Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The "Anti-Zionism" Fallacy

If one uses Zionist as an ad hominem insult rather than more neutrally as a descriptor of that person's beliefs, of course this is anti-Semitic. 

Imagine over 70% of African Americans were professed Baptists and you consistently use the term derogatorily, with the caveat 'I'm not a racist, I'm an anti-Baptist'. Exactly.

Though for some I'm guessing that this may require spelling out even more. 

So, you can engage with or critique the tenets of Zionism or indeed Baptism. Why not? 

What you ought not to do is straightforwardly use such terms hatefully against the people whose fundamental beliefs are encapsulated by them, and absolutely not as a camouflage for any deeper prejudices you might bear.

It really does not matter one bit that Israel or anyone else is somehow 'conflating' the groups Jew and Zionist. There is a default conflation which you really ought to acknowledge and adapt to.



Sunday, December 24, 2023

Ad Hominem

Things we learned in 2023, if not earlier...

If your default response to any opinion that varies significantly to your own is "shame on you!' you are basically an idiot.

People tend to blame social media for this tendency to treat all forms of push back as the sort of extremist menace which merits a proper tantrum along with a peppering of acrimonious animus.

But there also has to be a base level of dumbness driving this phenomenon as well.
There are very few political-religious-existential-cultural positions which do not deserve a measure of tolerance and respectful parley.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Step back a hundred years…

Most amateur historical commentators seem more comfy when their perspectives are grounded in the mid twentieth century.

Yet it is really in the mid nineteenth century that some of the juiciest insights about our modern world lie. At least the ‘old’ part. 

This old world was then divvied up by massive competing empires: The UK, France, Russia, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. The latter was in decline. The Iberians had already thrown in the towel. 

Beneath these structures a patchwork of aspirations for freedom from colonial rule and self-government, often on perceived ethnic lines, were bubbling up. Poles, Greeks, Serbs etc. Germany and Italy were still messy. 

When we speak of Imperialism loosely today, we tend to think more of the seaborne kind which impacted further afield, but both the Russian and the Turkish empires were vast and touched upon many different cultures as they moved over land. The Turks were still into slavery big time at a stage where more western powers had moved on. 

There were wars based largely on alternative visions for what the future needed to look like. Internal convulsions were also commonplace, and crucially this was a period just prior to Karl Marx’s efforts to explain all of this as part of a grand narrative. 

And this is one of the things that makes the period so illuminating, for it resists our attempts to apply all the codified understandings that came later and made the twentieth century the shit show that it was.

Look closely at some of the localised convulsions and you find rich people acting progressively and poor people behaving like reactionaries. Find a slightly different angle or a peculiar first hand account, and the roles might appear reversed. 

This, I would vouch, is real history. But one often finds oneself having to pander to the WWII originalists. The trouble is that the moment your take on this in any way veers from the version in their Gospel, they go all ‘Don’t mention ze vor’. But you were only doing it for the sake of some common ground before the discussion proper…

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Pivotal, and not just here...

The wobbly transition in Guatemala almost certainly represents the most significant threat to democracy in Latin America during my adult life.

In the half century after WWII there were many examples of coups across the region, but these almost always required the involvement of the military, in other words force that the people on the streets could not easily resist.

Since then, anti-constitutional moves have tended to manifest as more partial, typically designed to bypass term-limitations or suppress to the separation of powers.

The Peace Accords in Guatemala involved specific provisions limiting the size and role of the armed forces, crafted to avoid the possibility of any further direct political interventions from the men in uniform.

Yet if a relatively small cabal of entrenched rogues and degenerates in the justice system and incumbent regime, seemingly without bombers, tanks or armoured vehicles, can carry out a putsch just as effectively and shamelessly as any general, then all those legal protections will turn out to have been useless and the wrong kind of message will have been sent out across Latin America announcing the possibility of a new way of dispensing with the even the box-ticking necessity of popular sovereignty.

The threat posed by this Guatemalan mafia is all the more pernicious, because the underlying political irritant is not a clash between radical and reactionary doctrines, but between common decency and the compulsion to administer the country on all levels as a barely-disguised criminal enterprise.





Monday, December 11, 2023

Leave The World Behind (2023)


A film which delicately balances its subtleties and its un-subtleties until finally resolving into a bit of a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, in a Mr Robot for grown ups kind of way.

Watching it, I was under the impression that it was an original piece of content from Sam Esmail...until today my cousin contacted me to recommend the novel by Rumaan Alam. 
So although the movie did not seem to quite live up to the promise of its first couple of acts, it's the underlying premise which has piqued my interest sufficiently to have a go at the book. 
One more spoiler, and it's a big one, though rather culturally-specific: the African American father and daughter who turn up at the door late at night are not in fact going to turn out like the two boys in Michael Hanneke's Funny Games (though God knows, holidaymakers Amanda and Clay would seem to deserve it.) 
To most English speakers this will be absolutely obvious from the outset. 
For just as Davros has been stripped of his half-dalek hover base because the BBC has woken to realisation that people in 'wheelchairs' can never be evil, it has become a given in contemporary anglophone popular culture that black characters upon whom some suspicion has fallen can never turn out to be wrong uns. 
Yet I can attest that Guatemalans have not absorbed these unspoken rules and so have a rather different experience of the 'unconscious bias' section of this story. 
Perhaps because of some unconscious bias of their own, though not necessarily so, viewers here can genuinely worry that the motives of 'G' and Ruth might be nefarious, and so experience a level of dramatic tension in this mid-section of the movie that I completely missed out on. 
By the time the this non-misunderstanding has been cleaned up, the movie starts to flail a bit, owing to a lack of genuine antagonism beyond the rather ludicrous symptoms of 'the event' (though I did enjoy the Tesla ad) and viewers find themselves depending on a sexual tension misfire within the stranded adult quartet, plus a bunch of deer and the long-delayed promise of Kevin Bacon to put them back on the edge of their seats, and sadly none of these really deliver as anticipated. 
The Netflix budgets are clearly not quite big enough to make two or three really important shock moments nearly as realistic or jaw-dropping as they needed to be. 
Yet alongside this comparative failure on the un-subtleties, it is the subtlety of all six central performances that I will remember, out of which I think Julia Roberts was the stand-out. 
Esmail's screenplay has some spark's too.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Above the Parapet

I think the most hilarious thing to have happened in Guatemala in the past 24 hours is Sandra Torres breaking cover in order to describe the MP's case for annulment as 'contundente', almost at the very same moment that it was being digitally demolished by a group of online truthers (of the better sort). 

If she had preserved her low profile, she might have waited in the wings in order to observe the next moves in this constitutional version of the masochism tango. 

Yet now it seems to me she has thrown a bit of a spanner into the pacto, for her intervention has forced other parties to come out openly in favour of an uninterrupted transition, and prompted more scrutiny of the data presented on Friday, which is probably not what the MP really wanted in advance of any institutional pursuit of their allegations. 

So in the end it's hard to tell if Sandra has further compromised the credibility of the MP, or they have hers.

Hold the Line...

More French civilians died on D-Day, mostly as a result of Allied bombardments, than American servicemen.

But in 1973 the producers of The World At War chose to commence their 26-episode documentary on the horrors of this globalised conflict with a smaller scale slaughter which took place four days after the invasion of Normandy on June 10, 1944, where 643 men, women and children were murdered in Oradour-sur-Glane. 


The victims were mostly inhabitants of the village, but the Germans also pulled in people from the surrounding area with markedly little discrimination over whom they wished to enact their barbaric vengeance. 17 Spanish citizens, 8 Italians and 23 Poles were listed amongst the dead.

The settlement was never rebuilt as De Gaulle wished it to remain as a permanent memorial to a next level transgression. 


Never forget...remember?

A line had been crossed that day by the Waffen SS. On one side the often callous and ruthless pursuit of military objectives in war, and on the other, no ifs or buts evil.

Anyone who claims that what Israel is doing in Gaza is ‘genocide’ are basically moral zombies beholden to a delusional cult of predetermined righteousness, deploying an (ironically) transparent smokescreen, because they cannot bring themselves to contemplate acknowledging that Hamas crossed that same line, legally as well as morally, on October 7, and they certainly don’t want our wider society to keep remembering this essential boundary, just as De Gaulle desired.

They will keep up the crooked, inverted logic until everyone is unsure which side of the line they are on, and even if there really is a line at all. For them context is not clarity, but an ideological fog bank.

And they seem to want us to think it is a simple numbers game. How many Palestinians vs how many Israelis. It isn’t and it never was.

Ethical ‘quants’ need to be told where to go. Ideally as far away from the mainstream discourse as possible, because they clearly lack the relevant line, and this makes them potentially toxic.




The Ministerio Público was telling porkies? No waaaaaaaaay….

Saturday, December 09, 2023

Third Act

The word on how the next stage of the ‘process’ will play out is as follows...

The CC will, along with some hand-wringing and vocal regret, annul the 2023 elections in line with the judgment already fed to them by the MP.

All the victorious candidates (mayors, deputies etc. etc.) will present amparos and in almost all cases these will be accepted.

Not however in the case of the Binomio Presidencial.

It will be interesting to see what happens here in Antigua, as Victor Hugo has not exactly been acting like a man running down the clock. Mini Muni and all that...

I’d hesitate to use the phrase “a bit too obvious” in this context as that has never seemed to be a restraining factor for this ridiculous regime.
Yet such a manoeuvre would undoubtedly prompt an unhesitating and fairly brutal response from the international community, almost at the same time Guatemala is kissing goodbye to its credit rating and can no longer afford to pay its debt.

Anyone participating is likely to be Magnitsky’d off the map. And this will probably include some of the beneficiaries of the aforementioned amparos.

Hong Kong Disneyland might still be an option, if you have a Beijing-issued credit card and make sure your flights only connect in authoritarian dictatorships.

And it is for this reason I think the coup is still likely to falter, because not all the players on the pitch have the same incentives to press ahead no matter what the consequences.

Nord Stream

 This is gaslighting connected directly to the Russian pipeline...


In the long history of putsches and coups, the worst case scenario for the plotters is usually to succeed...only to fail.

In other words, to breach the existing order and take control, only to discover that the new situation is unsustainable.

Moscow 1991, Brutus and Cassius etc etc.

This is because the uncoupling from continuity becomes permanent even if the change of personnel at the top does not. The Soviet Union and the Roman Republic were doomed.

When the boomerang comes back to hit the golpistas on the nose, the regime that replaces them can legitimately do away with everything which came before without having to play the game according to all the old rules.

And so it will be here if Arévalo's accession is blocked, temporarily.

Friday, December 08, 2023

Organ Transplants

When your PM is grinning at the lectern as he explains his cunning ruse for getting around the rules — cutting the judges out of the process of reviewing any laws passed in the Commons — you know your constitutional arrangements are being rejigged in a thoroughly non-transparent manner.

Note how the Sovereignty of Parliament can be turned on and off like a tap by the UK’s current government.
Here in Guatemala the fundamental problem is co-option of other organs of state by the executive. In the UK it is more like selective de-optioning or exclusion of them. (The problem is not so much the MP as the PM!)

Meanwhile, Putin sidesteps all the faux reticence: anyone found loitering near the Finnish border tends to end up in combat fatigues down near the south-western border. 

Pivot Point

Guatemala is at the precipice. Will it take a step back? Can it?

If a pivot is indeed possible, these next few days are likely to be archetypally pivotal.
The internationally-influential ducks are all in a row now: the EU, the USA, the OEA...even the Vatican, and the repercussions for ignoring their pleas and warnings are taking more concrete shape.*
Yesterday the US Embassy here specifically predicted that anyone who might usurp the highest office in the land in an 'interim' capacity, would quickly be designated a non-person i.e. think of the de-banking of Farage, but on an intercontinental scale. 
There will be people for whom there can be no turning back now. The 'process' has become an end in itself for them. But will they hang on to the allies they need to make it happen, and to make it stick?
How many have been tagging along for the freebies, but when confronted by the real prospect of political, economic and societal devastation, perhaps lasting a generation, will pull up short?
* Unlike the others, the UK Ambassador Nick Whittingham has himself refused the hurdle of pointing the finger directly at the Ministerio Público, but he has made a few barbed comments on Twitter, particularly with regard to press freedom.

Mute (2018)


This has been around on Netflix since before the pandemic.

A review I came across commented that Duncan Jones's long postponed pet project feels strangely expensive and cheap at the same time. This is a complaint that could be directed at many Netflix productions, but this particular kind of strange juxtaposition becomes all the more obvious when complex worlds are being built. 
I don't have a problem that it looks a lot like Blade Runner. Another more acceptable overlay is that of freshness and staleness.

But the problem is that this a film about Berlin that feels like it could have been made anywhere. The actual city of today has so much more atmosphere natively than Jones managed to tap into here in his c2050 version, which felt oddly dated as a vision of the future.

Anyway, it's kind of terrible, yet not entirely unlikeable. 
A list of its obvious faults would grow tedious and tedium did seem to be the biggest danger for the first third, but then somehow the bizarre, tonally scattershot pair of bent and creepy mob surgeons played by Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux captured my attention and made me forget all the misfires going on around them.



It may be funny but it is also disturbing in terms of what it has revealed about the discourse right now.

Clearly the Pro-Hamas cohorts miscalculated  almost from the moment the hostages had been squirreled away into Gaza  that their global mob response might represent a threat as a much as an opportunity.

They had seemingly become complacent in being about to shout down all opposition. The change of scale did not seem to present any new strategic considerations to mull over in advance.

For years they had had bullied, insulted, de-platformed, damaged and in many cases successfully silenced the selected targets of their venom, but had failed to anticipate that once their attitudes and conduct came under greater scrutiny in the wider culture, they would start to receive some measured push-back from moderate quarters that they had previously not had to consistently engage with.

The flipside of being able to say whatever you like is not having to state some things you really ought to be stating: like a commitment to lasting peace and mutual respect and a recognition of the right of Israel to exist.

Prior to October 7, their toxic playbook had been confined to more niche and pompous environments like academia. Apparent compliance from other progressive movements one would otherwise imagine would be appalled by everything Hamas stands for, probably fed the underlying complacency.

And for extremists, it's the moderates need to be silenced even more than the fanatics way over on the other pole, because nuance is the arch-nemeis of all dogma.

The extremist can never debate with the moderate on the latter's terms. So he or she makes out that the moderate is also an extremist, and calls him or her names from the glossary.

The crazed Hamasses have been left to impugn the moral being of all their interrogators, either via nonsensical yet barbed jargon (racist, coloniser, Nazi, apartheid, genocide) or by resorting to a numbers game: How many dead babies does Israel really need in payment for the blood debt?

The same people who will call you a racist will tell you that Israel, uniquely, has set itself a strategic military objective of killing as many babies as possible, a conscious upgrade on the blood libel for our mechanistic age.

I've found myself repeatedly having to explain that ethical considerations, for me at least (but also in law) are a matter where qualitative factors always take precedence over quantitative, even if we acknowledge the role played by the latter.

But how can one really ever have a fruitful discussion with people who are adamant that they are on the side of the angels even as they align themselves with a sinister, fascistic death cult which represents everything that liberal democracies ought to be taking significant counter-measures against?

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Violence as free speech…

Having been reunited with the moral compass she left at home before setting off for the Capitol, President Magill of Penn released a straight to camera apology for misunderstanding the confusing genocide question she had been faced with there. 

In effect she blamed the very location for having overpowered her common sense with the miasma of Constitutional supremacy, specifically the leeway laid down by the First Amendment. 

The way she tells it, you'd think she'd never have thought to intervene even if undergrads dressed in Klansmen robes were burning crosses outside the dorms of African American students. 

But now she gets it, apparently. For how long is anybody's guess. 

David Frum argues here that "Progressives who once argued that free speech is violence now claim that violence is free speech." And concludes…

“Everybody should be free to express his or her opinion about the Middle East as an opinion. Everybody should be equally free to express opinions about other people’s opinions, including by exercising the freedom to peacefully boycott or to lawfully refuse to hire. But what the great majority of tolerant and law-abiding citizens are abruptly discovering is that some progressives define their rights as including the power to threaten, coerce, and harm others. This is not behavior that a free and democratic society can accept if it hopes to survive as a free and democratic society. If the public condemnation of their violent behavior comes as a shock to people incubated in progressive spaces, the shock will be a salutary one.”

Sunday, December 03, 2023


One of the slightly thankless tasks historians often face is determining the extent to which violence is either articulate or inarticulate, particularly the violence which erupts around riot, rebellion, resistance and revolution.

A couple of days ago I referred to the remarkable savagery visited upon nationalist Poles in 1846, some of them at least liberal and modernising, by 'their' peasants, who seemed to take a rather different view of the ties between them. 

Deciding why the rural classes chose to thwart the elites with such sadistic abandon is always going to be difficult, partly because none of the illiterates would contribute to the written record and anyway, such events always tend to appear different from each distinct perspective.

After the October 7 massacre in Israel there was much talk of 'barbarism', a word we know originated in civilised people not being particularly bothered to understand the uncivilised.

We now know that a lot of the violence that day was anything but spontaneous. Gleeful perhaps, but it had semiotic content.

This seemingly permits a certain class of moral degenerate in the West to throw up their arms and say something like "what did you expect?". 

In other words, the Hamas killers and rapists are not beasts but misunderstood millennials whose feelings have been so badly hurt that any kind of response was to be expected, up to and including the unspeakable. (e.g. They were only trying to express themselves, albeit a little over-cathartically.)

But anger is a feeling, not an ideology.

The information payload of the pogrom was in a sense far more sinister than mere brutishness. It was more like an amuse-gueule for a (real) genocidal programme, not so cunningly disguised by the "from the river to the sea" mantra. (At the very least we can say that this violence was very consciously desirous of being interpreted as politics.)

And the message (more like a proclamation) had a particular set of sub-clauses for Israeli women, articulating to them precisely how their rights would be handled in any future 'free' Palestine.

In Diary of a Utopia. Looting an Empty Utopia, Rhys Williams notes that to “be part of the conversation, to ‘protest’ rather than riot, you have to have coherent dreams, versed in the language of the political land.”

Hamas were definitely barging in on the conversation, but not in a way that any of us can really engage with, for theirs in not the language of the political land, but of an otherworldly utopia beyond death, and their ‘coherent dreams’ are of destruction not construction. 

To any civilised person, it really is all just “bar bar bar bar”. 


Saturday, December 02, 2023

New Reality?

This was already the new reality.

This war has simply highlighted the cultural and ethical faultlines.

Before Owen Jones watched the October 7 atrocity footage and then published his equivocal response to it online, one could have predicted almost word for word how this would go, particularly with regard to the sexual violence.

His is indeed a generation which has honed its partisan relationship with facts, selectively seeing only that part of reality which conforms to their groupthink.

On every single issue of substance it has been the same, and ever since his like left school and got proper jobs — so not much more than a decade — though they have sucked in a few immature minds from the generation above.

Their Israelophobia is merely a maximal trigger for the pathology which gets them so worked up, that they forget to properly disguise their own sophistry and deceit.

And it all starts with self-deceit.

Citizen Martínez

The budget just approved in the Guatemalan congress really ought to have set aside a carpet-load of cash for the History department at USAC, just so that there can be future generations of historians of the numerous kind around here who might cherish this document in the manner that it so obviously deserves.


The nature and timing of yesterday's deployment of the Magnitsky law against Miguelito reveals a number of things...

The Yanks understand this individual's unique position of significant insignificance (or is it insignificant significance?) in the political ecology of Guatemala.

Specifically they knew what he was up to three years ago during the pandemic, yet waited for their moment.

This is very much the moment, because of his salient profile, and because, in spite of everything he has written below, it is not really about him at all, but about sending an unmistakeable message to those who are not yet household names.

The US Government has de facto control of the global financial system and it can do whatever it wants no matter how big a tantrum Dr G's concubine throws.

He ought to have known that summary justice without trial is the way this was going to pan out.

Yesterday I started Anthony Beevor's Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-21, and after a chapter or two I have reflected that what really intrigues me about this pivotal moment in Guatemala's own history is how flimsy the incumbent regime's relationship with public opinion appears to be.

Tolstoy thought it was the "icons and cockroaches" of Orthodox belief which were preventing the Russian people from appreciating their situation. And in modern Russia, atop which sits the mother of all kleptocracies, Putin and his associates still pump out the nationalist propaganda (carefully dosed with icons and cockroaches) to provide at least a measure of cover for their greed and opportunism, and to some extent have come to believe some of it themselves.

Miguelito's position is entirely narcissistic. He's a citizen, not a comrade. A fellow citizen in only the most indirect of ways. When he says that Guatemala is first, second and third in his worldview, this is a place devoid of actual Guatemalans.

There is not even the merest semblance of an effort to clog up the righteous popular demand for justice and transparency with some mucilaginous creed.
There is not even the merest semblance of an effort to clog up the righteous popular demand for justice and transparency with some mucilaginous creed. This lot hold their countrymen and women in such contempt that they cannot even be bothered to bamboozle them.

The Right has even forfeited the support of the Catholic Church...if not those other opportunistic, venal materialists on the evangelical fringe.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Sooner or later... has to take sides. If one is to remain human.

The stand out observation from Fowler in The Quiet American. It seems clear enough, and yet the narrative around it dunks it into a big bowl of ambiguity, for Fowler betrays a friend who has sided with indiscriminate murder for a 'higher cause'  and yet, not so much in the background, there is also the issue of the would-be bride this friend has snatched from him.

Graham Greene repeatedly took sides in the troubled nations he felt drawn to, predominantly the sides where the Catholic clergy were also tempted to lay down their cards. The more charismatic, otherworldly or downright feral these churchmen were, the better, the author apparently surmised. 

Fowler might have been a clear avatar for Greene and his experiences as a Times correspondent in French Indochina, yet his creator turns out to be a man who was always reluctant to put any loyalty above his loyalty to friends.

And in taking sides, he often seemed unsure of his default position, echoing E.M. Forster who once said that if he "had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

Greene faced a watered down and somewhat indirect version of this choice with his former boss Kim Philby. Others were disgusted by the deaths that apparently resulted as a consequence of the information passed by this member of the Cambridge Five to his KGB handlers, specifically those of hundreds of Albanian rebels. 

Convinced that relationships with individuals always trumped those with groups, he maintained a correspondence with Philby even after his defection and made an interesting, if disingenuous point about Intelligence work, stating that its primary purpose was to sow distrust amongst one's enemies (gaslighting!) and not the gathering of information — and so outing Philby as a mole had been counter-productive, he insisted, because it made the Americans distrust the British. 

Greene always distrusted the Americans. Whenever he wished to draw attention to the persecution of free expression in places like Cuba or the USSR, he got in a dig at Uncle Sam, for he would have hated for anything he said to be made use of as propaganda in the Cold War.

And even though Greene was always acutely sensitive to suffering, even (and perhaps especially) that of strangers, he would occasionally fall into the moral equivalence fallacy when talking about the crimes of the East and West.

In that he has seemingly no end of contemporary analogues.

Philby in Moscow

In geopolitical conflicts there often appears to exist a clear faultline, but in practice this will sometimes turn out to be rather like the frontier here at La Mesilla, with a substantial gap between the formal Mexican and Guatemalan frontier posts. 

And it's very much a case of 'Mind the Gap', For this is the groupthink space that the loudest, most ideologically-demented people from both sides of the divide wish to inhabit, and they will consistently mis-portray it as "the moral high ground". 

Within my observations in the previous post on the Galician uprising of 1846, what in effect occurred was a pair of antipodal insurrections which cancelled each other out.

The educated Polish nationalists saw themselves as revolutionaries and freedom fighters and the rustics as reactionary savages, yet the latter saw themselves as 'imperial' peasants resisting (ultimately rather savagely) the feudal revanchism of their lords.

And we know this because both sides had vociferous would-be history ordainers in the aforementioned wild space between the dotted lines. Their goal is to disguise the multi-vectoral nature of the argument.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

When nation-building comes a cropper.


Not to be confused with irredentista, a term used by historians to refer to people who believe that a certain part of the world ought to belong to them, typically because it used to.

They are amongst history’s biggest troublemakers, as recent events have only served to confirm.

Two years before the big ticket uprisings of 1848-9 described here, there occurred a disastrous insurrection of irredentists in Galicia, a highly ethnically-diverse province of the Austrian empire since absorbed into modern Poland and Ukraine.

It formally belongs to the horror genre, yet its “What have the Romans ever done for us?" element provides some darkly comic overtones.
A group of aristocratic landowners decided that it was time to do away with the empire and create something called 'Poland', which had never really existed before, except as part of the rather messy earlier entity known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

To do this they needed to get the illiterate peasants behind their cause, and this is where the trouble started. Many of these, especially in the east, were Ruthenians (we now tend to refer to them as Ukrainians) and so perhaps inherently suspicious of this newfangled Poland place, which some of the lords claimed would be different from everything before, socially-speaking.

At the first big meeting between the insurrectionists and the rustics, at the inn at Lisia Góra, about 7km north of Tarnów, one of the latter stood up and made a speech about all the reasons why the Habsburg empire and its ‘good emperor’ Ferdinand had been a positive thing for him and his chums, and he was not too sure about forming this new community of sentiment with the very people who had been exploiting them for centuries. 

One of the landlords decided it might be a good idea to take out his gun and shoot this clodhopper. It wasn’t.

From this moment onward things went pear-shaped pretty quickly and although the rebels briefly held Cracow, all around the countryside a bloodbath ensued in which indiscriminate savagery (that thing again) featured strongly, with flayings, decapitations and burnings fairly widespread whenever the peasants were not simply using their agricultural tools as improvised murder devices. 3000+ elite-level wannabe Poles came to a sticky end.

Low literacy had always been a problem when it came to spreading the propaganda of Polish solidarity in advance of this bold irredentist move, and efforts to use the priesthood as a delivery method of last resort in this respect would prove very costly for many men of the cloth, as this rebellion of upper class nationalists and their subalterns and their met with brutal resistance in the countryside. Some of the priests blamed the Jews for the whole debacle, naturally. 
Many patriotic Poles today are descended from these peasants who were determined NOT to become Poles, who described themselves as ‘imperial peasants’. Their insurrection effectively cancelled out the nationalist one of the landowners. Those thwarted elites might paint the peasants’ response as reactionary or counter-revolutionary, but looked at from a different angle, they were continuing a long fight against feudalism and did not believe in the emancipatory promises of (some of) the irredentists.


Monday, November 27, 2023

Qualified possibilities...


It is possible, but then you have to choose your fellow protesters and your method of message delivery quite carefully.

How many of the 300k in London yesterday “hate Hamas” vs hate Israel and/or Jews?

In a minority with considered, nuanced views, you can do little more than enable a mob.

What price your horror of dead innocents if it is expressed amidst banners which explicitly restate the blood libel?

“From the river to the sea” can be chanted with many different emotions or mental states. If it means just freedom and dignity to you, fine, but why sing along with a choir of people for whom it means violent vengeance, particularly when you won’t be first in line when any previously camouflaged-meanings become that much more limpid?

An you might want to start by asking yourself why you care so much anyway, relatively. What is your actual stake in all this? 



It would appear that Ridley Scott’s Napoleon movie is one of those phenomena, like the geopolitics of the Middle East, around which a whole load of incompatible and ultimately irreconcilable opinions coalesce.

These turn out to be unwinnable battles, rather like Borodino, where the victor is also a bit of a loser.

This is because no one position is ever able to assert itself as a reference point to all the others.

And sometimes this stokes a kind of death spiral of stroppiness amongst those tempted to participate, never more so than when the bulk of these are individuals that profess so-called “luxury’ beliefs, often grounded more in faith than fact — such as “Trans Women are Women” and “genocide in Gaza” — as they seem to want to have their cake and eat it e.g. they aspire to benefit from the status boost that such incongruous convictions appear to confer — to belong to an elite caste of conscience — yet at the same time they can’t stand it that not everybody else steps into line behind them, and that’s when the strop segues into bullying, and worse.*

Joseph Conrad remains my favourite author, in part because his fictional imagination emanated out of this crucial insight: “The only legitimate basis of creative work is the courageous recognition of all irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous, so full of hope. They exist!”

Truth, Conrad suggested, might only be approached by examining oppositions occurring at more relative, displaced positions.

The most obvious expression of this idea is the structure of his masterpiece, Nostromo, where the ‘incorruptible’ pile of silver is the symbolic equivalent of that unattainable Truth, a test of our own corruptibility and relativity, around which Conrad describes a big swirl of “every sort of fish”, a multiplicity of different opinions and behavioural responses.

One French critic of Napoleon I came across this week insisted that there were two rather distinct men begging to be tackled here, like a pair of biographies in a state of superposition, the eponymous Emperor and Bonaparte the reformer.

Is this a Conradian opposition or a bit of a cop out?

And with no sense of irony, British historian-reviewer, Andrew Roberts, has quipped that rather than being a proto-Hitler, Napoleon/Bonaparte was “the Enlightenment on horseback”, yet I am certain that philosopher John Gray would be inclined to answer back that Adolf was “the Enlightenment in a tank”.

Is the Enlightenment one shiny, durable, trustworthy thing which we can all agree on? Of course not.

Where do I stand on the matter to hand? Well, I haven't yet seen Ridley's epic, but my suspicion is that no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, no matter how many extras are expertly drilled, it will be hard to surpass Ian Holm's Boney in Terry Gilliam's The Time Bandits.

And this is because you are never closer to the Truth than when you are trying to be funny.

* Anyway, "Facts are the enemy of great entertainment," says Roger Lewis in a Telegraph review of Napoleon... which maybe why they have been disappearing from politics.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Destroy all the mirrors...

When the film version of The Comedians was released in 1967 Papa Doc Duvalier embarked on a massive diplomatic trashing of the movie and the author of the original novel.

Greene wrote very observantly to the movie's director: “Like the ugly queen in Snow White, he will have to destroy all the mirrors."

Like many of his kind, the dictator had a jolly good go at this. In France in 1970 a judge ruled that scenes would have to be cut. Duvalier had claimed 10m francs in damages and was awarded just one. But the edits were implemented and for French viewers at least, the movie makes less sense, but that may be just how they like it.

In 1968 Haitian embassies around the world in a move which reminds me of Alvaro Arzú 's enthusiastic international promotion of a book which suggested the murder of Bishop Gerardi was the end product of a feud between a clique of prickly homosexuals began issuing a volume entitled Greene Démasqué/Finally Exposed, an essay collection which painted the English novelist as an opium addict, racist, spy, pervert, con-man and torturer. 
Greene told a friend that in publishing this book, 'Papa Doc honoured me'.

One of the intriguing things about this novel and film is the way Greene found a way to tell a semi-clandestine story about interesting black characters making use of the mechanism of not-especially-interesting white characters in the foreground. 
This film provided an early role for James Earl Jones (Darth) as Dr Magiot, who commented that a Hollywood production would necessarily have tried to portray the Marxist intellectual as a sinister 'bastard'. 
Even today, I wonder how the industry would tackle Magiot's position as a member of an aloof, mixed race elite in Haiti. The actor said he believed Hollywood would have made all the young girls mixed race in order to make them more attractive to white audiences, which would have watered down the political significance of skin colour distinction on the island.

Already in the 1960s it seems that Graham Greene could not bring his black characters to the fore without being accused of theft of voice or some sort of cultural appropriation. 
This is perhaps a pity, because just ten years previously Colin MacInnes (who also served in British Intelligence during WW2) was writing in the first person as a Nigerian immigrant in London and there is something rather thrilling and positively disconcerting about this, even if it is at times less than 100% successful. 

If you look at the Wikipedia entry for The Comedians the section headed 'Characters' lists only the white ones, which is fabulously ironic if you have an understanding of how the novel was constructed.

Below a passage from City of Spades in which MacInnes 'appropriates' a voice with gay abandon, as one of his protagonists, Johnny Fortune from Lagos, heads into the West End. (Probably also an example of writing that would be impermissible or at least unpublishable today.) 

"This Cosmopolitan Dance Hall is the nearest proximity I've seen in London to the gaiety and happiness back home. For the very moment I walked down the carpet stair, I could see, I could hear, I could smell the overflowing joys of all my people far below. And when I first got a spectacle of crowded ballroom, oh, what a sight to make me glad! Everywhere us, with silly little white girls, hopping and skipping fit to die! Africans, West Indians and coloured G.I.s all boxed up together with the cream of this London female rubbish!"

Interestingly these Soho nightspots of the 1950s all featured soft drink-only bars and stayed open through the night.