Why “in that howling infinite”?

It refers to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”,  a magnificent study in mania and obsession:

“But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”   Chapter 23

In a figurative sense, it speaks to me of the themes and schemes that are addressed in the thoughts, ideas, songs, poems and stories that will feature in this blog.

Other memorable quotations follow:

“For long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched out in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad”.  Chapter 41

“Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”   Chapter 36

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”.  Chapter 135

In That Howling Infinite is the title of Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five.

For more on  Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, see Chapter 41 and Ahab’s Madness.

Check out In That Howling Infinite on FaceBook:

Ahab’s Paranoia The New Yorker

Moby-Dick

Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men…

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The agony of Julian Assange

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
That fellow’s got to swing’.
Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol
 
A nice dilemma we have here that calls for all our wit
Gilbert and Sullivan, Trial by Jury

The Road to Belmarsh Gaol

Julian Assange, the Australian co-founder of online media organization WikiLeaks is in deep shit. He’s pissed off the Yanks, frustrated the Poms, and angered his Ecuadorian hosts, and now the Swedes want to have another bash …

He was arrested on April 11th by British police at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years having lost a final appeal against his extradition to Sweden to face charges of sexual assault. He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.

While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty on that charge of failing to surrender, and is now in a London jail awaiting sentencing.

On April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018 charging Julian Assange with a conspiracy to help whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, former soldier and pardoned felon to crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks – in effect, conspiracy to hack US computer systems, a charge which carries a maximum five year sentence. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court. There is no guarantee that once he enters the the legal system he will ever re-emerge; he could face charges under the espionage act which could mean life imprisonment.

In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor requested Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. Whilst appealing a British High Court decision to extradite him, he spent eighteen months under house arrest at the home of a supporter (in effect, he has been incarcerated for almost a decade). In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed the case against him, but after his arrest, the lawyer for one of the Swedish complainants indicated she’d ask the prosecutor to reopen the case. Sweden’s Prosecution Authority is formally reviewing the case and could renew its request for extradition.

Stay angry, get even

The current US administration cleaves to the maxim “stay angry and get even” – Uncle Sam neither forgets nor forgives. Just wait and see what happens if it can get its hands on exiled hacker and   Now Russian resident Edward Snowden. The British Government, relieved to have restored a corner of Knightsbridge to its sovereignty, and currently knee deep in the Brexit “Big Muddy”, probably won’t lift a finger to help him even though by any standard of much-vaunted British ‘fair play’, his self-imposed punishment hardly fits his alleged crimes, an by any liberal and democratic benchmark, he’s certainly served his time.

And we too, in Australia, lost in our own political maze, and in the midst of a vicious and tight election campaign, will bleat from the distant sidelines that it’s not our problem – which politically and diplomatically speaking, it isn’t, other than the fact that he is an Australian citizen (albeit a longtime absentee) and therefore warrants consular assistance. Simplistically put, there are no votes in it.

Will our government now help him out? Demand his return to Australia? Oppose the calls from the US to extradite him from the UK?

Our tepid and tardy response to the detention in Thailand of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on a dodgey Bahraini extradition order and the asylum plea of Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammad – ironically, again from Thailand – does not auger well for a resolute and reasonable response. The way we left erstwhile al Qaida fellow-travelers David Hicks and Mamduh Habib to rot in Gitmo, and the  lack of enthusiasm with which we took up journalist Peter Greste’s case in Egypt – his family and journalists worldwide maintained the struggle for his release – suggest that after what we call “diplomatic representations” (what ordinary folk call “going through the motions”), we will face political realities and bend to the US’ will.

Caught up between our subservient relationship with the US, our slavish pandering to economic and strategic interests, placing these above considerations of human rights, and our government’s susceptibility to the malign influence of shock-jocks and populist politicians, Australia’s official behaviour in such cases is often predictably and reflexively disingenuous.

Nowadays, most governments are desperate to stop leaks, data dumps, whistle-blowers and uncomfortable revelations. Democratic governments have attempted to use ostensibly benign legal and security powers to restrict media oversight and criticism. Witness here in Australian how the Victorian Director of Prosecutions is seeking to put thirty-six media outlets, editors and journalists on trial over allegations that they breached a suppression order in reports published after the prominent and well-connected Cardinal George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse charges. The powerful look after their own.

Less squeamish, more thuggish autocratic regimes have few qualms about consigning journalists and editors to jail and worse whilst their western allies and armourers ‘see no, hear no, speak no evil’. Narrow, national interests as ever trump (an apposite word, indeed) human rights. Witness the hundreds of Egyptian and Turkish journalists jailed without trial, the harassment and even killing of reporters in Eastern Europe and Russia, and, of course, the gruesome murder of Saudi scribbler and stirrer Jamal Khashoggi.

The US, the land of the free and the First Amendment has truly shown its hand, and its true colours, proving that Assange’s fears of extradition were quite justified. The UK, meanwhile, has long ached to nail him for contempt of its bail laws, and just plain contempt, really – and a seriously extravagant waste of already straitened police resources. When Assange had worn out his Ecuadorian welcome, lubricated, it is alleged (by WikiLeaks), a $4.2 billion IMF bailout plus another $6 billion from other financial institutions, the Met was ready to roll. Meanwhile, Australia’s political class, having long regarded his Australian nationality as an embarrassing inconvenience, just hoped that we could be left out of it all.

Rally ‘round the fall guy

The media, mainstream, extreme, any stream really, including social media and sundry supporters and detractors, are rushing to both praise Assange and to bury him. They defend and demonstrate, denounce and demean. So Julian Assange, simultaneously icon and bête noir, is the ideal fall-guy “pour decourager les autres”: for everyone on the left and the right who dig him, there’s another who can’t stand him for reasons political, personal, or perverse.

There’s the role he played in the demise of Hilary Clinton and election of Donald Trump, as if, some believe, he was hoping for some kind of “get out of jail free” card from a Trump administration. There’s his hanging out, in a confined space, with the likes of UKIP’s irritating and arguably obnoxious Nigel Farage. All this has forever tarnished his reputation as a warrior of the left. There’s those problematical charges in Sweden that we now learn have never gone away.

During the last Australian Federal election, the party running his senate bid in absentia gave its preferences to right-wing libertarian nut-jobs ahead of Labor and the Greens, his erstwhile natural allies – and then put it all down to clerical error.

Sadly, stories about his tantrums, visits by Yoko Ono, Lady Gaga and onetime Baywatch hottie Pamela Anderson (nudge, nudge, wink, wink!) and neglecting to clean up after his cat – lurid tales of his hygiene habits appear have been concocted to dehumanize him in tabloid tittle-tat – have rendered him an object of ridicule. And the images of him being dragged out of the embassy, pale and blinking in the unforgiving daylight, grey-haired, bearded, wide-eyed and disheveled, like some mad old street person, have engendered pathos and pity.

There can be little doubt that his mental and physical health deteriorated during his confinement. For sure he is not the confident man who entered the embassy so many years ago; but the law doesn’t recognise this – it demands a reckoning. And many love to kick a man when he’s down.

In the end, Assange was in so many ways his own worst enemy. It is hypothesized that he could’ve surrendered to the Brits long time passing and took his chances at law instead of hiding, a much diminished figure, in the embassy of a small Latin American republic. The sad irony is that if he’d faced the music all those years ago, he might’ve been a free man by now, either having done his time or been exonerated, or else, a credible and respected political prisoner supported worldwide as a champion of press freedom and free speech.

A nice dilemma

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has done the world many favours. They’ve exposed war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; they’ve shine an unwelcome light on wrongdoing, shabby deals, and hypocritical, incriminating and ofttimes embarrassing goings-on in the corridors of power and diplomacy worldwide. And they’ve passed all this on to reputable media sources throughout the so-called free world to sift, analyse, question, join disparate dots, and disseminate.

Yet, in what may seem in retrospect to be a bad dose of overconfidence and hubris, they aspired to be players in the power games of others rather than remaining a neutral and discerning watchdog. And this was perhaps Assange’s undoing – if undone he indeed becomes. This story has some distance to run …

His faithfully longtime lawyer Jen Robinson declared that his arrest, after seven years of self-imposed internal exile, has “set a dangerous precedent for all media and journalists in Europe and around the world”. His extradition to the US, she said, meant that any journalist could face charges for “publishing truthful information about the United States”.

And yet, much of the legal argy-bargy around the charges Assange is likely to face in the US hinge on the question of whether he is actually a journalist and whether WikiLeaks is actually a news organization. He and his supporters have long portrayed him as a champion of a free press, but some experts believe that the US Department of Justice’s decision to charge him with conspiring to hack government computers limits his ability to mount a vigorous free speech defense. Assange has long said WikiLeaks is a journalistic endeavour protected by freedom of the press laws, and in 2017, a UK tribunal recognized WikiLeaks as a “media organisation”.

Friends and foes alike are now dancing around these distinctions.

In a concise recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Greste, who got to know very well the inside of a squalid Egyptian prison cell and the Egypt’s kafkaesqe judicial system for allegedly publishing what a government didn’t like, makes a few points that Jennifer, her colleague, the eloquent and famous Geoffrey Robertson, and others have skated lightly over:

“Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation. There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos, but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom … Journalism demands more than simply acquiring confidential information and releasing it unfiltered onto the internet for punters to sort through. It comes with responsibility. To effectively fulfill the role of journalism in a democracy, there is an obligation to seek out what is genuinely in the public interest and a responsibility to remove anything that may compromise the privacy of individuals not directly involved in a story or that might put them at risk. Journalism also requires detailed context and analysis to explain why the information is important, and what it all means”.

Yes, Julian is in deep shit. But, you animal lovers and sharers of kitty pics out there in the twitterverse and Facebook world, his cat and companion Michi has gone to a good home …

Read more about politics in In That Howling Infinite here: A Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Las Trece Rosas – Spain’s Unquiet Graves

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
WB Yeats, Easter 1916

On the morning of August 5th 1939 thirteen women were put against the walls of Madrid’s La Almudena Cemetery and shot…

Eighty years ago this month, the Spanish cities of Madrid and Valencia fell to the nationalist forces of Francisco Franco. Victory was proclaimed as Franco placed his sword to rest upon the altar of a church declaring that he wouldn’t raise the blade again until Spain was in peril. The Spanish Civil War that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives (upwards of half a million, possibly up to two) was at an end; the long march of the generalissimo was over and the reign of the Caudillo had begun. It endured until his death in 1975.

The Spanish Civil War was long, brutal and bloody, and medieval in its savagery. It was a war of armies and of militias, of men and women, of skirmishes and set-piece battles, of massacres and reprisals, and of wars within wars. It saw cities besieged and starved into surrender and towns destroyed by bombers and heavy artillery. It cut a swathe across the country leaving scars that endure to this day.

It became a proxy war for three dictators – Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin – who dispatched men and machines to fight under false flags in what would appear in retrospect to be rehearsal for wars to come. It was a magnet for idealists and activists of disparate political creeds and from many lands who were to fight and die on both sides, including the celebrated International Brigades. It lured writers and poets who were to chronicle its confusion and carnage, including Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, WH Auden, André Malraux and Arthur Koastler. Many perished, the most famous being the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by Nationalist militia and buried in an unmarked grave, one of many unquiet graves scattered throughout the land. 

Since Franco’s death, successive Spanish governments have endeavoured to heal the wounds of the war and the dictatorship through by condoning what could be described as historical amnesia. And yet, such official forgetfulness, well-intentioned as ur might be, is often suborned by our species’  instinctive need to remember and to memorialize our dearly departed.

Valle de los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains near Madrid, is one such monument.  This grandiose necropolis hostsA  mass grave of some 34,000 war dead of all sides, as well as the tombs of an embalmed Franco and of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange Española. It is shrine and a place of pilgrimage for nationalists and  Falangists old and young, and a bitter reminder for the families and friends of the vanquished.

The current socialist government has shattered the deafening silence. it is determined to move Franco’s remains out the basilica and to make the Valley of the Fallen a more neutral place to honour the victims of the war and of vengeful aftermath.

The mass graves of Spain’s civil war victims is a live issue as the nation comes to terms with its history. Even the weather compels the soil to give up its dead, revealing  the scale and the savagery of the slaughter that followed the victory of Franco’s Nationalists. Recent storms have swept away soil in an area of Madrid’s La Almudena public cemetery, exposing the bones of three thousand people executed on the orders of Francoist military courts in the five years after Spain’s civil war ended in 1939. They include, it is believed, Las Treces Rosas, the Thirteen Roses

Outside the history books and the stories, songs and folk memories of ageing socialists and anarchists, there is limited knowledge and understanding of the causes, chronology and  consequences of the civil war – and I am not about to rectify that in this post. Click here to and here to read reasonable synopses.

Rather, I will take the opportunity to publish a story about the war – one tragedy among so many – that illustrates its ruthlessness. Here is the story of those thirteen young victims. 


Thirteen roses ..and forty three carnations

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On the morning of August 5th 1939 thirteen women were shot dead against the walls of Madrid’s La Almudena Cemetery.

Nine were minors, because at that time the age of majority was not reached until twenty-one. Ranging in age from 18 to 29, all had been brought from the Sales women’s prison, a prison that was designed for 450 people and in 1939 contained 4,000. Apart from Brisac Blanca Vazquez, all belonged to the Unified Socialist Youth (JSU) or PCE (Communist Party of Spain). Although they had not participated in the attack that killed Isaac Gabaldon, commander of the Civil Guard, they were charged with being involved and conspiring against the “social and legal order of the new Spain”.

The trial was held on August 3rd and 56 death sentences were issued, including the perpetrators of the attack. The Thirteen Roses went to their execution hoping to be reunited with their JSU comrades. In some cases it would have meant a boyfriend or husband but their hopes crumbled upon learning that the men had been shot already.

conesa

The brick wall clearly showed the bullet holes and the earth had been turned dark by blood. Some days, the death toll exceeded two hundred and machine guns were used to facilitate the work. Between 1939 and 1945, four thousand people were shot in the Eastern Cemetery, including Julián Zugazagoitia, Minister of the Interior with Juan Negrín and remarkable writer and socialist politician.

According to Maria Teresa Igual, prison officer and eyewitness, the Thirteen Roses died with fortitude. There were no screams or pleas. In an eerie half-silence, only the steps of the firing squad were heard, the sound of the guns striking the straps and the voice of the commanding officer. Lined up shoulder to shoulder, after the shooting all received the coup de grace, which was clearly heard in the Sales women’s prison. Apparently, one of the condemned (whether Anita or Blanca is not known), did not die immediately and had shouted, “Am I not to be killed?”

Antonia Torre Yela was spared execution by a typing error. In transcribing her name, the letters danced and became Antonio Torres Yera. The error only postponed death for Antonia, a member of the JSU and only 18. She was shot on February 19th, 1940, becoming the 14th Rose. In her farewell letter, Julia Conesa, nineteen and member of the JSU, wrote: “Let my name not be erased from history.” Her name and that of her comrades has not been forgotten, unlike those of their tormentors, who enjoyed impunity for 38 years of dictatorship and a shameful amnesty which only helped to deepen the hurt suffered by all victims of Francoism.

The PSOE (main social-democratic party — DB) tried to appropriate the Thirteen Roses, concealing that at the time of the executions the PSOE had split from the JSU to found the Socialist Youth of Spain (JSE), with the purpose of clearly distancing themselves from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE). In fact, the Law of Historical Memory of Zapatero’s government (the first PSOE government after Franco — DB) did not even consider overturning the dictatorship’s judicial verdicts. It should be remembered that nearly fifty men were also shot dead that sad August 5th, the “43 Carnations”. Franco showed the same ruthlessness to men and women.

A hell

Sales jail was a hell, with children, elderly and mothers with children huddled in hallways, stairs, patios and bathrooms. Manuela and Teresa Basanta Guerra were the first women executed against the walls of the Eastern Cemetery. They shot them on June 29th 1939 along with a hundred men. Some historians claim that other women preceded them but their names were not recorded in the cemetery’s files. Like others on death row, the Thirteen Roses could only write to their families after receiving confession. If they did not take confession, they gave up the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.

Brisac Blanca was the eldest of the thirteen and active in no political organization. Catholic and one who voted for the Right, she nevertheless fell in love with a musician who belonged to the PCE, Enrique Garcia Mazas. They married and had a son. Both were arrested and sentenced to death in the same trial. In fact, Enrique was in Porlier prison and would be shot a few hours before her. Blanca wrote a letter to her son Enrique, asking him not to harbour ill-will towards those responsible for her death and to become a good and hardworking man.

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In postwar Madrid there was vicious persecution and resentment of any citizen suspected of “joining the rebellion”, the technicality that was used to reverse the law, accusing supporters of the Second Republic of violating the law in force. Only the military, the clergy, the Falange and the Carlists could breathe easily. No one dared to walk around in workers’ overalls or wearing the traditional local bandanna (worn by men around the neck and by women as a kerchief around the head, it is still worn today at festival in Madrid — DB).

The city was a huge prison where “hunt the red” was taking place. The earlier militia-women aroused particular animosity. The Arriba newspaper edition of May 16th 1939, featured an article by José Vicente Puente in which his contempt does not mince words: “One of the greatest tortures of the hot and drunk Madrid were the militia-women parading openly in overalls, lank-haired, with sour voice and rifle ready to shoot down and end lives upon a whim to satiate her sadism. With their shameless gestures, the primitive and wild, dirty and dishevelled militiawomen had something of atavism, mental and educational. … …. They were ugly, low, knock-kneed, lacking the great treasure of an inner life, without the shelter of religion, within them femininity was all at once extinguished.”

In this climate of hatred and revenge, denunciations proliferated — they were the best means of demonstrating loyalty to the fascist Movement.

The interrogations …. copied Gestapo tortures

The interrogations in police stations copied Gestapo tortures: electric shock on the eyes and genitals, the “bathtub”, removing fingernails with pliers, mock executions. Women suffered especially because the torture was compounded by sexual abuse, castor oil and hair cut down to the scalp. In some cases they even shaved eyebrows to further depersonalize. Rapes were commonplace. The testimony of Antonia Garcia, sixteen, “Antoñita” is particularly chilling: “They wanted to put electric currents on my nipples but since I had no chest they just put them in my ears and burst my eardrums. I knew no more. When I came to I was in jail. I spent a month in madness”.

Among those responsible for the interrogations was General Gutierrez Mellado, hero of the Transition and Captain in the Information Service of the Military Police (CPIS ) during the toughest years following the war. He regularly attended executions, seeking last-minute confessions. On August 6th 1939 he pulled Cavada Sinesio Guisado, nicknamed “Pioneer”, military chief of the JSU after the war, out of the execution line. “Pioneer” had been lined up against the Eastern Cemetery wall and was awaiting the discharge of lead along with the rest of his comrades. Gutiérrez Mellado stepped forward and ordered his release. He forced him to witness the executions and asked for more information about PCE clandestine activity. Although he was cooperative and diligent, he was shot in the end on September 15th. Some claim that Gutierrez Mellado witnessed the execution of the Thirteen Roses but I was not able to verify the data.

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The women’s prison in Sales was run by Carmen Castro. Her inflexibility and lack of humanity found expression in the conditions of life of the children in prison with their mothers. No soap or hygienic facilities — almost all had ringworm, lice and scabies. Many died and were placed in a room where the rats were trying to devour the remains. Adelaida Abarca, JSU activist, said the bodies were only skin and bones, almost skeletons, for hunger had consumed them slowly. Another prisoner said: “The situation of the children was maddening. They were also dying and dying with dreadful suffering. Their glances, their sunken eyes, their continuous moans and stench are branded on my memory.” (Testimony given to Giuliana Di Febo in Resistance and the Women’s Movement in Spain [1936-1976] , Barcelona 1979).

The prisoners lived within the shadow of the “pit”, the death penalty. Since the execution of the Basanta Guerra sisters, they knew that the regime would have no mercy on women. On the morning when the Thirteen Roses were shot, Virtudes Gonzalez ‘s mother was at the jail doorway. When she saw her daughter climbing into the truck that was carrying prisoners to the cemetery walls, she began shouting: “Bastards ! Murderers ! Leave my daughter alone!” She chased the truck and fell. Alerted by the commotion, the Sales jail officers went outside and picked her off the ground, taking her into the prison. She was kept inside as yet another prisoner.

“If I had been sixteen they would have shot me too”

No less dramatic were Enrique’s repeated attempts to find out the whereabouts of his parents, Blanca and Enrique Garcia Brisac Mazas. In an interview with journalist Carlos Fonseca , author of the historical essay Thirteen Red Roses ( Madrid, 2005 ), Enrique gave his bitter account: “I was eleven years old when they shot my parents and my relatives tried to conceal it. They said they had been transferred to another prison and therefore we could not go to see them, until one day I decided to go to Salesas and there a Civil Guard Brigadier told me they had been shot and that if I had been sixteen they would have shot me too, because weeds had to be pulled up by the roots.

My grandmother and my aunts, my mother’s sisters, who had fallen out with my mother, ended up telling me that if Franco had killed my parents it would be because they were criminals. They even concealed my mother’s farewell letter for nearly twenty years.”

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I will not end this article by invoking reconciliation, because the Transition was not based on repairing the pain of the victims, but rather on the acquittal of the executioners. In fact, the reform of the criminal dictatorship was designed by those as low as Manuel Fraga, Rodolfo Martín Villa and José María de Areilza. Martín Villa concealed and destroyed documents to bury the crimes of Francoism and the dirty war he organized against anarchist and pro-independence activists of the Basque, Catalan and Canaries areas, from his post as Minister of the Interior between 1976 and 1979. Among his achievements one should list the Scala case (an attack that killed four workers, which was blamed on the CNT), the attempted assassination of Canaries independence leader Antonio Cubillo, the machine-gunning of Juan Jose Etxabe, historic leader of ETA and his wife Rosario Arregui (who died from eleven bullet wounds), also the murder of José Miguel Beñaran Ordeñana, “Argala”.

The impunity of the perpetrators

He is now a successful businessman, who gets excited talking about his role in the Transition. He lives quietly and no one has called for his prosecution. His example is an eloquent one of the impunity of the perpetrators, who continue to write the narrative while demonizing those who dared to stand against the miseries of the dictatorship and false democratic normalization.

No justice has been done. So it is absurd to talk of reconciliation, because nobody has apologized and repaired the damage. Franco committed genocide but today Manuel Gonzalez Capón, Mayor of Baralla (Lugo), of the Partido Popular (the main right-wing party), dares to declare that “those who were sentenced to death by Franco deserved it.” The Biographical Dictionary of the Royal Academy of History, funded with nearly seven billion euros of public funds, says Franco “set up an authoritarian but not totalitarian regime”, although in his speech in Vitoria/ Gastheiz, Franco himself said that “a totalitarian state in Spain harmonises the functioning of all abilities and energies of the country …”. The current scenario is not a reconciliation but instead is a humiliation of the victims and society, obscenely manipulated by a media (ABC, El País , El Mundo, La Razón), playing a similar role to newspapers of the dictatorship (ABC, Arriba, Ya, Pueblo, Informaciones, El Alcázar), covering up and justifying torture cases and applauding antisocial measures that continue reducing working class rights.

Let us not remember the Thirteen Roses as passive and submissive but instead for their courage and determination. With the exception of Blanca, trapped by circumstances, all chose to fight for the socialist revolution and the liberation of women. I think that if they were able to speak out today, they would not talk of indignation and peaceful disobedience, but would ask for a rifle to stand in the vanguard of a new anti-fascist front, able to stop the crimes of neo-liberalism. Let us not betray their example, forgetting their revolutionary status, they who sacrificed their lives for another world, one less unjust and unequal.

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Postscript

Just as the Civil War stirs Spain’s historical memory, so the spectre of the Paris Commune of 1870 haunts still the French soul. One can walk through the centre of  modern Paris from the Louvre to the celebrated Père Lachaise cemetary Père Lachaise retracing the steps of defeated communardes as retreated to to last stand among the tombstones. It was there, in front of la Mur des Fédérés that the bloodied and ragged survivors were lined up and shot.

The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for, and a solemn reminder of the bloodletting of what is aptly called la semaine sanglante – in much the same way as Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after the Nika Riots when his soldiers slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

See also in In That Howling Infinite:

The Spanish Civil War – a brief overview

80 years ago today in 1939, as the world waited with bated breath  on Hitler’s next move in Central Europe, in Spain, with the help of allies within the city, Madrid fell to the Nationalist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The next day, beleaguered Valencia would also fall and a few days after that victory was proclaimed as Franco placed his sword to rest upon the altar of a church declaring not to raise the blade again until Spain was imperiled. The Spanish Civil War that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives was thus at an end, and the reign of the Caudillo had begun in earnest that was to last until his death in 1975.

Born in 1892 in Galicia, Franco belonged to a devoutly Catholic upper class family with a long tradition of serving in the Spanish navy. Unable to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers, Franco had chosen the army instead at the age of 14 and conducted himself with disciplined excellence from the outset, swiftly gaining a reputation as a highly professional and trusted leader of fighting men at a time when the Royal Spanish army was characterized by a general sloppiness and lack of discipline. A severe and austere man who placed his faith in tradition, Catholicism, and the monarchy, Franco had risen up through the ranks as the youngest officer in the army in Spain’s colonial wars in Morocco as an example to them all. When the Spanish monarchy was abolished in 1931 Franco was disgusted, not least because shortly afterwards the new republic laid him off and placed him on the inactive list. Franco accepted his fate like a soldier and patiently waited until a conservative government came to power and he was called back to service, jumping back into military life with alacrity as Spain’s political system steadily disintegrated. By 1936 however he could stand by no longer and watch his country fall apart, after much hesitation he joined with his fellow officers and rebelled against the Republic, marching an army into Spain from North Africa and starting the long and bloody struggle against the Republicans supported by the USSR and the International Brigades whilst Franco received aid from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. With the death of all the other major military leaders by late 1936, Franco was chosen as the man to lead the Nationalists to victory and as the war drew to a close his government was recognised by the British and French governments.

Despite popular depictions of him as a Fascist dictator akin to Hitler and Mussolini, Franco in truth had little time for Fascism. While he certainly presided over a one-party state, unlike in Italy and Germany, the party firstly was not on a par with the state and secondly only a component of it, the Phalange, were Fascists, the rest were Carlist monarchists, traditionalists and conservatives. As a committed Catholic and monarchist, Franco had no time for the esotericism and mysticism of National Socialism and Fascism. While Hitler and Mussolini both had experience of war along with much of their inner circle, they were not of the upper officer echelons as Franco was. He was a military dictator, not a messianic god-like figure of a mass movement. The characterization of his regime as totalitarian is also problematic too since totalitarian would imply that he ruled through terror, annihilating segments of the population beyond those who were openly opposed to his regime. Tens of thousands did indeed perish under his regime with summary executions in the White Terror that followed his Civil War victory coupled with the brutal campaigns against sporadic rebellions and expressions of dissent in subsequent years, however he did not go beyond crushing those he did not need to to stay in power, he did not seek out a helpless ‘objective enemy’ that was to be continuously exterminated as was the case in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. His interest was not a radical reshaping of the world but as might be expected of a man of his background and career, order, stability, and a restoration of traditional norms. 

That all being said he was undoubtedly predisposed towards the Axis powers due to his hatred of Communism and no doubt a certain degree of debt he owed to them after their help in the Civil War. Despite his country having gone through three hellish years of war he was more than eager to join the Axis after the Fall of France in 1940. He envisioned the formation of a Latin Bloc to dominate the Mediterranean consisting of Spain, Italy, the Vatican, Vichy France, and Portugal. That year he met Hitler in Hendaye to discuss this possibility. At this meeting between the Caudillo and the Führer, Franco laid down his conditions: he wanted food, fuel and supplies for his country in the event of an Allied naval blockade, in expectation of Britain’s defeat he wanted Gibraltar along with French Morocco, a portion of Algeria and the colony of Cameroon. This proved too high a price to pay, the demand on Cameroon was especially jarring to Hitler since this had been a German colony prior to 1919. Mussolini moreover had his eye on Algeria. In the end the three dictators could not reconcile themselves to one another and Spain remained neutral though volunteers were sent to aid the Axis against the USSR in the form of the Blue Division. Franco likewise refused any prospect of the Wehrmacht being allowed to march through Spain to take Gibraltar themselves, a move which had it been made could have crippled the British position in the Mediterranean and altered the course of the war completely. Spain remained independent, remaining friendly with the Axis but not so much as to be roped into their ungodly self-destruction. During the war he was credited by having given sanctuary to tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the Nazi Empire.

Spain found itself isolated in the immediate aftermath of the war and was excluded from the Marshall Plan. With the mounting tensions of the Cold War however the Western powers slowly started to align themselves with the conservative anti-communist military dictator. In 1953 President Eisenhower visited the country and concluded the Pact of Madrid which brought Spain out of isolation and eventually led to the country joining NATO. Many of the old guard in charge of the economy were replaced by technocrats who brought in a free market economy. By the 1960s economic growth rocketed upwards, resulting in the Spanish Miracle, giving rise to a new middle class. The colonial empire moreover which Franco had so passionately fought for in the past was steadily let go of with both Morocco and Equatorial Guinea let go of by the end of the 1960s. Behind this economic prosperity however the regime remained as traditional as ever, with strict Catholic morality on abortion, divorce, homosexuality and prostitution holding sway in both law and society. Women were confined to the home and had practically no rights, their financial affairs managed by their fathers and husbands. Any languages or traditions not considered Spanish enough were systemically suppressed. When university students protested in the 1960s and the 1970s against the regime, Franco resorted to his old ways and crushed them. 

The Caudillo was an old man now though and by the early 1970s he recognised that death was moving upon him. Before death could claim him he decided to restore the monarchy – even though the country had always officially been a monarchy since he had taken power. Though he initially offered the throne to Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in a bid to restore Spain to her Habsburg Golden Age and to avoid another Carlist War of succession. In the end however he gave it to the Carlist pretender, Juan Carlos of the House of Bourbon. Franco died in late 1975. His regime was swiftly converted to a democracy with the help of the new king.l

Children of Abraham

The ancient and holy city of Hebron is rarely out of the news; and the news is never good. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”.

In May 2016, we visited Hebron, a fault line of faiths and a front line of an old war still being waged for possession of the Holy Land. It is a hot spot, a flash-point, where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity, and bad things happen. It is the seemingly intractable conflict in the raw, a microcosm of the Occupation, and there is no denying the brutality of the place. Most western journalists and commentators give their readers an impression that Israel absolutely dominates this Palestinian city of some 200,000 souls. In reality, the area under military control, immediately surrounding the ancient Ibrahimi mosque, holy to two faiths, is very small. But in this pressure cooker of a ghetto reside some 700 settlers and thirty thousand Palestinians, segregated from each other by walls and wire, fear and loathing – and by two soldiers to every settler.

On our return, the e-magazine Muftah published the following article.

Children of Abraham and the Battle for Hebron

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now, your hatchets blunt and bloody – you were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain and my father’s hand was trembling with the beauty of the word.
Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

I recently returned from Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The city is a fault line of faiths and a front line in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is a “hot spot,” a flash-point, a place where tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are usually followed by calamity. Hebron has been a key focus of the tension and violence that has characterized the troubled relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Since October 2015, over 200 Palestinians and thirty Israelis have been killed across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel, in the latest flare-up in the decades-long conflict.

In March this year, an Israeli soldier was filmed shooting and killing a wounded twenty-one-year-old Palestinian, following a stabbing attack on Israeli soldiers. The soldier, just nineteen years of age, is now facing trial, amidst massive outcry on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.. In June, not long after we left Israel, a young Palestinian murdered a thirteen-year-old Israeli girl as she slept in nearby Kiryat Arba. Hours later, a Palestinian woman was shot dead by Israeli soldiers outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque. Later that afternoon, Palestinian gunmen ambushed an Israeli car on a road just south of Hebron, killing a father and wounding his family. Local Palestinians gave emergency first aid to the victims and shielded the children from any further attack.

A Holy Land

Hebron has long been sacred to Muslims and Jews as the last resting place of the prophets Abraham and Isaac – the founding father of Judaism, and the son he had resolved to sacrifice until God ordered him to stay his hand. In the first century BC, Herod the Great, famed builder and bad boy, raised a mighty mausoleum above the cave where Abraham was laid to rest. Abraham’s wife Rachel, and his son, Isaac, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, and Isaac’s sons Joseph and Jacob – whose wrestled with an Angel to represent man’s struggle with God –  and Jacob’s wife Leah are also buried there.

As time went by, Christians and then Muslims revered Hebron as a holy place. Abraham was the founding father of both religions and his sons and grandsons, buried in the cave, are considered prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In time, a mosque was established on Herod’s edifice, and for a short while, during the hundred years of the Crusader kingdom, a basilica too.

In the thirteenth century, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars expelled the Christians from Hebron. A small community of Jews continued to reside in the town of Hebron, however. In 1929, amidst rising religious and nationalist tension in the British Mandate of Palestine, some seventy Jewish men, women, and children were killed by Palestinians who had been incited to violence by rumours that Jews planned to overrun the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. Many local Palestinians also helped save Jewish neighbors from the bloodshed. Following the riots, Hebron’s Jewish community largely ceased to exist, until the an-Naksa, or ‘setback’, of 1967, when Israeli military forces occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

In the early days of the occupation, Israeli authorities did not encourage Jews to return to Hebron. One of the first illegal Israeli settlements was established outside Hebron in what is now Kiryat Arba, and thereafter, a small settlement was built around the Mosque of Ibrahim. Beginning in 1979, some Jewish settlers moved from Kiryat Arba to the former Jewish neighborhood near the Abraham Avinu Synagogue which had been destroyed in 1929. Other Jewish enclaves were established with the Israeli army’s support and more homes were subsequently purchased or forcibly taken over from their Palestinian owners.

With the establishment of a Jewish presence in and around Hebron, the religious right-wing demanded that Jews be permitted to pray at the tombs of the patriarchs, and the 700 years old restriction on Jews praying here was lifted. Muslims and Jews were now obliged to share the holy place, although it was formally administered by the Muslim Waqf. Thus, even prayer became a focus of conflict and tension, and sometimes, violence, particularly during each faith’s holy days.

Tensions and Divisions

Since 1979, tensions have continued to increase between the small community of Israeli settlers living in Hebron (several hundred) and the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose lives have been turned upside down by their presence. These tensions reach boiling point in February 1994, when US-born Israeli doctor Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims worshippers during the dawn prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque. He killed twenty-nine people and wounded another 125 before he was overcome and killed by survivors. Hundreds more Palestinians were killed or injured in the Israeli military’s response to the ensuing violence.

Goldstein had been inspired by a boyhood mentor, the ultranationalist New York Rabbi Meir Kahane, and had belonged Kahane’s militant Jewish Defence League, founded ostensibly to protect Jews from antisemitism, but implicated in numerous acts of violence in the USA  and elsewhere. On emigrating to Israel, he joined Kahane’s right-wing Kach Party.

The Israeli government condemned the massacre and responded by arresting Kahane’s followers, and criminalizing Kach and affiliated organizations as terrorists, forbidding certain settlers from entering Palestinian towns, and demanding that those settlers turn in their army-issued weapons. It rejected a demand by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that all settlers in the occupied territories be disarmed and that an international force be created to protect Palestinians.

UN observers came to keep the peace, but, after Israeli and Palestinian authorities could not reach agreement on resolving the situation, they departed. The Hebron Protocol was signed in January 1997 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat under the supervision of US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Under its terms, Hebron was divided into in two. H1, 80% of the city, and home to over 120,000 Palestinians, was placed under the Palestinian Authority’s control. H2, which was home to nearly 40,000, was placed under the exclusive control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in order to protect some 600 Israeli Jewish settlers who lived in the area. 

Jewish Israelis were barred from entering HI, whilst Palestinians found it nearly impossible to Access H2 unless they lived there. Palestinian residents of H2 experienced forcible displacement, restrictions on their movement, the closure of their businesses, IDF checkpoints and searches, and verbal and physical harassment by settlers protected by the IDF. 

In a surreal, sad parody, the mosque too was divided, with a separate mosque and synagogue. The IDF controls access, closing it to Muslims on Jewish holy days and to Jews on Muslim holy days. There are frequent bans on the call to prayer on the grounds that it disturbs the settlers, and likewise on exuberant 

Dual Narrative

We travelled to Hebron on a “dual narrative tour”. It was run by Abraham Tours, which operates out of the Abraham Hostel at Davidka Square in Jerusalem, and caters for independent and mainly young travelers on limited budgets. One half of the tour was conducted by a Palestinian guide and the other by a Jewish guide. They walked us though the streets surrounding the Mosque of Ibrahim, and gave us the opportunity to meet and talk with several members of each of the communities.

We visited the Muslim side of the mosque, which retained the wide prayer hall, the empty catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca, the qibla and minbar, and the beautiful dome; and the larger Jewish side, which was, once upon a time, the open courtyard leading to the mosque. Abraham and Sarah occupy the neutral ground between the two halves.

The area around the divided holy place is a ghost town. On one flank, a deserted street is patrolled by young Israeli soldiers in full battle gear, leading to the settler neighborhood. On the other side, past checkpoints and security screening, is Shuhada  (martyrs) Street, an impoverished souq with more shops locked up than open, a small number of Palestinian storeowners, and a bevy of children endeavoring to sell us souvenirs. Above the few shops that are still open, there is a wire mesh to catch rocks, garbage, and various unmentionables thrown at Palestinians from Israeli settler families who have literally occupied the higher ground, abutting and overlooking the souq.

Scapegoating the Other

The Palestinians we met told us that Jewish settlers have been trying to drive them out of H2, to claim it for themselves, and that they will resort to all manner of harassment to do so, including throwing stones, and assaulting Palestinian children on their way home from school. Indeed, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently confirmed that movement restrictions, along with on-gong settler violence, reduced income, and restricted access to services and resources, has led to a reduction in the area’s Palestinian population. 

It is a desperate, hard life for all the Palestinians who live there. They cling on, refusing to leave or sell their ancestral homes. Offers, some very large, have been made in the past, but people will not trade their birthright, even when they are faced with physical threats to their lives. One Palestinian whose home we visited told me that his late wife was shot by Israeli soldiers, while his children were attacked by settlers. Nowadays, he and his few neighbors have no choice but to remain or flee without compensation as the Palestinian Authority has forbidden selling property to the settlers. And so they remain, in poverty and punishment.

The rebuilt and refurbished settler zone is a mix of run-down apartments. waste grounds, new community buildings and playgrounds, and a street of shops that once served the settlers’ needs but are now locked and neglected in a dusty, empty street. Here, the settlers too play the victim card, claiming that they area harassed, insulted, and killed. We met the administrator of the small Jewish museum and library who told us of how her grandfather was killed in 1929, and how her father was killed by an assailant in his own home. 

Today there are two Israeli soldiers for every Jewish settler. They are youngsters, barely out of high school. Heavily armed and nervous. With the power to end or destroy the lives of the Palestinians they occupy, many of them youths just like themselves. 

“You who build these altars then to sacrifice these children, you must not do it any more”.

If only it was that simple on the fault line of faith and nation.

Below is a selection of photographs taken during our visit.

Read more in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East : A Middle East Miscellany

You can read more about the pain and passion of Hebron here:
http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/hebron-tombs-of-the-patriarchs
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli%E2%80%93Palestinian_conflict_in_Hebron

Hebron May 2016

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Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

Little Sir Hugh and Old England’s Jewish Question

Out came the thick thick blood, out came the thin
Out came the bonny heart’s blood till there was none within
She threw him in the old draw well fifty fathoms deep
Little Sir Hugh

On a visit to Lincoln Cathedral a few years back, we chanced upon a small memorial in the South Choir Aisle commemorating the long-dead ‘Little Saint Hugh’, the subject, I recalled, of a gothic folk-song resuscitated during the British folk revival and popularized by Steeleye Span back in the seventies. Little Sir Hugh, a tale of the death of a young lad at the hands of a mysterious lady, had been shorn of its true context – a fabricated ‘blood libel’ that led to the trial and execution of nineteen Lincoln Jews. It is believed that high churchmen exploited the incident to lure a profitable flow of pilgrims to the shrine of a martyr and saint. The mystery surrounding the boy’s demise was the first time that the English Crown gave credence to ritual child murder allegations with the direct intervention of Henry III. As a consequence, unlike other English blood libels – and there were many – the story entered the historical record, medieval literature and popular ballads that circulated until the twentieth century as the folk-rock song demonstrated. Read more here. See also below, in the last segment of this blog.

That northern summer, we’d spent a month in the historic northern city of York where we visited Clifford’s Tower, the remnant of a thirteenth century castle on the old city walls, and the site of a medieval pogrom. The English Heritage sign at the gate recalls how in 1190, 150 Jewish men, women and children fled thence to escape townspeople’s wrath, and when the latter had set the tower alight, chose to do a Masada rather than surrender to the bloodthirsty mob. The tourist spiel, reluctant to disturb the squeamish, does not call it out as murder – but the stone walls do, as does the city’s historical narrative: English Heritage; History of York.   

In the words of Taylor Swift, history often comes in flashbacks and echoes: an intriguing BBC programme called History Cold Case reveals how seventeen bodies of men, women and children had been discovered at the bottom of a well in Norwich. The findings of the forensic anthropologists were both tragic and terrifying.

Mother mother make my bed
Make for me a winding sheet
Wrap me up in a cloak of gold
See if I can sleep
Little Sir Hugh

The devil that never dies

England has long had an ambivalent, discriminatory, and often deadly relationship with its Jewish people, from medieval days to the present, as illustration, ther is as apocryphal story of how in 1290, when Edward 1 ordered the expulsion on all Jews from England, a sea captain taking a ship full of Jews to France, asked them to walk with him on the sand whilst the tide was out. He deliberately deserted them and scarpered back to his boat before the tide came in, leaving them to a watery fate.

Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England in 1657; the Lord Protector saw no difference between Judaism and any other faith of ‘the Book’. But it took another two hundred years for male Jews in Britain to be granted equal civil rights, including the right enter Oxford and Cambridge Universities, to join the public service, run for municipal office, and eventually, to stand for parliament. Just as catholics had to wait some three hundred years for emancipation, for jews, it was indeed a slow train coming

But even thereafter, the living wasn’t easy. In the Nineteen Thirties, there were running battles as Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-styled Blackshirts marched through the Jewish neighbourhoods of East London. During the hot, austerity-pinched summer of 1947, there anti-Jewish riots throughout England following the hanging of two British sergeants in Palestine by the Jewish terrorist Irgun in response to the hanging of three of its members by the British Mandate authorities. Manchester witnessed its own mini-Kristalnacht. Ironically, one of the sergeants was Jewish.

I recall walking through London’s cosmopolitan Notting Hill with an Israeli friend in the summer of 1976. There were big swastikas daubed on a wall. “That is why we have Israel”, Miri said. A few weeks later, these very streets became a war zone as racial tensions escalated into violence as the August Bank Holiday Notting Hill Carnival gave way to running street battles.

Today, the British Labour Party is tying itself in literal and figurative Gordian knots with accusations and counter-accusations of antisemitism (whilst the US Democratic Party is likewise tossing and turning over the badly thought-through, naive comments of an ingenue congresswomen). Meanwhile, the transparent xenophobes and antisemites of the alt- and ofttimes mainstream right hide in plain sight in the corridors of power and preen on streets and social media.

It has been said, with reason, that antisemitism is the devil that never dies. And yet, is antisemitism a unique and distinct form of racism, or a subset of a wider fear and loathing insofar as people who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews?

Fear of “the other” is a default position of our species wherein preconceptions, prejudice and politics intertwine – often side by side with ignorance and opportunism. it is no coincidence that what is regarded as a dangerous rise in antisemitism in Europe, among the extreme left as much as the extreme right, is being accompanied by an increase in Islamophobia, in racism against Roma people, and indeed, in prejudice in general, with an increase in hate-speech and incitement in the media and online, and hate-crimes.

We are seeing once again the rise of nationalism and populism, of isolationism and protectionism, of atavistic nativism and tribalism, of demagogic leaders, and of political movements wherein supporting your own kind supplants notions of equality and tolerance, and the acceptance of difference – the keystones of multicultural societies. It is as if people atomized, marginalized and disenfranchised by globalization, left behind by technological, social and cultural change, and marginalized by widening economic inequality, are, paradoxically, empowered, energized, and mobilized by social media echo-chambers, opportunistic politicians, and charismatic charlatans who assure them that payback time is at hand. These days, people want to build walls instead of bridges to hold back the perceived barbarians at the gates.

Lately,  I have been working my way through British historian Peter Ackroyd’s six-volume History of England. I’ve enjoyed a re-acquaintance with half-remembered names and places, moments and movements from long-gone school and university history classes. Given his arduous brief – he’d resolved to recount the story of England from its birth in the Neolithic Age to the dawn of the Twentieth Century -it is relatively lightweight but informative, family friendly with the nasty and naughty bits toned down, and inspirational precedents and premises accentuated to illustrate evolution and progress, whether it be of language or lifestyle,  ideologies or institutions. He wears his liberal heart prominently on his sleeve, whether it is in describing the casual cruelty of the slave trade or the plight of children in the “dark satanic mills” of the industrial revolution. A recurring leitmotif is England’s unique and intractable Irish Question, and particularly its responsibility for and response to An Gorta Mór, ‘The Great Hunger’. An he confronts England’s medieval Jewish Question head on, describing a not so happy and glorious period in its history.

Antisemitism, he implies, has always been with us. I have reproduced in full below a short chapter from the very first volume of his history. It is a readable précis of many other sources. Read more in The Jews of Medieval England, and History of the Jews in England (1066-1920)

The Hammer 

Peter Ackroyd,  Foundation – The History Of England Volume 1, Chapter 20

King Edward 1 was known as ‘the hammer of the Scots’ but he could more pertinently be known as the hammer of die Jews. He exploited them and harassed them; finally he expelled them. Their crime was to become superfluous to his requirements. The history of the ]ews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. They had arrived  from Rouen, in the last decades of the eleventh century; they were first only settled in London across a broad band of nine parishes but in the course of the next few decades they also removed to York, Winchester, Bristol and other market towns. The previous rulers of England, in the ninth and tenth centuries, had not welcomed them; Jewish merchants would have provided too much competition for Anglo-Saxon traders.

William the Conqueror brought them to England because he had found that in Normandy they had been good for business; in particular they provided access to the silver of the Rhineland. The Jews of Rouen may also have helped to finance his invasion of England, in return for the chance to work in a country from which they had previously been barred. Another reason can be given for the favour they found with the king. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure. But they did not only lend money; they were also money-changers and goldsmiths. money; they also exchanged plate for coin. They provided ready money, a commodity often in short supply.

The Norman kings of England, therefore, found them to be very useful. They could borrow from them but, more profitably, they could tax them. They could levy what what were known as ‘tallages’, and succeeding kings were able to take between a third and a quarter of the Jews’ total wealth at any one time. As a result the Jews, in the twelfth century  were afforded royal protection. No Jew was allowed to become a citizen, or to hold land, but the neighbourhood of the Jewry was

like the royal forests exempt from common law; the Jews were simply the kings chattels, who owed life and property wholly to him. They were granted the protection of the royal courts, and thier binds were placed in a special chamber of the royal palace at . Westminster. A Jewish exchequer was established there, with its own clerks and justices.

In return for royal favour the Jews brought energy and prosperity to the business of the realm; their loans helped to make possible the great feats of Norman architecture, and the unique stone houses of Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds are credited to them. Jacob le Toruk had a grand stone house in Cannon Street, in the London parish of St Nicholas Acon. The Jews also introduced the more advanced forms of medical learning, and were able to serve as doctors even to the native community. Roger Bacon himself studied under rabbis at Oxford.

More dubious legal tactics were also enforced. William Rufus decreed, for example, that Jews could not be converted to Christianity; he did not want their number to fall. That may not have If) been a very Christian act but William Rufus was never a very good Christian. He supported the Jews partly because it offended the bishops; he enjoyed causing affront to his churchmen.

That royal protection did not necessarily extend very far. At the time of the coronation of Richard I in 1189, some Jews were beaten back from the front row of spectators; the crowd turned on them, and a riotous assault began upon the London quarters of fresh outrages as the of Jewry. The incident became the cause of fresh outrages as the news of the attack spread; it emboldened native hostility, and gave an excuse for further carnage. 500 Jews, with their families, took refuge in in the  castle at York where they were n besieged by the citizens; in desperation, the men killed their wives and children before killing themselves.

Richard 1 was even then malting preparations for his crusade to the Holy Land; violence and religious bigotry were in in the air. His successor, John, renewed his protection in exchange for large sums of money. In 1201 a formal charter was drawn up, giving the Jews their own court. They were allowed to live ‘freely and honorably’ in England, which meant that they were here to make money for the king. Nine years later John took overall the debts of the Jews, living or dead, and tried to extract the money from the debtors for his own benefit. It was another reason for the barons’ revolt that led to the sealing of the Magna Carta.

Antisemitism was part of the Christian condition throughout Europe. The Jewish people were abused for being the ‘killers of Christ’, with convenient forgetfulness of the fact that Jesus himself was Jew, but other more material reasons account d for the racial hatred. By the middle of the twelfth century, several prominent Jewish moneylenders had extended very large loans to some of the noblest men in the kingdom; men like th famous Aaron of Lincoln were the only ones with resources large enough to meet the obligations of the magnates. If they could be attacked or killed, and their bonds destroyed, then the great ones of the land would benefit. The myth that they were engaged in the ‘ritual murder of Christian infants became common at times of financial crisis when the populace could be incited to take sanguinary vengeance. It is a matter of historical record that England took the lead in the execration of the Jews.

The first rumour of a ritual crucifixion emerged In 1144, with the story of the death of William of Norwich, and thereafter the tales of ritual murder spread through Europe. England was also the first country to condemn all Jews as criminal ‘coin-clippers’, and the iconography of antisemitism is to be found n the west front of Lincoln Cathedral.

In 1239, during the reign of Henry III, a great census of the Jews and their debts was carried out. The representatives of all the Jews in England were then obliged to convene at Worcester and agree to pay over 20,000 marks to the king’s treasury. This measure effectively bankrupted some of them, which meant that their usefulness had come to an end. Fourteen years later, Henry III ordained a Statute of Jewry that enforced a number of disciplinary measures including the compulsory badge of identification, This was or tabula of yellow felt 3 by 6 inches (7.5 by 15 cm) to be worn on an outer garment. it was to be carried  by every Jew over the age of seven years. Two years later Henry investigated the death of a boy, Hugh, in Lincoln; he believed or professed to believe that this was a crime of ritual murder and as a result, 19 Jews from the city were executed and 100 dispatched to prison in the castle.

Edward I was even more ferocious. He ordered that certain Jews, who had been acquitted of the charge of ritual murder, be retried. In November 1278, 600 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of tampering with the currency. 269 of them were hanged six months later. In 1290 he expelled all of the remaining Jews from his kingdom; they were now approximately  2,000. He did not take this step out of misplaced religious zeal; it was the measure demanded by the parliament house before they would agree to fresh taxation. In fact the expulsion was seen

by many chroniclers as one of the most important and enlightened acts of his reign. The antisemitism of the medieval English people is clear enough. Some have argued that in subtly modified forms it has continued to this day.

The tale of Little Saint Hugh

from The National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail 

A unique form of religious persecution, the ‘Blood Libel’ or ‘ritual child murder allegation’, arose in England for the first time in Norwich in the 12th century when the body of a boy was found in the depths of Thorpe Woods outside of the city. Periodically, Medieval English Jews were falsely accused of ‘ritual child murder’ by local Christians. It was usually claimed they tortured and killed little Christian boys in a mockery of Christ’s crucifixion, and that they used their blood for magical purposes. The idea of Jews attacking children for blood may have been partly derived and adapted from East Anglian rural folklore, where evil fairies, called ‘Pharisees’, lived underground and sucked the blood of children. The children were probably the victims of accidents or lawless violence, while the accusers’ motives are now generally accepted to have been for financial, political, or religious gain. It set a pattern for future persecution.

In Lincoln, in 1255, ‘Little Hugh’ was found dead near the Lincoln Jewry. The Jews were accused of ritual child murder, not by popular hue and cry, but five weeks later at the instigation of John of Lexington, the brother of Bishop Robert Lexington (1254-58). He had traveled from the North, with the deeply impoverished King, who was desperately raising funds to pay to the Pope for his son Edmund to be crowned King of Sicily, partly by pardoning murderers for cash. Henry III was under threat of excommunication if he did not pay the money to the Pope. Lexington supported by the King secured a forced confession from Copin the Jew, who was then killed despite having been promised a pardon for his confession. In consequence 91 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eighteen were summarily executed by the King, for the temerity of requesting a trial by Jury and not trusting the mercy of the King. The rest (including a convert to Judaism called John) were eventually released due to the intervention of the Friars. The boy was then venerated as a local saint (but never canonized) after a miracle was claimed, and he was enshrined in the Cathedral until the Reformation. There is little evidence that the shrine was popular and some doubt that there was ever a proper cult of Hugh. The King was clearly the prime mover in the Blood Libel, aided and abetted by John of Lexington and probably also by the Papal Nuncio. He took the lead in choreographing the rapid events over several days in Lincoln, leading to the confession and condemnation of the Jews. He was the main financial beneficiary. The Papal Nuncio, Rostand Masson, was apparently present with the King throughout the events as part of his retinue. Seven days afterwards he declared Henry’s son, King of Sicily. Therefore it seems that the Jews of Lincoln were sacrificed for the King’s Sicilian business. The motives of the Bishop and the Cathedral cannot be accurately determined, though they played their role in supporting and not resisting the drama. Joe Hillaby asserts that John of Lexington’s actions were extraordinarily timely and fortuitous in assisting his brother the Bishop in his task to magnify the existing cult of Hugh of Avalon and the task of building the Angel Choir, as well as establishing the new cult of the ‘Little Hugh’.

The boy martyr was later celebrated in numerous ballads and songs as well as in Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ (Canterbury Tales). The gruesome lyrics of the ‘Ballad of Little Sir Hugh’ (but usually without mention of any explicit Jewish identity of the alleged perpetrators) are still performed today in folk music circles, frequently without any explanation or apology. As such, ‘Blood Libels’ became one of the most pernicious and enduring of all anti-Semitic fabrications, spreading through Europe and beyond, even up to the present day.

During the 1290s, soon after the general expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I, the remains of Little Hugh were translated to a new shrine intruded into the South Choir Aisle Screen, but there is little evidence that the cult was ever a success. The architectural evidence (as interpreted by Stocker and Hillaby) suggests that Edward I had a significant role in its construction. Two out of four original coats of arms on the shrine were Edward’s, and we know that he made a gift to the shrine in 1299 / 1300. The style of the shrine seems to be modelled on the architectural tabernacles for the statues on the original 12 Queen Eleanor crosses, erected by Edward I on the path and resting places of his wife’s body, on its way to London from Lincoln, rather than upon usual sepulchral design. It seems entirely likely that the shrine was intended to be linked to the visceral tomb of Queen Eleanor, at the end of the same aisle in the Cathedral. Hillaby asserts that the shrine may have also been intended as a symbol and a piece of royal propaganda, to deflect hostility from Edward and his wife who trafficked in Jewish debts, and to build on the gratitude of the nation in his subsequent action as ‘defender’ of Christianity in expelling the Jews in 1290.

The original plinth and raised back panel of the shrine of the c. 1290s still survive. There are also two broken stumps of the former canopy at the back that made what would have been part of a panel at the side of a small side arch forming the upper structure of the shrine. There are still visible traces of rich green and blue pigment used to decorate parts of the shrine. At the end of the 19th century it was said that there were remnants of gilding as well.

The pierced base of the shrine has gone, along with its ornate canopy, with tall side pinnacles, niches, and the decorative finial with a niche illustrated in Dugdale’s drawing. These were all removed in the Civil War. It seems that there was also a figure of Little Hugh in the shrine. Overall the shrine was a tall monument, reaching at least up to the top of the choir wall, if not higher.

In 1736 the painted, freestone figure of a little boy, about 20 inches high, still existed and was recorded by an antiquarian, Smart Lethieullier. It was by tradition part of the original shrine. The figure was supposed to bear the marks of crucifixion. The head had by that time been broken off and it had been removed from the shrine and was in ‘a by-place just behind the High Altar, where we found it covered with dust and obscurity’.

In 1791, the tomb was opened, when the Cathedral paving was renewed. The remains of Little Hugh were found in a stone coffin just below the paving and seen for the first time since the Middle Ages. The boy was apparently four feet and two inches tall and was thought to have a rather long thin face. No doubt modern forensic work, if available, would have been able to say something about the circumstances of his death. The skeleton provided a refutation of one allegation, as his teeth had not been smashed, as alleged in the blood libel stories.

A careful examination of the surroundings of the shrine shows other significant features. The former upper superstructure of the shrine was skillfully and well integrated into the screen wall of the choir and looks as if it had been carefully planned and positioned so as to be a focus of the aisle in which it stands, even though it was not part of the original design. An impression is gained that the canopy may have been rested, afterwards, above, and onto, an existing tomb, which was itself much more crudely inserted into the Choir wall. It rested on and above the base and back of the tomb (the surviving elements) and was structurally separate, and not built in one piece, which is why the dismantling of the canopy at the Reformation did not destroy the tomb beneath.

The evidence suggests that an original tomb of Little Hugh was significantly embellished to become a major feature of the south side of the Cathedral and in its day represented not only the cult of Little Hugh, but garnered a royal meaning and patronage as well and was quite imposing in its improved state after 1290.

The Cathedral for many years placed a notice by the shrine of Little Hugh to explain its meaning, but it is easy for the casual visitor to completely miss the remains. The notice has its own history and has evolved over the years. Before 1959, a notice largely repeated the traditional libel. But in 1959, it was replaced by the then Dean, the Rev D.C. Dunlop, who was reported by the Daily Telegraph as saying that the Chapter did not wish, ‘to see things that are not true up on the walls of the Cathedral’ and that a new notice would correct the record. This new notice, cancelling the libel, remained in place for a good many years, but recently has been further revised and then improved again, most recently through a collaboration project between the Cathedral and the Jewish community.

Between July 2008 and September 2009, the notice was entirely re-written in an interfaith collaboration, by Professor Brian Winston (for the Lincoln Jewish Community), Carol Bennett (for the Cathedral) and Marcus Roberts (JTrails) as part of the Trails Jewish heritage project in Lincoln, working in the first instance with the Lincoln Jewish Community. The American academic Elisa van Court had criticised the wording of the existing signage in 1997 and again in a publication in 2006. The new plaque refers to ‘Little Hugh’ without referring to him as ‘Saint’ since he was never officially recognised as such by Rome. Calling him a ‘saint’ confers false credibility for the blood libel in Lincoln. The new signage also draws notice to the terrible consequences for the medieval Jewish community (the most notable omission in the original signage as high-lighted by van Court) and the contemporary relevance of the shrine. The new notice is the result of excellent interfaith relations between the communities and a desire to show the real significance of the Lincoln Blood Libel today.

The ghosts of Gandamak

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

When in the wake of 9/11 the US and it’s allies invaded Afghanistan, critics and cynics invoked the long arm of history to declare that the venture was a forlorn hope. Many questioned latter day imperial hubris. Others asked what were the long term goals, and what was the exit strategy. Reference was made to the Soviet Union’s destructive, demoralizing and ultimately debilitating invasion and nine year occupation (some 15,000 Soviet soldiers died, and 35,000 were wounded whilst about two million Afghan civilians were killed) which left the land in the tyrannical thrall of competing warlords; and to America’s own Vietnam quagmire. And then there were the British history buffs who reminded the world that Afghanistan was indeed the graveyard of empires, so well illustrated in the famous painting of the last stand of the 44th Foot on the bleak hillside of Gandamak during the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1842. Inevitably, we dust down Rudyard Kipling’s well worn rhyme:  

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

After more than 17 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in American history, with over two thousand soldiers dead and some twenty three thousand wounded. And yet, US forces are no closer to defeating the Taliban, who ruled most of Afghanistan before 2001 – than they were a decade ago. Indeed, In fact, the proportion of the country under the full control of the elected, American-backed government is humiliatingly small. A war which has caused over 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 wounded (over 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed) has staggered to a bloody stalemate.

Whilst a American force that once reached 140,000 soldiers America could not wipe out the Taliban, a mere 13,000 troops bolstering the Afghan army today, seems capable keeping the Taliban more or less in check. Whilst the Taliban appear to control the arid, countryside But 10,000 Afghan police and soldiers, 3,400 civilians and an unknown number of insurgents died in 2017 alone. 

The US is now endeavouring to come to a peace deal with the Taliban, and its efforts are all the more urgent in the wake of President Trumps decision to extricate American troops from this expensive and dangerous entanglement. The Taliban appears happy to deal – and may be willing to accede to the US’ conditions  to rid themselves of the Americans knowing that if they renege on their word, the GIs are unlikely to return. 

Before America toppled the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a violent theocratic despotism. Women were not allowed out of their homes unless covered head to toe and accompanied by a male relative. Any departure from the Taliban’s barbaric version of Islam, such as dancing or shaving or educating girls, could earn floggings, imprisonment or even death. Ancient statues were dynamited as pagan idols. Keeping such zealots at bay, for as long as they try to impose their beliefs by force, is an incalculable benefit to the two-thirds of Afghans (about 24 million people) who live in government-controlled areas.

Hearts and Minds

A US withdrawal could jeopardize all this If the Taliban were to overthrow the Afghan government after an American withdrawal, it would be a humiliation on a par with Vietnam when Nixon’s administration hung its South Vietnamese allies out to dry (read Max Hastings recently published Vietnam – an American Tragedy for a chilling account of the US’ cynical, cold-blooded duplicity). 

Even if the Afghan government staggered on, a US withdrawal without a solid peace agreement would cause chaos. In a 21st century replay of The Great Game, neighbours India, Iran, and Pakistan, and regional powers China and Russia would be tempted take advantage of the vacuum for their own strategic and economic ends, but to would all struggle to fill it. There could be a surge in fighting, as warlords once again reassert their influence and as ISIS and al Qaeda take advantage of the situation. The whole region could be further destabilized, and America and its allies could be sucked back in – on other’s terms. 

And Afghanistan, at war with itself for 40 years, would be condemned to continuing conflict and carnage. 

Click on the picture below to read the New York Times’ commentary on the negotiations. And below that is a recent piece by David Kilcullen, Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert. He argues that talks between the US and the Taliban are not new. He asks: “What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue”. In essence, he argues, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments. Donald Trump and the shifting, unpredictable nature of US foreign policy; the growth of Chinese influence and engagement in Afghanistan’s political and economic development; and the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group, and now the Taliban’s is an arch-enemy. Kilcullen is, as ever, well worth reading.

In In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Ghost of a chance in talks with Taliban

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 16th February 2019

Training Wheels

The recent announcement that US and Taliban negotiators had agreed a framework for peace talks was greeted as a breakthrough in the 18-year war. But the twin issues around which those talks will be framed — a withdrawal pledge by Washington in return for a Taliban promise to never again let Afghanistan ­become a threat to any other country — are far from new.

These have been consistent Taliban demands since December 2009, when (as part of the headquarters team in Kabul) I met insurgent leaders who asked for the same deal in almost the same words. Likewise, I have heard these demands from many Taliban-aligned elders in Afghanistan over the years, and Taliban representatives proposed the identical quid pro quo during talks with the Obama administration in 2011-14.

What’s different now? A cynic might say that one reason the war has dragged on so long is that most sides have been achieving their objectives by letting it continue.

Since rebuilding Afghanistan was always recognized as a multi-decade project (akin to the US presence in South Korea, Japan and Germany), Washington was effectively telegraphing an intent to never leave — US forces are still present, after all, in all three of those countries more than 75 years after occupying them.

For coalition partners, and allies including Australia, the aim has been to demonstrate commitment, strengthen ties to Washington and thereby increase access to the political, economic and security benefits these ties offer. This goal, too, was achieved as soon as coalition forces entered Afghanistan: our hypothetical cynic might observe that we gain “alliance points” simply by being there and doing a decent job.

No coalition partner would be fighting in Afghanistan without Washington, and none can win or lose the war on its own. Thus, for the allies, whether the war is won or lost is, strictly speaking, irrelevant: having succeeded in being seen as a valuable ally, the only thing that could now undo that success would be to leave before the US does. Winning the war is, of course, a real objective for coalition capitals as it is for Washington — but it’s a secondary one.

Thus, for the coalition, given the open-ended nature of the Afghan commitment, the focus has been on calibrating troop levels, expenditure and other inputs to make the effort sustainable for the long haul. There are about 14,000 American troops in country (less than half the number stationed in Korea for the past several decades) and US spending on Afghan security forces is tracking at about $US3.7 billion ($5.2bn) a year — a tiny fraction of the overall US ­budget).

On Australia’s part, after peaking during 2010-11 with reconstruction and stabilization forces in Oruzgan province and a special operations task group that ­achieved widespread respect for its ­professionalism, our commitment now stands at about 300 ­personnel.

Most Australians are in headquarters roles in Kabul, at Camp Qargha (the officer academy near Kabul), as advisers to the Afghan Air Force, and at the training, advisory and assistance command for Afghanistan’s southern region in Kandahar. There is no doubt the Australians are performing a valuable role and enhancing our reputation with Afghans and allies — but again, we would achieve this effect whether the war is won or simply drags on; the only thing we could do to undermine ourselves at this point would be to withdraw ahead of the allies.

Coalition casualties are also relatively low — the coalition lost 18 personnel last year, dramatically down from 2010, the worst year of the war, when 711 US and allied troops were killed. Australia has suffered 41 fatalities, with more than half killed in 2010 and 2011 at the peak of our commitment. Our last fatality occurred in July 2014, while our last combat casualty was in June 2013.

While any loss of life is a horrendous tragedy, in the harsh logic of defense planners the US casualty rate is sustainable. In short, at the current level of financial and human cost, there is no strictly military (as distinct from political or humanitarian) reason why the US could not simply continue the war indefinitely. Of course, for the Afghan military and police — which have lost 45,000 killed since September 2014, compared with the coalition’s 72 — the war is far from sustainable, and its impact on civilians is both horrific and increasing. So while the coalition can essentially keep this up forever, the Afghan military and ordinary Afghans can’t.

For the Afghan government, another key stakeholder, our imaginary cynic might say that the main goal is to maintain the benefits of international presence including military aid, funding, donor engagement and reconstruction effort. Again, although winning is a real objective for Kabul, until its capture of Kunduz in October 2015 the Taliban showed no ability to seize provincial cities or do deep damage to the capital, so losing to the Taliban seemed an impossibility. And under those circumstances, winning the war was desirable but continuing it was mandatory, since it was the war that guaranteed international engagement.

This is no longer the case: given rising civilian casualties, the high loss rate of Afghan forces, the deadly string of Taliban bombings now afflicting Afghan cities and the fact that the Taliban are now capturing and briefly holding provincial capitals every few months, the Kabul government wants to reduce the war to a far lower level of intensity.

Containing the Taliban as a remote, rural threat, grave enough to stop the international community abandoning Afghanistan yet able to be gradually overcome as a long-term national project (with international money and help) would be ideal.

On the Taliban side, winning has always been the ultimate goal but, like other stakeholders, the insurgents have been willing to let the war drag on without a resolution. In the first few years after 9/11 the Taliban was in disarray — its senior leadership group, the Quitta Shura, wasn’t even founded until October 2003, two years after the US-led invasion.

Then after a resurgence in 2005-06, it suffered severe setbacks in the south and east of the country and its fighters were forced to bide their time as they rebuilt, recruited and rearmed in Pakistan, and stealthily recaptured territory in remote parts of Afghanistan. Then Barack Oba­ma, in announcing his surge in December 2009, also (very helpfully for the Taliban) announced its end date, later extended by NATO but still resulting in a rigid timetable for withdrawal.

As a result, Taliban leaders wisely decided their best course was to withhold most of their combat troops in Pakistan, do enough to stay in the public eye in Afghanistan, and wait for withdrawal, which duly took place right on schedule. After the International Security Assistance Force departed at the end of 2014, the Taliban immediately began ramping up its activity, and within a year it was gaining ground, taking the fight to Afghan cities, and projecting force into Afghanistan from its haven in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, which has historically seen India as its principal threat and feared encirclement by an India-Afghanistan alliance, keeping Afghanistan unstable is an important means of preventing that encirclement and achieving strategic depth. Pakistani decision-makers have long been extraordinarily open about this.

From their standpoint, the Afghan Taliban (as distinct from the Pakistani Taliban, which Islamabad sees as a real threat and has fought hard to contain) is an insurance policy, to be preserved in case of a need to crank up the pressure on Kabul and New Delhi. A Taliban victory would be problematic for Pakistan, as would an outright Taliban defeat, so keeping the war on a low boil and letting parts of Pakistan become a haven for the Taliban has made sense through much of the war since 2001.

This might be why, during the tentative talks in 2009-10 that I mentioned earlier, Pakistani intelligence officers arrested a key Taliban figure — Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, brother-in-law to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, a former deputy defense minister and a highly respected combat leader who had expressed willingness to talk with the coalition.

With Baradar out of the picture, the talks collapsed, but Pakistan now had a controlling hand in the resumption of talks, at a time and in a manner of its choosing. That’s why Baradar’s release by Pakistan last October — and his participation in the most recent talks in Doha last month, by far the most productive to date — was such a big deal. For the first time in years, the Taliban now has a negotiator at the table with the power to deliver on agreements, and the fact that Pakistan released Baradar to participate suggests that Islamabad, too, is serious about finding a path to peace in Afghanistan.

This brings us back to our original question: what’s different now? In essence, three new factors are driving the latest set of developments.

The first is Donald Trump.

I mentioned that two key assumptions have underpinned the enduring international presence, namely the fear of a Taliban takeover if we withdraw, leaving a weak Afghan government behind, and the expectation that such a takeover would result in terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about the first issue, and his answer to the second is that if an attack took place, he would order massive retaliation.

Given his generally mercurial approach to foreign policy and the fact that he has indeed ordered strikes in Syria and raids in Yemen and Africa, this threat is probably credible enough to give the Taliban pause — and, more importantly, reassure some in Kabul. The US President — who campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan as part of a broader policy of extricating America from its Middle Eastern wars of occupation — has been remarkably consistent in fulfilling his campaign promises. In his recent State of the Union address he repeatedly emphasized the need for a political solution in Afghanistan.

But while he seems entirely serious about settling (as he calls it) with the Taliban, his attitude is sharply at odds with that of the US foreign policy establishment, the Defense Department (where secretary James Mattis resigned in protest over the Afghan and Syrian withdrawals), the Democratic opposition, and even his own Republican Party in congress, which passed a bipartisan resolution calling on him to maintain forces in Afghanistan and Syria.

So, with a US presidential election next year and its guerrillas gaining ground, Taliban negotiators know that this is the best offer they are likely to get, while by January 2021 there could be a very different occupant in the White House and Washington’s Afghanistan “forever war” project could be back on.

A second factor is also preying on Taliban minds — the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghan branch of Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State terrorist group. Having lost 98 per cent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the group is looking for greener pastures in Africa, The Philippines, and particularly Afghanistan. IS-K has been very active since its first appearance in September 2015, launching a series of horrendously violent bombings and massacres, and the Taliban is an arch-enemy of the group.

Still, the group’s reach and influence are growing, leaving the Taliban with the choice to make peace this year under relatively favourable circumstances or face a war on two fronts with an emboldened IS-K in the future. Again, this puts pressure on Taliban negotiators to find a solution.

The final new factor is that Pakistan seems to have finally decided its interests are best served by peace in Afghanistan — hence the release of Baradar and the willingness to support talks.

The reason for this change might partly be the new, tougher line on Pakistan adopted by the Trump administration, or a policy shift by the civilian administration in Islamabad. But for my money, the most plausible explanation has to do with Pakistan’s major ally, China.

Chinese business and political influence in Afghanistan have been growing significantly in recent years through investments in mining and infrastructure, aid money, diplomatic activity and a limited military presence (with troops often disguised as security contractors working for Chinese companies in country).

Afghanistan is also an increasingly important market for Chinese goods. This matters to Pakistan because, if the key factor driving Islamabad’s behaviour has been fear of encirclement by India, then one solution is for a major Pakistani ally, China, to play an important role in Afghanistan and thereby counterbalance Indian influence.

This would reduce the requirement for Pakistan to tolerate the Taliban, since there would no longer be a strategic rationale to destabilise Afghanistan. While many in Washington see Chinese influence in Afghanistan as a threat, in fact a greater Chinese role in the region is probably inevitable in the long term and is likely to be quite constructive.

All this means that — after 18 years in which everybody wanted to end the war, but everybody also wanted some other objective even more and was willing to continue the war rather than risk that other goal — things might finally be changing for Afghanistan. While I am not as cynical about this as my hypothetical observer, I am very sceptical about the prospects for peace anytime soon. This is not the first time that talks have been mooted, it’s not the first time the stars have seemed to align for peace, and it’s clear that the Taliban is both far from defeated and incapable of winning outright.

There is also the not-so-minor matter of the sovereign independent government of Afghanistan, which strongly resents being cut out of negotiations, has defense and interior ministries led by highly competent hard-line adversaries of the Taliban, and is highly unlikely to acquiesce in its own abandonment.

So, time will tell, but at this point, colour me sceptical but not entirely cynical about prospects for peace in Afghanistan.

 

Rojava and the Kurdish conundrum

Media coverage of the Syrian Kurds is largely a romantic narrative of brave and plucky soldiers -particularly photogenic female fighters and a selfless cadre of idealistic foreign fighters – in an egalitarian para-socialist, anarchist-lite reimagining of the Paris Commune overcoming poor odds against a resilient and vicious barbarian foe, threatened by traditional enemies to their rear, and about to be betrayed by their fair-weather allies. Some on the left cleave to a narrative that conforms with pro-Assad, Russa-aligned reportage that views any opposition to the legitimate Syrian government and its popularly elected President Bashar al Assad as either criminal or deluded, and a cat’s paw of western interests.

With US policy with regard to its erstwhile Kurdish ally in constant flux – some would describe it as floundering – here is a brief discussion on what or may not happen next. As is often the case in Middle Eastern affairs, and particularly in sad, shattered Syria, it may well be redundant tomorrow. 

But first, how did we get here?

Past

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic and linguistic group spread across northern Syria, southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. At the end of World War 1, with the disintegration of the multinational Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires, the Kurd’s representatives joined delegations from many other small nations demanding their own independent states. Unlike those in Eastern Europe, the Kurds were to be disappointed. Britain and France has already determined to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, and with Treaty of Sèvres of 1922, Kurds were subsumed into the new states of Syria and Iraq. Kemal Ataturk, having ejected Greek and other forces from Anatolia and established a unitary Turkish state, had no intention of allowing the Kurds in the east their own patrimony. And neither did the Persians (the country did not adopt the name Iran until 1935). 

For almost a hundred years, the governments of Iraq and Syria, Turkey and Iran, for reasons  strategic, economic, political and nationalistic, resisted the demands of their Kurdish citizens for autonomy let alone nationhood, and indeed actively discriminated against them. Dissent and rebellion were suppressed, often brutally, well into the 21st Century. 

The Turkish and Iraqi armies have waged war are against their restive Kurdish populations for decades. After the second Guif War (the Kuwait one),Iraq Kurds were able to establish an autonomous statelet aided by a US underwritten no-fly zone. The Kurdish PeshMerga forces sustained the bitter fight against a seemingly unstoppable Da’ish after Iraqi forces had fled the field and extended military and administrative control beyond their own territory. Syria’s Kurds were able to exploit the chaos of the civil war to establish autonomous cantons in the north-west aground the city of Afrin, and in the Syria-Turkey borderlands in the northeast, now known as Rojava. Having borne the brunt of the fight against Da’ish, armed by the US and aided by allied air power and special forces, they earned the ire and suspicion of Turkish prime minister and now president Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who for his own political purposes, had broken a longstanding truce with Turkish Kurds, branding them as terrorists, he maintained, in cahoots with their equally terrorist Syrian confrères. 

Taking advantage of the Syrian Army’s preoccupation with al Qaeda-aligned opposition forces in the northwest and a US policy vacuum with respect to Syria, and with the tacit approval of Syria‘s Russian ally, Turkish forces occupied Afrin and its surroundings. The US reliance on the Kurdish militias who bore the brunt of the fight against Da’ish in northeastern Syria, and the presence of a small US force have deterred Erdogan from moving against Rojava. Until recently, that is, when US President Donald Trump declared that the US would soon withdraw its 2,000 ground troops from Rojava, leaving the Kurds vulnerable to Turkish attack. Erdogan assured him that his forces would not move against Rojava … yet. The outcry among America’s allies was immediate. How could the US treat its allies so? What message would this send to potential allies in the future? The US would be handing Syria to Russia and Iran. Da’ish was not dead yet and would be reinvigorated by a US retreat and a conflict between Kurds and Turks. Backtracking somewhat, Trump has now threatened Turkey with economic destruction should it attack the Kurds. 

This then is the current state of play. 

Present

The Kurds are caught between a Turkish rock and a Syrian hard place, they can fight (they’ve a large, experienced, well trained and well-armed army, an esprit de Corp that few others possess) or they can deal – with Assad, that is, because Erdogan won’t play – for a degree of autonomy within the Syrian fold. The US might offer a no-fly zone which will interdict warplanes and choppers, strafing and barrel bombs, but wouldn’t stop tanks and infantry from manoeuvring with impunity. Kurdish forces would probably hold those off, and meanwhile others might be tempted into the fray. The resulting ground war could see neighbouring armies, Russian mercenaries and western special forces bogged down like the Americans were in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan. 

In their presently autonomous ‘commune’ of Rojava in north eastern Syria, the Kurds are not in the strongest strategical or geopolitical position. It has a sizeable Arab population in, and Turcoman also, and many are not too happy to be governed by Kurds. Divisions are ethic, racial, and tribal as much as political, and there are reports that Kurdish soldiers and administrators have been a tad heavy handed. Arabs and others will no doubt be pining for Assad’s comradely embrace before long. The Kurds themselves are divided amongst themselves, often between families and clan, and rival militias, and have been for generations. In Iraq, for example, two extended families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, have dominated Kurdish politics and have fought  each other since Iraq was created in 1922, often siding with the Iraqi government against their rivals. The provincial capital of Kirkuk in northern Iraq was occupied by Barzani-controlled forces during the successful offensive against Da’ish, but was recently taken by Iraqi forces with the help of pro-Talabani Kurdish soldiery.

Rojava, furthermore, is landlocked, and strategically placed between Turkey, Iraq and western Syria, and there are oil reserves and agricultural land that Syria would want back. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey all loathe the idea of an independent Kurdistan and indeed, could work together to enforce a blockade and ferment discord within.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is backing Assad’s campaign to reconquer all of Syria, and that includes Afrin, now Turkish occupied, and Rojava, which is currently being watched over by the US, and eyed-up by Erdogan. But Assad’s forces are currently preoccupied with retaking Idlib province from al Qaida and other Islamist groups and eliminating Da’ish hold-outs near Hama and in the south, so right now, they are not ready or able to move on either Afrin or Rojava. 

The Turks are quite aware that the Russians are reporting to Putin and also to Assad, and have been kind of warned off by the US, so they might be cautious. The Russians are in effect a tripwire. If the Turks occupy Syrian land, Assad will have to move against them – as will his Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah allies. He is probably already contemplating a move on Afrin, and if the Turks threaten to to occupy Rojava, he will have to move against them there too. And he has a brigade of battle-hardened troops just south east of there at Dier ez Zor. 

When push comes to shove, Turkey has a well-equipped NATO army, but it has limited battle-experience – fighting a historical Kurdish insurgency doesn’t count, and it’s officer corp has been decimated and demoralized in the wake of the failed “coup”. Assad can field a depleted but experienced, Russian-supplied army backed by Hizbollah and Iranian fighters. The Russians know this, the Americans know this, and one would assume that Erdogan knows this – unless he is totally blindsided by his sultanate ambitions.

Future

Academically, this Is all very interesting – but to the Kurds in Rojava, quite scary. They are the small guys and the fall guys in this geopolitical game. They fight hard and well and they fight to win what they can, but they also want to live to fight another day. They are used to betrayal and are probably inured to it. It has been their lot since World War 1 when they turned up at the peace conferences asking for a country of their own just like those other small nations who came into being in Eastern Europe.  

So they will deal with Assad – to save their skins, to save their towns, their homes and their families. They will endeavour to hold out against any Turkish offensive, buying time and perhaps, buying some for Assad too whilst he rolls up the rebels in the west and south. And whilst they hold on, they will bargain for a degree of autonomy, amnesty, and aid. 

This is where Russia can call the shots. There is in reality no good way forward for the Kurds, but there is a possibility that the worst can yet be avoided if Russia, keen to maintain it’s influence in a post-war Syria, can mediate an arrangement between Damascus and Ankara. 

Turkey’s bottom line is a border with Syria not under the control of the YPG/PKK, its erstwhile mortal enemy. Despite Erdogan’s jingoistic drum-beating, he probably does not want to occupy Syrian territory nor provoke confrontation with Assad and his allies. Assad wants a Syria free of Turkish (and, indeed NATO) troops and a return of his mandate and mukhabarat to all parts of the country, including the Kurdish north. He can live with the YPG, but only in its “proper” place: as a vassal, defanged, compliant, and a useful ally against Ankara.

Can and will the Kurds trust Assad? Never! After seventy years as second-class citizens in Syria, who would? One can but hope that the analogy of the Paris Commune is just that – an analogy only. That quixotic intifada ended tragically for the communards

Will all this come to pass? Who knows. The situation, the players, the circumstances change moment by moment. A few days ago, The Independent’s knowledgeable Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn wrote: “The only solution in northeast Syria is for the US to withdraw militarily under an agreement whereby Turkey does not invade Syria, in return for the Syrian government backed by Russia absorbing the Kurdish quasi-state so hated by the Turks and giving it some degree of internationally guaranteed autonomy. Any other option is likely to provoke a Turkish invasion and two million Kurds in flight – a very few of whom will one day end up on the pebble beaches of Dungeness”.  As I was saying …

See also in In The Howling Infinite A Middle East Miscellany and East 

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That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

Free Speech, One Each

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practice it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain.  Paul Monk

Every once in a while, The Australian commissions an articulate and respected conservative commentator to pen a piece on a topic dear to its editorial heart. He (these worthy souls are invariably old, white blokes) duly oblige, for kudos or cash or both, and yet are careful not to become ensnared in the NewsCorp echo-chamber that houses the more virulent and predictable of its opinionistas. Historian Geoffrey Blainey recently managed such as arabesque when writing about the controversial Ramsay Centre (see The Oz’s Lonely Crusade). Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson did likewise in a tribute to Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (see Ghosts of the Gulag).

Australian author Paul Monk has done likewise when invited to ruminate on free speech in western universities. Instead of laying into left-wing uni students and the so-called Green Left, the bêtes noir of columnists like Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen, Monk refused to sing their song. Instead, he reminds us of our history and of our responsibility as democrats and reasonable folk to maintain dialogue with and endeavour to understand the reasoning (or its dearth) of our ideological opponents. History has shown us that once the shouting stops, the shooting often starts.

Often, I am disappointed, saddened even, by the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices.

Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation.

Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

Monk’s piece is a timely reminder as he enjoins is to teach our children well.

Five Rules for Civil Engagement

Paul Monk, The Australian, 8th December 2018

There seems to be an extraordinary amount of confusion around these days regarding freedom of speech in our universities and more generally. But civil society and constitutional government ­require freedom of speech. And freedom of speech requires sound meta-rules regarding the way it is conducted.

Suppress freedom of speech and you move towards authoritarian government. Without sound meta-rules you move towards ­anarchy and violence.

Around the world right now we can see a disturbing drift in each of these directions.

Ever since the Greek city-states pioneered democratic government and freedom of speech 2500 years ago, there has been a long struggle over the nature of the rules and how to uphold them.

Our present debates about freedom of speech, “hate speech”, censorship and “deplatforming” belong squarely within this tradition. It was, after all, the Athen­ian democracy that condemned Socrates to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”; but we tend to admire him rather than those who condemned him.

The meta-rules we need now, in the interests of science as well as democratic governance and civil peace, are five in number.  1. That there is such a thing as truth and that the whole point of civilised and patient discourse is to elicit the truth. 2. That, since this may prove difficult and time-consuming, we agree to disagree while the inquiry and discourse are pursued, rather than simply insisting on our prior opinion being the truth. 3. That the search for truth itself be conducted according to workable principles of reason and evidence, not dogma or vehement assertion. 4. That we strive to see the distinction between opinion and truth and accept that truth, once grasped, will generally require that we alter our opinions. 5. That we agree to open contentious subjects up to discussion under the above four rules, not shut them down.

These are pretty basic ideas. One would have hoped that they would not be challenged in any 21st-century liberal democracy. Yet, as Michiko Kakutani has written in The Death of Truth, even the first rule — accepting that there is such a thing as truth — is now under challenge from a bewildering variety of sources.

Holding the scientific and philosophical line on this is made more difficult by the fact human beings generally are prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive weaknesses, which ­obstruct the search for truth even in the best and most important cases.

Anarchic social media exacerbates these problems, creating thought bubbles, viral “road rage” and avenues for the rapid dissemination of confused, mendacious or inflammatory claims.

There are also deliberate ­attempts to sabotage the factual and philosophical foundations of truth seeking. Michael Lewis’s latest book, The Fifth Risk, in his ­gentle and lucid manner, exposes the institutional vandalism of the Trump administration in this ­regard. Contempt for or shameless denial of fact and truth is endemic in undemocratic governments around the world in our time: ­Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.

But our liberal democracies should be bastions of the meta-rules. This is especially so in our universities, which are supposed to be the schools of reason and the havens of open exploration of ideas. George Orwell famously wrote: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

But that gets us only to the starting gate. All too often people insist on telling us things that we do not want to hear for the good reason that it is abusive, ignorant, banal, degraded or otherwise ­objectionable.

Are we obliged to listen, much less agree? And if we are not disposed to do so, what happens next?

That’s where the meta-rules have to come in. We must be prepared to uphold them and call our interlocutors on them when they are ­violated. That’s demanding work; but it is the indispensable work of democratic politics and a scientific culture.

It is for this reason and not ­because one has any sympathy for bigoted or harebrained ideas that many of us are dismayed by the rise of “grievance studies”, the ­insistence on “safe places”, “trigger warnings” and the suppression of lines of “hate speech” at all too many of our universities.

There seem to be a growing number of things one cannot be ­allowed to say publicly or teach, or say within teaching, at universities. Is this what the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s has come to at universities? Is this the proving ground for well-informed and articulate practitioners of free speech and democratic principles?

I attended university between 1977 and 1987. My purpose was to learn enough to be able to participate intelligently in public discourse about the forces shaping our world. I didn’t go to university to agitate but to inquire, though I was aware of the student radicalism of the 60s.

I encountered people, including teachers, of many different opinions and ideological or ­religious persuasions and read as widely and deeply as I could concerning where these different ­beliefs had come from and why anyone would adhere to them. No political correctness or ideological straitjacket was in evidence. That appears to have changed.

I did, however, encounter individuals with strong opinions. I ­recall a tutorial during the 1979 course Classical Social Theory (on Marx, Weber, Durkheim and other modern social theorists) in which a fellow student declared bluntly and humourlessly that “come the revolution” people who thought as individualists like me “will all be shot”.

He didn’t threaten to assault me on the spot, though, and it never occurred to me to insist that he be expelled from the class or the university for saying such a thing. The meta-rules were in place and I disagreed with his politics. I was bemused by what these days one might dub his “hate speech” but not intimidated. I knew perfectly well that my classmate’s attitude was not ­merely some strange fantasy on his part.

Pol Pot had been overthrown in Cambodia only very ­recently, after having huge numbers of his country’s educated elite tortured and shot. Deng Xiaoping had just crushed the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing and had Wei Jingsheng imprisoned for — as the trial judge put it — “using so-called freedom of speech to stir up trouble”. The ruthless practice of Marxist-Leninist tyrannies throughout the 20th century was well known to me.

But being at a university in a liberal democracy, I felt safe enough to absorb such violent language in the tutorial room.

This extended to public lectures. In 1980, I attended a forum in the famous Public Lecture Theatre at the University of Melbourne, at which several well-known speakers addressed an audience of hundreds on the subject of Malcolm Fraser’s economic policies and the problem of relatively high unemployment.

David Kemp (Liberal), Tom Uren (Labor Left), Don Chipp (Australian Democrats) and Albert Langer (Monash University Marxist radical) all spoke. None was shouted down. Langer, however, gave a decidedly inflammatory address. The first three had all advocated various competing approaches to macro-economics and unemployment relief. Langer declared openly: “Those are all bourgeois solutions. If you want to do something useful, go and learn how to use a rifle. What this country needs is a revolution.”

There’s freedom of speech for you: used to advocate violence rather than the deepening of ­inquiry and debate. Langer was not so much a far-right Proud Boy as a Proud Leninist.

Afterwards, I approached him and asked would he care for a coffee. He cheerfully agreed and, as we strolled over to the Student Union, I conducted an exercise in freedom of speech. “Albert,” I said to him, “let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that you were able to organise the revolution you’ve just called for and seize power in this country. What exactly would you then do?”

“That’s a good question,” ­Albert responded.

“Sure, it’s a good question,” I ­replied, “so what’s your answer?” He remained silent. “OK,” I went on, “let’s assume you pursued a standard policy of nationalisation, state planning and indoctrination, but things got gummed up and the economy hit the skids. What would you do then?”

“Oh,” he said airily, “we’d have to have another revolution … And why not? After all, if things worked out, it’d get boring. Revolutions are fun.”

We proceeded to the Student Union and ordered our coffees. He described himself as a “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist”, which struck me as absurd and ­objec­tionable but not sufficiently so as to derail the conversation. I have never since, however, been able to take Langer seriously. He remained at liberty, carrying on with his ratbaggery for years. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t able to organise an armed revolution and I was able to pursue my studies without being purged or shot.

The year after that public forum, curious about student radicals such as Langer, I undertook an honours thesis on the student ­rebellion and general strike in France in May of 1968. The soixante-huitards (sixty-eighters), as they have been dubbed, had quite ­anarchic ideas about freedom of speech and social change. “All power to the imagination,” was one of their most fetching slogans.

From a conservative point of view, they were assorted imbeciles, suffering from various Castroite or Maoist fantasies and Marcusean delusions. Charles de Gaulle ­derided them as “bed wetters”.

I was interested in the wellsprings of their revolt and how it played out in advanced industrial society. My inquiry was unhindered and I drew my own conclusions, critically evaluating the full spectrum of ideological opinions about les evenements de Mai. It was a valuable learning experience.

The Free Speech Movement as such had arisen at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964-65 among restive students who had come to believe that learning at university was not enough. Agitation for social change was ­incumbent upon them and should be accommodated by the academic authorities.

There was a struggle over this. The FSM was part of a groundswell of such ­activism in the early 60s, not least through the nationwide American movement called Students for a Democratic Society. As the problems of war in Vietnam and racism heated up, elements of the SDS threw the meta-rules of democratic social order overboard and opted to attempt violent revolution. They formed the Weather Underground Organisation, inspired by the insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Carlos Mari­ghella in Latin America. I studied all of this in the 80s when it was still a matter of recent history; during doctoral studies on American counterinsurgency strategy throughout the Cold War.

I identified to some considerable extent with Tom Hayden and the founders of the SDS and ­empathised with armed rebels in countries such as El Salvador and The Philippines. I was wary of the Marxist-Leninist brand of violent revolution, given its appalling history in the 20th century, but ­appalled by the death squads that plagued Central and South America in those years. My investigation itself, after all, required the meta-rules of liberal democracy.

Robert Redford’s 2012 film The Company You Keep, starring Redford, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Chris Cooper and Shia LaBeouf, romanticises the Weather Underground and its radical politics. The film’s worth seeing, but it’s not a good ­introduction to what happened back then.

Brian Burrough did a vastly better job in Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence(2015). Crucially, for our present purposes, he shows how the FSM and SDS struggled with the meta-rules regarding freedom of speech and civil society and how the impatient and “radical” wing threw away those rules and opted for violence of the kind Langer extolled.

Such would-be revolutionaries, like neo-Nazis or violent anarchists or religious fanatics, pose a direct threat to the meta-rules. It’s all very well, after all, to seek truth in congenial, intelligent, well-­informed and professional company. But what do we do when we confront venom, ignorance, hostility, entrenched resistance — when we confront one kind or ­another of what Churchill called “the fanatic”: someone who cannot change his mind and will not change the subject?

Well, that’s exactly when ­defence of the meta-rules, including by police protection if necessary, is most important.

Nadine Strossen, the first female national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and professor of constitutional law at New York University, has just given us a fine reflection on this challenge: Hate: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship. She makes a powerful case that when we find ideas objectionable, we need to have the courage to stand up and challenge them, not merely shout them down or try to ban them.

An unimpeachable “liberal” on race, class and gender, she states forthrightly: “On many campuses … students complain that they have been ‘assaulted’ when they are exposed to ideas that offend them, or even if they learn that a provocative speaker has been ­invited to campus. This false ­equation between controversial ideas and physical violence fuels unwarranted calls for outlawing and punishing ideas, along with ­violence.”

For reasoned debate and fruitful inquiry to take place, it is necessary that violence be outlawed, but it is counter-productive for ideas to be outlawed. What’s required is to foster the opportunity for strenuous debate and what may often be painful and difficult learning. If we cannot agree on that, our political and intellectual culture is in trouble.

Unfashionable as it is to state this these days, the ideas of freedom (eleutheria), political equality (isonomia), equality of speech (isegoria), freedom of speech (parrhesia) and democracy (demokratia) derive from classical Greece. They were imperfectly realised in the ancient world and the Greek and Roman republics gave way to autocratic rule. But we derive our key modern ideas about freedom and responsible government from those beginnings.

Plato, Aristotle and the School of Athens

As Josiah Ober wrote in The Athenian Revolution: “Some 2500 years after the revolution that made it possible, democracy is widely regarded as the most ­attractive form of practical (as ­opposed to utopian) political ­organisation yet devised. Among democracy’s virtues is its revisability — the potential of the political regime to rethink and to reform ­itself, while remaining committed to its core values of justice, equality, dignity and freedom.”

At the root of all this is freedom of speech. If we wish to preserve and extend our liberties or maintain our democracies, we need to understand this. We must equip ourselves to practise it well, educate our young to understand how unusual such liberty has been in human history and how difficult it is to maintain. Doing these things itself ­demands that we adhere to the meta-rules that make it possible. And here’s the kicker: so will building any realisable “utopia” be worth striving after? Martin ­Luther King Jr knew that and spoke faithfully to it, calling for the American republic to live up to its founding meta-rules.

Paul Monk (paulmonk.com.au) is the author of 10 books. The most recent is Dictators and Dangerous Ideas: Uncensored Reflections in an Era of Turmoil (Echo Books, 2018).

Songs to drive the cold winter away

I am not one who makes much of the festive season, but inspired by the example of my favourite blog, Thom Hickey’s Immortal Juke Box, here are five favourite Christmas songs. No Neil Diamond or Mariah Carey here.

Five

The King, sung here by Canadians Loreena McKennitt and Cyril Smith, from Loreena’s Christmas album To Drive the Cold Winter Away, hails from a long tradition of “Wren King” songs. The king of the title is the wee wren, “the king of all birds”, as many old songs tell it. Through December until Twelfth Night (the sixth of January), it was common among Celtic-speakers in Brittany, Wales, Manx, Scotland, and Ireland for children and adults to cruise their neighbourhoods cadging food, money or booze in return for seeing a Wren that they had captured. This particular “King Wren” song dates from the eighteenth century, although the heavy weaponry was added in the nineteenth.

Health, love and peace be all here in this place
By your leave we shall sing, concerning our King
Our King is well-dressed in silks of the best
In ribbons so rare no king can compare
We have travelled many miles over hedges and stiles
In search of our King unto you we bring.
We have powder and shot to conquer the lot
We have cannon and ball to conquer them all.
Old Christmas is past, twelve tide is the last
And we bid you adieu, great joy to the new

Four

Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.  Northumbrian Kate Rusby’s rendering of the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy is gorgeous. I reblogged Thom Hickey’s tribute to this lovely song earlier this month. It is worth another look and listen. The lyrics are so bucolic, so timeless:

The rising of the sun
The running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

Three

Loreena sings a lovely version of The Wexford Carol on her Christmas album. But Christmas songs don’t get much more beautiful than this beautiful version by American bluegrass diva Ali Krauss and cellist virtuoso Yo Yo Ma. The carol is believed to have originated in twelfth century Ireland in my mother’s home town of Inis Córthaidh.

Two

In 1961, Dusty Springfield was but a young lass, but even back then, she had a fabulous voice! I was twelve years old and this was the first time I’d heard the Springfields, the Americanesque folk trio founded by her brother Tom. It was the beginning of unrequited puppy-love that ended when I heard the Bobster’s Love Minus Zero No Limit – see my reverie What’s Bob Got to Do With It?  Dusty went on to become one of the greatest soul singers of all time, and Tom gave the world The Seekers. He adapted Bambino from a traditional Italian carol, just as he was later to transform a Russian folk-song into The Carnival is Over.

Santo natale bambino mio…
To you and all mankind,
To you and all mankind, maybe,
And from strife we shall be free.

One

It’s been voted the best Christmas song of all time – in the U.K, that is, because Americans don’t get it, as The Independent discovered – and, yes, it’s my number one because it IS the best Christmas song of all time. And yet, it seems, the “bah humbug!” straighteners and virtue signallers are out to get it, as reported recently by Aussie writer Mark Mordue: Sanitize Clause would rob a Christmas ballad of its soul.

The irascible, untuneful, dentally-disadvantaged Shane McGowan and his hot ceilidh band hit the big time with this “Christmas Eve in the drunk tank” shanty, wonderfully aided and abetted by the gorgeous and doomed Kirsty MacColl, who could’ve been famous but for a rich Mexican in a speedboat. The repartee between these loser-lovers is up there with Burton and Taylor:

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you…

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

When it comes to a Christmas song, how low can you Go? And, as the band kicks in with the accordion and pipes, how high can you fly?

Happy Christmas.