I was inspired to write this post on viewing the video below, a harrowing picture gallery of the Bosnian War, the bloodiest but not the last of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. I was reminded of the iconic Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s poem, Pity the Nation, a sardonic and incisive take on the politics of his time and his homeland. It is chilling in its prescience with regard to contemporary politics in the Middle East and indeed, much, much closer to home on in our liberal democracies where les mots de jour, and indeed, des temps are ‘populism’ and ‘post-truth’, where allegations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news are ubiquitous and duplicitous, and where, in a milieu of fear, anger and loathing, intolerance and ignorance appear to be on the rise.
Today, in America, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are best-sellers, and doubtless, as resignation and surrender sink in, Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 will catch on with intellectually and numerically inclined. The one is the temperature at which paper burns (“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading”), the other, the mother of all vicious circles. The 22 was meant to be 18, but Joseph Heller was gazzumped by Leon Uris’ holocaust melodrama Mila 18 (which I do happen to like).
I was also reminded of a book of the same name. In Pity the Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein (inspired by Gibran’s poem, and by the fact the he has been a resident of Lebanon for going on half a century), the redoubtable British journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.
Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)
The following song, E Lucevan Le Stelle, encapsulates all this:
“And time, ’tis said reveals its dead, and we will speak what was unsaid. How he was wrong, and I was led – his song I sing who gives me bread. It wasn’t me! I kept my head – I had my kin and kind to serve. It wasn’t me – I kept the faith. It wasn’t me who lost his nerve”.
It charts the cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, and other “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world in pain. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography, lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “Bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs and more betides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores: damnation takes no sides”.
Related posts In That Howling Infinite:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, painter, liberal activist, and co-founder of the legendary City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, wrote the following poem in 2007 as a tribute to Gibran, and as a sad testament to the aphorism “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
“Pity the nation whose people are sheep and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced, and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as heroand aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation – oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.
In Invisible Republic, his masterful telling of the story behind “The Basement Tapes”, Greil Marcus, quotes Bob Dylan: “Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death”.
And this is precisely the theme of Dylan’s belated Nobel Lecture, a presentation that is in its style, scope and subject matter, a a laid-back, folksey spoken edition of the long-awaited and probably never to be written “Chronicles – Volume 2”.
Constructed around his précis of three of the many books that have influenced his writing over more than half a century – Moby-Dick, All Quiet of the Western Front, and The Odyssey – he recalls how he had mined the literary canon for myth and meaning, often uncertain and uncaring about how one ended and the other began. As he concludes:
“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means”.
The full text of Bob’s lecture follows this recording:
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture
When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you. And most likely it will go in a roundabout way, but I hope what I say will be worthwhile and purposeful.
If I was to go back to the dawning of it all, I guess I’d have to start with Buddy Holly. Buddy died when I was about eighteen and he was twenty-two. From the moment I first heard him, I felt akin. I felt related, like he was an older brother. I even thought I resembled him. Buddy played the music that I loved – the music I grew up on: country western, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues. Three separate strands of music that he intertwined and infused into one genre. One brand. And Buddy wrote songs – songs that had beautiful melodies and imaginative verses. And he sang great – sang in more than a few voices. He was the archetype. Everything I wasn’t and wanted to be. I saw him only but once, and that was a few days before he was gone. I had to travel a hundred miles to get to see him play, and I wasn’t disappointed.
He was powerful and electrifying and had a commanding presence. I was only six feet away. He was mesmerizing. I watched his face, his hands, the way he tapped his foot, his big black glasses, the eyes behind the glasses, the way he held his guitar, the way he stood, his neat suit. Everything about him. He looked older than twenty-two. Something about him seemed permanent, and he filled me with conviction. Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.
I think it was a day or two after that that his plane went down. And somebody – somebody I’d never seen before – handed me a Leadbelly record with the song “Cottonfields” on it. And that record changed my life right then and there. Transported me into a world I’d never known. It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me. I must have played that record a hundred times.
It was on a label I’d never heard of with a booklet inside with advertisements for other artists on the label: Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the New Lost City Ramblers, Jean Ritchie, string bands. I’d never heard of any of them. But I reckoned if they were on this label with Leadbelly, they had to be good, so I needed to hear them. I wanted to know all about it and play that kind of music. I still had a feeling for the music I’d grown up with, but for right now, I forgot about it. Didn’t even think about it. For the time being, it was long gone.
I hadn’t left home yet, but I couldn’t wait to. I wanted to learn this music and meet the people who played it. Eventually, I did leave, and I did learn to play those songs. They were different than the radio songs that I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn’t matter in the folk world. Everything was a hit. All you had to do was be well versed and be able to play the melody. Some of these songs were easy, some not. I had a natural feeling for the ancient ballads and country blues, but everything else I had to learn from scratch. I was playing for small crowds, sometimes no more than four or five people in a room or on a street corner. You had to have a wide repertoire, and you had to know what to play and when. Some songs were intimate, some you had to shout to be heard.
By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.
You know what it’s all about. Takin’ the pistol out and puttin’ it back in your pocket. Whippin’ your way through traffic, talkin’ in the dark. You know that Stagger Lee was a bad man and that Frankie was a good girl. You know that Washington is a bourgeois town and you’ve heard the deep-pitched voice of John the Revelator and you saw the Titanic sink in a boggy creek. And you’re pals with the wild Irish rover and the wild colonial boy. You heard the muffled drums and the fifes that played lowly. You’ve seen the lusty Lord Donald stick a knife in his wife, and a lot of your comrades have been wrapped in white linen.
I had all the vernacular all down. I knew the rhetoric. None of it went over my head – the devices, the techniques, the secrets, the mysteries – and I knew all the deserted roads that it traveled on, too. I could make it all connect and move with the current of the day. When I started writing my own songs, the folk lingo was the only vocabulary that I knew, and I used it.
But I had something else as well. I had principals and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics. And the themes from those books worked their way into many of my songs, either knowingly or unintentionally. I wanted to write songs unlike anything anybody ever heard, and these themes were fundamental.
Specific books that have stuck with me ever since I read them way back in grammar school – I want to tell you about three of them: Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Odyssey.
Moby-Dick is a fascinating book, a book that’s filled with scenes of high drama and dramatic dialogue. The book makes demands on you. The plot is straightforward. The mysterious Captain Ahab – captain of a ship called the Pequod – an egomaniac with a peg leg pursuing his nemesis, the great white whale Moby Dick who took his leg. And he pursues him all the way from the Atlantic around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. He pursues the whale around both sides of the earth. It’s an abstract goal, nothing concrete or definite. He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil. Ahab’s got a wife and child back in Nantucket that he reminisces about now and again. You can anticipate what will happen.
The ship’s crew is made up of men of different races, and any one of them who sights the whale will be given the reward of a gold coin. A lot of Zodiac symbols, religious allegory, stereotypes. Ahab encounters other whaling vessels, presses the captains for details about Moby. Have they seen him? There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom. Says Moby is the incarnate of a Shaker god, and that any dealings with him will lead to disaster. He says that to Captain Ahab. Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.
This book tells how different men react in different ways to the same experience. A lot of Old Testament, biblical allegory: Gabriel, Rachel, Jeroboam, Bildah, Elijah. Pagan names as well: Tashtego, Flask, Daggoo, Fleece, Starbuck, Stubb, Martha’s Vineyard. The Pagans are idol worshippers. Some worship little wax figures, some wooden figures. Some worship fire. The Pequod is the name of an Indian tribe.
Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, “Call me Ishmael.” Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.
A typhoon hits the Pequod. Captain Ahab thinks it’s a good omen. Starbuck thinks it’s a bad omen, considers killing Ahab. As soon as the storm ends, a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what’s to come. A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”
Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis, the embodiment of evil. The demented captain who actually lost his leg years ago trying to attack Moby with a knife.
We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.
Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.
When Starbuck tells Ahab that he should let bygones be bygones, the angry captain snaps back, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.” Or these lines, “All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.” Quotable poetic phrases that can’t be beat.
Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out. Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.
Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs.
All Quiet on the Western Front was another book that did. All Quiet on the Western Front is a horror story. This is a book where you lose your childhood, your faith in a meaningful world, and your concern for individuals. You’re stuck in a nightmare. Sucked up into a mysterious whirlpool of death and pain. You’re defending yourself from elimination. You’re being wiped off the face of the map. Once upon a time you were an innocent youth with big dreams about being a concert pianist. Once you loved life and the world, and now you’re shooting it to pieces.
Day after day, the hornets bite you and worms lap your blood. You’re a cornered animal. You don’t fit anywhere. The falling rain is monotonous. There’s endless assaults, poison gas, nerve gas, morphine, burning streams of gasoline, scavenging and scabbing for food, influenza, typhus, dysentery. Life is breaking down all around you, and the shells are whistling. This is the lower region of hell. Mud, barbed wire, rat-filled trenches, rats eating the intestines of dead men, trenches filled with filth and excrement. Someone shouts, “Hey, you there. Stand and fight.”
Who knows how long this mess will go on? Warfare has no limits. You’re being annihilated, and that leg of yours is bleeding too much. You killed a man yesterday, and you spoke to his corpse. You told him after this is over, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking after his family. Who’s profiting here? The leaders and the generals gain fame, and many others profit financially. But you’re doing the dirty work. One of your comrades says, “Wait a minute, where are you going?” And you say, “Leave me alone, I’ll be back in a minute.” Then you walk out into the woods of death hunting for a piece of sausage. You can’t see how anybody in civilian life has any kind of purpose at all. All their worries, all their desires – you can’t comprehend it.
More machine guns rattle, more parts of bodies hanging from wires, more pieces of arms and legs and skulls where butterflies perch on teeth, more hideous wounds, pus coming out of every pore, lung wounds, wounds too big for the body, gas-blowing cadavers, and dead bodies making retching noises. Death is everywhere. Nothing else is possible. Someone will kill you and use your dead body for target practice. Boots, too. They’re your prized possession. But soon they’ll be on somebody else’s feet.
There’s Froggies coming through the trees. Merciless bastards. Your shells are running out. “It’s not fair to come at us again so soon,” you say. One of your companions is laying in the dirt, and you want to take him to the field hospital. Someone else says, “You might save yourself a trip.” “What do you mean?” “Turn him over, you’ll see what I mean.”
You wait to hear the news. You don’t understand why the war isn’t over. The army is so strapped for replacement troops that they’re drafting young boys who are of little military use, but they’re draftin’ ‘em anyway because they’re running out of men. Sickness and humiliation have broken your heart. You were betrayed by your parents, your schoolmasters, your ministers, and even your own government.
The general with the slowly smoked cigar betrayed you too – turned you into a thug and a murderer. If you could, you’d put a bullet in his face. The commander as well. You fantasize that if you had the money, you’d put up a reward for any man who would take his life by any means necessary. And if he should lose his life by doing that, then let the money go to his heirs. The colonel, too, with his caviar and his coffee – he’s another one. Spends all his time in the officers’ brothel. You’d like to see him stoned dead too. More Tommies and Johnnies with their whack fo’ me daddy-o and their whiskey in the jars. You kill twenty of ‘em and twenty more will spring up in their place. It just stinks in your nostrils.
You’ve come to despise that older generation that sent you out into this madness, into this torture chamber. All around you, your comrades are dying. Dying from abdominal wounds, double amputations, shattered hipbones, and you think, “I’m only twenty years old, but I’m capable of killing anybody. Even my father if he came at me.”
Yesterday, you tried to save a wounded messenger dog, and somebody shouted, “Don’t be a fool.” One Froggy is laying gurgling at your feet. You stuck him with a dagger in his stomach, but the man still lives. You know you should finish the job, but you can’t. You’re on the real iron cross, and a Roman soldier’s putting a sponge of vinegar to your lips.
Months pass by. You go home on leave. You can’t communicate with your father. He said, “You’d be a coward if you don’t enlist.” Your mother, too, on your way back out the door, she says, “You be careful of those French girls now.” More madness. You fight for a week or a month, and you gain ten yards. And then the next month it gets taken back.
All that culture from a thousand years ago, that philosophy, that wisdom – Plato, Aristotle, Socrates – what happened to it? It should have prevented this. Your thoughts turn homeward. And once again you’re a schoolboy walking through the tall poplar trees. It’s a pleasant memory. More bombs dropping on you from blimps. You got to get it together now. You can’t even look at anybody for fear of some miscalculable thing that might happen. The common grave. There are no other possibilities.
Then you notice the cherry blossoms, and you see that nature is unaffected by all this. Poplar trees, the red butterflies, the fragile beauty of flowers, the sun – you see how nature is indifferent to it all. All the violence and suffering of all mankind. Nature doesn’t even notice it.
You’re so alone. Then a piece of shrapnel hits the side of your head and you’re dead. You’ve been ruled out, crossed out. You’ve been exterminated. I put this book down and closed it up. I never wanted to read another war novel again, and I never did.
Charlie Poole from North Carolina had a song that connected to all this. It’s called “You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me,” and the lyrics go like this:
I saw a sign in a window walking up town one day.
Join the army, see the world is what it had to say.
You’ll see exciting places with a jolly crew,
You’ll meet interesting people, and learn to kill them too.
Oh you ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talking to me.
I may be crazy and all that, but I got good sense you see.
You ain’t talkin’ to me, you ain’t talkin’ to me.
Killin’ with a gun don’t sound like fun.
You ain’t talkin’ to me.
The Odyssey is a great book whose themes have worked its way into the ballads of a lot of songwriters: “Homeward Bound, “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Home on the Range,” and my songs as well.
The Odyssey is a strange, adventurous tale of a grown man trying to get home after fighting in a war. He’s on that long journey home, and it’s filled with traps and pitfalls. He’s cursed to wander. He’s always getting carried out to sea, always having close calls. Huge chunks of boulders rock his boat. He angers people he shouldn’t. There’s troublemakers in his crew. Treachery. His men are turned into pigs and then are turned back into younger, more handsome men. He’s always trying to rescue somebody. He’s a travelin’ man, but he’s making a lot of stops.
He’s stranded on a desert island. He finds deserted caves, and he hides in them. He meets giants that say, “I’ll eat you last.” And he escapes from giants. He’s trying to get back home, but he’s tossed and turned by the winds. Restless winds, chilly winds, unfriendly winds. He travels far, and then he gets blown back.
He’s always being warned of things to come. Touching things he’s told not to. There’s two roads to take, and they’re both bad. Both hazardous. On one you could drown and on the other you could starve. He goes into the narrow straits with foaming whirlpools that swallow him. Meets six-headed monsters with sharp fangs. Thunderbolts strike at him. Overhanging branches that he makes a leap to reach for to save himself from a raging river. Goddesses and gods protect him, but some others want to kill him. He changes identities. He’s exhausted. He falls asleep, and he’s woken up by the sound of laughter. He tells his story to strangers. He’s been gone twenty years. He was carried off somewhere and left there. Drugs have been dropped into his wine. It’s been a hard road to travel.
In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you’ve had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you’ve also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that’s still not all of it.
When he gets back home, things aren’t any better. Scoundrels have moved in and are taking advantage of his wife’s hospitality. And there’s too many of ‘em. And though he’s greater than them all and the best at everything – best carpenter, best hunter, best expert on animals, best seaman – his courage won’t save him, but his trickery will.
All these stragglers will have to pay for desecrating his palace. He’ll disguise himself as a filthy beggar, and a lowly servant kicks him down the steps with arrogance and stupidity. The servant’s arrogance revolts him, but he controls his anger. He’s one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest. He was nobody. And when it’s all said and done, when he’s home at last, he sits with his wife, and he tells her the stories.
So what does it all mean? Myself and a lot of other songwriters have been influenced by these very same themes. And they can mean a lot of different things. If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means. When Melville put all his old testament, biblical references, scientific theories, Protestant doctrines, and all that knowledge of the sea and sailing ships and whales into one story, I don’t think he would have worried about it either – what it all means.
John Donne as well, the poet-priest who lived in the time of Shakespeare, wrote these words, “The Sestos and Abydos of her breasts. Not of two lovers, but two loves, the nests.” I don’t know what it means, either. But it sounds good. And you want your songs to sound good.
When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
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This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading a recent article in the New York Review of Books. The review is reprinted in full below, but here are a few more of my own observations.
Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, as happened, one could suggest, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.
So often, causus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the slave states that sought to secede from the Union, and the parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites.
A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. The Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian War, for example, and Ireland after the Anglo-Irish treaty that concluded the rebellion against British rule.
The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting in much the same way as Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.
There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not a accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born?
And finally, to conclude this conversation, lets briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).
The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.
Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:
Now, read on…
The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.
Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.
But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.
Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.
How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”
But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.
Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.
Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.
For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”
As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.
In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.
Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?
A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.
To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.
In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.
The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.
At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:
Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,
And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,
Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,
Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:
Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,
…Nature all out of course to checke our course,
Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.
It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.
Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.
As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.
Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:
Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.
Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.
But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.
Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? . (June 2017)
People crushed by laws, have no hope but to evade power. If the laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to the law. Edmund Burke
The protest against the aggressive and toxic nature of Forestry Corporation’s clearfell, burn and poison forestry operation at Tarkeeth State Forest has been ongoing for over a year. The protest campaign kicked off in March 2016 with meetings and rallies, followed by the establishment of a protest camp in June, and direct action by forest protectors in July.
In January 2017, the Tarkeeth Three, Peter “Simmo” Simmonds, John “Sean” May, and Amber “AJ” Daley were convicted at Coffs Harbour Courthouse for their direct actions to protect The Tarkeeth. Sean and AJ appealed their convictions, and these were quashed in March. Simmo, a dedicated and veteran environmentalist, did not appeal his conviction because he had breached an earlier bond in relation to his direct action against coal seam gas operations at Narrabri, when he locked on at Tarkeeth. Thus did the Tarkeeth Three become the Tarkeeth Two. Simmo has since been acquitted of breaching the Narrabri bond.
As forest protector and protest leader Susan Weil said after the January trial, the outcome of the court proceedings:“allows people around Australia to not panic, and to not be scared to go out and protest for the environmental issues and social issues that matter to them”.
The following article features two interviews broadcast by Bellingen’s community radio 2bbb, with respect to these direct forest actions and the subsequent court proceedings. There are also live videos of the locks-ons, and links to media coverage.
Bellingen barrister John Carty, Counsel for the appellants, talked with 2bbb radio host Leo Bradney-George about the trial of the Tarkeeth Three, and particularly, the acquittal of the Tarkeeth Two at Coffs Harbour Courthouse on 2nd March 2017.
John Carty explains how Forestry Corporation had acted in a “disingenuous and opportunist” manner.
Prior to the Tarkeeth Three trial on 18th January 2017, forest protector Sean talked with 2bbb radio host Leo Bradney-George about Tarkeeth Forest and its defenders.
Greens MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s live coverage of Simmo’s lock-on at Tarkeeth on 25th July 2016:
Protest leader Susan Weil’s live coverage of the Not In My Forest action group’s onsite protest at Tarkeeth State Forest on 28th July 2016, where Sean and AJ locked on to a timber harvester machine:
A short video of the destructive clearfell and burn forestry operations that inspired the Tarkeeth Three to direct action:
Further reading …
- Tales of Tarkeeth – other stories in this blog about Tarkeeth’s past and present.
A selection of local media coverage of the Tarkeeth Three:
- Coffs Coast Advocate – The Tarkeeth Three convicted over battle with archaic logging operations
- Coffs Coast Advocate – The Tarkeeth Two have convictions quashed
- Coffs Coast Advocate – Protester arrested in Tarkeeth blockade
- NBN News – Environmental activists appeal convictions
- NBN News – Activists and Forestry Corporation at loggerheads
“Bear me up on angels’ wings, and other transcendental things. Where the golden walls still glow, let my people go to Jerusalem”.
Jerusalem is all about faith and passion, and there is no city on Earth that people get more passionate about. The light is luminous. In high summer it almost shimmers. The very air is full of prayer and politics, passion and pain, and the rocks and stones virtually sing a hallelujah chorus of history. I am not a religious person, but I cannot help getting excited by the place – although I do not transcend to transports of delight and delirium. Some folk love Jerusalem so much, they go mad.
Recorded by Charles Tyler at Susan Street, Annandale, 14th May 2017. © Paul Hemphill 2014 All rights reserved
Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his assessment of the Khan Sheikhoun gas attack and the US’ “laughably symbolic” response. Contrary to the view of many that Assad did not use sarin gas, and to those who praised Trump’s newfound, muscular foreign policy, Kilcullen maintains that it was indeed Assad wot done it, that his reasons were strategically justified, that the US and its allies need much than this one viagra hit to bring the multifarious warring parties to the negotiating table, and that anyhow, the real target of Trump’s martial signalling were Chinese President Xi and The North Korean Fat Controller, Kim Jong Il. And, perhaps, as Beirut-based correspondent for The Independent, Robert Fisk suggests in his own interpretation of the events, Vladimir Putin:
Patrick Cockburn, Fisks’s colleague at at The Imdependent paints a scarier scenario. The folk who brought you the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan are back, and are keen to attend to unfinished business:
Sarin attack shows Assad is desperate as jihadist rebels gain ground
David Kilcullen. The Australian, April 15, 2017
US President Donald Trump’s missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat air base last week, responding to the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province, garnered cautious praise across the political spectrum. It also highlighted the complex choices facing the US, allies such as Australia, regional players like Turkey and Iraq, and institutions such as the UN.
The key to understanding the strike, though, lies in a question that’s been somewhat overlooked: why did Bashar al-Assad’s regime need to use the nerve agent in the first place?
We should start by noting that praise for the strike can largely be explained by the extraordinarily low expectations Trump and his predecessor set for effective action on Syria. Trump’s alleged Russia ties, praise for strongmen, positive statements about Assad until days before the attack, and expressed disdain for world opinion set the bar so low that he got credit just for upholding an international norm against chemical weapons, and showing he was prepared to go up against Moscow.
His prompt response also contrasted with president Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” after the vastly more lethal Ghouta attack of September 2013, which killed 1500 and poisoned thousands (the Khan Sheikhoun attack killed 74). When Obama called his own bluff on the red line, ceded the diplomatic initiative to Moscow and put the Kremlin in the driver’s seat for negotiations on Syria, he enabled a Russian-brokered agreement on Syria’s chemical stockpile that bolstered the regime’s legitimacy.
Far from eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons — as former national security adviser Susan Rice repeatedly claimed — that agreement left Assad’s regime with reduced but still lethal capability, including extensive supplies of chlorine gas and smaller stocks of nerve agent that it used in later attacks. As Syrians told me after Ghouta, they felt the White House was telling Assad he could go ahead and massacre his own people, provided he did it with barrel bombs and artillery rather than chemicals.
The failure to act after Ghouta so appalled some members of Obama’s cabinet that Democratic “Syria hawks” (including former secretary of state John Kerry) came out in support of last week’s Shayrat strike. Given the continued refusal by many on the left to recognise Trump as America’s duly elected President, this speaks volumes for the level of bipartisan support for decisive action on Syria.
It also highlights the comfort of many progressive interventionists (including Kerry, but also Hillary Clinton) with unilateral American use of force — provided it is sanctified by humanitarian principles such as “responsibility to protect”. All this put Trump’s punitive strike in the political mainstream, making him look positively, well, Clintonian.
The Western narrative on Assad — reinforced just this week by presidential spokesman Sean Spicer — has been that his regime is uniquely evil, uses chemical weapons simply because it can, hates its own people and just wants to burn the country to the ground.
But, in fact, Syrian use of chemical weapons in the war so far has been highly calculated and strategic. Assad’s regime, far from being blind to international condemnation, understands the severe political consequences of using chemical weapons, and only does so when its back is against the wall. Assad’s regime has shown no compunction in using nerve agents when its survival is at stake, but otherwise it mostly keeps chemical weapons as a hip-pocket emergency reserve that can be rapidly deployed when manpower is short.
Thus, the real missed opportunity of 2013 lay in a failure to understand the regime’s motive in using chemical weapons: as a last resort, when a victorious coalition of mostly secular rebel groups was threatening the eastern suburbs of Damascus, making significant gains in the regime’s heartland and jeopardising its survival. Decisive action, combining the measured use of force with a strong diplomatic push, could have forced Assad — given the dire pressure he was under — into genuine peace talks.
The Ghouta attack was not an act of unthinking evil but one of calculated desperation, and strikes against regime positions could have not only punished Assad for his use of gas, but enabled a rebel advance into Damascus that would have opened a path to negotiations. The diplomatic price for suspending air strikes would have been regime concessions in UN-led peace talks, while the international community would have retained the ability to restart strikes at any time, or impose no-fly zones to enable humanitarian corridors to protect the people.
This, in fact, was the argument that allied airpower experts made at the time, likening the situation to the NATO-led bombing in the Balkans that ended the Bosnian war, led to the Dayton Accords and halted massacres in Kosovo in 1999.
This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Remember, 2013 was before Islamic State emerged, before its blitzkrieg dramatically changed the game in Iraq, before the declaration of the caliphate prompted a spike in world terrorism, before Turkey’s military incursions into Iraq and Syria, and before the European immigration crisis.
In 2013, the dominant Syrian rebel factions still included secular groups, while jihadists were on the back foot. This was also before Russia’s intervention improved Syrian air defences and complicated targeting by putting Russians on to key regime sites, and before the presence of more than 1500 Western ground troops in Syria made it possible for the regime to easily retaliate. And it was before the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 brought a flood of funds, advisers and troops from Tehran to further bolster the regime.
Against this background, last week’s strike seems almost laughably symbolic: 60-odd Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from two US navy ships in the Mediterranean, with allied aircraft kept away from Syrian air defences, and the Russians (and thus, presumably, their Syrian proteges) given plenty of warning to get out of the way. The missiles destroyed some obsolete aircraft, killed a few regime troops, and left the airfield at Shayrat so lightly damaged that the regime was using it again within hours, even launching a further strike from Shayrat (with conventional munitions) against Khan Sheikhoun the very next day.
Kosovo 1999 it was not. But again, the key question is why Assad’s forces felt the need to use the nerve agent in the first place.
Khan Sheikhoun is a town of 50,000 on the southern edge of Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that abuts Turkey to the north, Aleppo to the east, and Hama and Latakia provinces to the south and west. As of mid-April, apart from tiny regime enclaves at Fua and Kefraya, Idlib is almost totally controlled by a jihadist coalition led by al-Qa’ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, still widely known by its former name, the Nusra Front.
Nusra detests Islamic State (a feeling Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s organisation heartily reciprocates). But in many ways it poses a much more severe threat to the regime than Baghdadi’s group. The Nusra-led offensive in Idlib and Hama has been under-reported, but for Syrians it’s the most important event of 2017 so far.
Even as the regime recaptured Aleppo in December 2016 — with heavy support from Russian airstrikes, Russian special forces, Iranian advisers and Hezbollah militia — Nusra and other groups formed an alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to recapture ground from Assad’s forces.
After weeks of preparation they launched a major offensive on March 21 with more than 5000 well-armed and well-organised fighters from seven rebel groups operating under Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. Tahrir al-Sham gathered the most capable rebel groups in Syria into a single coalition under al-Qa’ida’s leadership, pointed them directly at the regime’s weakest point and achieved immediate success.
Within days, rebel fighters pushed to within 5km of the Hama suburbs, threatening the regime’s control of a critical city that anchors its northern flank and provides access to Aleppo. They also made significant gains into the al-Ghab plain, Syria’s breadbasket, an area essential to the regime’s ability to feed Syria’s pro-government population.
Nusra’s rapid advance jeopardised Assad’s control of the economically and politically important Hama and Latakia provinces, and posed a risk to Russia’s naval and air bases to the south.
Khan Sheikhoun now sits at the base of a rebel salient that stretches from Idlib south into the outskirts of Hama city, and west into al-Ghab. As I write, this salient is being counter-attacked all along its perimeter by regime forces desperate to stem the Nusra advance, but lacking the manpower or ground-based firepower to roll back the rebels. Knocking out Khan Sheikhoun from the air would immediately collapse the rebel salient, letting the regime stabilise the front line. Unsurprisingly, doing exactly that has become a major priority for Assad.
The town’s importance was underlined by the fact that the pilot who allegedly carried out the sarin attack was Major General Mohammed Hazzouri, a Syrian air force officer commanding the 50th Air Brigade at Shayrat, and whose family name suggests he’s related to Mohammed Abdullah al-Hazzouri, governor of Hama, who was appointed by Assad in November 2016. Obviously, when you launch a gas attack using a fighter jet flown by a two-star general from the same prominent family as the provincial governor, you’re telegraphing that this is a pretty serious priority.
In fact, the town has been heavily attacked by regime forces (including earlier attacks with chemical weapons late last year and again last month) and subjected to multiple air strikes and artillery bombardments as the regime tries to contain the threat to its northern flank. Assad’s reliance on artillery and aircraft underlines his lack of ground assets: despite Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support, his forces have their hands full consolidating control over Aleppo, trying to relieve the isolated city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, and fighting on the southern front against other rebel groups.
All this indicates that the regime is again under serious pressure, that its position is far shakier than its propaganda narrative after the recapture of Aleppo might suggest, and that firm pressure now might bring renewed progress toward peace talks. But the situation today is vastly more complicated than in 2013. There are real risks to allied aircraft over Syria from Russian and Syrian air defences, and to special forces and conventional troops (there are now, according to media reporting, as many as 1500 rangers, marines and special forces on the ground in Syria) in the event of strikes against the regime.
The rebels opposing Assad today are not the largely secular forces of 2013 but rather are dominated by al-Qa’ida, while Russia has indicated it plans to further improve Syria’s air defences and has vetoed efforts in the UN for further talks on a Syrian peace deal.
To think that, under these circumstances, mere words — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frosty visit to Moscow, Trump’s call for Vladimir Putin to stop covering for Assad, or ambassador Nikki Haley’s fiery confrontation with Russian diplomats at the UN — will force Putin to back away from a critical strategic relationship going back to the 1960s, or force Assad to stop throwing everything at an attack that threatens his survival, is fantasy. If the Shayrat strike is to be more than the latest useless symbolic gesture, it needs to be followed by a fundamental change in strategy.
Until a week ago, Trump’s Syria policy was to downplay any call for regime change, acquiesce in the permanence of Assad’s regime and collaborate with Putin against Islamic State. As recently as April 5, the day after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Tillerson was asserting that Assad was here to stay.
This was bad policy: not just on moral or political grounds (Assad has killed 10 times as many Syrians as Islamic State, and most US partners both inside Syria and throughout the region see removing Assad and ending the war as the top priority bar none) but also in practical military terms.
Assad lacks the military capacity to stabilise Syria: he’s losing ground in key areas, controls less than 23 per cent of the country, has no prospect of reunifying Syria, presides over a patchwork of local militias and thuggish warlords with purely nominal allegiance to his government, and couldn’t survive six months without external support.
The use of sarin gas underlines how desperate his situation is. Even if it were morally and politically possible to work with his regime for the greater goal of destroying Islamic State, the man simply can’t do the job.
More fundamentally, the goal of destroying Islamic State may not actually be the higher strategic priority, at least not in Syria. Unlike Iraq, where recapturing Mosul and crushing the caliphate is a key first step toward stabilising the country, in Syria the greatest threat to stability is Assad himself.
For most Syrians I’ve spoken to, the idea that anyone engaged in the uprising since 2011 would sit down again under Assad is ludicrous, and many have told me the biggest winner so far isn’t Islamic State but al-Qa’ida, through its Nusra affiliate.
From a wider strategic standpoint, the other key audiences for the Shayrat strike were Chinese leader Xi Jinping (who was dining with Trump as the strike went in) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Using the Syria strike to telegraph a zero-tolerance policy for weapons of mass destruction, administration spokesmen talked of a new joint effort with China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. For a President who spoke blithely on the campaign trail about Japan and South Korea acquiring their own nuclear weapons to deal with Pyongyang, this represents a big step forward.
More importantly, the move of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier battle group toward Korean waters to deter further missile launches, and the deployment of US air defence systems and special operators in South Korea, showed this was not just talk.
The choices facing President Trump on Syria today are vastly more complex than those president Obama failed to deal with in 2013. But his change of policy after the Khan Sheikhoun attack — perhaps prompted by the presence in his inner circle of experienced strategists such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster — shows he’s at least capable of learning and adapting.
Along with the change on Syria policy and the move to deter North Korea, last week’s strike was rapidly followed by shifts in Trump’s tone on China (evidently no longer a currency manipulator), NATO (apparently no longer obsolete) and Russia (it would have been nice to co-operate, but that’s not possible while Russia continues to back Assad). Don’t look now, but all this seems to be pushing the Trump presidency back toward something resembling relatively mainstream US policy in the tradition of presidents Bush, Clinton and Reagan.
Whether you think that’s good or bad probably depends on your view of America’s role in the world, and the longstanding propensity of US leaders to use unilateral military force. But symbolic as it was, the Shayrat missile strike may also open the door to new thinking on Syria — and after six years, half a million dead, dozens of cities destroyed and millions displaced, that can only be a good thing.
David Kilcullen is a former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army and was a senior adviser to US general David Petraeus in 2007-08, when he helped to design the Iraq war coalition troop surge. He also was a special adviser for counterinsurgency to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. He is the author of Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror (Black Inc).
See also, a prior post featuring David Kilcullen: One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?
‘Twas was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, ’til Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her…yeah! Led Zepellin, Ramble On
And the embers of Eden burn. You can even see it from space. Bruce Cockburn
In September last year, as the Tarkeeth drama unfolded, I published Tolkien”s Tarkeeth – Images of Isengard. The aggressive forestry harvesting practices employed by Forestry Corporation New South Wales conjured up images of the sorcerer Saruman’s devastation of the forests of Isengard.
On Tuesday 11th April, Forestry Corporation set ablaze the debris left over from its clear-felling. That evening, Gwaihir, the Lord of the Eagles, flew over the burning hills of Bellingen Shire. This is what he saw:
Here is what the local newspaper reported:
And here is what I wrote last September:
JRR had never heard of the Tarkeeth Forest, but if he had, I am certain he would have had some harsh words for the clear-felling and burning big that is razing our forest even as I write.
In 1962, he wrote:
“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate. In all my works I take the part of trees against all their enemies”.
In 1972, just over a year before his death, he wrote:
With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.
It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.”
JRR Tolkien Letters 241 and 339
Yes, he really did say “Forestry Commission” – an old British statutory authority that bears no relation to our own government-owned Forestry Corporation, but keep Sauron and also Saruman in mind as you read the following.
As I survey the desolation of the Tarkeeth, I remember the words of poets long-departed.
Thomas Hardy, in his poignantly uplifting ‘The Darkling Thrush’:
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
And TS Elliot, in ‘The Wasteland’, a title so prophetically apt when I view the impact of clear-felling on what was until barely a week ago was a diverse ecosystem that had prospered in a failed monoculture plantation (See: my post ‘If You Go Down To the Woods Today‘):
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
And then, there’s Bruce…
As we observe Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apparent drive to reestablish Ottoman autocracy, those who take a longer view of history will assert that there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unprecedented about Erdogan’s apparent urge to don the imperial purple, and join the long cavalcade of colourful emperors and sultans that ruled the land that now constitute modern Turkey.
Richard Fidler reminds of this as he literally walks us through the streets of Istanbul.
Part father-son quest, part travel story, ‘Ghost Empire’ is at once a history, and a treasury of tales both true and far-fetched. The Australian author and broadcaster, and onetime member of the comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars, has written a blend of popular history and meditation on the significance of history.
Although ‘Ghost Empire’ might in seem in parts overly breezy and lightweight, as an introduction to the ancient and wondrous city of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, it is an highly informative portal to weightier albeit less entertaining books. This is not to say it is without its more harrowing moments. Fidler dwells as much on the gory as on the glory. And indeed, for many, particularly the sons of emperors and sultans, confidants and conspirators, life could indeed be nasty, brutish and short.
Whilst Fidler’s primary focus is the story of the Byzantines, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he travels back and forth in Istanbul’s long and storied history, between the violent past and the tumultuous present, from Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, and the power couple Justinian and Theodosia, through Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, to Ataturk and Erdogan, and captures the magic and at times, mayhem of the fabled metropolis that inspired WB Yeats to write:
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”
Here are two earlier posts I have written about Istanbul, followed by a selection of photographs I have taken of this magical city:
And here are some reviews of ‘Ghost Empire’:
From time to time, I republish articles by News Ltd commentators that I believe worth sharing with those who cannot scale the News paywall. This, by The Australian’s Editor at Large, Paul Kelly, is one of those.
In this piece, Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics.
“This election, beyond its madness, was about a clash of moral vision. Trump stood for three visions: economic protection against free trade, nationalism against internationalism, and cultural tradition against social liberalism”.
He quotes US academic Mark Lilla: “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing. One of the many lessons of the recent presidential campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end”.
American voters were “disaffected with the liberal message”. He said: “Democrats have simply lost the country. They have lost the capacity to speak to the vast middle of America, an America that is, in large part, white, very religious and not highly educated… identity liberalism was about self-expression, not persuasion, and claimed that “it’s narcissistic, it’s isolating, it looks within”.
Identity politics segue into grievance politics and the cultivation of victimhood and the creation of laws, rules and processes that appear to allow victims to pursue and punish the people who have offended them. This vests victims with a superior moral standing, even social status. Once the victim culture prevails, notions of morality and decency are redefined. As its scope widens any established idea is vulnerable: in Australian this is manifested in the belief that male-female gender norms should be respected, that Australia Day should be kept as January 26, and that the British civilization heritage should be fundamental to the school curriculum.
Kelly quotes another US academic, Jonathon Haidt, who writes that identity and grievance politics are tied to the idea of “emotional reasoning” or, the elevation of emotion over reason. Its essence is: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Feelings are permitted to guide reality. “A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker be punished by some authority for committing an offense”.
We are now seeing the backlash, Kelly concludes. First in The UK, with Br sit, then with the triumph of Trump, this year in Europe, perhaps, and sooner rather than later, here in Australia:
“It is futile to think the counter-revolution will not occur. The only issues are its leadership, its rationality and the extent of its conservative or reactionary populism. If Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, as Coalition leader, feels this is not his responsibility then the vacuum will be occupied by others. As the two-generations-long campaign in the West for individual human rights reaches its logical cultural conclusion in identity politics, the results are an increasingly fragmented society, the decline of a shared historical narrative and a distorted moral order that damages us all”.
are we witnessing just another swing of the values pendulum, the correcting of a temporary imbalance, or something more challenging, permanent, and in the long-term, dangerous?
Donald Trump’s election a rejection of identity and grievance politics
Paul Kelly, The Weekend Australian, 28th January 2017
As Donald Trump’s new presidency surges across our politics, creating chaos and uncertainty, there is one element in his victory where most Australian politicians remain in ideological denial — the revolt against identity politics.
Trump, in effect, was given permission to win the election by the US progressive class despite his narcissism, his coarseness and his smashing of the orthodox bounds of political and policy behaviour.
In retrospect, the 2016 US election story is a grand joke — enough voters in Middle America decided to tolerate Trump’s juvenile viciousness because they felt the narcissism of prevailing closed-minded progressive ideology was no longer to be tolerated. In the end, the alternative was worse than Trump. Is this too difficult an idea to grasp?
During the Obama era the US underwent a cultural revolution. Fuelled by social activists on race, sex and gender issues and the decisive swing by younger people to social liberalism as a way of life, the Democratic Party embraced identity politics as a brand. It mirrored the values transformation that swept through many American institutions: the academy, media, arts, entertainment and much of the high income earning elite. But revolutions are only guaranteed to bring counter-revolutions in their wake.
Barack Obama won two presidential elections enshrining identity and minority politics at the heart of his campaign. But Obama is a unique historical figure. What works for him doesn’t work for other Democrats — witness Hillary Clinton. In 2016 minority politics failed to deliver. Its momentum has been checked, with American progressives sunk in an angry valley of rage.
Last year Clinton, after a long and often tortuous journey, embraced not a call to all, but a collection of separate identity groups, a pervasive agenda of political correctness and pledges to end discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This testified to the US Supreme Court decision in favour of same-sex marriage, the injustices visited on African Americans, the voting power of minorities and their decisive capture of the soul of the Democratic Party. The problem for the Democrats is now obvious: managing the Obama legacy without the magic of Obama.
This election, beyond its madness, was about a clash of moral vision. Trump stood for three visions: economic protection against free trade, nationalism against internationalism, and cultural tradition against social liberalism. In Australia there has been immense coverage of Trump’s victory combined with denial of its full meaning. It is a historic failure of progressivism.
In his defining New York Times article of November 18, “The End of Identity Liberalism”, US professor of humanities Mark Lilla said the liberal orthodoxy that society should “celebrate” its differences was splendid as moral pedagogy “but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in an ideological age”.
Lilla said: “In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing. One of the many lessons of the recent presidential campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end.”
Lilla, no fan of Trump, said Clinton’s “strategic mistake” was slipping into “the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women at every stop”. It became a bigger problem when, having decided to play group politics, she ignored the biggest group: white voters without college degrees. They punted for Trump and who can blame them?
After the result Lilla said American voters were “disaffected with the liberal message”. He said: “Democrats have simply lost the country. They have lost the capacity to speak to the vast middle of America, an America that is, in large part, white, very religious and not highly educated.” He said identity liberalism was about self-expression, not persuasion, and claimed that “it’s narcissistic, it’s isolating, it looks within”.
The superficial lesson of the US election is that identity politics failed at the ballot box. That’s important. But what’s even more important — for the US and Australia — is that identity politics is bad in its essence, bad for nations, bad for societies and bad for peoples. Identity politics is a far bigger issue in the US than Australia but that does not gainsay this reality.
It goes to the flaw in progressive politics — its blindness to consequences of its policies. This is relevant in Australia given the Labor Party is fully pledged to identity politics as a tactic while for the Greens it is core ideology. The pent-up backlash, however, will come in this country probably sooner rather than later.
Trump, personally liberal in many ways, rode the tide of conservative moral revolt. It was wider and deeper than liberals expected because the rising progressive ethos touches virtually every aspect of US life. Progressives misjudged partly because they felt Trump condemned himself as a bigot, sexist and anti-Muslim extremist.
The genius of Trump’s “make America great again” slogan was that it resonated at multiple levels — with people who saw their jobs and incomes were being eroded along with something even bigger: they felt the values of their America were being stolen, that they were losing their country.
Lilla joins that other brilliant American academic, Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind, whose speeches over the past year are a tour de force in documenting and exposing the crisis in the US university system caused by identity politics.
These speeches are reinforced by Haidt’s 2015 Atlantic magazine article, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, co-authored with constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff, that reveals the destructiveness of identity politics.
The key lies in its cultivation of victimhood and the creation of laws, rules and processes to allow victims to pursue and punish the people who have offended them. This vests victims with a superior moral standing, even social status, with the assumption such processes represent superior public policy and prove the compassion of institutions that embrace these norms.
The argument “I’m offended” is the ultimate card. Once these norms are accepted, it is unbeatable. This thinking is spreading rapidly into Australian institutions and is embraced by authorities who don’t understand the consequences of what they are doing.
Any Australian politician will gain currency by standing for the victim, winning moral acclaim and usually votes. The great examples are rejecting the same-sex plebiscite because it would offend and hurt gays and lesbians, the insistence under section 18C that people have a right to be offended because of racial comments, and the right of LGBTI students to have the school norms redesigned on gender grounds for self-protection. The principle in each case is the same: the norms of the majority must surrender to the demands of the victimised minority.
Once the victim culture prevails, then notions of morality and decency are redefined. As its scope widens any established idea is vulnerable: that male-female gender norms should be respected, that Australia Day should be kept as January 26 or that the British civilisation heritage should be fundamental to the school curriculum.
While Haidt’s analysis is university-based, it is valuable because US universities are the most advanced outreach of identity politics. He argues this transformation weakens the integrity of institutions and damages the precise people it is supposed to protect.
“What has been happening since the 1990s is there’s been a change — the most sacred thing at university is the victim,” Haidt says. “There are six groups of victims traditionally since the 1990s so mostly whenever there are big political blow-ups and controversies they tend to be around race issues, gender issues, or LGBT issues. Those are the big three. There are three other groups that tend to be sacred but there seems to be less controversy around Latinos, Native Americans and the disabled. The last two years have been extraordinary because there’s been a revolution in just two years with a seventh group, now Muslims, in the sacred category. You know you’re in the presence of sacredness when any little thing, any affront or insult, elicits a huge reaction.”
Haidt describes how the process works at American universities: “The transition to a victimhood culture is one characterised by concern with status and sensitivity.” The self-declared victim looks to the new norms for satisfaction. “They bring it to the attention of the authorities,” Haidt says. “If something happens, you don’t deal with it yourself. You report it. You get the president of the university, the dean, some older person, some bureaucratic authority, to bring them in. To punish the person who did this. In such a culture you don’t emphasise your strengths, rather the aggrieved emphasise the repression and their social marginalisation. The only way to gain status is not just to be a victim but to stand up for other victims.”
This is an accurate description of the ethos and operating rules of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
What are the consequences? Haidt says: “Professors are increasingly afraid of students. Everybody’s on the Left but they’re increasingly being hauled up for some charge of racism or sexism. Professors all over the country are pulling videos, pulling material. Undergrads are being exposed to far less provocative material in 2016 than they were even in 2014. Just in the last two years professors all over the country are changing their teaching.”
The origins of this cultural sickness are deep and pervasive. Lilla says: “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.
“At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good.
“In large part this is because of high-school curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back on to the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.”
Haidt says that children born after 1980 got a message: “Life is dangerous but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.” He’s right. But he misses the sharper political point. For progressives, identity politics and victimhood are a wedge to delegitimise leaders and institutions that sustain any conservative status quo against the radical social changes they want. This has played out in the politics of both the US and Australia.
Identity politics should be seen in its historical context. It is one manifestation of the chaotic yet momentous embrace of populism on both the Left and Right, fanned by social media, the crisis of traditional values and the debasement of the notion of what is a virtuous person. Emotional self-expression, not piety, is the behaviour that is now rewarded.
Haidt says identity politics is tied to the idea of “emotional reasoning” — or, to be crude, the elevation of emotion over reason. Its essence is: “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Feelings are permitted to guide reality. Lukianoff and Haidt say: “A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker be punished by some authority for committing an offence.”
Emotional reasoning is now evidence; it is seen as illegitimate for an authority or a government to inflict mental or emotional damage on people who constitute a historically repressed minority; subjective evidence of the hurt is all that is required to make the case. Let’s be clear: emotions and claims of mental damage have become political weapons to be ruthlessly deployed. This is a core tactic of identity politics.
Bill Shorten, the Australian Leader of The Opposition, grasps this and has used it brilliantly. Shorten and most of his parliamentary frontbench were explicit in their rejection of the same-sex marriage plebiscite: it had to be rejected because of the emotional damage it would do. Shorten said the “No” campaign would be “an emotional torment for gay teenagers” and raised the possibility of suicide. Many mental health clinicians backed him.
These views must be challenged. How healthy was it for the LGBTI community to present itself to the Australian public as such entrenched victims that they were unable to sustain a national vote on the marriage issue? Are such individuals better off having embraced this position? Are they better prepared for future life when, in an imperfect world, they will face inevitable discrimination from time to time?
Moving to the central contradiction in identity politics — as relevant in Australia as it is in America — Lilla said: “It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognise me and feel for me.”
Rates of mental illness have been increasing rapidly in both the US and Australia among young people. This is a serious issue but it is being exploited in the cause of ideology. As Haidt says, if young people are taught, encouraged and rewarded “to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity” that does not assist their lives. On the contrary, this new moral culture advocated by the progressives results in “an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own” while at the same time “it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict”.
Nobody doubts that hurt and offence are genuine and justified across every minority group. That is a fact. But it is not the issue. The issue is the institutional, political and legal response. Haidt argues that the cult of victimhood in law and process “causes a downward spiral of competitive victimhood” and the generation of a “vortex of grievance”. The further tragedy is that victimhood penetrates both sides of the political conflict: men branded as sexist by feminists claim to be victims of reverse sexism.
Progressives have been setting the cultural agenda in Australia just as they have done in the US: on same-sex marriage, LGBTI rights, gender fluidity programs, social and ideological agendas in schools, the campaign against religious freedom, winning more support for affirmative action, radicalising the proposed indigenous referendum, shifting multiculturalism towards the “diversity” side of the spectrum and deploying anti-discrimination law as an instrument of radical social change.
It is futile to think the counter-revolution will not occur. The only issues are its leadership, its rationality and the extent of its conservative or reactionary populism. If Malcolm Turnbull, as Coalition leader, feels this is not his responsibility then the vacuum will be occupied by others.
As the two-generations-long campaign in the West for individual human rights reaches its logical cultural conclusion in identity politics, the results are an increasingly fragmented society, the decline of a shared historical narrative and a distorted moral order that damages us all.