst, women on the rise, falling birth rates (though cats and dogs were not specifically blamed to my knowledge), that galling parade of shallow hedonists etc. 

Many openly wondered back then if the terrorists were right; we were becoming flaccid and degenerate. General Friedrich von Bernhardi, author of Germany and the Next War (1911) bewailed that "selfishness and intrigue run riot, and luxury obliterates idealism," while Max Nordau's 1892 bestseller Degeneration (Entartung) claimed that western culture was being systematically undermined by greed, materialism and the relentless quest for pleasure. 

This will all be familiar to twenty first century readers. What will perhaps not be is the preferred antidote a century ago  war, or at least a conscious recourse to militarism. Many of Europe's leaders then surmised that externalising the struggle would resolve all the contradictions within the nation, cleansing the corruption supposedly chewing away at the fabric of civilisation. (So, in a sense WWI resulted from a displaced attempt to dodge the ideas floating around at the time, whereas WWII could more easily be characterised as a head-on conflict between them.) 

The Daily Mash piece on June 6th this year, 70th anniversary of D-Day landings, could not have poked this raw nerve more effectively: "The veterans of D-Day have marked the 70th anniversary by thanking Britain for becoming shallow and worthless. The soldiers who liberated Europe from fascism stressed we had done them proud with our relentless focus on money, celebrity, clothing and football."  

Here, albeit in satirical form, is the abiding sense that we are somehow lesser beings than the brave military men who set aside selfish pursuits in order, kill each other. They saved us, goes the refrain; we should be forever grateful. We are not worthy. We are in fact, rather like the men who lived peacefully and pleasurably for decades before the whole apocalypse kicked off in 1914 - 'unmanly'. 

Yet while the personal sacrifices of many are to be both honoured and remembered, one should never lose sight of the fact that they belonged to several generations of westerners whose collective response to progress and modernist ideas was an almost neurotic resort to mechanised mass murder on an unprecedented scale. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Moment of Crisis

The First World War, a conflict where the major European protagonists had a strong sense of moral purpose but little in terms of concrete objectives, was made possible by the crystalisation of national identities in the years immediately preceding it. 

The results of last week's voting across the continent reveals that we are some way into a new phase, where the national community is in crisis, and knows it. This manifests itself as a straight conflict of interest between the rooted and the consciously uprooted. Some of the latter are comparatively poor and seeking better opportunities across nearby borders, but many belong to the globalised urban elites, who have found that they owe much of their disproportionate affluence to a transnational perspective, and are thus inclined to favour the far-reaching technocratic institutions which appear to underpin their future economic wellbeing. 

The comparatively rooted meanwhile strongly suspect that they are getting the raw end of the deal (which they are...) And yet, I surmise, they must also deep down suspect that there is no going back to the way things used to be, that semi-mythical past when government policies and budgets were constructed primarily in the interests of the clearly-situated taxpayers of the nation state. 

And one suspects that also, on some subconscious level at least, they have recognised the essentially - annoyingly - reasonable nature of the counter-argument that the smug globalised elites have deployed, because their own protests - be they Tea Party activists, Scottish secessionists or immigrant-phobes - have become increasingly counter-rational (when not economically suicidal) and, in the immediate term, this can surely only be further damaging to democracy. 

I've had some direct experience of a mirco-cosmic version of these tensions as I used to make a living working both for a company and beyond it. And of course the likes of WPP, Starbucks, Google and Apple are doing the same thing with regards to nation states and their regulations (and other limitations).

In both cases the key argument for such practices is that they are both the way of the future and a technique for increasing the big numbers for all. These bigger numbers do not however necessarily translate into the sort of universally lifting boats that rising tides are supposed to produce.

So the rooted are right to question the new status quo, at least as it is currently structured. What worries me is that people are turning to emotional, counter-factual, self-defeating platforms in response. Whatever 'good arguments' exist for blocks like the EU or indeed the UK, will be ignored by people who have simply decided to switch off their brains out of pique for the way they have been treated.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth vs Acceptability

"In point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits" > Willard Van Orman Quine. 

For an ontological relativist like Quine, both objects and supernatural beings were artifacts of culture — fictions if you like — but he considered the former superior in that they are more efficient for predicting events i.e. useful fictions. Treated the right way, they work.

Philosophy is born with the human desire to know the world as it really is. In the West Thales of Miletus is credited with being the first person to suggest a discrepancy between appearances and reality, and thus the first true philosopher.

Religion then, could be seen to originate with the notion that life will always be better and simpler if we pretend that we already know how the world really is. And, I would suggest, survives today in the West out partly of a fear of recognising the world for what it might be.

Anyway, the whole universe could be a grand illusion, but I'm still here putting the cat out at 4am every morning. Science works, bitches...but that does not (necessarily) make it True. It can be trusted, but one is not obliged to BELIEVE in it.

This is because while philosophy is the quest to know the world as it really is, science involves constructing an ever-improving approximation between our knowledge and objective reality...if such a thing exists. It's certainly a moving target if ever there was one.

Of course it's a perfectly valid philosophical position to suggest an identity between these two projects, but that it not really what Richard Dawkins is up to, because all philosophical positions tend to be inside his blind spot. The open scorn he pours on theology is thus accompanied by an more unstated disregard for philosophy - and not just metaphysics, but any attempt to take an intellectual leap out beyond the strictly pragmatic approach.

You'll find he refers to the latter as 'reason', but his is a rationalism with artificial barriers at both ends. Comfortably still inhabiting a largely Newtonian universe, he's disinclined to allow reason to soar upwards into the increasingly counterintuitive fields of quantum physics and cosmology, and he doesn't seem to like it either when, down below in the real world, practical applications of scientific theory also appear to require the attentions of (moral) philosophers. I once heard Dawkins in a live Q&A session squirming a bit on the issue of cloning, and he ended up with a formulation that sounded depressingly Werner Von Braun: i.e. "Vunce ze rocketz go up, who carez vair zey come down?".

Needless to say, when Britain needed a professional verdict on human embryo experiments they turned to a philosopher, Girton's former Mistress Baroness Warnock. I have a sneaking suspicion that Richard Dawkins must at the time have thought that only a scientist ought to be allowed to take such decisions. It works bitches, what more do you need to know?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pantsdown and the Proxy Effect

When the Crimea recently opted out of rule from Kiev, former Lib-Dem leader Paddy Ashdown penned an article suggesting that Russia had some significant — and rather topical — previous in stirring up Slavic irredentism to very dangerous ends, describing the Sarejevo slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as political assassination by proxy, in which the Tsar was the ultimate author of this most earth-shattering of crimes. 

This viewpoint has some immediate ironies and absurdities that are worth pointing out. Firstly, although the Russians did indeed encourage Serbian expansionism in the years leading up to WWI, there is no evidence of a direct link with the Black Hand, the extremist, deep state organisation in Belgrade that planned the attack in Sarajevo. But more importantly, which position did Britain and France take up in 1914? Rather than talking the Tsar out of his unconditional support for the Serbs, they publicly denied the legitimacy of Austro-Hungary's grievance against them, scorning the credibility of the enquiry which found the breadcrumbs leading back from Princip to the government of Nikola Pašić. 

What Ashdown might instead have alluded to was the paranoia about Russia coupled with an exaggerated sense of its capabilities which pervaded Europe at the start of the last century, and how this in fact became one of the key factors contributing to a hardening of block mentalities. 

On paper the Russian army was at least 30% larger than that of Germany and Austro-Hungary combined. The at least partly irrational sense of threat that this generated led military thinkers in Berlin to consider the notion of a 'preventative war', so convinced were they that the Tsar meant them ill and that Russian power could only increase. The French had a similarly view of Russian military strength and feared the day when the St Petersburg would no longer need the Entente for their own security, leaving Paris once again alone and exposed to the Prussian invaders that had so humiliated them only recently. For the British the Russian 'threat' impacted on their strategic focus outside Europe on the fringes of the empire. They were drawn into a closer understanding with both the French and Russians precisely in order to safeguard distant 'jewels' like India. So in a sense the Russians did provoke WWI - but not in the way Ashdown lately suggested  the proxy effect was largely psychological. 

The calamity of continental war needed a spark to set it off, but the instability of the Balkan region had in a way been pre-prepared by all sides as a causus belli some time before the plot against the Archduke came to fruition. The French, fearing for the loyalty and commitment of their principal ally, had decided that the circumstances that triggered their alliance would have to originate in a area in which the Russians had a strong strategic interest. If Germany invaded France, they reasoned, the Russians might not mobilise in a timely fashion. This sense of foreboding was directly paralleled in Berlin, where it was felt that the armies of Franz Joseph would be disinclined to get out of bed unless the Russian threat against their own alliance played out in the Balkan backyard of the Empire. So, instead of treating the dispute between the Austrians and Serbs as a localised, somebody else's problem sort of shambles (as we do seem to be treating the developments in the Ukraine today), the great powers one hundred years ago had rather deliberately attached this regional powder keg to their detonator. And, the politicians of the day had a sense of honour when it came to following up on treaties and agreements, however vague, that our own lot would probably find hard to comprehend. 

In the end perhaps the final irony of the crisis that led to WWI - and thus, albeit indirectly to WWII as well - is that the Russians and Austrians were almost last in declaring war against each other. Meanwhile Germany had invaded France through neutral Belgium, something the French had been planning to do in reverse, but were just not quick enough. 

The modern lessons from all this seem to have less to do with whether to appease or confront Russia — or indeed keeping them onside at all costs on the basis of shared geopolitical fears and antagonisms — than about understanding the true nature of its intentions and the threat that it may or may not present to the contemporary world's other power blocks.