We oughtn’t fear an Indigenous Voice – but we do

They were standing on the shore one day
Saw the white sails in the sun
Wasn’t long before they felt the sting
White man, white law, white gun
Don’t tell me that it’s justified
‘cause somewhere, someone had lied
And now you’re standing on solid rock
Standing on sacred ground
Living on borrowed time
And the winds of change are blowin’ down the line
Goanna

You’d have thought that the recognition of Indigenous Australians in our constitution would be a no-brainer, and that their participation as stakeholders and advisers in matters of government policy affecting them, much as many other bodies and institutions do, would be a reasonable and worthwhile proposition. It would, one might’ve thought, be simply the right thing to do.

But you’d be disappointed. Not in today’s Australia, it would seem. The things that divide us are greater than those which unite us.

Anne Twomey, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney has written a clear and concise response to the naysayers, fear-mongers and purveyors of misinformation. It ought to be required reading, but as it is behind News Ltd’s paywall, I republish it here.

It is followed by an opinion piece by one time journalist and now academic, Stan Grant, on why the plan for a referendum proposed by our new Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, may be a forlorn hope (both Grant and Wyatt are indigenous Australians); and after this, an informative article by conservative columnist Chris Kenny.

Kenny is normally a caustic and predictable member of News Corp’s right wing  comments racy, ,but here, he provides a good analysis of the obstacles facing Wyatt and the ambivalent PM Scott Morrison.

“There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate – indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations – mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options … (for) constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood. Everyone wants to parade their view … but are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate”.

Malcolm Harrison, an old friend of mine, makes the following observations”:

”The liberal, progressive left, identity politics movement seems to have met some severe headwinds of late, and the growing apprehension about some of its more extreme aspects may halt it for the forseeable future. Various forms of conservatism are definitely gaining ground at least in the short term. The voices of oppressed indigenous peoples, and those colonised like India, are growing louder, and demands for financial compensation are becoming more common. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes a very real issue. If I were the government of Australia, I would be making secure deals with what’s left of the indigenous peoples, while I still could. Excluding them from the constitution only strengthens their future case. From the perspective of identity politics, if I were an aboriginal I would be righteously aware that from a human rights perspective, I had a lot to complain about. And sooner or later, the conscience of my society might be forced to acknowledge this in practical ways that at present it is not prepared to countenance or even consider. But, as I imply in the first paragraph, we may not get there in the short term, and indeed we may never get there at all. Indeed, if some of the extreme ideas being privately discussed among our present neoliberal aristocratic elites come to fruition, many more of us might be joining our indigenous brothers on the fringes, beyond the pale”.

There is a darkness at the heart of democracy in the new world “settler colonial” countries like Australia and New Zealand, America and Canada, where for almost all of our history, we’ve confronted the gulf between the ideal of political equality and the reality of indigenous dispossession and exclusion. To a greater or lesser extent, with greater or lessers success, we’ve laboured to close the gap. It’s a slow train coming.

Also, in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Fright-monsters keen to deny voice a fair go

Anne Twomey, The Australian, 13th July 2019

The most remarkable thing about a proposal for an indigenous voice to parliament is how moderate and reasonable it is. It is not a demand to dictate laws. There is no insistence upon a power of veto. There is simply a cry to be recognized — to be listened to with respect.

It means no more than that indigenous views can be channeled into the parliament by a formal mechanism so that they can be taken into account and parliament can be better informed when making laws that affect indigenous Australians.

How many people would prefer that the parliament be poorly informed? Who thinks it is a good idea for parliament to waste money on ineffective programs that achieve nothing?

The proposal is so very reasonable that it has shocked people into imagining hidden conspiracies and conjuring up fright-monsters, because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a proposed change could actually be good.

The best way to dispel fright-monsters is to expose them. The first is the claim that any indigenous voice that could channel its views and advice into the parliament would be a “third house of parliament”.

To state the obvious, it would be a third house only if it was given the power to initiate bills, pass and veto them, and be defined as a constituent part of the parliament in section 1 of the Constitution.

The only people suggesting this are those who are opposing it, so we can strike this off the list of problems.

If the suggestion is that any person or body that formally advises parliament in relation to bills or policies is a third house, then we would have a parliament of very many houses indeed.

Take, for example, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, whose role is to provide independent oversight of national security legislation and make recommendations about it, which are tabled in parliament. The monitor is currently conducting an inquiry into laws that terminate the citizenship of people involved with terrorism. Does this make the monitor a “third house of parliament”?

If so, the monitor would join the Auditor-General, the Productivity Commission, the Australian Law Reform Commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the many other bodies and people whose job it is to ensure that the parliament is better informed about particular subject matters.

All of these bodies and officers have influence, and should be listened to with respect because of their experience and expertise, but that does not mean they dictate legislation and government policies.

Governments have to take into account broader issues as well, such as the budgetary position and the general wellbeing of the entire country.

There is no greater threat in having an indigenous body advise and influence the parliament than there is in relation to any of these other bodies. Instead, there is a benefit in having a better informed parliament and hopefully better targeted laws and policies.

The next argument is that if this indigenous voice is enshrined in the Constitution, the High Court will get involved and every time indigenous advice is not followed there will be litigation and the High Court will force the parliament to give effect to that advice. This view is misguided. It is part of the principle of the separation of powers that the courts do not intervene in the internal deliberations of the parliament.

The High Court has held that it will not enforce constitutional provisions, such as sections 53 and 54 regarding money bills, because they concern the internal proceedings of the houses. As long as the constitutional provisions concerning an indigenous voice were drafted to make it clear that consideration of its advice was part of the internal proceedings of the houses, the matter would not be one that could be brought before, or enforced by, the courts.

The third argument concerns equality. Some have argued that there is a fundamental principle of equality in the Constitution and that division on the basis of race should not be brought into the Constitution.

First, there is no general provision of equality in the Constitution. For example, Tasmanians have, per head of population, far greater representation in the federal parliament than voters from NSW.

Members of parliament might also be aware by now that section 44 disqualifies them if they are dual nationals.

Second, the Constitution has always provided for distinctions based upon race. From 1901 to 1967 section 127 provided that for certain purposes “aboriginal natives” were not counted in the population.

This did not mean that they weren’t counted in the census. Every census, from the very first, has included detailed information about indigenous Australians. But it did mean that when determining the population for the purpose of calculating how many seats a state had in parliament, indigenous Australians were excluded from the statistics until this provision was repealed in the 1967 referendum.

Section 25 continues to provide that if a state excludes people from voting on the basis of race, it is punished by having its population reduced for the purposes of its representation in the federal parliament. Section 51 (xxvi) continues to allow the federal parliament to make laws with respect to the “people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

There are good reasons today to remove sections 25 and 51 (xxvi) from the Constitution, but there will still be a need to include some kind of power to make laws with respect to indigenous Australians.

This is not because of race. It is because of indigeneity.

Only indigenous Australians have legal rights that preceded British settlement and continue to apply today.

Only indigenous Australians have a history and culture unique to Australia.

It is not racist, divisive or a breach of principles of equality to enact laws that deal with native title rights or protect indigenous cultural heritage.

Nor is it racist, divisive or in breach of principles of equality to allow the only group about whom special laws are made to be heard about the making of these laws. Indeed, it is only fair, and fairness is a fundamental principle that Australians respect.

Anne Twomey is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sydney.

Ken Wyatt, a man in the cross-hairs of history

Stan Grant, Sydney Morning Herald, 13th July 2019

Ken Wyatt is a man of history. He has defied a history of Indigenous children stolen from their families. He has defied a history that locked Indigenous people out of Australian political life, that for too many years denied Aboriginal people full citizenship. This week he made history, speaking at the National Press Club as the first Aboriginal person to be a cabinet minister in a federal government – an Aboriginal person leading the portfolio for Indigenous Australians.

His moment in history ... Ken Wyatt, the Miniser for Indigenous Australians.                        Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians (Alex Ellinghaussen)

But when it comes to constitutional recognition of Indigenous people, history is against him. There have been 44 referendums put to the Australian people and only eight carried. It has been more than 40 years since the last yes vote. We set a high bar: change requires a majority of voters in a majority of states. Fifty per cent of the national population plus one is not enough.

The numbers are against him: Indigenous people are fewer than 3 per cent of the Australian population seeking to win over 97 per cent. Politics is against him: he is in the wrong party; more than half of all referendums have been put by the ALP. Right now, Ken Wyatt cannot even count on the full support of his own side of politics.

If a referendum won’t succeed, there will be no vote, he says. He’s hoping for consensus, bringing together political opposition including influential politicians such as Pauline Hanson. He wants a conversation with the Australian people around barbecues and dinner tables. His hardest conversation will be with Indigenous people.

Black Australia has already spoken. The Uluru Statement from the Heart remains the clearest expression of the aspirations of Indigenous people, emerging out of an exhaustive and emotional process of negotiation and consultation. It is itself a compromise, a conservative position, achieved in spite of understandable hostility from some Indigenous people who have no faith in Australian politics. Now they are being asked to compromise again.

What was all of that for? Where is the trust? The previous Turnbull government rejected the key recommendation of the Uluru Statement, that there be a constitutionally enshrined “voice” – a representative body allowing Indigenous people to advise and inform government policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among many who called it a “third chamber” of Parliament. He reportedly has not shifted from that view.

Wyatt has already framed future negotiations by indicating that he may prefer some symbolic words of recognition in the constitution and a legislated statutory voice. He is testing the resolve and agility of Indigenous leadership. Will they walk back their demand for a constitutional voice? Can they accept symbolism? He’s already sought to recast constitutional recognition as the preserve of urban Indigenous elites, disconnected from impoverished remote black communities.

Ken Wyatt is also on a collision course with the Labor opposition. Senior Indigenous ALP figures Linda Burney and Patrick Dodson have reasserted their commitment to the spirit of the Uluru Statement and full constitutional recognition. It sets up a divisive political battle, which would scuttle any hope of a successful referendum.

Constitutional lawyer George Williams knows how difficult referendums are. He has previously laid out a roadmap to a yes vote. It requires political bipartisanship and popular ownership.  It cannot be perceived as political self-interest. The public must know what they are voting for, so it requires popular education. Referendums, Williams warns, are a minefield of misinformation.

And there must be a sound and sensible proposal.

Professor Williams has cautioned that the referendum process itself may be out of date – not suited to contemporary Australia. He says referendums should be expected to fail if there is political opposition or if the people feel confused or left out of the process.

On that basis, as it stands right now, an Indigenous constitutional voice looks a forlorn prospect.

But there is a glimmer of hope and it comes from our history. In 1967, Australians voted in overwhelming numbers – more than 90 per cent, the most resounding yes vote ever – to count Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Parliament to make laws for First Peoples.

Ken Wyatt is invoking the spirit of ’67, but he also knows its lesson: it was a victory of fairness over difference. Australians are wary of difference, suspicious of questions of rights. Australia has no bill of rights; our constitution is a rule book, not a rights manifesto. Australia is a triumph of liberalism where people are not defined by their race, religion, ethnicity or culture. Australia is a place where migrants are encouraged to leave their histories and old enmities behind. Nationally we are more comfortable mythologizing our own history than probing its darkest corners.

Indigenous people live with their history; they carry its scars; it defines them. In a country founded on terra nullius – empty land – where the rights of the First Peoples were extinguished, where no treaties have been signed, this – as the Uluru Statement says – is the torment of their powerlessness.

When it comes to Indigenous recognition – symbolism or substance – black and white Australia speak with a very different voice.

Ken Wyatt, a man of history, is now in the cross-hairs of history.

Stan Grant is professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University. He is a Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man.

The key to an indigenous voice’s success – it must be practical

Chris Kenny, The Australian, 13th July 2019

For all their best intentions, it might have been a mistake for Ken Wyatt and Scott Morrison to put indigenous constitutional recognition back on the agenda and commit to getting it done in this term of government. There appears to be no sphere of our national political debate — indigenous groups, conservatives, progressives, media, business, sport­ing organisations — mature enough to deal with this issue in a meaningful, pragmatic or generous fashion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the toxicity, shallowness and incompetence of our past decade of national politics, we seemed to have learned nothing about how to conduct this discussion. Instead of reasoned negotiations we have positions shouted and rejected across the airwaves, exaggerations and scare campaigns run against various options, and groups as diverse and seemingly irrelevant as national sporting organisations and major businesses running jingoistic campaigns supporting constitutional change that is neither detailed, settled or easily understood.

Everyone wants to parade their view and, yes, signal their virtue, but they are less prepared to do the hard work of grinding out a workable compromise. The nation’s first indigenous Minister for Indigenous Australians must despair at the kneejerk responses since he reopened this debate.

Completely lost in the debate is the genesis of the “voice” proposal as a compromise proffered by conservative thinkers looking to deliver a meaningful outcome for indigenous Australians while preserving the integrity of the Constitution. This concept, first devised by indigenous leader Noel Pearson building on work by now Liberal MP Julian Leeser, conser­vative philosopher Damien Free­man and others, was assiduously workshopped and then explained and promoted to politicians, commentators and activists.

At the heart of this proposal, and a key to understanding this debate, is the desire to ensure constitutional recognition provides more than a cursory or symbolic mention of Aboriginal people in our nation’s founding document but delivers a practical outcome for indigenous advancement. This would be done by guaranteeing indigenous input into decision-making over their affairs — something that happens informally now but under the plan would be genuinely representative and underpinned in the Constitution.

In return, the Constitution would be protected from more radical change and a statement of national values would make more poetic exclamations about the shared indigenous, British and immigrant strands of our national bounty, outside of the Constitution. Incredibly, all the work devising this approach occurred outside the official channels such as the expert panel and select committee inquiries.

Initially its prospects seemed likely to match those of a snowflake at Uluru. It was attacked as a sop by the activists on the left who argued for a racial non-discrimination clause to be inserted into the Constitution as well as an indigenous affairs power and recognition clause that looked like a broad-ranging, de facto bill of rights. The right branded this voice approach as a divisive attempt to give additional rights and representation to indigenous Australians — an attempt to inject race into the Constitution.

Never mind that race is already embedded in our Constitution and that whatever happens on recognition the detailed constitutional changes are likely to remove those redundant race-based clauses. Never mind that by dint of legislation such as the Native Title Act there already are very specific measures that fall under the constitutional responsibility of the federal government that demand special consideration for indigenous people. And never mind that successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had informal bodies to provide advice from Aboriginal people on these issues.

Somehow, mainly because of the power of the ideas but also thanks to the persuasiveness of Pearson and his team, the thrust of these ideas was embraced by a summit of indigenous community leaders at Uluru in May 2017. It was a monumental achievement but the grandiloquence of the “Statement from the Heart” would always frighten many horses.

Talk of “first sovereign nations” and spiritual links to the land was anathema to calculated, clinical constitutional change. Having invested some time in comprehending this process, I recall being immediately dismayed by the emotive words of the Uluru statement because I foresaw the political resistance they would trigger. It is a beautiful statement in many ways, and certainly encapsulates a wise position, but constitutional change is no place for emotionalism. Still, at its core are two proposals: “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution” and “a Maka­rrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history”.

This is now characterized as indigenous people asking too much of their non-indigenous compatriots. It is actually the opposite; these proposals can be seen as a generous offer of compromise from Aboriginal Australia to try to advance reconciliation in a practical but meaningful way.

Instead of demanding a racial non-discrimination clause and direct recognition of their rights in the Constitution, indigenous Australia is merely looking to have a guaranteed, advisory and non-binding input into legislation that affects them. And instead of demanding a treaty, they have come up with a regionally based process of agreements and truth-telling under the Yolngu (Arnhem Land) word of Makarrata, which encompasses conflict resolution but helps to avoid divisive arguments over treaties.

Conservative politicians as different as Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have dismissed the entire voice proposal as a “third chamber” that is too radical to contemplate. This has made the voice a third rail in the debate.

This is disappointing and ultimately dishonest because there are so many options available to arrange the representation and functions of a voice that if anyone has concerns it might be directly elected and wield some kind of informal veto power over parliament then a way to deal with the issue is to propose an acceptable format rather than just create fears over a third chamber. Otherwise, are they really suggesting the Aboriginal advisory councils reporting to Labor and Liberal governments over past decades have operated as third chambers of parliament?

Not all the blame for the emptiness of this debate rests with the conservatives — let me remind you, conservative thinkers were at the genesis of this proposal. The sloganeering on the progressive side has probably created more concern in the community than the scare campaigns from the Right.

People like Marcia Langton have been so aggressive towards their perceived ideological enemies that they burn goodwill faster than others can create it. And when big business and big sport start pushing loosely formed ideas about Recognition or a Voice onto customers and supporters — out of context and without formal proposals even being in existence — they raise the suspicions of voters, if not their hackles.

The most likely avenue for compromise now is for Morrison to prevail, as hinted at in Wyatt’s speech, and have a voice formalised through legislation but not mandated in the Constitution. This will disappoint many indigenous people but might fly.

Another idea worth consideration to assuage the doubters might be some sort of sunset provision. There is a legitimate argument to be made that one race-based grouping should not have separate consideration in our political processes. For reasons I have outlined previously (mainly recognizing historical disadvantage and accepting special status under native title rights), I think an exception should be made for indigenous Australians. But perhaps in the spirit of the Closing the Gap initiative, any changes could recognize that once those crucial gaps in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous are closed, then special representation might no longer be required.

That will be a long way off. But it might provide extra emphasis on the need to focus on practical outcomes rather than mere symbolism. Let us see where the debate takes us in coming months. Success for Wyatt would be success for the nation. But he and Morrison need to be wise enough to walk away from their self-imposed time frame if necessary.

This will be worthwhile only if it delivers something practical that can help indigenous advancement and provide closure to decades of debate. A trite phrase dropped into a preamble to make the majority feel good about themselves won’t be worth the effort and could create more trouble than it is worth.

Read also: Walk with me, Australia: Ken Wyatt’s historic pledge for Indigenous recognition

Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou

Death in slow-mo

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died last week after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013. 

The old tyrant Hosni Mubarak whom Morsi had replaced in 2011 in the wake of the Tahrir Square protests, died in pampered confinement. Not so his successor, held in solitary confinement for six years – thanks to the hard hearted Pharaoh who followed him.

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of Egypt’s new rais and of the Arab autocrats who have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Veteran journalists Robert Fisk and David Hearst are among the few to have called out the deafening silence of the world when Morsi died in the dock (see their tributes below). It’s was like as if a tree falls in the forest – does anybody hear? Certainly not the pusillanimous, obsequious rulers of the so-called “free world”. “How useful it is”, Hearst wrote, “for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.” 

It was if he had never lived. And death in the dock was perhaps the only way he could escape – he had in a fashion been rescued and gone home to his family and to those who had supported him through his long travail. 

Sixty seven year old Morsi was imprisoned in 2013 after being toppled in a military coup by Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He was back in court facing a retrial on charges including espionage – part of a swag of cases that had initially seen him sentenced to death. 

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. These were the heady days of the brief “Arab Spring” and the fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak. It was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality.

When elections were held a year later, Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by And al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Morsi faced a number of trials, including on charges of spying for Qatar and of participating in prison breaks and violence against policemen during the 2011 uprising against Mubarak and was sentenced to death and multiple decades-long prison sentences. However, the death sentence and others were overturned by Egypt’s appeals court in 2015, prompting the retrial proceedings.

The conditions in which Morsi and tens of thousands of jailed dissidents were being held, as well as concerns raised by his family and supporters about his state of health, had long attracted the attention of activists and international human rights organisations. British MPs warned in March 2018 that Morsi was facing an “early death” because of the conditions he was being held in, which included 23 hours a day of solitary confinement, sleeping on a cement floor and being fed only canned food. He was reportedly suffering from diabetic comas and was losing his eyesight. 

Morsi collapsed on Monday inside the infamous cages in which defendants are held in Egypt’s courts, and was pronounced dead soon after. Egypt’s public prosecutor declared that a medical report showed no signs of recent injury.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Bob Dylan, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll

Morsi’s mixed legacy

Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our two and a half year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.  Mohamed Morsi’s last speech as president

David Hearst writes that for all his faults, Morsi was an honest man and a true democrat, but (that) for much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Fisk adds: “ … it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own … Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares. But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House”. 

The world today appears to be the play-pen of the ‘big man’, and of it’s Arab equivalent,  az-zaim, the boss: the autocrat with the big mouth and the large persona, with the power of patronage and the heft of the security services behind him – Tony Soprano bereft of all his redeeming features.

Morsi’s demise demonstrates to every ‘big man’ in the Middle East and beyond that their misdeeds will go unpunished and unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. On the bleeding edges of the Middle East, the bin Salmans and Assads, the emirs of the Gulf, and the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, Sudan and Congo, will not be losing sleep. Nor, of course, will Abd al Fattah al Sisi. 

Hearst writes: “The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

But whilst the caged Morsi died alone and unsung, he will be remembered.

He is mourned by many millions of Muslim Arabs the world over, a martyr for the faith and a symbol of what might have been. The grief is more a remembrance of what he stood for more and the brief flickering of happiness and hope that accompanied his ascension than for what he accomplished during his tenure. His presidency was brief and bewildered, caught between many rocks and hard places in th turbulent tides of the short-lived Aran Spring, between the seemingly irreconcilable demands of democracy and the deity, between what the Egyptian people wanted and needed, and between what his Ikhwan believed they needed, even if their conception of what was good for themselves and Allah was not what the youths of Tahrir Square, men and woman both, had fought and bled for.

Critics have argued that Morsi opened the door to the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood – and indeed, he appeared to dance to their tune – but it is his successor and el Sisi’s allies, financiers and armourers, west and east, who by their actions and indeed, inaction, who are stoking the fires of radical fundamentalism.

To borrow from Bruce Cockburn, keep millions of  people down down takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve.

There will be a reckoning.

There will be  hell to pay. 

But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
                                                                                      Leonard Cohen
See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

The KIng of the Hill

The West is silent over the death of a man it once called the great hope of Arab democracy

Robert Fisk, The Independent, 21st June 2019

The lack of comment from our heads of state is positive encouragement to every Middle Eastern leader who now knows their own misdeeds will go unpunished

Ye Gods, how brave was our response to the outrageous death-in-a-cage of Mohamed Morsi. It is perhaps a little tiresome to repeat all the words of regret and mourning, of revulsion and horror, of eardrum-busting condemnation pouring forth about the death of Egypt’s only elected president in his Cairo courtroom this week. From Downing Street and from the White House, from the German Chancellery to the Elysee – and let us not forget the Berlaymont – our statesmen and women did us proud. Wearying it would be indeed to dwell upon their remorse and protests at Morsi’s death.

For it was absolutely non-existent: zilch; silence; not a mutter; not a bird’s twitter – or a mad president’s Twitter, for that matter – or even the most casual, offhand word of regret. Those who claim to represent us were mute, speechless, as sound-proofed as Morsi was in his courtroom cage and as silent as he is now in his Cairo grave.

It was as if Morsi never lived, as if his few months in power never existed – which is pretty much what Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, his nemesis and ex-gaoler, wants the history books to say.

So three cheers again for our parliamentary democracies, which always speak with one voice about tyranny. Save for the old UN donkey and a few well-known bastions of freedom – Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-in-exile and all the usual suspects – Morsi’s memory and his final moments were as if they had never been. Crispin Blunt alone has tried to keep Britain’s conscience alive. So has brave little Tunisia. Much good will it do.

Yes, it’s true that Morsi was a second-choice president – the man the Brotherhood originally chose was barred from standing on a technicality – and it’s correct to say that Morsi’s near-year in power was also second-rate, uninspiring, disappointing, occasionally violent and tinged by a little dictatorial ambition of his own. Trotting out of cabinet meetings to phone his chums in the Brotherhood for advice was not exactly running a government through primus inter pares.

But he was not a bad man. He was not a terrorist and he did not lock up 60,000 political prisoners like his successor – who is, of course, regarded as “a great guy” by the other great guy in the White House.

It’s instructive to note how differently Morsi was treated after the coup d’etat that destroyed him. Banged up in solitary, unable to talk to his own family, deprived of medical help; just compare that to the comfort in which his predecessor Hosni Mubarak lived after his own dethronement – the constant hospital treatment, family visits, public expressions of sympathy and even a press interview. Morsi’s last words, defending his status as the still existing president of Egypt, were mechanically muffled by the sound-proof cage.

Our pusillanimous, disgraceful silence is not just proof of the pathetic nature of our public servants in the west. It is positive encouragement to every leader in the Middle East that their misdeeds will go unpunished, unthought of, that justice will remain unredeemed and history books unread. Our silence – let us be frank about it – is not going to have the Bin Salmans or Assads or the princes of the Gulf or the militias of Libya, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq shaking in their boots. Nor, of course, Sisi.

But yes, for many millions of Arab Muslims, Morsi was a martyr – if you imagine that martyrs have a cause. The trials and executions and mass imprisonments of the Brotherhood, “a terrorist organisation” in the eyes of Sisi (and almost in David Cameron’s until his security flunkeys told him it was a non-starter) will not destroy it. But are there any other Morsis around, willing to risk death in a prison cell as a price of their overthrow? Morsi himself told one of his senior advisers, Egyptian-Canadian physician and academic Wael Haddara, that if he could navigate Egypt towards democracy, he expected to be assassinated. Which, I suppose – given his ill treatment, isolation and unfair trials – was his ultimate fate.

The only western newspaper to give a friend of Morsi a chance to speak about him appears to be the Washington Post – all praise to it – which allowed Haddara the room to demand that Egypt must answer for the ex-president’s death. At a last meeting before he became president in June of 2012, Haddara asked Morsi to autograph an Egyptian flag.

And this is what Morsi wrote: “The Egypt that lives in my imagination: an Egypt of values and civilisation; an Egypt of growth and stability and love. And its flag, ever soaring above us.”

Would that a crackpot president or our own ignorant Tory masters were capable of such eloquence – or such honour.

People hold pictures of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a symbolic funeral ceremony on 18 June in Istanbul (AFP)

Egypt’s first democratically elected president met an end as dramatic as his one and only year in power. The man feted on social media as Egypt’s ‘martyr president’ will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. The date alone on which it happened is significant. Mohamed Morsi died on 17 June, seven years to the day from the second round of his presidential election.

For all of his time in prison, Morsi was held in solitary confinement. He was allowed only three visits from his family in nearly six years. The state had ample opportunity to kill off a diabetic who suffered from high blood pressure in private, but if they wanted to convince the Egyptian people that their former president was dead, the job would have to be done in public, which is what Monday’s events were all about.

The cruellest pharaoh

We will never know the truth. Morsi’s nemesis, the man he handpicked to lead the army and who went on to depose him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will never allow for an international investigation. Egypt is ruled by a pharaoh as absolute and cruel as any in its long history.

But even if Morsi died of natural causes, who are the people responsible before the court of history?

How easy and convenient it would be to place all the blame for Morsi’s death on Sisi himself. How useful it is for Western leaders to shrug their shoulders and say, in true Orientalist fashion, that a regime such as Sisi’s is business as usual in a “rough neighbourhood”.

Another variation on the same theme was former US President Barack Obama’s private reaction to the massacre at Rabaa Square in the weeks following the military coup. He reportedly told aides that the US could not help Egypt if Egyptians kill each other. That comment alone explains why the West is in decay: Obama’s reaction to the worst massacre since Tienanmen Square was to go back to his game of golf.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for nearly six years. How many times in that period did Western leaders put pressure on Sisi to get access to him? None.

When State Department aides attempted to convince the former secretary of state, John Kerry, of the need to pressure Sisi to allow the Red Cross access to detainees in prison, Kerry rounded on him: “Give me a policy the Egyptians will not scream at me for,” a source with knowledge of the incident later told me.

Above the law

How many high-profile visits was Sisi allowed to make during the period of Morsi’s detention? He was feted on the international stage all over the world. France flogged him Mistral class warships. Germany flogged him submarines.

In Sharm el-Sheikh this year, Sisi was allowed to play host to world leaders from the EU and Arab League, purporting to uphold the world order. Far from taking lectures on human rights at the summit, Sisi gave them. Talking of the spike this year in executions, he told European leaders that executing detainees was part of “our humanity”, which is different from “your [European] humanity”.

“The global rules-based order is clearly under threat,” opined European Council President Donald Tusk. “We have agreed here in Sharm el-Sheikh that both sides will work together to defend it. Multilateral solutions remain the best way to address threats to international peace and security.”

What, Mr Tusk, has Sisi to do with the “rules-based” order? Who are you kidding?

The Egyptian president stands above the law – beyond elections and parliament, out of any legal reach, or indeed that of the constitution. All of these are his playthings; soft wax in his hands. He will rule for as long as he lives, as absolutely as anyone in Egypt or the Middle East.

Morsi rotted in jail, forgotten by all but a handful of human rights advocates, who found themselves screaming into an empty room. The world moved on and forgot all about the man to whom they had briefly flocked.

With the arrival of US President Donald Trump, Sisi’s suppression of his political opponents was not simply sidelined; it was lauded. Asked if he backed the efforts to allow Sisi to stay in power for another 15 years, Trump said: “I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t know about the effort, I can just tell you he is doing a great job … great president.”

So who is responsible for Morsi’s death? Look around you. They call themselves the leaders of the free world.

Morsi’s legacy

Morsi did not die in vain, although it may seem like that today. I and my fellow journalist Patrick Kingsley were the last journalists to interview him, just a week before his ouster. Morsi struck me as a good man in the middle of events that were rapidly sliding out of his control. Even the palace in which we filmed him was not his main seat of power, from which he and his staff had been moved earlier. Power was slipping from his grasp, even as he proclaimed to me that he had absolute faith in the army.

He was better one-on-one than in public. He could communicate privately far better than he did publicly.

Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)
                       Morsi addresses Egyptians in Tahrir Square after his 2012 election (AFP)

His speeches often failed to be understood, but he made two important ones during his time as president. The first was the day he was sworn in as president. Morsi wanted to be sworn in, in Tahrir Square, in front of the revolution that had brought him to power. He was told that it had to be in front of the Constitutional Court, packed full of the deep state, with members who vowed by hook or by crook to oppose him.

In the end, in true Morsi fashion, he was sworn in twice – once before the court and the deep state, the other before the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square.

What he said in Tahrir Square is worth repeating. “People of Egypt, you are the source of the authority. You give it to whoever you want and deny it from whoever you want,” Morsi said.

And he meant it. This is closely based on a verse in the Quran, which says that God gives glory to whomever he wants, and he takes it away from whomever he wants. But here was an Islamist telling the people that they were sovereign.

‘Safeguard the revolution’

His last speech as president bore an equally resonant democratic message.  He addressed future generations.

“I want to safeguard the girls. They will be future mothers who will teach their children that their fathers and forefathers were truly men who do not succumb to injustice and who never go along with the opinions of the corrupt and who would never give up on their homeland or their legitimacy.

“Safeguard the revolution. Safeguard the revolution, which we have acquired with our sweat and with the blood of our martyrs, as well as with our 2.5-year march. You should all safeguard it, whether you are supporters or opponents. Beware, lest the revolution is stolen from you.”

Which is exactly what happened. The revolution was stolen by more than just the army, which was never going to allow a Muslim Brotherhood president to continue. It was stolen by Cairo’s elite class of liberals, who decried Morsi as an Islamist dictator. It was stolen by the politicians who lied that Morsi had seized all power for himself and was incapable of sharing it.

As we know now, both journalist Hamdeen Sabahi and politician Ayman Nour were offered high posts by Morsi. Nour was told to form his cabinet as he wanted. It’s ironic that Morsi told Nour he had to include one post – that of Sisi as minister of defense. They did not say it then. They admit it now.

We also know now, from the participants themselves, that Tamarod, the grassroots movement founded to register opposition to Morsi, was a creation of military intelligence.

This is not to absolve the Brotherhood of responsibility for what happened. A Muslim Brotherhood president was in all probability doomed from the start. There were many points in which the Brotherhood abandoned Tahrir Square for the warm, treacherous embrace of the army. They made huge misjudgments, but those misjudgments were not, in and of themselves, the cause of what was to follow.

A democratic hero

Morsi himself was an honest man and a true democrat. For much of the year he was in power, he was not in control, caught up in a maelstrom that became too big for him.

Mohamed Morsi, confined to a courtroom cage

Who is responsible for Morsi’s death? We all are. There will only be two forces that profit from his death: Sisi and the military regime around him, and the Islamic State (IS) group, which “wished him hell and the worst of states”.

Morsi devoted his life to a people who abandoned him. If Sayyid Qutb before him became a hero for Islamists, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, Morsi’s legacy will be a democratic one.

Morsi quoted a poem  before his collapse :

“My country will still be dear to me no matter how much oppressed I’ve been treated, and my people will still be honourable in my eyes no matter how mean to me they have been.”

The man now feted on social media as the “martyr president” will enjoy a status in death that he never achieved in life. He vowed to his end never to recognise the military coup that overthrew him, and he stayed true to his word. That is Morsi’s legacy, and it is an important one.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner’s strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin’s moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then associate foreign editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.

I hear America singing – happy birthday Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. 

America’s national bard set the song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its  promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose” (Song of the Open Road).

From his rural roots on Long Island, where, in youth and early adulthood, he lived and worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor, Walt Whitman would go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago, a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

Whitman scholar Brenda Wineapple has written of how the poet was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties:

”In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self- proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” – Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, ‘I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For  every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.”

Whitman’s reputation as an innovator, she says, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse – poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it”.

Regarding his “American-ness”, author Karen Karbenier asks us “… to approach Whitman and his work not as a hero or a villain but as a mirror. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” announces the narrator of “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman the man was as conflicted and complex as the country he sought to embody. He may still be regarded as a representative American — but representative of who we have been and continue to be, not just who we claim we are … When examining Whitman’s racial slurs alongside his most egalitarian poetic lines, we should feel discomfort and regret and the need for renewal and change. This complicated and conflicted American also envisioned, described and celebrated a truly democratic society that neither his era nor our own has yet realized. What could America need more right now than a poetic figure whose work spotlights the chaos and division that have long defined what it means to be an American?”

Celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, I republish here one of my favourite Whitman poems, Out of the Cradle Restlessly Rocking.

The poem contained three intertwined motifs: the boy, awakening to nature and himself; the bereaved mockingbird, futilely hopeful and lost in his loneliness; and the sea, it’s waves forever breaking on the shore. It is a bittersweet song, an aria transforming, expanding, transcending into a pantheistic opera. That encompasses the wheel of life: the child, the youth, the lover, the man, the poet awakening – discovering, uncovering, and learning, sensing and seeing and being.

When first published in 1859 (it was included in the 1860 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass), A reviewer called it “unmixed and hopeless drivel” and a disgrace to its publisher.

Such is the lot of the poet …

See also, Walt Whitman – Citizen Poet; and,  in In That Howling Infinite,  The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel” ; and, listen to my musical tribute to Walt Whitman; Valances (early in the morning at break of day)

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
 
Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother.
Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
 
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
 
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
 
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
 
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
 
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
 
Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.
 
Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.
 
O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.
 
O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.
 
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night’s carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
 
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois’d sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
 
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.
 
Do not be decoy’d elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.
 
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
 
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
 
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria’s meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,)
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.

Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?

“The Iranian regime took action today to increase its uranium enrichment.  It was a mistake under the Iran nuclear deal to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level.  There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms”. Statement from the White House Press Secretary 1st July 2019

The White House has not subsequently explained how a country can violate the terms of a deal before that deal existed. But, as New York Times commentator Roger Cohen wrote recently, ”President Donald Trump has been all over the place on Iran, which is what happens when you take a serious subject, treat it with farcical superficiality, believe braggadocio will sway a proud and ancient civilisation, approach foreign policy like a real-estate deal, defer to advisers with Iran Derangement Syndrome, refuse to read any briefing papers and confuse the American national interest with the Saudi or Israeli”.

There is transparent angst and disappointment among many in the US Administration that that Iran’s Islamic Republic has endured for forty years with no sign of collapse (there are parallel palpitations and peregrinations with regard to Cuba and more recently, to Venezuela). Iran ‘hawk’ John Bolton might declare that the Islamic Republic would not celebrate its fortieth anniversary the Iranian Revolution. But the anniversary is upon us already. Iran is not going anywhere else soon.

Presently, it would appear that the administration is backpedaling on its bellicose rhetoric as it responds to Congress’ concerns about what is perceived as a lack of a unified US strategy. The dispatch of an American battle fleet to the Persian Gulf in response to unexplained and indeterminate Iranian threats and provocations has now been re-framed as having successfully deterred Iran’s hardliners from miscellaneous mischiefs and miscalculations. And yet, others in the US and elsewhere are attributing such follies to the US itself?

By ironic synchronicity, I am rereading historian Barbara W Tuchman’s acclaimed The March of Folly – From Troy to Vietnam. Her opening sentence reads: ‘A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than most any other human activity’. Her many definitions of folly include dangerous delusions of grandeur and “and obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals”. History has shown us – I refrain from saying “taught us” because we rarely learn from history – the consequences of single-minded determination amounting to a tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity. Charging ahead regardless only works for those who are stronger than all obstacles. Only those holding all the trump cards can ignore the other players at the table. With the US ratchetting up the pressure on Iran, the law of unintended consequences is in play with many observers perceiving the American leadership as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In recent moves that recall the US’ lurch into Iraq sixteen years ago on the basis of nonexistent – or at the least very well hidden – weapons of mass destruction, war drums are beating across the Potomac as Iran hawks boost the potential for war with the Islamic Republic. Curiously identical damage to Saudi and Emiratis vessels in the strategically important Persian Gulf point to Iranian sabotage. rather than signally Iran’s provocative intent, it looks more like a clumsy false-flag frolic by the geniuses who gave us thrillers like “how to murder a dissident journalist in plain sight”, “let’s bomb one of the poorest countries on earth back into the Stone Age”.

This can be set against a historical record that the US has not initiated a major war – that is one with congressional approval – without a false flag since the USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour in 1898, thus taking the US into a war with Spain that resulted in the colonization the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This includes the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident 1964 escalated an ongoing “skirmish” in Vietnam into an all-out conflict, and those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that arguably brought us to where we are now.

Most folk who are into history like to draw parallels and identify patterns in the past that reflect upon the present. As I do also, albeit in a more ambivalent way. Cleaving to Mark (Twain, that is) rather than Marx, I am fascinated more by the rhymes than the repetitions. But “remembering’, as Taylor Swift sings. “comes in flashbacks and echoes”. Over to Bob Dylan:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
Where the neon madmen climb
They all fall there so perfectly
It all seems so well timed
An’ here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again

The story of the Iranian Revolution is a complex, multidimensional one, and it is difficult for its events and essence to be compressed into brief opinion pieces of any political flavour, no matter how even-handed they endeavour to be.

The revolution began slowly in late 1977 when demonstrations against Shah Reza Pahlevi, developed into a campaign of civil resistance by both secular and religious groups. These intensified through 1978, culminating In strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the country. Millennia of monarchy in Iran ended in January 1979 when the Shah and his family fled into exile. By April, exiled cleric and  longtime dissident Ayatollah Khomeini returned home to a rapturous welcome. Activist fighters and rebel soldiers overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah, and Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic republic on April 1st 1979. A new constitution saw Khomeini became Supreme Leader in December 1979.

The success and continuing durability of the Iranian Revolution derived from many sources, and many are not touched upon by commentators and pundits. Here are some of my own thoughts on disparate but intrinsic parts of the Islamic Republic’s story.

One can’t ignore the nature of the monarchy that preceded it – modernist on the one hand, and brutally repressive on the other; nor the unwavering and hypocritical support (including infrastructure, weapons, and intelligence) provided to it by western “democracies” since Britain and the US placed Reza Shah Pahlevi on the throne in 1953. And nor should we ignore the nature of the unprecedented regime and state that was established forty years ago – a brutal, theocratic, patriarchal, quasi-totalitarian system that endeavours to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives, its rule enforced by loyal militias like the ruthless Basij and by the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex more powerful than the regular army.

The support and succour that the US gave to the deposed Shah and his family and entourage, and later, to the opponents of the revolution, served to unite the population around a dogmatic, cruel and vengeful regime, which, in the manner of revolutions past and present, “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike. One of the ironies of the early days of the revolution was its heterodox complexion – a loose and unstable alliance between factions of the left, right and divine. History is replete with examples of how a revolution besieged within and without by enemies actual and imagined mobilizes it people for its support, strength and survival. Recall France after 1789 and Russian after 1917.  The outcome in both was foreign intervention and years of war and repression.

I fought in the old revolution 
on the side of the ghost and the King. 
Of course I was very young 
and I thought that we were winning; 
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing 
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen

Too often, in modern times, the US administration of the day has been called upon by a new and potentially radical regime to take sides, and indeed, to accept a tentative hand of friendship. And too often, for reasons political, ideological, economic, religious even, the US has made what historians of all colours would deduce was the wrong call – with disastrous consequences for the  newly freed nation and, with perfect if partisan hindsight, the world. Think Vietnam, Egypt and Cuba. In each, there was a pivotal moment when the US could have given its support to the new rulers and potentially changed the course of the revolution, and the freshly “liberated” people, and our world, might have been better off for it. And, so it was in 1979, with Iran.

The US’ steadfast support for the Shah during his reign, and its enmity towards Iran’s new rulers, predictably reciprocated by the mullahs and their zealous supporters, created “the Great Satan”, a symbolism sustained by the reality that many in US political circles actively sought to undermine and destroy the revolution (and still do, championing the late Shah’s son as their annointed one.

Time and folly have not softened the fear and the fervour.

Here are but a selection from a sorry catalogue: the long-running embassy hostage drama, and failed and ignominious rescue attempts; the subsequent and continuing economic sanctions; the moral and material support provided to Saddam Hussein during the bloody eight year Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) which cost the lives of over half a million soldiers on both sides; the years of wrestling and wrangling, politicking and posturing over Iran’s quest for a nuclear deterrent against perceived US aggression, and the western powers’ push-back; the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East and beyond through proxies and patronage, subterfuge and subversion – often through those latter day sell-swords the Revolutionary Guards – a form of what strategic analysts now call “offshore balancing”, or, simply put, fighting your foes outside rather than within your own borders; and today’s quixotic tango in which a false move or miscalculation could have catastrophic consequences.

There have been moments of what reasonable folk might perceive as farce, such as when in February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, sparking violence and protests around the world. Or as tragedy, as in July 1988, when the USS Vincennes blew Iranian Flight 655 out of the sky above the Persian Gulf, killing 290 men, women and children. The ship’s captain was exonerated.

In February 2019, a Middle East Security Conference was convened in Warsaw by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It brought together sixty countries, including Arab states and Israel, ostensible to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and Palestine, but in reality, it was always about Iran. The Warsaw gathering was a strange beast – its very title was a misnomer, Vice President Pence making it quite clear Iran was the ‘greatest threat’ to peace and stability in Middle East that it’s transgressions be punished. He even implied that it was God’s will.

The conference was most notable for who wasn’t there – Russia, Turkey, China, and the EU leaders British, France and Germany, all of whom are opposed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program. It is indicative of the US’ isolation with regard to Iran, and its inability to call the shots in a Middle East where Russian, Turkey and Iran hold all the cards. Pence and Pompeo meanwhile talk about regime change and democracy in Iran but ignore what is going on in the US’ lacklustre autocratic allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain – this and international reaction to the US’ alleged complicity a slow-motion, as yet unresolved and unconsummated “coup” in Venezuela only serve to remind the world of Uncle Sam’s not altogether successful track-record of hypocrisy and hubris, interference and inconsistency.

Israeli prime minister Netanyahu had initially tweeted that the conference was convened to discuss what he called the “war with Iran”. Although he amended his tweet soon afterwards, he was not exaggerating. There is indeed a war between Iran on one hand and Israel and the Gulf monarchies on the other with other countries lending their support to one side or the other. America and its Middle East allies have been at war with Iran for forty years, and Iran has reciprocated.

It is said, not without reason, that Iran has long been preparing for a war with the US, and that the US has psyched itself into a martial mindset that justifies Iranian fears. If push did indeed come to shove and the present cold war turned hot, Iran might appear to be at a disadvantage. Compared to the US, its forces are poorly equipped and lacking in battle experience, although they are indeed well-provided for by the sanctions-hit regime, whilst the Revolutionary Guard’s Al Quds brigade has been given real battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq’s civil wars. They would however be defending their homeland, which for Iranians is holy ground regardless of who rules it.

The American people are weary and wary of foreign military commitments, and doubtless confused by the administration’s mix of pullback and push-back. For all it’s manpower and materiel, it’s experience and equipage, after its problematic excursions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US armed forces cannot be said to be a uniformly committed, effective and high-morale fighting force. It would be dependent on allies of dubious intent and ability, and on free-booting contractors and mercenaries like Erik Prince’s hired guns and sell-swords.

As the Warsaw talk fest demonstrated, the US would have to act very much on its own against Iran, with Israel being its only potential partner of any value. And yet, even Israel appears to be reticent, having of late toned down its bellicose rhetoric.

Despite Bibi’s bark and bluster, Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt. Nothing focuses the mind more than the thought of thousands of Hezbollah’s Iranian-sourced precision missiles raining down on the Galilee. The Gulf states are tin-pot tyrants with meagre military skill and no desire to throw away their toys when the US (and Israel?) will do the fighting for them. Russia, Turkey, and, potentially, China, would be implacably opposed and would indeed run interference, and provide diplomatic, economic, military and logistical support.

Iran itself is not without the ability and the means to set up a multitude of diversions and distractions, whether it is playing with the US administration’s head, as it has been for forum decades, encouraging Hezbollah and Bashar Assad to make mischief on Israel’s northern border and the Golan, inciting its Palestinian pawn Islamic Jihad in Gaze, providing Yemen’s Houthis with the means to better target Saudi cities, or, perhaps counter-productively, initiating espionage and terrorist incidents on the US mainland and in Western Europe.

The US may opt for measures short of a “hot” war, as it doing right now with limited success, but the hawks are circling over Washington DC and may have the President’s feckless and fickle ear – and, as they say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.


Here are some recent articles on the latest Iran-US  tango:

For more on the Middle East in in In That Howling Infinite, see A Middle East Miscellany 

Las Trece Rosas – Spain’s Unquiet Graves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thirteen roses ..and forty three carnations

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

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

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

conesa

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

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

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

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

A hell

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

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

MILICIANAS-3

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

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

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

The interrogations …. copied Gestapo tortures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impunity of the perpetrators

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

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

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

rosario-dinamitera

Postscript

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

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

See also in In That Howling Infinite:

The Spanish Civil War – a brief overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children of Abraham

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

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

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

Children of Abraham and the Battle for Hebron

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

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

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

A Holy Land

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

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

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

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

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

Tensions and Divisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dual Narrative

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

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

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

Scapegoating the Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a selection of photographs taken during our visit.

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

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

Hebron May 2016

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Hebron May 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

Hebron 2016

 

Little Sir Hugh and Old England’s Jewish Question

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

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

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

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

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

The devil that never dies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hammer 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tale of Little Saint Hugh

from The National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rojava and the Kurdish conundrum

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

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

But first, how did we get here?

Past

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

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

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

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

This then is the current state of play. 

Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

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

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

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

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

And so, to the year in review:

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

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

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

Southern Discomfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

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

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

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

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

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

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


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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