Thursday, May 26, 2022

Lying to the people....

The House Committee on Ethics must now determine if Boris Johnson is guilty of lying to the Commons. 

They will find this rather tricky. The PM knows the formulae that will probably save him. He misled MPs, misrepresenting the facts, but all because he didn't have a complete grasp of them at the time. 

Over in the US, i.e. post-truth America, there has been some chatter around the topic of perjury and specifically whether Amber Heard should face relevant charges. 


This too would be tricky. My gut feeling is that Heard has often been lying in court, but she has situated these lies within her own personal truth, AKA 'lived experience', largely disconnected from the documented facts. 

Where she could be more vulnerable is in the area of doctored evidence and in the incitement of third parties to commit perjury on her behalf. 

V and I have been the victims of false testimony on multiple occasions here in Guatemala. The first instance was all too clear cut: my accuser filed a police report alleging I had attacked her on a day I was not in the country. There is no way she can not have known that she was lying. Utterly despicable. 

In court she avoided prosecution and secured a peace agreement of sorts based on another blatant lie. Yet on that occasion it was her lawyer who perjured herself, giving faith in front of the judge to a non-fact. 

Unlike subsequent members of her legal team, this lawyer had an air of basic decency and honour about her. I am inclined to think that she sincerely believed she was telling the truth at the time, and thus was possibly herself the victim of her client's malicious dishonesty. (But still, she gave faith to something she could not give faith to, because all she had to go on were the words coming out of the mouth of a client that by then she absolutely had to know is a liar.) 

Last March the same woman's husband blithely lied to a judge, claiming to have only missed two of the previous court sessions, when in fact he has skipped six.* 

Of course he might argue that the other four had somehow slipped his memory, but what of when he informed another judge in 2020 of his employment and income status in a manner that was patently untrue at the time?

This man also produced a denuncia against us at the MP later that year which was grounded in a collection of the most absurdly and obviously false allegations. The most bizarre aspect of this was that the evidence he submitted actually incriminated him in the commission of the very crime that he was trying to pin on us. 

These counter-denuncias are a worrying feature of the justice system in Guatemala. It is highly unlikely that the authorities in European countries would ever permit a man accused of sadistic, sexually-aggravated abuse to harass his victim — even as he was consistently dodging having to face her in court — with spurious allegations amounting to a form of intimidation, if not extortion. 

He now seems to have become so hooked on the highs of making ludicrously baseless allegations that he has only gone and made one against one of the presiding judges on his case, also in a sense, his jury. Your guess is as good as mine as to what he can possibly hope to achieve with that.

In spite of the collective expensiveness of her legal team, Amber Heard has made also made some bizarre gaffes, such as submitting digital photos as evidence which pretty much any computer-literate person could expose as having been modified from the originals. 

Our accuser submitted much of his evidence in 2020 as low-res black and white print-outs, perhaps aware that the original digital files would end up in effect testifying against him. 

He has also resorted to inciting others to lie on their behalf, dependents, friends and so on, but most significantly legal counsel, and in the latter case at least, it's always hard to make accusations of perjury stick on representatives and/or underlings. 

Today Amber Heard stated that a number of her ex-husband's witnesses including Kate Moss plus other friends and employees had "come out of the woodwork" for him (a barely disguised euphemism for lying on his behalf) owing to his power as a famous male. 

When she then alleged that he had "recruited" millions to torture her, she was in effect stating that nobody could support him without having submitted to his terrible power which made him sound like that other tyrant of the current moment Vladimir Putin…rather than a leading Hollywood character actor.

In doing so she is all too obviously neglecting the contribution that her own personal aura and the apparent incompetence of her legal team might have made to this recruitment drive. 

It's nevertheless evident that many people are indeed willing to lie or at least back up a falsehood for someone on whom they are dependent financially or by whom they are perhaps just subconsciously influenced or manipulated. Yet I find Amber's apparent willingness to make these accusations against otherwise credible witnesses disturbing. 

Since the start of the Deppfamation trial in Virginia, she has hovered on the edge of open disrespect to the court and the process and can barely conceal her contempt for the opposing legal team. However much I might personally dislike a question or indeed the person asking it, a courtroom is never the place to become brincón (overbearing), because like the House of Commons it is a space where all discourse takes place with a duty of utmost respect to the presiding authority. 

And it's hard to picture Heard as a mouthpiece of the truth when she responds to questioning by conducting a sort of performance where she addresses, the ceiling, the jury, the back of the room, but almost never the person conducting the interrogation. In her case "non-responsive" tends to mean over-responsive. 

Liars resorting to ‘my truth’ often end up in an alternative reality of their own fabrication, where all connection with actual events becomes distorted. 

Surprisingly often bad advice lies at the root of this. I can’t help imagining that for Amber there was a watershed moment when someone (or maybe just her inner demons) told her she might perpetuate her status in the industry beyond a certain age by becoming a voice. Those offering this sort of advice rarely touch on the potential for blowback. 

I have believed from the start that this couple engaged in mutual abuse. But the case is not about domestic abuse, it is about the kinds of speech that are permissible in the aftermath of such abuse. 

And this is where Amber's status as a voice tends to come apart. Depp has shown up with convincing witnesses and supporting evidence that he was himself abused. Heard has not, at least relatively. 

Having watched much of the trial I cannot recall a single telling piece of evidence presented by Heard's lawyers, and this when their client was clearly the sort to create incriminating tableaux for her camera, along with a tendency to use audio rather speculatively. One ends up with the impression of someone who tried and ultimately failed to fully entrap her partner. 

Yet she still might have been abused by Depp. If so, one has to be sympathetic, but ultimately that is not what this trial has been about. 

The significance here is not about criminal behaviour, but about the principle that any statement made about someone else in public needs to have some sort of perceptible foundation in truth. 

Time and time again in Guatemala I have had to put up with statements made in public about me that have none such: statements about my character, my actions, my sexuality, my reproductive status, my professional abilities, my security system and so on — all just calumnies that are hardly worth the time it would take to rebut them. 

In the state where Depp and Heard are facing off, defamation is defined as speech based on malicious falsehood or a reckless disregard for the truth. Here in Guatemala the law is seemingly less certain, sometimes deferring to the alleged victim's sense of injury rather than any agreed notion of objective truth. 

While Amber may have failed to prove that she possessed the requisite foundation for her to pen that piece in the Washington Post, Depp is also going to struggle to prove that she has acted maliciously. He's more or less in the position I would have been had I lacked that stamp in my passport demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt the malicious intent of my accuser. 

As I said, I have my gut feeling, but juries ought not to reach verdicts with their gut. Their job is simply to decide whether conclusive cases have been served up by the lawyers. (Though in truth juries often seem to resort to a balance of probabilities like the rest of us.)

Back to absolute master at allowing others to take the fall for him. That and the non-apology, the non acceptance of personal responsibility. And like Trump, it would seem that he is being protected from the usual consequences of his actions and attitudes by compliant, cowardly and possibly venal members of his own entourage.  

The people may some day get the chance to properly punish them, and him, for their defiant lack of principle. 

* His lawyer has missed double that number. Together the absence of one or the other of them has required the trial to be rescheduled a total of 15 times. This looks far more like a duplicitous strategy than an unlikely pattern of chance events. 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Pinpoint Outrage

With regards to Idrissa Gueye, apparent rainbow refusnik…

Absolutely nothing good has ever come from forcing people to agree with opinions that they clearly reject. 

And as a liberal society we need to be able to take a stand against compelled speech in any form. 

We surely cannot go about cherry picking the parts of recalcitrant religious conviction that we think unacceptable in a 'modern' context. 

If Gueye, a Senagalese muslim earning a living in Paris, sincerely believes homosexuality to be sinful, we shame ourselves by homing in on only that part of his alleged mental make-up. 

Of course much of that which is presented to us as a matter of conscience, of heartfelt, internalised ideology, is often little more than dressed up bigotry, but that is not how the believers see it and we cannot ultimately win this battle by selectively taking on only those instances which contradict our own increasingly repressive, speech-smothering ideologies.
The level of hypocrisy underlying all this, given the ownership structure of PSG, is of course stratospheric.

Friday, May 20, 2022


Where for one very memorable term I studied (intensely) the history of revolutions, and my mind was like...


Friday, May 13, 2022

Pettiness of the Highest Order

We Brits have a remarkable capacity for elevating the trivial to the level of matters of vital national interest. (Viz the current national debate concerning the Leader of the Opposition's takeaway curry order.)  

I say remarkable rather than unique, as it would appear to have taken root elsewhere in countries such as Belize, presumably as part of our colonial legacy. 

During the current hiatus in the colourful Depp-Heard trial I have been following — with a slightly guilty relish — the spat between two footballers' wives in the High Court in London, a libel case in which nobody stands to make a fortune (on the contrary, both will emerge much the poorer as only oligarchs and tyrants can afford this kind of vanity legal action in Britain today) and seemingly hangs on news items of far-reaching consequence, such as a flood in the defendant's kitchen, which (allegedly) never actually took place. 

Nevertheless, the so-called Wagatha Christie speech incident, which occurred somewhere in the strange liminal locus between cyberspace and the 'real world', will I suspect in the end present us with a narrative of wider significance. 

As a society we are already asking ourselves how many people can legitimately be held responsible for content published on social media, but here there is also the question of how many people can be held accountable for consuming it and then acting on that consumption. 

Most interestingly of all perhaps, the final judgement of the UK's highest court will indicate the extent to which the real world consequences of cyber defamation can be quantified. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

The Worst Person In The World (2021)

Like, Drive My Car,  the movie that pipped it to the Best International Feature at this year's Academy Awards, Joachim Trier's painfully mis-categorised "Romantic Comedy" is a flawed, yet somewhat wonderful oddity. 

These days it would seem that subtitles are a prerequisite for anything approximating original, thought-provoking drama on the big screen. 

That said, two of my closest friends are Norwegian, one from Bergen and the other from a part of Oslo where postcodes and accents definitively matter, or so I am told, and not being a Norwegian speaker myself, I had a sense here that I was perhaps losing some of the key nuances of this story simply by not being able to deconstruct the diction of the protagonists. If this film had been set in London, the performers' intonations would have been markedly important. (Just think of Four Weddings And A Funeral). 

In simple terms this is the story of a young woman who fudges the irreversible choices we are all faced with in our twenties. The central performance by Renate Reinsve as Julie is extraordinary. Yet I quickly found myself asking whether my growing fascination was with the actress or the character, the latter being fairly shallow on paper, a woman scripted by two men. 

Reinsve reminds me simultaneously of three women of my own personal acquaintance, two of them here in Guatemala. There are scenes here that she inhabits as a charming, magnetic presence and there are others where she appears to have pulled back the lever to reverse thrust and duly manifests as a drained and draining personage in dialogue with the other leading characters, almost exclusively male. 

It's as if she has a natural ability to appear a decade older or a decade younger — full of promise or full of regret —  entirely on cue. 

If Reinsve is fluent in English star status is almost guaranteed after this. 

There is some ambiguity as to whom the title refers. In the screenplay it appears only once, in reference to a barista called Elvind. Yet it could also be applied to Julie's other bloke, cartoon-provocateur Aksel, seemingly the best combination of dialogue and performance on show, from Trier's established collaborator Anders Danielsen Lie. 

In the film's latter stages he makes a speech that I shall remember more than any other aspect of the story. He observes how he grew up in a world where young people used to hang out in shops because that was the place where culture was to be encountered, as objects

He also notes that one reaches a stage where one realises that the bad things one had been endeavouring to avoid were not the ones that actually happened, and that one finds oneself passing a point from which life is inevitably led in retrospect, no matter what might have previously occurred. 

This scene is the most disarmingly powerful thing this otherwise slightly patchy drama has to offer. 

But perhaps patchy is unfair. Maybe there is no attempt being made to provide us with what generally goes by the name of a character arc.

During one of her media interviews (Observer) Reinsve noted that: “We asked questions when we made this movie and I feel we didn’t give any answers”, suggesting that Trier's aim was something more like “a big conversation” than a fixed statement.

For me it was a conversation that at certain points I really tuned into, at others, a bit less so.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Minamata (2020)

I can think of a bunch of possibly subjective reasons for liking this movie, which might not apply to everyone. 

— It features two of my favourite Japanese stars: Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Yamazaki 

— It has a poignant piano score by Ryuchi Sakamoto 

— Johnny Depp plays a washed up creative type in his 50s given one last shot at redemption. It's a fine performance. 

— And it tackles what used to be the No1 environmental issue, industrial pollution, still very much a live concern in Guatemala where communities around Lake Izabal have doggedly campaigned in the face of intimidation and sporadic violence against the alleged contaminations of the Fénix nickel mine. 

There are some problems too. 

There is more than a whiff of white saviourishness about the premise. The precise role of international photojournalism in securing compensation for the victims of mercury poisoning in provincial Japan is not properly fleshed out. 

The film is not quite secure until the final third whether it cares most about the plight of the inhabitants of Minamata or that of Life magazine (which effectively perished as a weekly in 1972, a year after the events depicted here). Depp's character, esteemed war photographer W. Eugene Smith, is given one or two interesting set-piece lines about the nature and pitfalls of his increasingly precarious profession, which contain dramatic potential which I felt was never quite realised. 

Smith teamed up with the eurasian translator Aileen when she was still a college student, an age gap that might not have looked good for Depp under present circumstances. She is played here by as a soulful, near platonic presence by the Minami, an actress of real substance in her mid-thirties. 

At the end we are informed of their marriage, but not how Smith left Minamata in '74 and headed for Arizona with another young partner.

All said, a movie that deserves to be seen, not least because, in a rather startling analogue of the behaviour of the Chisso corporation in the last century, MGM attempted to 'bury' this tale of negligence and the dragging pain of its victims. 

The studio had acquired the rights just as Depp was engaged in the tactical miscalculation of indirectly taking on his ex-wife's allegations via a libel suit in the UK, and decided that the baggage he was thus acquiring obliged them to deny Andrew Levitas's film any promotion stateside. The director sent a letter of complaint to MGM encouraging them to "land on the right side of the issues" — at least those actually showcased in this story. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Objection! Hearsay...

When the Depp vs Heard trial kicked off a couple of weeks ago, I have to admit I had formed only the barest outline of an opinion. 

It was however very quickly echoed by the testimony of one of the expert witnesses — couples therapist Dr Laurel Anderson — who suggested that there had been mutual abuse within a relationship that had turned toxic absurdly fast. "Can everyone just go home now?", I wondered at the time. 

Aside from this prior impression I was carrying one other small but significant bias. I was aware that Johnny Depp had lost his UK action against The Sun (a trial I had not followed at all) and had notched up the fact that he had chosen to use the libel laws of my country in a punitive exercise against the free expression of a British newspaper on the debit side of the Depp ledger. 

I had also concluded that much of the reputation damage the actor had suffered had probably occurred as a result of the mis-step of pursuing this suit abroad against a third party. 

Now, in the past I have said a few disparaging things here and elsewhere about Guatemalan lawyers, but when it comes to Amber Heard's legal team..what the actual fuck? 

If, by the time the actress takes to the stand the case has to a large extent got away from her, a significant part of the blame will lie with the men and women she has entrusted to cross-examine her ex-husband and his witnesses, many of whom have run circles around them. (Even a group of LAPD cops have out-sparred them.) 

There's the one who asks the same question over and over again, usually in an increasingly, and obviously leading fashion. The one that objects to his own questions. The one that cannot apparently distinguish between a witness's direct personal experience and "hearsay". And the one who held up a cosmetic product as evidence in court that had not been on the market at the time of the pair's marriage. (I've had to deal with something similar recently.)

Given that Team Johnny had been put into bat first, at the very least Amber's fielders should have brainstormed a way to carry through a modicum of basic sympathy with both the jury and the "court of public opinion" outside, and not themselves become figures of ridicule and public antipathy. 

It is not always important to retain a lawyer that reflects well on one's person and one's case, but there are situations such as this (see also Trump and Giuliani) where it can be crucial. And rhetorical adeptness has few authentic substitutes. 

In the early days of our company we retained a barrister based in Bedford Row, Bloomsbury, recommended, and with good reason, by my partner as an individual with an extraordinary processor in his head. (This being the 90s, the word Pentium cropped up.) 

He was indeed endowed with an impressively sharp mind, but the reason I have long upheld him as a paragon of lawyerly qualities is that he combined this incisiveness with an ability to argue on the fly both lucidly and logically. And all this with a captivating personal charm. 

In the following decade, after the sale of our company, we suffered an extended exposure to altogether sharkier American lawyers, with their far more adversarial approach to any negotiation — in this instance not the advocates representing the company that had bought us, but the ones retained by the firm that had subsequently acquired them before we had been fully masticated and digested. 

The blustery approach of lawyers on this side of the Atlantic has often struck me as a smokescreen hiding an inability to handle the more sophisticated aspects of the debating techniques that I grew up with. 

One lawyer in the Depp v Heard trial, I forget which side he is on, keeps interrupting himself with "strike that" in a manner that duly strikes me as particularly inept.  

I'm going to reserve my opinion as to which way the verdict is ultimately likely to go, but at present I would have to admit that if Amber were to consult her team on how it's all going, she'd probably get a similar response from her stooges as Vlad here...

One needs to discern through the utter disorder of this failed relationship the always very significant matter of motive. 

If Johnny struck out at his wife, it was most likely a result of a state of "temporary insanity" brought on by alcohol or substance abuse. Crucially this does seem to be explanation proposed by Amber's lawyers in the face of much testimony suggesting that Depp is not an inherently abusive person in his now rarer default state.

Yet if Amber struck out at Johnny, there could well have been something more premeditated and systematic going on, something more akin to deliberate bullying. Was she "triggered" or was she firing on automatic? 

This is an important nuance for the jury to tackle, so it surely does not help in a case all about disorderly, possibly innate aggression, when this is apparently one of the characteristics of the individuals taking on the witnesses. 

I have also acquired a better understanding this month of the legal and financial arrangements surrounding the split. I had not previously been aware that both sides signed a non-disparagement clause which should have made Amber think twice before submitting that op-ed. 

Her financial demands after a mere 15 months of marriage had been somewhat extreme given Depp's pecuniary situation at the time and it would not be hard to now characterise her approach as vampirical — sucking him dry and then, in effect, preventing him from ever again approaching a blood bank. 

Anyway, vaguely apropos of all the above, a pic here of Depp that I took in London ten years ago, just as his relationship with Heard was breaking into the public consciousness and not long before he had a crow tattooed on the back of his right hand...

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Ambulance (2022)

Around the thirty minute mark I found myself pondering "which complete and utter moron directed this?" So, off I went to IMDB and all confusion was quickly dispelled: Michael Bay.  

It's not completely without entertainment merit, yet the entire production (well almost, Jake Gyllenhaal is definitely going with the flow) is engaged in a largely losing struggle against Bay's directorial turns. 

This is a signiifcantly shorter remake of a Danish movie called Ambulancen. I'd normally want to go back and seek out the source, but on this occasion I think I have surrendered enough of my life to this preposterous plot. 

It would be great now to see Eiza Gónzalez in a more serious role. 

Here she never quite breaks free from the way too beautiful for that job archetype. It made me think about the cities where this phenomenon is an actual thing. Bogotá to some extent, especially where khaki uniforms and day-glow waistcoats are involved. But Havana is ground zero. There's hardly a run down wooden booth where tickets or such like are on sale not 'manned' in that city by a young lady who'd usually be raking in millions as a model in the free world. 

One strange parallel of the phenomenon is anachronistic sauciness sometimes applied to the dress code of fairly mundane careers in Cuba e.g. the fishnet stockings worn by many of the female immigration officials at José Martí international airport. 

Bay has uncharacteristically restrained himself in this film in terms of establishing his female co-star as an overly-sexualised object of ogle-ment. 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

St George's Day

On this St George's Day, some thoughts on my own particular brand of Englishness.

I'm English, proudly so, but not biologically Anglo-Saxon, at least not to a significant, dominant extent. 

My own deep ancestry is split between a Central European and a paternal line tying me to adventurous Celt-Iberians from the rugged northern coast of what is now Spain, whose presence in England long predated the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. Julius Caesar too...

Allegorical map of England
Lilian Lancaster Tennant (1912)

Off the field of soccering endeavour I take care to categorise myself as a 'Briton' — this is the identity I would most likely stand and fight for — and am occasionally irked by the tendency in these parts to identify all of my compatriots as ingleses

I was, for a large part of my life also a citizen of the EU, again very proudly so. 

Nevertheless, all of us Británicos of every flavour are 'Anglo-Saxon' in the cultural sense, even if we were born to far more recent immigrants. 

That period, roughly 500 years between the end of Romano-British rule and the Norman Conquest has been vitally important in determining many of the positive contributions our nation has made to world culture — particularly global political and legal culture — via the medium of our shared, Germanic language. 

Happy dragon-slaying everyone! 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Freestyle at the Moskva


One of the most striking attractions on my Moscow visit in 1984 was the Moskva open-air swimming pool. 

I say striking rather than memorable, because it is also striking how over the years I have tended to remember it rather less than other items on the itinerary, which might have something to do with the fact that I have no personal photographic record of this dip. 

The pool was first opened in 1958 having been constructed on the foundations of Stalin's proposed Palace of the Soviets, a grand, totalitarian architectural wank that was to have replaced the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour within sight of the Kremlin walls. 

But after the war Stalin's affection for the project waned, so instead, a few years after his death, we got this giant all-year circular swimming pool, its liquid shape 130m in diameter, able to service up to 20,000 swimmers a day in ambient temperatures as low as -20 degrees centigrade. 

Epic failed erection...

One entered, in effect, from below, having been provided with a regulation rubber cap. 

The water was as warm as an indulgent bath, and one could never fully appreciate the full 13,000 square metres* of its area, nor indeed its current level of occupancy, as one found oneself wrapped in a mysterious, somewhat sweltering local mist. It's probably for that reason that the Moskva pool appeared on the silver screen as a meeting place for spies.

It's gone, and the cathedral is back. Full circle one might say, but this isn't so much a circle as a labyrinth. I think if I were a young historian at Cambridge today, my attention would be lurching towards the interplay of imperialism, nationalism, Bolshevism and Orthodox Christianity in Russia. Un chirmol, as we say around here. 

There are all kinds of interesting approaches available for classifying the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One of the most interesting was covered in the Economist this week — as a death match between top-down and bottom-up ways of being. 

Or between a vast territory that has never successfully made the transition to modern nation state and a portion of its former imperial realm that has dared to succeed at the very thing Russia has consistently failed at. 

Perspectives that tend to credit Ukraine's self-organisation clash with those that see the war entirely as a result of western meddling. It is not unusual however for American academics to reflexively deny agency to the world outside. 

There has been much talk about Ukraine's 'drift' westwards, something historians might remind us has been a constant feature of its history for around a millennium. Putin, we are told, has been provoked into his 'inevitable' Z war by the possibility that Russia's neighbour could definitively detach itself from its sphere of influence by joining NATO and/or the EU. 

Much less has been made of Ukraine's decision to break away from the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, a mini-schism that was instigated three years ago. (By the way, the corollary of the phenomenon of Americans blaming themselves for everything is that the Kremlin also blames them for everything, including this awkward ecclesiastical divorce.) 

In Putin's mind, addled by the notion that the Russian Orthodox Church is the last pure version of Christianity, untainted by all those western liberal heresies, this could well have been the most significant incitement to invasion. 

And the language used in support of the war by senior members of the Orthodox hierarchy in Moscow has started to resemble that deployed by western clergy prior to and during the slaughter that was the Albigensian Crusade in the Languedoc. Crusaders have perhaps never been so bloodthirsty than at the times when the focus of their Holy Wars has been on their fellow Christians. 

So while it remains useful to explore the parallels between 'Z' and other, relatively recent modern conflicts, its resemblance to the sanguinary religious wars of the medieval and early modern periods in Europe should also be noteworthy. 

One might add that the popular and political culture of Central and Eastern Europe has always been above-averagely informed by atavistic attitudes and hodegepodgey folk memories fed by cris-crossy ancient, medieval and modern currents. 

Yet we in the West have every reason to pay careful attention to the way the battle lines are forming. That Economist piece on Ukraine's decentralised governance reminded me of something in my own nation's murky folk memory: the Anglo-Saxon shire fyrds and the Witan

I would suggest that we do more than pay lip-service to standing up for Ukraine's freedom, for this is a form of freedom that could potentially reinvigorate many parts of our own political societies, which makes its preservation perhaps even more urgent. 

The USA in particular could look at the way that 'Cossack' libertarianism combines rugged, individualist freedom with collective responsibility. 

* On my return from the USSR I wrote an essay which addressed the apparent Soviet obsession with quantifying everything. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Bodies in the Bogs

Some of the most insightful analysis on the Z war in Ukraine is wrapped up inside long, slightly unwieldy Twitter threads, which can be irritating as 'mainstream' media is so much easier to absorb, which in a way is the very point being made here about how ordinary Russians are absorbing this conflict and its losses. 

The thread presents some important perspectives, some of which take me back to a recurring family debate on the culpability of the foot-soldiers (and citizens) of autocratic, essentially fascist regimes engaged in carefully managing and distorting their local information ecosystems. 

The cynicism of Putin in exploiting the painful folk memory of the 1940s by couching his invasion in terms of 'de-Nazification' is of course extreme. 

I would like to think we live in a world where every human being is free to choose whether or not to participate in evil actions, but the reality is sadly more complex. 

I have occassionally referred here to a book by American historian Christopher R. Browning about a group of German cops of socialist leanings dispatched to occupied Poland in 1942 as "Reserve Police Batallion 101" who then actively participated in Nazi atrocities. 

Browning's conclusions in Ordinary Men are supported by several psychological studies. Simply put, only one in ten human beings will ever refuse an immoral order from a superior. 

Another one in ten will not only accept the order, but elaborate on it. 

The other eight will comply. 

In my own experience none of us really knows where we are on this spectrum, and it may not anyway be a fixed position, as our reactions tend to vary according to the situation.

The other day I mentioned how Russia today possesses an entire parallel fact-chucking media infrastructure. One of the genuine novelties of this war has been the role played both before and during by OSINT (open source intelligence, including private satellite imagery) and this is also an area where the Kremlin is trying to catch up quickly. 

This post below is duplicitously mimicking many of the now familiar tropes of an OSINT debunking of claims made by politicians and/or media spokespeople — in this case an attempt to demonstrate that the cyclist taken out in Bucha by Russian armoured vehicles was in fact acting as a decoy. 

This follows a memorable earlier, failed attempt to evade responsibility for the woman's death by a Russian spokesperson appearing on SKY NEWS — he cockily suggested that there was no way to tell if the vehicles were Russian or Ukrainian and was duly owned by a simple zoom-in response. 

The way the Russians handle truth reminds me of another tale told by researchers about chimpanzees, whose ability to lie is often hampered by their relatively uncontrollable instincts. 

For example, if a chimp finds himself alone with an enticing pile of grub, he will often want to keep it for himself, but the urge to make the loud verbal call announcing the presence of a new food source to the rest of the clan* is overpowering, so all he can do is cover his mouth and try to smother it. 

When the Russians murdered all those people at the Kramatorsk train station last week, they immediately screeched in triumph, only later to claim that it had to have been the Ukrainians as they no longer utilise that kind of outdated missile — a claim promptly debunked by the OSINT community. 

* A gathering of apes is in fact known as "a shrewdness" of apes! 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Bad Stew

The Western media has currently settled on three different ways of transposing the surname of the Ukrainian President. 

I'm sticking to Zelensky as the spelling for both the former comedic actor and the latest addition to our feline contingent, concluding that any additional i or y would be largely redundant phonetically, as well as being not especially easy on the eye or indeed, search engine friendly. 

I was remined today of one of the ways that the French media reproduce the name of Zelensky's antagonist — Vladimir Poutine — a rendition that seems inherently snippy if not actually profanatory. 

Wikipedia provides some clarity however...

The Dictionnaire Historique mentions the possibility that the form poutine is simply a gallicization of the word pudding. However, it considers it more likely that it was inherited from regional languages spoken in France, and that some of its meanings resulted from the later influence of the similar-sounding English word pudding. It cites the Provençal forms poutingo "bad stew" and poutité "hodgepodge" or "crushed fruit or foods"; poutringo "mixture of various things" in Languedocien; and poutringue or potringa "bad stew" in Franche-Comté as possibly related to poutine.
The meaning "fries with cheese and gravy" of poutine is among those held as probably unrelated to pudding, provided the latter view is correct.

And so in a strange analogue of the Freedom Fries saga, poutine is currently off the menu in parts of the francophone world...


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

War Laws

Michael Bryant had some interesting things to say last week about our chances of re-imposing any kinds of limits on what is acceptable in warfare...
As we approach the issue of Russian liability for war crimes in Ukraine, it may be premature to wring our hands in dejection. We are creatures capable of bestial cruelty but also with the capacity to set aside our worst tendencies as we reach toward justice. We’ve done it before in Geneva, Nuremberg, Tokyo and The Hague; we can do it again. Let Vladimir Putin beware.
One of the first and most lastingly significant things any student of the Middle Ages learns is how the crusades began as an attempt by the then most effective supra-national authority (the Papacy) to externalise Europe's growing violence problem. 

This had begun with an initiative known as the 'Peace and Truce of God' which aimed to limit the numbers of days in the calendar when the murdering and raping of peasants might be satisfactorily offset by a few Hail Mary's and the endowment of a monastery. 

Yet the headache was apparently not going away. The various Norman conquests (England, Sicily etc.) had revealed an unfortunate asymmetry in any confrontation between the pedestrian and the equestrian classes. The chosen solution was to harness this in some form of far-fetched geopolitcal adventure. 

That subsequent attempt to ban crossbows domestically in 1139 as WMDs was always doomed — and as for the 'laws of chivalry', they were significantlt a lot more hypothetical than the more recent Geneva conventions. 

Today, as we pull down the statues of slavers, we continue to venerate the names of war leaders who consciously slaughtered the defenceless — Augustus, Charlemagne, even England's own Henry V. 

The Spaniards who arrived on these shores some 500 years after the appearance of mounted knights were similarly under the impression that they were about tbe business of God, amidst a quest for spices that came with the possibility of outflanking an Islamic foe which had recently acquitted itself rather better in the near east — and yet, as is always the case with Western wars, it is not at all hard to ascribe a more materialistic, if not outright larcenous motivation to the exercise. 

Here in Guatemala they came across an ethnic group who, in their heyday, had organised...regularised warfare along the lines of the major European soccer leagues. Each 'season' even featured high profile derby matches like Caracol vs Tikal. The objective was clear – the acquisition of cqptives so that, outside any formal exchanges, the bloodletting could be conducted in a more domestic setting, whilst everyone looked forward to the next fixture. 

Maybe we westerners have something to learn from this. Our wars have always tended to be either about conquest or errrrr....

The Cambridge Bubble


@notdrjones #cambridgeuni ♬ Love You So - The King Khan & BBQ Show

For the record...


Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Fact Chucking


Last week I had a fascinating Skype chat with a former colleague who outlined to me the provisions made by Russian state-controlled media for "Fact Checking". 

Just like our own metropolitan media elites, they have properly-staffed departments devoted to this important task, with one significant difference: the objective is to pinpoint verified facts that might need transposing into more deniable statements, if not into outright falsehoods. 

Something similar happens in one or two local bufetes de abogados I am familiar with here in La Antigua, though of course on nothing like the same systematic scale.

(Apparently) nobody expects...

Perhaps this little squad sent out by the Muni might have been more usefully badged The Biosecurity Inquisition  pointy hats and all — and tasked with fingering recalcitrant foreigners mingling maskless in the crowds. 

Seriously, what must be going through the minds of these sectarians as they squeeze through the throng of locals largely respecting the regulations deemed necessary to get this whole show back on the road?

One rule for us, one for them? 

It's not a good look, and in the context of a community's public religious rituals, a mark of disrespect on a par with stomping through a mosque in Dr Martens.

Friday, April 08, 2022

A de-othering of the present...

There are people who have nurtured a fundamentally humanitarian sensibility in themselves. They tend to see all human conflict from the bottom up, in terms of its impact on the lives of innocents and relative innocents. This leads either to active engagement with the suffering or to comparative detachment, at least from the political issues behind the violence. 

I am not one of these people, but I respect the tendency. As a child my instincts were basically pacificist. This began to change around the time of the Falklands War, now 'celebrating' its fortieth anniversary, which brought some clarity to my adolescent mind about the need to stand up against an aggressor who purposefully interrupts the civil existence of a defenceless community for largely depraved reasons.  

Against the hardened positions of many of my parents' generation (and indeed, one actual parent), I continued to plead for the humanity of the civilian victims of Hiroshima and Dresden even though the worldview of their leaders was utterly antithetical to my own — and this is more or less how I feel today about other fellow humans suffering as a consequence of relentless bloodshed that has consumed their lives. (e.g the Palestinians). 

Historians are required to make choices early on about which parts of the collective struggle interest them on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional level. These decisions are subjective, but also grounded in values that matter to us. 

This is in effect rather like a process of triage with the totality of human concerns — we give up on being equally engaged across the board, and in a sense we also give up on prioritising the present over the past. 

And so, I have been on the end of some trolling in the past for apparently failing to intuit the importance of some active conflicts in the world to my own existence. 

This extends beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to wider ideologically-driven hatreds in the same region, as I have always contended that there exists a panoply of interests that combine to exaggerate the existential nature of Middle Eastern strife for the rest of us, which in turn has the effect of fostering pernicious enmities within our own societies which might not otherwise have flourished. There is a bizarre blend of cynicism and naivety behind this. 

My instinct at least is to condemn outright the dabbling of western politicians and other organisations with the leaders of non-western societies whose outlook on shared life I find abhorrent, before proceeding to recognise whatever mitigating circumstances might exist. (Yes, I will watch the Mundial in Qatar.) 

Right now, Russia's Z-war is grounded in attempt to blatantly "other" Ukraine, its long-term cultural and political neighbour, which is likely to lead to the fullest distillation of a vicious credo which actively dehumanises all attempts to maintain working nation states based on pluralistic values. (That's us.)

It has in effect removed all the barriers of otherness I may at one time have felt about Ukraine and its people. In Volodymyr Zelensky, I encounter a brave man who is standing up for things that really matter to me. I believe his outlook is shared by many, if not a majority of his compatriots and, as I mentioned in the previous post, they undoubtedly appear to possess greater clarity about the threat being presented to their own lives as well as the values underpinning them. 

And they are enduring a negative-humanitarian onslaught the likes of which have not been experienced in 'the West' since the mid part of the last century. This is not simply a matter of the quantity of human rights violations, but the quality of them, and what this means for our civilisation as a whole at this precise moment in its history. 

Thinking Men


Some caveats...
Atheism, rather like theology, is often enough a response to those areas of existence which are perhaps more inherently impenetrable to thought.
It would not be unreasonable to suggest that where the theologist typically responds by overthinking in this rather opaque space, the atheist is often consciously under-thinking — when not actually engaged in a proper cognitive blocking exercise.

This does not alter the fact that atheists tend to think more lucidly on matters outside the problem area; over-thinking being a closer friend of hallucination than under-thinking.

As if by magic...


My Influencer...

RIP David McKee 1935-2022.

And happy 55th to Mr Ben!