“It’s like I’m paranoid”: a history of Hybrid Theory (Part 1)



Thundering west from the City of Angels, Route 101 becomes the Ventura Freeway. As it passes through a valley north of the Santa Monica mountains, a city opens up on the passenger side: Agoura Hills. It’s rugged California terrain, the Freeway carving a route between state parks and arid mountain trails, real estate sprouting off to the side like flowers off a vine. The area took its name from an eccentric local settler, Pierre Agourre, who’d left his native Basque country to live the life of a Spanish cattle rancher in the early 1870s. When the Freeway opened in 1960 the region was ripe for development, and tracts of housing were built to provide a peaceful suburban setting for families keen to escape LA. The racial unrest of the Watts Riots in 1965 only fuelled this exodus, and permissive county supervisors oversaw the development of a million acres of California soil into single-family units across the region. As described by Mike Davis in City of Quartz, this first wave of homeowners had ‘a powerful interest in trying to pull up the gangplanks to prevent further urbanization and loss of rural amenities’. Indeed, the county’s failure to limit further development prompted the residents of Agoura Hills to vote their scrubland suburb into cityhood, which they did in the early 80s. Boundaries were drawn, and the gangplanks lifted.

This locus of scrubland real estate was the birthplace of Hybrid Theory.

Laurel Canyon sits 25 miles back east, down Route 101. It’s developed a mythic gravity ever since it became the heart of America’s counter-culture scene in the early 60s. In a short space of time it was home to the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors, Frank Zappa, Arthur Lee, and Buffalo Springfield. They crashed and jammed in each other’s cabins, sharing drugs and runaway teens and plotting their aural assaults on the LA club scene from their porches. In a colourful counter-history titled Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, the writer David McGowan alleged that the scene was a CIA ‘psychological operation’, designed to derail the anti-war movement with directionless hippy grooves. Even if we don’t detect the dreaded hand of the secret state in this rare and wonderful confluence of talent and creativity, questions linger. What were the forces that brought these people to live and create in a certain time and place? And furthermore, what brought them into our consciousness? I’ve asked the same of Linkin Park, and the answer I’m offering here is a paranoid history, but one that I think shines a light on their real significance.


In 1968 the world was rocked by a series of protests. Youths and students raised in the shadow of nuclear annihilation had woken up to the notion that it needn’t be this way. Orthodox society was increasingly seen as a stifling, patriarchal prison, with exploitation and pointless violence stamping on the species like a jackboot. If Britain’s failed assault on Suez in 1956 lit up the weaknesses of Empire like a flare, the violence of the USSR when crushing the Hungarian uprising left many people questioning the communist alternative. Violent men and their grinding machines, their rifles and classifications – these had led the West through two world wars and into Auschwitz. So, if people couldn’t overthrow the machine by becoming machines themselves, they’d have to wage their war at the level of culture.

Despite the generosities of post-war social democracy, class distinctions didn’t disappear, and much of the hippy lifestyle was only accessible to members of the upper and middle class. Nonetheless, a ‘counter-culture’ emerged, and people from every walk of life were exposed to its radical messages. The ‘counter-culture’ encompassed experimentation with drugs, hostility to conformism, and a permissive approach to sexual relations that was enabled by the mass availability of the contraceptive pill in ’63. As well as this, a turn against the psychic oppressions of organised religion saw many young Westerners embracing Eastern religion and ‘spirituality’, celebrating Third World cultures in a way that many would now deem problematic, but which stemmed from a sense that the world was more than the older generation would have them believe.

Wheels were turning. Martin Luther King Jr intoned his dream of racial equality, and student protesters opposing the Vietnam War inserted flowers into gun barrels bristling outwards from the Pentagon. And these changes weren’t confined to the white-bread West. For every Jean-Paul Sartre in France there was a Franz Fanon in Martinique, and the latter writer’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) was an instant classic. In Brazil, the Tropicalia movement rebelled against the US-backed military junta with anarchic psychedelia and their theory of antropofagia – cannibalising invasive cultures, creating hybrid identities that threatened the status quo. They pinned their hopes on the cultural forms and behaviours they hoped would flip a collective switch in the global mind and bring about change. The stakes were high, and well expressed by Theodor Roszak in The Making of a Counter-Culture (1970):

It the resistance of the counter culture fails, I think there will be nothing in store for us but what anti-utopians like Huxley and Orwell have forecast – though I have no doubt these dismal despotisms will be far more stable and effective than their prophets have foreseen. For they will be equipped with techniques of inner-manipulation as unobtrusively fine as gossamer. Above all, the capacity of our emerging technocratic paradise to denature the imagination by appearing to itself the whole meaning of Reason, Reality, Progress, and Knowledge will render it impossible for men to give any name to their bothersomely unfulfilled potentialities but that of madness. And for such madness, humanitarian therapies will be generously provided.

“Nonsense!” I scoff, spluttering a dust-cloud of half-crunched fluoxetine.

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The Turkish Question – part 1

The Legend of Kawa

Every year on March 21st, the Kurds of the world unite to celebrate Newroz. It’s a festival with ancient roots across the Middle East, celebrating the coming spring and the promise of renewal. For the people of Kurdistan, though, it means something more. It’s tied to their foundation myth – the ancient revolt of the Medes against the Assyrian tyrant Dehak. As origin stories go, it’s pretty grisly. The Medes were forced to surrender their children to feed a pair of serpents, which the evil spirit Ahriman had wrapped around the shoulders of the king. One day, the blacksmith Kawa was ordered to kill his daughter and give up her brain. But instead of killing her he killed a sheep, and he sent the animal’s brain in place of hers. Under cover of darkness he led her up to the Zagros Mountains, far from Dehak’s clutches. Word of his deception spread, and the rest of his fellow subjects did the same. They offered up the brains of sheep and their children escaped to the hills, where they learnt to be self-sufficient, strong and free. Finally the blacksmith led an army to storm the castle, and he cut off the tyrant’s head. The people lit enormous fires and danced in celebration, banishing the darkness from the land.

Origin myths can be powerful things. The Kurdish people trace their heritage back to the blacksmith Kawa and the Medes. They still light fires and dance in circles, celebrating a freedom that they hope to re-attain. And year after year, in southeast Turkey, militias armed by the Turkish state arrive in tanks and military jeeps and break up the celebrations. The BBC reported this year that there was “little mood to celebrate” the festival in the city of Diyarbakir, where an all-out war between the army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been raging since the autumn. Government spokesmen boast of the number of “terrorists” they’ve killed, and locals mourn the relatives whose corpses they’re too scared to collect for fear of getting shot by the army’s snipers. There’s a sinister circular logic at play: any Kurds remaining in this war zone are thought to be terrorists, so everyone killed by the army is a “terrorist” by definition. According to the Kurdish press, it’s not that they’ve lost the appetite to celebrate the festival – it’s more that the celebration’s been suppressed with bullets and bombs.

We Need to Talk about Turkey

In the early ‘90s, the gangly Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff made an interesting documentary about the region. You can watch a short but illuminating section of it here (courtesy of Adam Curtis’ colourful blog on the topic). We see him visit the heart of PKK-held territory in northern Iraq. He mugs for the camera, sits in on a group self-criticism session, and generally vibes with the cheerful, comradely Kurds. But then he crosses over into Turkey and visits Diyarbakir, where he’s followed by state police wherever he goes. As Kurdish women gather in back-streets to celebrate the festival, he captures footage of armoured vehicles roaring onto the scene to break it up. Armed militiamen charge at a crowd of women and children, firing their guns in the air. It’s been almost 25 years, but not much has changed.

Now more than ever, Turkey is poised at the heart of our foreign policy. The wars in Iraq and Syria, the ‘migrant crisis’, our energy dependency on Russia, even Brexit – you can’t address these topics without stumbling into the Turkish President Erdogan’s house of smoke and mirrors, scratching around for the truth. But a curious omerta has attached itself to the topic of Turkey in Parliament and much of the mainstream press, particularly regarding ‘the Kurdish Question’. In January, a Guardian opinion piece by the liberal hawk Nick Cohen managed to castigate Jeremy Corbyn and “the Left” for failing to support the Kurdish cause. If you word-search the article for a mention of Turkey or Erdogan – or even for the Tories, who are actually responsible for our foreign policy and who’ve brusquely dismissed all criticism of the Erdogan regime – you’ll come away disappointed.

This article, by a well-regarded and high-profile member of the British commentariat, was published on the same day the Independent described the worst flare-up in Turkish-Kurdish tensions in 20 years, as the death-toll climbed in Diyarbakir and the Turkish government vowed to “cleanse” the region of Kurdish fighters. A few days later, the reporter Yvo Fitzherbert wrote from Cizre that “As urban centres have been transformed into war zones, thousands have fled as they have become legitimate targets in the eyes of the military.” The disparity is noteworthy in part because it illustrates the extent to which Cohen’s become an Establishment hatchet-man hack and a compromised journalist, but mainly because it seems like a neat example of what the anthropologist Michael Taussig terms the ‘public secret’, or ‘that which is generally known but cannot be spoken’. These secrets are socially important – they oil the cogs of our institutions, which couldn’t function without them. To ‘deface’ such a secret, to publicly acknowledge what we otherwise know not to know, is a violent act. But if facts are sacred, we’re doing something valuable by bringing them back to the fore, and re-enchanting them.

Our EU representatives have just approved a payment of six billion Euros to Turkey over the next two years, with Britain contributing £500 million. The minutes of a private meeting between President Erdogan and some senior EU officials were recently leaked. Even if faked by the Russian secret service, as some have speculated, they provide a neat summation of the power dynamics at play. Erdogan is shopping for two things: money (to deal with refugees, at least ostensibly), and EU membership. When he asks for 3 billion Euros per year, and he’s only offered half, he replies like a gangster. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time”, he tells them, “and we can put the refugees on buses”. President Erdogan, with the offer they can’t refuse. Lo and behold, the EU found the money.

The refugee situation goes some way to explaining our rulers’ abiding deference to Turkey, and their handling of the awkward question of war in its southeast corner. At the very least, it tells us that our liberal interventions are carefully chosen. The British state doesn’t break up every fight – it isn’t stupid. It breaks up the fights it thinks it can get away with and benefit from, and its army of paid-up opinionistas moralise its choices after the fact, like a dry-cleaning service. But Turkey is more than a holding cell for the wretched of the earth, the people displaced by war and want, who scratch at the walls of Europe. It’s a gatekeeper and a power in its own right, and the power it wields depends on territory claimed by a troublesome bunch – the people of Kurdistan.

The conflict goes deep, to the heart of what it means to be a state, or a sovereign people, and the final meaning of ‘democracy’ is challenged by every faction. It plays out in the arid pages of quarterly reports and risk assessments, in national and corporate legal documents, as well as in the theories of anarchists and crypto-religious militants. It also plays out at the intersections of two sets of lines on a map: the lines of national borders, and those of pipelines. Caught in a grid of competing ideas and interests, real human beings are killing each other. It’s a human decency not just to notice it’s happening, but also to do our best to understand why. Many of the secrets of the modern world and how it works are defaced when we stop and look at a map, and ask what’s going on in southeast Turkey.

A word on ethno-religious conflicts 

Last year I got lost in Berlin with my girlfriend, looking for a club in the Mitte district. We stopped to talk to a pair of drunk guys, hoping for directions. Sadly, they weren’t much use. They’d come to Berlin for a conference, and they wanted to make the most of their final night, to paint the town red. They asked where we were from, and as soon as my girlfriend answered “Bucharest”, they got excited.

“Ah, Romania!” one of them said. “Vlad Tepes! If it wasn’t for him, we’d all be Turks. We’d be saying Allahu akbar instead of going to clubs and having fun.”

I was a little surprised that a prince from the fifteenth-century was the first thing that sprang to mind when he thought of Romania. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy with a Christian paladin profile picture, an Anders Breivik type. They were friendly, apparently liberal and urban guys who worked for Rolls Royce. It was said as a joke, but it caught me a bit off-guard. From the chalky cliffs of the British Isles, it’s easy to forget that Turkey’s more than a holiday destination for much of the world. Its gravity can still be felt throughout continental Europe, the crescent-flagged enormity that years ago had threatened to swallow it whole.

As recently as the 1990s, in former Yugoslavia, thousands of innocent Bosnians were slaughtered for being ‘Turks’. In his book on the Bosnian genocide, the historian Michael Sells describes the rise of a poisonous doctrine called ‘Christoslavism’. According to the Serbian Orthodox nationalists who gave the ragtag paras their license to kill, Slavs are essentially Christian. It’s in their blood. By this logic, conversion to Islam amounts to renouncing not only one’s faith but also one’s Slavic identity, and thus becoming a ‘Turk’. This notion of ‘racial transformation by conversion’ was expressed in Bishop Petar Petrovic II’s 1857 play, The Mountain Wreath , in which ‘Slavic Muslims transform themselves into Christ-killers, the people held responsible for the Serbian Golgotha and the death of the Christ-Prince Lazar’. In this play, considered a dramatic and literary masterpiece in Serbia at the time of the Balkan conflict, ‘Orthodox priests and bishops make the clear proposition that the act of exterminating the Slavic Muslims, whom they called “Turkifiers”, was inherently sanctifying and purificatory’. The Serbian Golgotha they referred to was the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, when the Serbian leader Prince Lazar was killed by Ottoman soldiers. A mere six hundred years later, during the conflict in the ‘90s, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people (depending on who you’re asking) were killed, many of them civilians. In the genocide at Srebrenica, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered at once.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “details are always melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble”. Some of this broad-brush spirit seems to have nested in the Transatlantic imaginary, lending our every global adventure a moral or mythic dimension. After supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and watching in despair as it all went wrong, Michael Ignatieff wrote that his mistake had been in “generalising and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea”. Instead, he should have recognised that “specifics matter more than generalities”. For an understanding of any given conflict to be accurate or useful, it should give an account of how the groups in question came to be in conflict, and the melancholy details of what’s at stake. History repeats itself when systems of behaviour and understanding go unacknowledged and unreformed. And in the case of ethnic conflict there’s plenty of history to draw on.

The Ottoman Phoenix
The Ottoman Empire was founded by the Oghuz tribe of Turks in 1299, in what’s now the northwest of Turkey, near the Sea of Marmara. It’s generally agreed that the Empire reached its peak in the 1500s, during the reign of Suleyman “the Magnificent”. Its subjects then were Arabs and Turks, Greeks and Armenians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians – a veritable rainbow – and its territory spread from southern Europe down through Mesopotamia, as far as the Persian Gulf. It lasted till the 1920s, when, depending on your perspective, the final nail in its coffin came with the Turkish War of Independence (1922), the dethroning of the final Ottoman sultan (also 1922), or the abolition of the caliphate (1924). By any account, at more than six hundred years, it had a good innings.

The reasons for the collapse of any empire are hard to pinpoint. Triumphalist Europeans suggest that it squared up to Western powers as best it could, and in the resulting war of ideas the Christian West won out. This idealist view of history is appealing to lab-dwelling types (your Dawkins, your Harris) for whom historically-grounded ways of life are equivalent to scientific hypotheses that sufficiently clinical probing can prove or disprove. As Mr Ignatieff found out, this kind of perspective leads down a dangerous road. When collective ways of life are seen as falsifiable propositions, and holy books are read as a kind of programming code that adherents never question or selectively apply, a politics of collective guilt is only a motion away. It might seem paradoxical that scientists are so quick to explain the material world in terms of “memes”, or what the embattled Boy’s Own foghorn Niall Ferguson dubs “killer apps”. And it might seem strange that if empires rise and fall on their merits, the colonies where Dawkins and Grayling grew up sipping tea in the native dusk have declared independence and gone their own way. But the blue planet turns in mysterious ways.

Certainly, by the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had grown unwieldy, loosening its grip on its far-flung territories. During this period, France, Russia, Italy, Britain and Germany had all begun to nibble away at its edges. “Their objective was to avoid the collapse of the Empire, while maintaining it in an inferior and weakened position,” argue al-Rodhan, Herd and Watanabe, in Critical Turning Points in the Middle East 1915-2015. “To achieve this objective, they not only interfered in the internal affairs of the Empire, but also began to conquer and occupy territory in the region.” In 1830, France began its occupation of Algeria. The British forcibly occupied Yemen in 1839, allowing them to protect their access to India. They also made formerly-Ottoman Egypt a protectorate in 1882, which gave them control of the Suez Canal as well as a steady supply of cotton for the mills back in good old Blighty. Ottoman territory, then, was being encircled.
In the 1860s, an angry ‘Young Ottoman’ called Ziya Pasha protested that “We have remained mere spectators while our commerce, our trades, and even our broken-down huts have been given to foreigners”. Europeans and their high-interest banks had been sprouting in Istanbul ever since the Ottomans signed a free-trade deal with Britain in 1838. Eager to compete with the wealthy upstarts of Western Europe, the sultan introduced a set of reforms called the Tanzimat . Though based in Quranic scripture, these reforms were designed to reorganise law and society in the shape of a country like France, and they proved disastrous. In the words of another Young Ottoman, Namik Kemal, these reforms seemed to mainly involve “the establishment of theatres, frequenting ballrooms, being liberal about the infidelities of one’s wife and using European toilets”. As Pankaj Mishra explains in his book From the Ruins of Empire, “So disruptive was the overall effect that in 1876 Sultan Abdulhamid would himself join the growing popular reaction against Westernisation, and turn to pan-Islamism as a bulwark against Western encroachments upon the Muslim world.” So much for Westernisation – maybe the ummah could come to the rescue.
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Against bombing Syria

I posted the following on Facebook on 27 November 2015, in a general act of aggression against my acquaintances' timelines.


Sorry for going all SJW on your timeline, dunno who I’m even talking to here, but there’s a limit to how much superficial journalism I can stomach without bleating about it somewhere, and I’m not seeing adequate coverage of some of these points. (Please just skip over the links if you want to be daring and take my word for any of this, I’ve just included them for reference.) I might have a few things upside down, but Parliament’s excitement at the prospect of bombing Syria “within days” seems completely short-sighted and misguided, and not just because it’s impossible to destroy an ideology of grievance by bombing fighters/civilians on another continent.

Passions are understandably high in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, but it’s still very unclear what further bombing would actually achieve. Cameron isn’t even grazing the problem as long as he refuses to confront Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia about the alternately tacit and brazen military and financial support for ISIS and the al-Nusra Front (aka Al Qaeda in Syria) that comes from within their borders, or to address the vast geopolitical schism brought about by two competing pipeline projects: Iran-Iraq-Syria vs Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey…


In either case, the pipelines would need to go through Syria. If the former project goes ahead, Iran would gain greater regional status and Russia would gain control over much of the oil supply to Western Europe. Since Assad provisionally approved this project in 2011, both countries have a clear interest in backing him, and that’s very unlikely to change.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the latter project for obvious reasons, and if Assad falls then his support for the rival project will be voided.

Meanwhile, the Turkish “deep state” is far more interested in fighting the Kurdish militias (and virtually waving through the bombing of their trade union and student supporters) than fighting the people the Kurds are fighting on the ground: ISIS. Beyond turning a blind eye to ISIS activities, evidence is mounting that they’re actively supporting them. Here’s a pretty comprehensive list of the Turkey/ISIS evidence up till now:

For a more interpretive view that fits this all together, I’d really encourage anyone interested in the conflict to read the following by Dr Nafeez Ahmed:

If you tend to believe that nations engage in wars on the basis of high-minded principle rather than geopolitical interest, you might be inclined to disagree with some of his causal explanations, but the evidence he compiles is pretty damning.

Dennis Skinner had the temerity to raise a few of these points in Parliament the other day, asking “Do you regard Turkey as a reliable ally in the battle against Isil [Isis]? When you consider that not only today that they’ve shot down a Russian jet – who are also trying to fight Isil – they’re buying oil from Isil in order to prop them up, they’re bombing the Kurds who are also fighting Isil.”

Phillip Hammond could only offer the cheap response “I see old habits die hard and you remain an apologist for Russian actions”, blandly reasserting that “Turkey is an important Nato ally” and refusing to address the substance of Skinner’s point.

But this isn’t Russian apologism. This important Nato ally’s deep state is providing essential support to the very group that our military would be bombing, as well as waging war on the very people fighting them on the ground: the Kurds.

You don’t need a rose-tinted view of Russia’s motives to take a dim view of the Turkish state in all this. Trying to understand the Turkey/Russia relationship takes us back to the question of fossil fuels. In December 2014, the following Russia-Turkey gas pipeline was approved:

The pipeline would allow Russia to supply gas to Europe via Turkey, and the agreement was recently undermined by the threat of a coalition government in Turkey:

The UK and USA do not want to rely on Russian gas, so they don’t want the deal to go ahead. Now, with the downing of the Russian jet, the deal is in even bigger danger:

Obama and Cameron have been predictably supportive of Turkey, Putin has responded by pointing out Turkey’s oil links with ISIS, and Erdogan has responded by saying this is outrageous slander and he should either prove it or shut up, while also arresting Turkish journalists who report on his government’s complicity:

The Russians almost certainly knew about the oil sales already, so why are they bringing it up now? They’re already suffering due to the drop in oil prices brought about by Saudi overproduction. Oil and gas account for 70% of Russia’s export incomes, and both of them are being threatened in this conflict – not least by ISIS undercutting already low market prices and making an estimated $3m a day by flogging it on the black market. Russia are economically suffering because of all of this, and shooting down one of their planes is like poking a cornered bear.

Given their innumerable incursions into Greek airspace, Turkey haven’t got a leg to stand on, but they’re our NATO allies and we need them on-side to undermine Russia’s control of the gas supply, so the UK government backs them. Again, this isn’t to say Russia are the good guys. It’s just to point out that none of this is really about right and wrong – everyone’s looking after their own interests while claiming moral superiority.
And what about regional big guns Saudi Arabia? Cameron’s cosy relationship with the Saudi elite is well established:

I can understand his dilemma. The “defence” industry is one of the UK’s last remaining powerhouses, and he doesn’t want to compromise business deals by asking the Saudis too many difficult questions. As long as they keep buying our missiles to continue bombing Yemen, we’ve got a happy customer, and Cameron doesn’t want to mess with this arrangement.

But this vested interest, and the siding with Turkey over Russia, isn’t consistent with the stated imperative that ISIS must be destroyed. It’s not the only example. Another domestic source of funds for ISIS has come from Kuwait:
… who we recently sold some fighter jets for a tidy sum of £5.8bn. I hesitate to use the term, but this seems to be a literal case of the military-industrial-complex directing UK diplomacy. I wonder if they’ve done the figures and established that going to war is actually *less* costly than exercising diplomacy and endangering arms sales.

Insisting on diplomacy rather than military intervention isn’t pie-in-the-sky commie philosophising, it’s the only practical way forward if the goal genuinely is to defeat ISIS. If you look at the UK’s current allegiances and the schism between the two pipeline projects above (with the UK implicitly following the USA in their support for the Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Turkey line), it’s hard to take this stated aim at face value.

It also seems to be the case that it’s not what the people of Syria prioritise. Statistics gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights demonstrate that over 90% (respectively) of all civilians, children, medics and media activists killed in the conflict have been killed by government forces. ISIS seem to be responsible for around 0.9% of civilians killed, by contrast (http://sn4hr.org/). This obviously isn’t to say that their crimes are any less horrific or worthy of our attention, our sense of loss and condemnation. But it does signal the extent to which ISIS are less of a regional priority than Assad, and bombing them while they continue to receive vital funding with the tacit approval of our allies, and while the borders between different rebel forces are so porous, and while courting a ‘moderate’ force of 70,000 whose constitution and moderation seems to exist principally in Cameron’s hopes and dreams, seems like the definition of futility.

I guess a reply to all this is that it’s not so much for the benefit of the region as protecting the UK itself. Part of the group’s perceived religious legitimacy (which has been comprehensively and categorically rejected by the world’s leading Islamic scholars (see http://www.lettertobaghdadi.com/ , or
…despite what some guy called Graeme wrote in The Atlantic, which was refuted (again in The Atlantic) by an actual scholar of Islam here:
http://www.theatlantic.com/…/what-muslims-really-wa…/386156/ …)
….relates to its hold on territory, so the argument goes that disaffected UK citizens will stop pledging allegiance if they no longer hold that territory. Beyond that, they’ll no longer have the territory or resources to mastermind attacks on British soil.

This argument seems to confuse two points. One is the worrying flow of alienated youngsters who go and join them, and the other is the worrying sense that the UK itself will be attacked. Of course the two aren’t unrelated, but they are distinct. Yes, their loss of territory would delegitimise them and likely reduce the flow of volunteers. But the idea that domestic terrorists are incapable of planning and executing acts of terror unless the masterminds in Raqqa have a comfortable HQ is very weak. These things take a lot of planning, but the devil is in the local detail, and these attacks are almost always plotted and carried out by locals. This disturbing detail is unlikely to be positively affected by bombing foreign fighters, and the point remains that adding a few more bombers to an already comprehensively bombarded region isn’t *really* an effective way of undermining ISIS.

It’s bluster and symbolism, and claiming that it won’t affect the likelihood of an attack against the UK is laughable. If a single civilian death results from UK bombardment (which is almost certain to happen, and almost certain to go unreported even in the liberal newspapers sternly evoking Churchill and talking about Our Duty To Act), not only will it be a criminally avoidable tragedy in its own right but it will be a gift to ISIS recruiters, and an attack on the UK is just the sort of thing that encourages the UK military to act even more rashly and indiscriminately, which is of course what they want.

Again, I might have a few things wrong, but I just cannot see the benefit of UK involvement, beyond indulging various allies in the interest of recouping various morally dubious favours and munitions sales. I’m sure it’s improving Cameron’s approval rating after Paris, and the backstabbers in the PLP are already exploiting the issue to try and get rid of Corbyn, but they’re playing with people’s lives.
Obviously I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, but I don’t think they do either, and the factual points above should illustrate that it’s already a horrific mess of competing interests that military intervention from the UK is not going to benefit or resolve.

If you agree with any of the above, you’ve still got time to tell your MP before the vote in Parliament. There’s a template letter and an automated way of sending it at this webpage:

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Keynes on the influential power of ideas

Keynes’s (1936:383-84) view of the role of ideas:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves to some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

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Tony Blair, Neo-Con

In an essay with the cryptic and indecipherable title, ‘Tony Blair, Neo-Con’, the political philosopher John Gray has argued that Tony Blair is best understood as a straightforward neo-conservative. Certainly, he embraced the neo-liberal belief (prevalent at the time) that the free market was the key to prosperity and modernisation, and the state should adapt to accommodate and support it. ‘He never doubted that globalisation was creating a worldwide market economy that must eventually be complemented by global democracy. When he talked of the necessity for continuing ‘economic reform’ – as he often did – he took for granted this meant further privatisation and the injection of market mechanisms into public services… For him the clichés of the hour have always been eternal verities.

So yes, he was a neo-liberal in practice, and by default. But in Gray’s reading, his deeper convictions were properly neo-conservative.

Neo-conservatives perceive that there’s more to life than the market, and government is required to promote the virtues that the market is bound to neglect. Blair accepted the need for discipline and punishment, as well as viewing religion as a source of social cohesion – apparent in his support for faith schools. He also held the neo-conservative suspicion that market forces alone can’t topple regimes and bring about positive social change, and military intervention is sometimes needed to make this happen.

This brings us to Iraq. His involvement is often viewed as a naked power play, a cynical attempt to curry favour with the US and re-establish the UK as a major actor on the global stage. But in Gray’s view, this perspective disregards the extent to which the invasion chimed with his earnest convictions. He viewed Saddam as a tyrant on the wrong side of history, and acted according to a deeply-held belief that the ‘end of history’ would come about when every nation was a capitalist liberal democracy. The US led this normative march of progress, and Blair saw it as his duty to support them in their eternal fight against darkness.

Every time he took the UK to war (in Sierra Leone, the Balkans, then Afghanistan and Iraq), it was done as form of humanitarian intervention. And this was based on a very specific view of the modern age and the nation-state.

The view that we’d entered a ‘post-Westphalian’ world, in which nation states were no longer the central players, was popular in the ‘90s, and Gray traces this to the post-Cold War lull in which the US was largely able to act un-challenged. With no other nations to oppose them, their law became a global law. Of course, this didn’t really signal the death of the nation state, and rival powers started to stir in the form of China and India. However, the belief in a post-Westphalian world was useful to Blair, and supported his crypto-religious view of world events. If we were finally entering an era of global (rather than merely national) governance, the purposes of war had now expanded. It now became an instrument of progress, as clearly expressed in his address to the World Affairs Council in LA in 2006:

Our values are worth struggling for. They represent humanity’s progress throughout the ages, and at each point we have had to fight for them again.’

Neo-conservative that he was, Blair viewed the US as the paradigm of liberal modernity, and backing them in Iraq was backing progress. Ultimately, though, his ‘faith in American invincibility was misguided. America’s defeat by the Iraqi insurgency was in no way unexpected… The lesson of asymmetric warfare – where the militarily weak use unorthodox tactics against the seemingly overwhelmingly strong – is that the weak have the winning hand.’ He ignored this lesson of the past, since it contradicted his view of history as the inevitable ‘unfolding of a providential design’, a US-led march of progress.

John Gray connects this sense of political providence with Blair’s somewhat creative approach to ‘truth’:

For him truth is whatever serves the cause, and when he engage in what is commonly judged to be deception he is only anticipating the new world that he is helping to bring about… Deception is justified if it advances human progress – and then it is not deception…’

Under Blair, the shaping of public opinion became the government’s overriding purpose, and integral to its function. To justify the invasion of Iraq, he had to construct a pseudo-reality, willing it into existence with the help of a legion of liberal hawks, some of whom maybe shared his faith, and some of whom maybe just rode the wave, engaging in power politics while bright-eyed Tony gushed about the Kingdom of God that waited always, forever, beyond the horizon.

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Cameron, Pork and Penda’s Fen

I’ve tried to avoid bringing up what he did to that poor dead pig, but David Cameron’s comments today were so irritating that I couldn’t stop it from bleeding into my rant. I was genuinely surprised that he’d sunk to this level of political tub-thumping, but I suppose I really shouldn’t be:


 Never mind that Jeremy Corbyn did explicitly say he thinks “the World Trade Centre was a tragedy” – of course he fucking did, he’s a reasonable human being as well as an anti-war campaigner. Or the fact that his description of Bin Laden’s extrajudicial killing (on Pakistan’s sovereign territory) as simply “another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy” appeared in the middle of a point about cycles of violence and the fact he wasn’t arrested and tried in court instead. Never mind that he said  “The solution has got to be law, not war,” that deranged extremist. He’s a threat to national security and everything we hold dear.


 If you’re opposed to the escalation of violence in the world rather than just seeking a cathartic “hoo-ra!” chest-bump, surely you can at least question the decision to kill Bin Laden on the spot rather than arresting him and dragging him in front of the courts, publicly detailing his crimes, denying him martyrdom. Cameron presents himself as the realist to Corbyn’s ranting extremist, but Corbyn’s position reflects a lucid realpolitik perspective as well as an ideological one. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed global power with a vital role to play in the neo-con “war on terror”, and as Anatol Lieven compellingly spells out in ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’, the only thing realistically likely to decisively turn them against a western power like the US would be a military incursion on their territory.

 As far as I can see, the only subtantial justification for this incredibly rash manoeuvre is if we accept Seymour Hersh’s scoop/wild allegation that Bin Laden was actually being held by the Pakistani ISI for political leverage, and an ISI officer gave up his whereabouts in exchange for a portion of the $25,000,000 reward. If this is the case, it makes sense to suppose the ISI would only give him up on the condition that the SEALs make sure they kill him, to cover up (a) the fact that the ISI were detaining him in the first place, and (b) the fact they gave him up to the Americans.

 If we *don’t* accept what the political establishment are quite happy to call a baseless conspiracy theory, the decision to send US troops into Pakistan was reckless and could only stoke an already rampant anti-Western sentiment. It also martyred a man who could just as well have been tried in an international court. It’s pretty reasonable to believe that reducing him to the figure of a wizened man in a jumpsuit and chains would’ve done more to undermine his romantic status as a mysterious, elusive radical than assassinating him and dumping his body in the sea.

 Cameron’s papering-over of this context is, of course, cynical and self-serving, but it also serves to naturalise a trend in US foreign policy that you could basically call ‘unilateral’. The fact the US military can rely on UK military support in most of these endeavours doesn’t really contradict the view that it’s unilateral, since we’re effectively just flying in the eagle’s shadow. Corbyn’s uncomplicated position seems to be that the UK should stop sending its military to bomb and/or invade other countries, linked to the belief that doing so is the primary cause of the kind of hostilities that lead to attacks against the UK itself. But in Cameron’s world, Corbyn’s belief that the UK should adhe to international law and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is, itself, “security-threatening”.

 Despite the attempt to portray it as nothing more than the opium dream of a strung-out, ageing hippy, there’s a sober argument for scrapping Trident coming from the heart of the military establishment too. The UK’s National Security Strategy (2010) stated that terrorism, cyber-warfare and natural disasters pose far more credible threats to the UK than nuclear attack in the modern world (re: the Cold War ending several decades ago), and a group of senior officers have argued against its renewal on the grounds that reallocating the funds spent on this redundant symbol would actually strengthen the UK military in real terms:


 Media Lens dissect the mainstream media treatment of Corbyn’s position on Trident nice and neatly:


 As Richard Norton-Taylor noted in a recent Guardian article, even war-happy Tony Blair has said that “The expense is huge and the utility…non-existent in terms of military use.” He said he could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought that giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”…”

 This is what it’s really about for Cameron: status, not security. And ‘status’ is not a value-neutral phenomenon. No person or nation ever just has ‘status’ – it’s always status *as* something or other. This relates to another of Cameron’s slurs, the childish allegation that Corbyn is “Britain-hating”.

 Fundamentally, you can only accept that Corbyn hates Britain if you accept that what he opposes is synonymous with British identity. Foreign wars? They’re woven into the roots of our mighty oaks. Financial deregulation? It’s breathlessly urged in the song of every merry, red-breasted robin. The forces slowly eroding our affordable housing stock? The very same forces that hold up and polish the proud white cliffs of Dover.

 Obviously, clearly, this is total and utter bollocks, and predicated on a view that Britain is (and must be) internally defined by its ruling elite and the choices they make. Britain might be defined that way in the eyes of the outside world, but this is a matter of *appearance* rather than *essence*.

 Cameron would have been about 8 years old when the BBC broadcast ‘Penda’s Fen’, David Rudkin’s ground-breaking Play for Today, so he probably missed it. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-YCj8OnEMo

 The protagonist, Stephen, is a snooty right-wing moralist who’s obsessed with Edward Elgar and a vision of England calcified in the rural middle-class mores of the early 1970s. He wonders around his village with an adolescent certainty, lecturing all and sundry about “our Aryan national family” and its “Christian path”. He argues with his father, an enlightened and compassionate vicar, and sits fuming as a local farmer defends the miners’ strikes in a parish meeting: “Is it strikers who play monopoly for real with our countryside and cities? Is it strikers who smash the fabric of our communities for greed? Is it strikers who throw up in the air million after million of your taxes and mine on bungled delirium and fantasy? Is it strikers who pillage our earth, ransack it, drain it dry for quick gain, to hand on nothing but dust to the children of tomorrow?”

 Slowly realising that his own sexuality and heritage aren’t as fixed and ‘pure’ as he previously thought, Stephen has a series of supernatural visions, and his understanding of both his nation and himself begins to crack. Sitting on top of the Malvern hills, he’s approached by a creepy old couple who proclaim him a saviour, destined to lead the nation on a purifying mission. Finally seeing himself as he really is, he shouts at them, “No, no! I am nothing pure! Nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, mixed, mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!” Angered at his betrayal of their vision for the nation, they set him on fire. Rolling down the hillside in pain, he impulsively cries out to Penda, the last pagan king of England, to rescue him. Penda duly appears in a pillar of fire and smoke. Dispatching the ‘purists’ who tried to freeze and define the nation, he addresses Stephen:

 “Stephen, be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our flame.”

 For every attempt to essentialise British identity, the repressed fact of plurality will always resurface and resist it. Corbyn’s ideology is “Britain-hating” only in the same way Cameron’s is, in that it’s opposed to certain aspects of our society and how it’s organised. The difference is that Cameron sees what he hates as an extreme and threatening deviation from a Britishness that he alone gets to define.

 Wrapping his clammy fingers round the cold and slippery ears of a decapitated sow, shivering slightly as he eased Little David between its dead lips and found to his disquiet that something was stirring and heating up in its mouth, it’s entirely possible (and, you could reasonably go as far as saying, likely) that David Cameron shut his eyes and thought, “Ooh… This is classically British.”

 But he doesn’t get to nationalise himself and his own decisions in this way. It’s obviously in his interest to make it seem like he’s acting in accord with some essential part of the national spirit, as if the decision to cut tax credits, bomb Syria, sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and scrap the requirement for new developments to include affordable flats were scratched in the Magna Carta itself. But these decisions were as contingent and dependent on his place in a certain ideological milieu as his decision to approach that dead pig’s head and have his way with it, clenching his teeth while his cronies clapped and showered him with port.

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1: The Devil is Dead


I’ve stumbled across a long-winded but revealing chunk of lunacy, which I think shines a light on Nigel and why he’s dangerous. It’s a transcript of a speech by Jonathan Bowden, a neo-fascist oddball, ex-Tory and one-time Cultural Secretary for the BNP:


He died a couple of years ago, and thus another repugnant face of Anglo-fascist populism faded into antiquity. Bowden was a Cambridge dropout with a habit of quoting Neitzsche in his speeches to burly, dejected crowds in the back-rooms of failing pubs. He advocated a return to a kind of aristocratic ‘might is right’ morality, which it’s hard to square with the resentful, slighted tone of his fellow nationalists. He reminds me a bit of Yukio Mishima, a novelist who tried to kick off a violent coup in Tokyo in 1970, demanding the return of Samurai social codes and the reinstatement of the emperor. Only 4 people joined him, and he committed hara-kiri during a pathetic siege that lasted less than a day. These men were intelligent, but ridiculous, and therefore reassuring. There are so many miles of sky between their demands and the current state of things that it’s easy to laugh at them from a comfortable distance. But they’re not really funny.

In his speech, Bowden uses his background as an actual Punch & Judy “Professor” to make a few unlikely points about modern politics. You hear the phrase “Punch and Judy politics” spouted out so often it becomes an empty platitude, vaguely signifying the adversarial pantomime of parliamentary debates. You tune it out, like the never-ending bleeping of a broken photocopier, for the sake of your mental health. But in this context “Punch and Judy politics” takes on a different meaning, and I think it highlights a political reality that extends beyond the meeting-rooms of alienated extremists.

The character of Mr Punch came to Britain from Italy, and Bowden argues he soon became a kind of national archetype. He’s violent and amoral, quick to attack hypocrisy and anyone who threatens to curb his autonomy. He outwits priests and policemen alike, convinces the hangman to hang himself, and even kills the Devil. He’s anarchic and unkillable, and any attempt to stop him is doomed to fail. Knock him down and he pops back up again with an earthy cackle.

In this sense, Mr Punch does fit the mould of a certain type of folk hero: the trickster. He exists to subvert the law – any law – as soon as it’s imposed. Trickster figures express a human truth, which is probably why they reoccur in most mythologies. In every human being there’s something wild and ungovernable. Every morning we wake from violent and lustful dreams, and stumble into tiled bathrooms to scrub ourselves and wash away the madness. We fasten our clothes with buttons and zips, but there’s always a naked animal underneath, and it wants to get out.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that children are more attuned to this reality. Not too long ago, they were little more than screaming, greedy, hungry mouths, and they haven’t yet been wholly socialised. The slapstick violence of Mr Punch makes sense to them. The frustration of adults snatching things away from them is fresh, and they enjoy the sight of the trickster attacking the institutional figures that oppress them. Family, medicine, law – anyone who tells them what to do, for their own or the greater good – all these barriers to basic childish freedom get their comeuppance.

But it isn’t just the thrill of revenge that appeals. It’s the basic perception of life that Mr Punch dramatises. Children haven’t learnt to recognise shades of grey, and they haven’t yet been exhausted by all the confusing webs of causation that we use to make sense of the world. People seem to act on primal whims, often erupting in violence. It’s the same absurd and arbitrary picture of the world that animates Edward Lear’s nonsense limericks:


There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,

Who danced a quadrille with a raven;

But they said, ‘It’s absurd

To encourage this bird!’

So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

Moments of brutality and darkness abound in folk tales and children’s stories, often with a slapstick edge that thrills a child even while it scares them. In a sense, this perception of life is accurate and honest. We tell ourselves that everything happens for a comprehensible reason. Violence is institutionalised and normalised and becomes a kind of dimly buzzing background to our lives. We drown it out. But then there are moments of dissonance. Incriminating slips of the tongue, the times we lose our tempers or stumble on uneven paving-stones, or a cluster of weeds defiantly growing between them. These are the moments when Mr Punch interrupts the self-important droning of the doctor or policeman, and gives them a sudden crack round the head, right when they least expect it.

When Punch eventually kills the Devil, the phrase he shouts is “The Devil is dead! The Devil is dead! And now you’re free to do what you want!” The implication of this is profound: there are no ultimate obligations or rules that have any hold on you. Above and beyond the actual existence of God or the Devil, it’s the realisation that we always have the power to defy authority. Police can tell you not to break the law, but you can still do it. Doctors can tell you not to smoke cigarettes, but you can still kick back with a pint and spark one up. We might end up suffering for these choices, but we still have the power to make them. This is both a liberating and nauseating discovery. Even though we get a vicarious thrill from Punch’s antics, he is grotesque.

Bowden celebrates Punch and Judy shows for the harsh lessons they teach about human nature. Punch is pagan wildness incarnate. And I agree this wildness is part of each of us, at least potentially. The question is what you do with it.  Like a regrettable number of otherwise intelligent people casting around for a purpose, Bowden found the answer in nationalism.


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