Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Dhimmis for Dummies.

The UN helped initiate this problem by not listening to the British who had been handed the Mandate in 1920 by its precursor organisation The League of Nations, specifically with the project of establishing a homeland for Jews.

After 27 years the Brits understood what the problem was, and would always be. 
 
On February 18, 1947 Foreign Secretary Bevin explained it to Parliament — the Jews want independence, but for the Arabs the point of principle is not the recognition of any rights of their own, but the denial of sovereignty over any part of the territory to the Jews. 
 
This was because the very idea of a Jewish nation was an affront to natural justice in the Arab worldview. As non-Muslim monotheists the Jews were supposed to reconcile themselves to the socially and politically inferior status of Dhimmis (protected people) and could under no circumstances be permitted anything like equal status within the 'Arab World'. 
 
The British lobbed this matter of irreconcilable perspectives back at the UN, who duly failed to address it. Instead they pressed ahead with a plan for partition, which was immediately and violently rejected by the Arabs after the Security Council vote. 




 
The UN thus oversaw a massive problem of displaced Arabs largely of their own making, which they have since gone about making ever more massive. 
 
They done this by switching from the mishandled, misapprehended compromise to establishing their own organisation (UNRWA) which would duly ‘go native’ and thus perpetuate, seemingly for eternity, the most rigid, relentlessly uncompromising mental model of the situation. 
 
Along the way UNRWA has explicitly helped transition this sense of injustice from its origins in Arab-Muslim chauvinism into something which will more likely gain traction amongst the gullible of the wider world (even Jews) — the geopolitical social injustice of 'settler colonialism'. This is a process I have given an appropriate name in the title of this post.
 
The partition of India created 20m refugees. The Russian invasion of Ukraine created 9.1m refugees. The Syrian Civil War created 6.7m refugees. The Israeli war for Independence initially created 360,000 refugees. 
 
Only the latter group has had its own UN Agency in perpetuity. This is because UNRWA consciously chose to preserve and then enlarge the group as cognitive refugees from the need to recognise Israeli legitimacy.
 
All that ever shifts is the underlying rhetorical justification for that fundamental intransigence, some of which is basically demented and anti-Semitic, but even in the more moderate register the effect is basically the same. 




 
There were in effect two wrong ways to go about this and the UN have tried both with a degree of die-hard obstinacy which has now left pretty much the entire institution looking in need of an overhaul.
 
As for UNRWA, it surely cannot survive in its current form. There unfortunately remains much that nation states are able to get away with, flaunting common decency, but multilateral organisations, especially UN agencies, have to be held to higher standards and frankly any degree of complicity in the rape, murder and abduction of innocent civilians has to be game over, surely? 
 

 


Monday, January 29, 2024

Oversize Racket

Over the past decade or so Guatemalan society has been serially defiled by a a number of rather epic corruption rackets, but even so, nothing even remotely on the scale of the one that UNRWA has been abetting in Gaza. 


The unique degeneracy of this scam has been the manner in which hatred and an explicit set of financial incentives (derived from monies contributed by both the ingenuous and the disingenuous) for pumping more violence into the cycle have been so deeply ingrained within it from the start. 

And just as the fraud based on poisonous ideological trickery is finally about to unravel — thanks to the exposure of a small group on its outer fringe found guilty of abominations which cannot be overlooked — up pop the usual suspects to demand its immediate, unconditional reinstatement. Jeremy Corbyn, inevitably, referred yesterday to the “moral depravity” of the decision to withhold further funding from UNRWA. 

Yet at the very least, some sort of open international enquiry and audit needs to be put in the diary by Guterres before the gravy train can start rolling again. 

This is, and has long been a CON, just like the zany narrative of historical resentment and de-legitimisation of Israel it has been blithely developing and broadcasting for decades. (In 1905, under Ottoman rule, two thirds of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish, yet the pro-Hamas propaganda line is that the Jews somehow ‘colonised’ their ancient capital and homeland.) 

In 2022 the US alone contributed $320m to this bloated scheme. UNRWA employs 13,000 staff in Gaza, one for every 114 ‘refugees’. That compares all too favourably with the 1550 serving 1.24m actual refugees in Cox Bazar, the world’s biggest facility. 

UNRWA employs more than the World Bank, and seriously outnumbers the UN staff in both Geneva (8500) or New York (6400). 

Today the WSJ reported that 1200 of these staffers are active Hamas operatives while 23% overall have participated in the Iran-backed terrorists’ military framework. 49% have been found to possess close personal or family ties with Hamas. This is more like a coffee plantation undone by leaf rust than a pristine orchard with a few bad apples in it. 

And during an extended period of alleged ‘genocide’ the number of individuals supposedly covered by the system of perpetual refugee status which underpins all this free money for the venal and hateful has risen to 5.9m from around 600,000, even though more Jews than so-called Palestinians were originally displaced in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war. 

And look who might just be able to step in and assist with any temporary shortfall...



Friday, January 26, 2024

Missed Opportunity?

One of Graham Greene's most interesting predictions, somehow prescient and unsound at the same time, was the notion that the Soviet Union would cease to be a problem once the KGB had taken control of it.

The Russian intelligence services were, he surmised, individuals selected for their own elite intellectual capacities and pragmatism. They would displace the nutty Marxist ideologues and all would be well in the world. 

He neglected to account for the possibility of tumefied greed and territorial covetousness amongst said pragmatists.

​The author had perhaps had some direct suggestions of doveishness within the KGB via his correspondence with Kim Philby who wrote to Greene that the invasion of Afghanistan was an "infernal business" and that most of his new colleagues in Russian intelligence were opposed to it. These letters were passed to MI6 and it seems that Philby's former colleagues were inclined to believe him. (similar sentiments may have prevailed after Putin's recent push west.)

One of the most intriguing exchanges between Greene and Philby followed on from the SALT II treaty between the US and the USSR. Greene suggested that this might be the ideal moment for the two superpowers to form a joint alliance against Iran. Philby noted how bonkers the Ayatollah was and that he would pass the suggestion on to the 'pragmatists'.


Judgment Day

The South African-led case at the ICC depends on some ideologically-informed propositions which deserve some interrogation.

Firstly, that Israelis are 'white' colonialists oppressing a dark-skinned native population and secondly that whatever the stated strategic aims served up by the IDF for their response to October 7, the underlying motivation is racism, conscious or unconscious.

These two notions allow those who claim genocide on behalf on the Palestinians to skip the objective criteria for the internationally-recognised crime (to a large extent formulated by Jewish thinkers in the last century), such as significant population decline over an specified period.

One of the ways of countering these claims is to deploy another, supposedly less ideological affirmation of the Palestinian cause, which I would tend to refer to as the 'scientific' postulation, based on recent DNA analyses.

What these apparently reveal is that Palestinians and Middle Eastern Jews (roughly half of all Israelis) are essentially the same ethnic group. This makes allegations of racism and white settler colonialism all rather moot, does it not? 

It's not hard for historians to see why this would, rather inevitably be the case. When the newly-Islamicised Arabs first invaded, many of the then natives, Jews and Christians in the main, were forced to adopt an Arabian-Muslim identity which they have since retained.

Thus — irony klaxon — many Palestinians possess Jewish ancestors, along with other heritable mixes from other peoples who have featured in the region since the Bronze Age: Caananites, Philistines, Samaritans, Coptic Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Frankish and Norman Crusaders, Turks etc. And so too do many of the Middle Eastern Jews.

What historians can tell you however is that the so-called scientific argument is not actually all that scientific after all, because it artificially separates Nature and Nurture, and in so doing ignores the fact that DNA alone is not a significant driver of events. 

After all, on my own native island, the English are not really Anglo-Saxon and the Welsh and Scots are not really Celtic. But these nations and their identities are grounded in complex underlying structures that have been historically meaningful: memetic not genetic. Conduct all the DNA tests you want, but language, existential beliefs and wider culture are the main drivers of history.

In spite of our modern obsessions with racism and ethnic cleansing, most historical conquests have been conducted by relatively compact armies of men who did not ultimately displace the much larger, mixed gender populations that they assumed control over. This was true of the Anglo-Saxons and it was true of the Arabs who rode into the Levant behind their Caliph in the seventh century bent on the conquest of Jerusalem.

The reverse process, the end of empires, is also worth considering here. When Islamic colonial rule faltered in the Balkans, new nation states took shape. These were based on a single ethno-religious identity (Greek, Bulgarian etc.)

The fate of the former colonial overlords who had enjoyed wealth and power in these territories for hundreds of years was rather mixed, shall we say. Some left for what remained of Ottoman Turkey, others were dispossessed or indeed murdered. Unlike the inhabitants of the Mandate, they didn't get the immediate opportunity to conspire with nearby allies to extirpate these nascent entities.

In ancestral DNA terms, many are still in situ, but they have adapted to a new identity and civic condition. Atavistic hatreds bubble away beneath the surface still, but these are not really the live geopolitical volcanoes they once were. 

If you look for western democratic nations that are still obstinately coveted by the Jihadis you tend to find only Spain...and Israel, of course. I think this is probably because these were colonies established by the original Caliphate and not the later Turkish empire, and so the urge to re-dominate goes deeper (and somewhat darker) from a cultural perspective. 

20% of Israelis are Arab and Muslim. They may not have converted to Judaism, or in the main converse in Hebrew, but they have to some extent adapted to the memetic structures of the nation within which they make their livings. Palestinians of this kind are, in a sense, already 'living the dream' of the one state solution. (Let's also not forget that pre-1948, Jews around there also regarded themselves as 'Palestinian'.)

Nearby one finds a couple of other notable Palestinian groups, open and closeted. In the latter category we have those with their own modern nation state in the form of Jordan. The other group are the ones that are the source of that big suppurating geopolitical sore we all to some extent suffer from today.

On some levels they are recusants: they do not wish to have anything to do with the Jewish state, to the point of being apparently psychologically incapable of living alongside it within their own UN-recognised nation.

They are also in a sense refuseniks, in that they have been denied the opportunity to leave and re-settle by the neighbouring countries sharing their basic memetic make-up and this historically unusual situation has been reinforced by the unhelpful doctrines that govern the UNRWA, which deem them to be perpetual refugees.

Genocide, like war, is in general a far more complex phenomenon than its most famous example from the middle of the last century. There are good reasons to be conscious of what the Holocaust and WWII have to teach us, but they can sometimes act as notable surrogates for an unwillingness to deal with the fundamental ambiguities of life. 

Take the last 'proper' genocide that most of the international community recognises: Rwanda. I say most, because Mitterand famously said at the time: "In such countries genocide is not too important" (!)

Au contraire. An understanding of what happened in 1994 is, I would suggest, essential to any understanding of the term. 

The original inhabitants of this mountainous little country were cave-dwelling pigmies called the Twa that now account for just 1% of the population. They were overrun long before colonial times by two distinct ethnic groups. A rather stocky and dark Bantu tribe and a lankier, lighter-skinned Nilotic people from the north. This distinction was already being eroded to the point of meaninglessness by the time the Belgians arrived, through a conscious mixing of both memes and genes.

Yet the Europeans duly upset this process of miscegenation and mobility between the two groups, and effectively revived the old ethnic polarity as a sociological situation.

In doing this they had a number of 'racial science' dogmas to play with, but also some absurd ideas derived from ancient scripture (that toxic body of nonsense again) - the so-called Hamitic myth - which claimed that Sub-Saharan peoples were descended from Noah's son Ham and were thus eligible for serial mistreatment. 

From then on Rwanda's Tutsis and Hutus were in effect castes (to a large extent divorced from underlying ethnic division) forced to play certain roles within the colony by their overlords.

However, many of the colonists themselves gradually became obsessed with the idea that the Tutsis were "oppressors" and they came to associate them with the feudally-privileged Flemish population of their own European homeland. This paved the way for the emergence of a Hutu-led dictatorship after independence.

When we cannot blame the worst problems in the world on the Bible or the Quran, we always have those "rogue intellectuals" with an inverted chip on the shoulder to fall back on, and so it was in President Habyarimana's regime, where the Hamitic myth was carefully inverted into a supremacist, genocidal ideal in manner that now has clear echoes in the Middle East.

 




Thursday, January 25, 2024

Deadly Posturing

This week the ICC will release what I understand is a preliminary judgment in the genocide case brought by South Africa. 

It will never happen of course, but it is really a entire coterie of UN officials based in Gaza who ought to be facing charges at an international tribunal right now.

They've been guilty of playing a feel-smug game of ideological soldiers, rather like a visible (and screechily vocal) subset of students in mismanaged western universities.

You know the rules: Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a terrorist...is it a freedom fighter? Pick according to your predetermined prejudices and then declare yourself unimpeachably compassionate...and right.

They behaved as if there would be no consequences for playing along with Hamas's Jihadi, AK-waving posturing. Yet it seems highly unlikely that they were not ever in a position to put the dampers on an unfolding tragedy which turned out to have very terrible consequences indeed for around a thousand innocent civilians just over the border: the worst pogrom against Jews since WWII, and an event they have ever since been at extreme pains to play down.

This in turn had an inevitable chain reaction effect establishing a seemingly unstoppable machine for munching on non-combatants, particularly those that were supposedly under their care.

Before all this, they were almost certainly complicit in the protracted transference of humanitarian aid towards ends which were essentially barbaric, but like those demented morons chanting "globalise the intifada", they probably surmised that bursts of genocidal violence would be the ideal way to achieve peace and mutual coexistence in the long term.

Should I ever decide to get together with a group of like-minded folk in Antigua and we then march around chanting "From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free" (along with "shame on you!" every time we pass either Macdonalds or Starbucks), the real world consequences would likely be negligible. 

In contrast, these UN officials absolved themselves of their neutrality and in many cases bought into the Palestinian mythology wholeheartedly, "settler colonial entity" and all. In this instance there were some very unfortunate and foreseeable consequences, not only from a lack of UN push-back, but also from an element of UN push-forward.

In almost any other context this would be considered for charges of criminal negligence, at the least.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

'Guarantees' (Read the small print)

 


The "international community" is not however a single, amorphous layer of well meaning outsiders.

And even when it is essentially a euphemism for the developed western world plus supposedly multilateral institutions like the UN, it has a rather patchy record when it comes to such guarantees. 
 
For example: when Ukraine was encouraged to surrender its nukes in return for 'protection' from any subsequent Russian aggression. (See also, right now, as it apparently runs out of shells.) 

Finding the strength is only the beginning of the process. In almost any conflict situation, the preservation of it is the hard part.
 
Given the underlying ideological and geopolitical polarities that have long operated in the Middle East, such guarantees would require cooperation between blocks that are fundamentally disinclined the cooperate on almost any issue. 
 
And one only has to gaze across at Kosovo to see how these committee-based solutions can result in a terrible muddle...and one could put money on the Middle East being able to come up with a far bigger mess.
 
Beyond the outside powers who have long been anything but impartial in this conflict, it seems to me that in the lead up to October 7 the UN in particular already has a quantity of blood on its hands. 
 
There is simply no way they can have been anything other than complicit with the misappropriation of global aid for non-peaceful, non-humanitarian purposes, and have done almost nothing to prevent the ascendance of a venomous, chauvinistic culture within Gaza in particular. 
 
Indeed, their insistence that refugee status is heritable has been unique to these circumstances and profoundly unhelpful, playing into the strategies maintained by other nations within the 'Arab World', which are as cynical as they are partisan. 
 
Yes, there is a cycle of violence, the spinning of which has to be slowed as much as possible, but after October 7 pieties alone are unhelpful. They are often merely vanity positions adopted by individuals who like to shore up their public image on social media. 
 
The cycle does not spin evenly. This is because anger and hatred are both real human emotions felt by individuals in the moment and also culturally induced phenomena, sometimes explicitly taught to children in a cruelly inverted process of socialisation. 


Arabism (2)

Anti-Zionism is not reasoned, humanitarian opposition to the chauvinistic extremists lurking on the right side of the bell curve of opinion within the Israeli democracy. 

Instead, Anti-Zionism is predominantly opposition to the very existence of Jewish self-determination, not always, but often enough informed by Anti-Semitism, open or closeted. 

Those who deny this are in many cases being knowingly dishonest. (Keep pressing, it comes out eventually.)

A good many anti-Zionists are just plain ignorant. But perhaps the most morally malignant kind are those who use terms like ‘occupation’ and ‘genocide’ in the full knowledge that they are essentially inverting the situational and historical truth.

One can ask why it is different, even if not admirable, when Netanyahoo says “from the river to the sea”? One credible answer would be 'because his ancestors didn’t come to Israel as brutal invaders'. And he knows which river and which sea. He's referring to the ancient state called Israel, mentioned in the Bible, yet even more significantly mentioned 43 times in the Quran. (Guess how many times Palestine is mentioned in that book?) 

I'd liken the way Arabism functions to that part of Homer's Odyssey where Ulysses and his companions are moving along silently via the undersides of Polyphemus's flock. In this case the sheep are various codifications of ideology, religious and political, which permit the motion to appear to transcend its ethnic origin.

The Arab empire has no more been a fundamentally religious or even ideological phenomenon than the Spanish empire was a Catholic one.

Yet outside observers touch the back of the passing sheep and sense the alluringly fluffy shape of the ideas: Jihadism, resistance, anti-westernism, anti-Semitism, nihilism and much else, but these are in fact subsidiary to the primary expansionist urge — exploitable epiphenomena
given off by the Arabist imperial engine as it rather mutely pursues its goals, at once tribalist and geopolitical.


 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Arabism

There are a pair of 'silent' isms in the Middle East which barely get a mention compared to 'Zionism', definitions and counter-definitions of which are very much at the centre of debate, particularly in the ROW.

The first of these is Tribalism, which we can maybe come back to later, but it is one of the underlying mentalities which drives the various cycles of violence.

The second is Arabism, and the fact that this so often goes unmentioned is rather extraordinary, because it has been one of the factors feeding Zionism since the foundation of the modern state of Israel.

When looking for mentalities within the opposition to the Jewish state commentators habitually highlight the extreme forms of Islamism that are hard to avoid in the milieu of Hamas and their smoke-coming-out-of-their-ears, clerical cheerleaders. 

Many westerners 'standing with Israel' (albeit from a distance) often do so because of the perceived civilisational threat from this toxic blend of religious fundamentalism and totalitarian fascism.

Yet sometimes the moderates also say things that we perhaps ought to find equally troubling. Take Rashid Khalidi, prominent Palestinian-American and mate of Barak Obama, who teaches history at Columbia and in a recent interview expressed succinctly his Arabist opposition to regional Jewish self-determination: "[Jews] who came didn't come to live with the residents of the country [Ottoman provinces, then Mandate Palestine]. They didn't come to live with the Arabs. They didn't want to learn Arabic or take the citizenship." 

It’s that old “they won’t assimilate properly” trope. Or, those infernal Judeans are being a bit "what have the Arabs ever done for us?" aren't they?

Jihadism is the higher-viz, foreign policy component of Arabism, the latter the more inward-looking, domestic expression of the urge, which is the one which currently threatens Israel more than any other western democracy. (This is because, in spite of the occasionally hysterical expansionist rhetoric, it is the original captured territory that apparently matters the most and of European nations, only Spain gets the direct nod on a consistent basis.)




Arabism, in short, is the notion that any peoples living within the original extent of the vast empire — the Caliphate — regardless of their own ethnic and cultural histories, really do need to adopt an identity that is primarily Arab.

Speaking the language is a bare minimum (though the Persians, alone really, have been allowed a compromise) and practicing Islam is a lot more than a nice to have.

Since the very early days of the empire it has been extremely difficult for regional minorities to preserve and protect their traditions, be they Jews, Druze, Christians, Zoroastraians, Yazidis etc. And things have been getting worse, not better. Persecution has seen the Christian population drop from 20% to 4% over the course of the past century. 

Arabism is supposed to transcend all the internal rivalries established by Tribalism, and it has been bolstered by the existence of an apparently shared nemesis in the form of Israel and its own ism.

It is very much a form of imperialism — or a particularly open-ended form of nationalism — which operates by subterfuge whenever the repression is less violent and overt. It benefits from the fact that many in the west adopt its key presumptions almost reflexively. (The BBC routinely refers to the Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur as an ‘Arab woman’, for example.)

"From the river to the sea" and "free Palestine" are part of the subterfuge, for western ideological consumption. There is a vague pretence of liberal nationalist intent, but the mentality is fundamentally informed by the notion that Israel is an unbearable affront, a misalignment, a tumour even, within the sacred Caliphate. So, a negative not positive resistance: Freedom from....

This is another reason why it is absurd to compare the situation within Israel to South African Apartheid or even the Jim Crow laws of the American south. Not only does the 20% non-Jewish population of Israel enjoy the same basic rights as the Jewish one, you only has to ask yourself how Jews or any other cultural minority would fare within almost any Islamic majority society in the region. No matter how bad Israel’s local recusants fare, things would be so much worse if the boot were on the other foot.

Some do seem to get this. A recent study by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, which would make the pro-Hamas propagandists squirm somewhat, found that between 2010 and 2022, the proportion of Arabs living in Israeli-administered east Jerusalem who would prefer to be governed by the Palestinian Authority dropped from 52% to just 38.2%.

So while some Palestinians don’t seem to urgently desire their own mini state because they are motivated by Arabism or Jihadi-imperialism, others, a very clear majority in this case, reject the idea because they understand what sort of state that would be. Occupation...Apardheid...nothing could be worse than self-rule!

The majority of Israelis have direct family experience of this under-mentioned asymmetry: it is often forgotten that at the time of the foundation of Israel 900,000 Jews were systematically expelled from homes around the Middle East many had occupied for a thousand years. For those whose morality has arithmetic foundations, it can be observed that this was, numerically, a greater catastrophe than the Nakba.




Monday, January 15, 2024

Learning Opportunity

Another important lesson we've learned, and not just in the past 24 hours, is that even here in Guatemala, adherence to principle, perseverance to the point of obstinacy and a degree of both tactical and strategic nouse, will see one over the finishing line, no matter how many dirty tricks the scumbags have up their sleeves.

And a bonus learning — it’s so easy to elect to be forever remembered for the bad grace with which one handles certain situations.

An Anti-Matter

If I had any sense that inside Gaza there is a genuine aspiration to build a modern nation state in which a desire to protect human rights and live in peace if not collaboration with its regional neighbours — an aspiration characterised by a failure to emerge which cannot be substantially pinned on outsiders — then I might have assumed a more balanced take on the present situation.

Even the Gazans’ useful idiots* in the lumpen-lefty community are really bad at disguising what ‘free Palestine’ really means, and seeing this weekend how Egypt has strengthened its border wall with the enclave into something resembling a MAGA reverie, has reminded me that the Israeli hardliners are not alone in regarding this as a territory almost irredeemably polluted by toxic mentalities.



Like the Saudis, the Israelis (and now the UK and the US) imagine rather optimistically that suppression with high explosives acts as a kind of tonic against geopolitical delinquency.

Egypt’s approach is far more like quarantine. Yet there is of course a measure of hand-washing involved, because the twisted Hamas mentality is very much an offshoot of that of the Muslim Brotherhood which first evolved on the other side of all that razor wire.

Palestine is an imagined entity. Not essentially a historical space where territory and cultural or ethnic identity congeal, like Israel, but the name of a no-compromise campaign for “Not Israel” or even “No Israel”, which was born with that essential negativity.

And it took time to become this thing, for in 1948, even though Arab imperialists reacted like antibodies to the sudden flourishing of Jewish democratic self-determination on their authoritarian turf, many of the people who still actively referred to themselves and their culture as ‘Palestinian’ were Jewish. Two decades and a good deal of self-inflicted territorial recession later, the moniker had become free of any association with the hated intruder within.

At base Zionism is the desire of Jews to finally run their own affairs in relative safety within their ancient homeland after two millennia of colonial oppression and persistent persecution wherever else they sought a measure of autonomy and basic tolerance.

I can’t see Anti-Zionism as much other than the determination to deny them this. Anti-Zionists often do actually admit this, but more commonly make a token effort to cover their essentially racist animus by portraying Zionism as something it is not or — at least only mutates into at one end of its bell curve — an evil coloniser ideology which needs to be expunged from the Earth. This is more than anything a disturbing inversion of the situation as understood by any historian worthy of the name.


* Many of whom, even more (dis)ingenuously, now verbalise support for the Houthis, an arguably even more unhinged group of zealots, responsible for ten times the number of deaths as Israel in this current war, as if they were the true representatives of the internationally-recognised nation called Yemen that we can expect to see represented at the Paris Olympics this year. As with the Gazans, it is what the Houthis are not, not what they are, which appeals to their newfound fan club abroad. 

Measured Anticipation

The events in Guatemala yesterday should serve as a reminder that 'History' is a sobriquet for two significant mechanisms in modern societies...

1) A dustbin
2) A process of change which is rarely linear and best measured in decades, if not centuries.
 
Very little can, or should change overnight here. I know how he will try to assess the new government's engagement with the structural realities of this nation in four years time, but perhaps the most important metric will be the hardest to pin down: a swerve towards a new kind of political action whereby diverse yet ultimately complimentary approaches are tolerated, creating a platform for long term positive gains across all the other key metrics. 
 
Right now the task is nurturing, but by 2028 the conditions for acceleration ought to be visible.
 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Happenstance

Revisiting Sybille Bedford’s A Visit To Don Otavio this morning I came across this one sentence summary of Mexican history: “Everything happened , and little was changed.”

It seems pithy, but there’s actually a lot of wisdom there.  One can start by pondering how each country’s fundamental attitude to the study and comprehension of history varies according to how much happened and how much changed. 

Whereas Mexico focuses on the individuals who made stuff happen, in Guatemala history is change. Rather less happened than up in Mexico for sure. There’s Independence and....er...that awkward couple of decades after WWII and that’s really it.

We Brits used to be proud of our history and rather good at History. 

Much happened, even in the supposedly uneventful Middle Ages and nearly everything changed. Live past the age of 40 and you can map your personal memories onto this process fairly successfully.

Something Milei said the other day about Malthus and technological improvement reminded me of pretty much the very first lecture I attended at university. It was given by Geoffrey Elton the senior professor in the faculty, though then outgoing.

It was our duty, he perorated, to be different from social scientists. History was not an arena for cherry-picking facts which might support prefabricated theoretical approaches or worse, ideological doctrines. On the contrary, it was the arena where all theories went to die, horribly. A place of gruesome debunkings.

At the time much of what he said was probably not internalised in the way he intended. This was in part because he was essentially positioning himself against an antagonist who was less a straw man than a dead man: E.H. Carr, whose notion that facts exist (or can be made up) primarily to serve the interests of the ideologues and their designated constituents, the oppressed, the people etc. seemed to be some nonsense that our parents’ generation had seen off rather successfully and unlikely to be resurrected during our lifetimes. This, it turns out, was wishful thinking.

Unfortunately we are now being encouraged to primarily treat our past as a crime scene. Facts are important clues, but guilt has already been assigned. 

 


Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Saltburn (2023)

Or, Ripley does Brideshead.  


One of the 7 Basic Plots is the social journey, where a fairly humdrum character is invited into a kind of "faery land". This usually ends with said character being found out or used up and expelled, or at least feeling the threat of expulsion from this borrowed reality. 

Two of the most well-known examples from the last century in literature and for adults and anglophone pop culture in general are Brideshead Revisited and The Talented Mr Ripley, so why not kind of combine the two?

There are several reasons why not to explored here. Firstly, there's something amiss about the period (noughties). Even some twenty years earlier undergraduate life at an Oxbridge college was not really like this, and just when you have forgiven Emerald Fennell for all that, she goes full "Posh Brits, export grade" in the next section. 

With one exception, none of the long-term occupants of Saltburn ring true as characters. That exception is Elspeth, but Rosamund Pike doesn't really have to put it on, and Fennell has given her the majority of actually funny lines in the script. 

Australian Jacob Elordi, rather like Hugh Grant, did not go to an English public school, but looks like he must have done and is occasionally convincing as Felix. I have no idea what Carey Mulligan is doing in this film. Maybe she thought it was going to be darkly and edgily hilarious like Fleabag and felt she owed the director one for Promising Young Woman.

Barry Keoghan, as ever, leaves you to ponder if anyone else could have been considered for this role. The script lets him down a bit, but he's always great just as a cinematic presence and Fennel has equipped his part with a series of gross-out sexual comedy moments, which will be what many are inclined to remember about her film. 

The point about these journeys to an alluring but fickle place is that most of us have experienced them in our dreams. The plot is constructed to titillate us with our insecurities, social and otherwise, yet in this Saltburn "leaves my blood cold", to paraphrase one of the last things one of its characters says. I could see where things were going and so never felt the jeopardy.


 

The Abandoned (2022)

 


On the face of it the movie is about a serial killer, but it is really about serial poor decision making on the part of come members of the Taiwanese police force. 

It's touted as a dark thriller by Netflix, but as with many Asian cop flicks, melodrama and social commentary take the place of any real tension. Yet as a window on aspects of life in Taipei it is rather intriguing, and it is very well shot, with many well-chosen locations.  

The trouble is that most attentive viewers will probably guess the identity of the perp having dismissed all the obvious decoys. 

 

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Same Old?

 



 
But of course the libertarian jack-in-a-box was immediately sprung when this cabinet was announced: “una farsa”.

Her critique seemed to be that Bernie is “same old” in ­čÉĹ’s clothing, having added a smattering of ‘experience’ to his cabinet. 
 
The appointment that irked most was not mentioned in this article: Jazm├şn de la Vega, who served under Berger, not uncontroversially, and has more recently been the female face of CACIF, Guatemala’s guild of the guilded, an organisation many thought was set to be neutered by the new regime.
But Bernie is a career diplomat, so did anyone really expect him to go all Marshal Ney before his administration had even started? Just to have made it this far he has had to carefully detach key allegiances from the coup-mongering clique. 
 
And you don’t have to have attended Francisco Marroqu├şn to know how Guatemala’s last spring came undone. ├ürbenz neglected to take proper note of vested interests in his initial enthusiasm for transformative initiatives. 
 
One would hope the nextgen primaveristas have internalised that lesson. Even if the danger of a reactionary coup has been sidelined, what we also don’t need to see is a Semilla administration fighting some sort of desperate, isolated, Rorke’s Drift rearguard action for four years, unable to do little more than survive. This government has to become the start of something lasting. As they say in Costa Rica: Pura Vida.
 
So, no need for the firework display (Milei, Bukele...), rather something more like fearlessness of a practical kind. The specific objectives ought to be husbanding the various sectors of wealth creation, while fixing the really serious issues like the health system and infrastructure. This is the largest economy in Central America so the simple tactic of cleaning up the way public monies are allocated should deliver significant if not spectacular benefits. 
 
I'd advise some caution with the deployment of so-called independent oversight as we have seen how these can be turned on their heads by the lowlifes. 
 
As well as being evenly split in terms of gender, the incoming regime includes a couple of scientists and an archaeologist. Bernie himself counts as an historian.
 
 

Sunday, January 07, 2024

La Sociedad de la Nieve / The Society of the Snow (2023)

A 7.9 on IMDB compared to the long-standing 7.1 of Alive.

Is it really an upgrade? Perhaps for native Spanish speakers. But beyond that undoubtedly important element, it's rather a mixed bag.


 

Director J.A. Bayona (El Orfanato) has told the same story from a different source: the book by Uruguayan journalist Pablo Vierci which, unlike Piers Paul Read's book, I have not read. 

Some of the emphases are different, most notably on the matter of how religious belief played a role in the decisions taken by these men (in the end...) stuck up in the Andes for 70+days. 

Here the 'altar boy' Numa is shown objecting at first to the new source of protein. Yet Piers Paul Read, a Catholic writer, was obviously fascinated how this resort to the flesh of man was interpreted by some of the participants in terms of the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. 

This story has long gripped us. I first heard it from my wife before the earlier film appeared in 1993. I found myself asking the other night if, as the credits rolled (actually this was Netflix, so they didn't), I would have immediately commenced a deeper dive into the material, as I did then. 

It made me think of that far shorter interval between Victory at Entebbe and Raid on Entebbe. Perhaps there are better examples of a 'remarkable true story' told in slightly different ways which I can't think of right now.

Overall I reached the conclusion that Bayona's take on the story was not as good specifically in that area of storytelling, dialogue too, but in the key moments, especially those where the action is doing the talking, his film does take things up a notch. You'd almost want to go back and apply the best takes of this film to the one made 30 years ago before considering the reverse procedure. 

There's a bit more backstory here, yet it does not seem to help in terms of differentiating the pack of survivors.

Unlike the last film I reviewed, the attempt to deliver the drama with a seventies patina seems a bit superfluous. 

Perhaps the most interesting difference is that I took Alive to be an accurate representation of what really happened up there, but was left pondering here if I had just seen the version that the survivors had all agreed to present to posterity as the truth.

Spot the spine…

I suspect that subtle hint of ambiguity, those barely perceptible whispers of the unsaid*, may be the deliberate contribution of the director.



 

 

 * Like, if they could light their cigarettes, they could light other things, like a churrasco...

 

 

Friday, January 05, 2024

Plural Futures

 


Immigration is a classic example of an issue where almost all would-be commentators perceive a binary: just two available opinions, one right, one wrong.

Yet of course it is almost never the case that the world actually works this way. There are many phenomena which I would need a lot of convincing to accept as either intrinsically good or bad.

In the case of Immigration specifically, it tends to be a good thing when accompanied by broad, mutual goodwill and adaptation by both incumbents and newcomers.

The benefits quickly emerge and accelerate.
 
Conversely, when that adaptation stalls, across the board, not just on one side, negative patterns of integration are likely to catalyse each other, leading to a far more deleterious reaction across the society.
 
 

Thursday, January 04, 2024

The Holdovers (2023)

 

A movie that comes with a pre-packaged defence against many of the criticisms one might level at it.

Sure it is clich├ęd, corny and more than a little schematic, but it is trying to be all these things. How you respond to it depends to a large extent on how Alexander Payne has made it, simulating an authentic movie from 1970 and thus an originator product which cannot really be accused of a lack of originality. 

Anyway, it very much worked for me. Partly because it made me laugh, which usually stops me thinking too much and partly because some of its nostalgic tropes resonate with my own nostalgia, specifically with my experiences of New England in the 80s and aspects of those at both the end of school and the start of university. (This was less pertinent for V so she had only the humour to fall back on.) 

 


 

 

 


Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Talking of specious...

The reasoning on display in this LRB post by Zinaida Miller is ludicrous, not least because one absolutely knows that in almost any other context those that deploy it would hear the nonsense in their heads and self-check before it comes out. 

So...Jews who imagine intifada involves destructive barbarism, that Jihad means something more violent than personal growth and that 'from the river to the sea' could actually be a call to remove all the Jews from the one place they enjoy self-determination need to be educated. Really?!

Nobody who has seen the texts and the public addresses of the Hamas leadership is in any way 'hallucinating genocidal speech". And I have also seen material shared by members of the protest movement outside the Middle East and the call to wipe Israel off the map is often explicit.

Yet this 'conversation' about genocide is one Miller fails to flag up in her opening paragraph, instead suggesting that use of this term in any way other than in relation to Israeli treatment of Gazans would be somehow improper.

"From the river to the sea" might signify my future travel plans, for me, but most serious academics in the humanities surely understand that meanings are not constructed and transmitted on an individual basis.

I knew someone here in Guatemala who greeted every German he came across with a friendly Nazi salute. Here was someone who was very much saying something other than what he imagined he was and needed to be brought up to speed. 

It thus involves completely back to front logic when one suggests that the people who intuit the unpleasant collective meanings need to be re-trained rather than the innocent fools. 

And it is disingenuous to the point of dishonesty (and frankly disgraceful) to claim that the aims of Hamas can be said to represent, in any way, an "aspirational call to freedom". 

As to that infamous interrogation in the US Congress, I watched it on the day and there seemed to be no suggestion that in the end Stefanik was contextualising her enquiry. On the contrary.

And if she had, the three women on the spot could have contextualised back, given that "it depends" was their collective answer. But in the key moment the question was absolutely simple and stark. "Is calling for the genocide of Jews contrary to your internal rules for student conduct?" 


“When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.” > David Hume

“Does a man of sense run after every silly tale of hobgoblins or fairies, and canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.” > David Hume

 

 

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Double standards?

In the very immediate aftermath of the Hamas atrocity of October 7, many of the death cult’s semi-closeted fanboys and girls jumped the gun a bit, bleating loudly about a lack of ‘balance’ or ‘double standards’ in the mainstream media, at a time when Israel had not responded significantly. 

What they really meant was any description of this evil for consumption of the masses had to be cloaked in caveats couched in the terminology of their long-term and really rather ossified worldview.

These are after all, the same people who could not resist what-abouting Stephen Fry’s Christmas Message. The poor man was bravely juggling the personal and the collective plus the universal with the specific and did a creditable job of it. But they are never listening, except in relation to the checklist of their own grievances. Many of them have been apologising for the more barbarous expressions of Islamism since at least 2001.

Anyway, outside of a satirical Woody Allen movie, “I am a Jew” ought never to sound like the beginning of an apology, and certainly nobody from any part of society should feel the need to flag up their support for ‘Justice for Palestine’ simply in order to avoid the venom, at once personal and clumsily collectivised, of the pro-Hamas morality police.

The problem with what-abouting the very discriminate mass murder committed that day is that it undermined anything they had to say later on about the seemingly indiscriminate response by the IDF. If you could not bring yourself to wholeheartedly denounce the pogrom and the political culture which perpetrated it, then your subsequent wailing about civilian casualties makes for an unconvincing spectacle.

Fry’s message dragged up some of the hackneyed arguments and counter-arguments about the relationship between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Both those with good intentions and those without them tend to sound rather disingenuous in this particular exchange.

Perhaps more interesting however is the largely under-addressed comparison between anti-Zionism and Islamophobia.

In the eyes of the leftist ideologues the former is a virtue, the latter a vice — yet both of them are grounded in the same, slightly suspect strategy: establishing a hard border between an ‘immutable’ (ethnicity, or at least, identity) and that which is supposedly mutable, (political and cultural beliefs and practices).

This is as doomed as walling off nature and nurture in biology, but there is more of a moral self-defence motive in play here, which adds elements of both urgency and hypocrisy.

There’s another more indirect parallel worth noting: Islamophobia need not be a phobia (always somehow pre-conscious and irrational) in the same way that anti-Zionism ought not to be an ism (a rigid doctrinal position that opposes Israel whatever it does, up to and including existing.)

There are also significant differences between Anti-Zionism and Islamophobia, probably an entire essay’s worth, which need not be enumerated here, but the most fundamental is that Zionism largely relates to foreign policy and Islamophobia to the domestic.

In other words, within many European nations, Islamic beliefs and practices sometimes represent a significant challenge to the liberal consensus in a way that any Jewish commitments to their ancestral homeland abroad do not. 

I mention Europe specifically, because in the USA one is just as likely to come across Christians who think and act as if the modern world is yet to be invented, so Islamism is part of a wider problem of having to tolerate the intolerant there.