Archive for the ‘Secularism’ Category

Life After God

April 27, 2013

‘The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God,’ says Theo Hobson, writing for the Spectator in an article that proclaims the death of New Atheism. Here are some of his paras:

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

In these pages Douglas Murray recently recounted debating alongside Richard Dawkins and being embarrassed by the crudity of his approach. Murray is not one of life’s fence-sitters: it must have occurred to him that atheism has polemical possibilities that would suit him rather well. But he has the sense to turn down the role of the new Christopher Hitchens. A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason.

It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’.

Polemical atheism was never going to go down well with the intelligentsia and immediately a kind of counter movement – what one blogger called ‘The New Sophists’ – grew up to oppose it. Though it was much more about tone than content, the New Sophistry had three basic positions: that religion was a lot more complex and interesting than we godless were willing to say, that atheism was more or less the same as religious fundamentalism (not that they ever criticised actual religious fundamentalists) and, finally, that criticism of religion should in many instances be regarded as racism. With Harris discredited, Hitchens still dead and Dawkins playing out an increasingly silly Twitter presence it must seem to Hobson that his own chin-stroking cabal must have won the bitter faith wars of the 2000s.

A few points, though. The first is that the philosophers Hobson praises have not connected with the public in the way that Dawkins and Hitchens did. There are no New Sophist bestsellers and most of Hobson’s cited names are little known outside academia and the CiF Belief blog. Andrew Brown, for instance, is the kind of nonentity even close friends sometimes struggle to recognise. To this point, Hobson would say that nuance is less marketable than grand sweeping assertions. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that the arguments of Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong etcetera have not resonated because they are not particularly original or interesting. (For example, the link between medieval apocalyptist movements and the twentieth century Nazi and Communist totalitarians was explored with much more eloquence and verve by Norman Cohn in his The Pursuit of the Millennium, long before John Gray got anywhere near it.) And perhaps the New Atheists spoke to people who for some reason or another weren’t able to speak up. I think of that line from Paul Berman: ‘I wonder if bookish young Muslim women in the immigrant zones of Europe aren’t sneaking a few glances at Hirsi Ali’s writings and making brave resolutions for themselves.’

There’s also the fact that belief hasn’t moved on in the way that unbelief has. Let’s ignore the obvious examples of Islamism and the Vatican and look at Hobson’s Anglican Church. Far from the harmless caricature quoted by Hobson – ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales’ – the Church of England is probably one of our most reactionary institutions. It almost derailed equal marriage. It did nothing to rein in the murderous homophobia of its Ugandan counterpart. It openly discriminates against its female employees. Liberal Christians are at the end of their rope. Here’s South Manchester Anglican blogger Rachel Mann:

I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance.

The awful suspicion comes that good people like Mann are actually in the minority. Julian Baggini, cited by Hobson in his article, said that the problem with this debate is ‘a lack of knowledge about what religious people, rather than the elite commentariat, really think.’ To get a better idea Baggini hung around outside various Bristol churches asking the congregation about their actual beliefs. Here’s his results:

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

For substantial numbers of people it really is about flying to heaven on a winged horse. And the controversy over gay marriage drew out further evidence of a literalist mindset. In the run up to the vote MPs were deluged with furious emails. One told the Independent that ‘Quite a few of us who were considering abstaining will vote in favour of gay marriage because of the unreasonable nature of the emails we have been receiving. Some of the emails I’ve had are simply appalling and I’m fed up with it.’ All those fine words about a poetic response to human suffering and the heart of a heartless world end in the same old ugly preoccupation with what lovers do behind closed doors.

What particularly annoys me about Hobson’s brand of new sophistry is its implication that we need to admit faith into our lives to experience the transcendent. A Catholic priest criticises Richard Dawkins, saying that ‘Dawkins stands in that long – and often noble – line of zealous irreligionists whose faith-foundation is reason and science. I deeply respect that stance, which is clearly religionless faith, but can it provide the ‘trusting place’ for the immanence, transcendence and mystery which our human spirits seem to need?’ Yes it damn well can, and I speak as someone who experiences these transcendental moments on a very regular basis. I did go through a religious phase in my teens – closely related to the OCD I grappled with back then – and it was absolutely terrifying. Being out of it is a liberation. The fact is that faith has little to offer and the rest of life offers so much more. Congregations were falling way before 9/11 and those atrocities gave us the chance to break with religion for good. We blew that chance and the twenty first century is a darker time as a result.

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(Image: Coupland)

The Myth of the Myth

February 17, 2013

Older readers might remember the UK late night comedy show Banzai. This was basically a sketch show, knockabout, childish and even slightly racist in retrospect, that parodied Japanese game show formats. Now, Banzai had this character called Mr Shake Hands Man. Mr Shake Hands Man’s job was to approach a celebrity outside a restaurant or somewhere, shake the celebrity’s hand and try to start some bullshit conversation and keep it going. Eventually the celebrity’s open and friendly exterior would dissolve into an expression of frightened bewilderment as s/he realises that Mr Shake Hands Man is still shaking their hand after a full moment and a half. The object of the sketch was to see how long Mr Shake Hands Man could keep the handshake going.

I thought of this when I read the latest gushing profile of John Gray, UK literati’s favourite celebrity philosopher. John Gray is an intellectual Mr Shake Hands Man. He has one big idea – that religious fundamentalism, New Atheism, neoconservatism, and various apparently secular philosophies are just a derivative of doomed Christian utopianism – and he has spieled this out into numerous books, articles, lectures, reviews and collections over what seems like the last two thousand years. Norman Geras has a collection of his greatest hits:

[The] idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.

To believe in progress is to believe that… humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.

Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world… but their core belief in progress is a superstition.

[T]he belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as [Professor A C] Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species.

When contemporary humanists invoke the idea of progress they are mixing together two different myths: a Socratic myth of reason and a Christian myth of salvation.

Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

Get the idea? The argument that progress is an illusion, and that humanity is doomed to a cyclical and meaningless existence, is certainly one that becomes convincing after listening to Professor Gray reiterate this sort of thing year after year. Get a hundred pages into Black Mass and you’ll see what I mean.

Norman has taken this idea apart and raises two basic objections. One is that there obviously has been some kind of progress, if you count liberal secularist frivolities like longer life expectancies, the extinction of terrifying diseases, the acceptance of democratic frameworks, individual liberties and human rights. The world is a better place in night and day differences compared to fifty years ago, never mind thinking in centuries. The second point Norm raises is that belief in progress doesn’t always have to be about grand sweeping millennarian ideas. I would bet that almost no one in the progress industry – politicians, aid workers, doctors, scientists – thinks of progress in this way. They just want to make a difference. Clearly, Gray wouldn’t oppose these small steps. But he doesn’t admit to that, perhaps because the admission would introduce qualification and nuance into his own grand theory, and people would pay less attention to him.

Gray has recently introduced something that’s almost hopeful, that jars with the smug chin-stroking tone of most of his work. That is the idea that we should focus on the here and now. As he says: ‘Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.’ This is all good, I’m all for living for today, in fact my main objection to religion is it treats lived life as a mere prelude to what comes after. But Norm’s ahead of both of us here, too, and points out that it’s a natural human impulse to look to the future and to plan for it. From his response:

However, as Gray is evidently resistant to this notion, perhaps I’ll just leave it at this: even if we were to listen to him and fasten our attention on the present, take meaning from the here and now, human beings seem to have an impulse to do things better – better next time than last time, avoiding that mistake, introducing this modification, and so on. They also, many of them, want good things for their children, sometimes better things than they had themselves or perceived they had. For these kinds of reason, living in the present already contains something of thinking about the future; the present can’t entirely shut the future out.

So if Gray’s really asking us to forget what’s up ahead, he’s fighting immutable human instinct in the same way that he accuses the critics of religion of so doing.

John Gray

Nice Guys of the SWP

January 25, 2013

Some of us have been banging on about the misogyny of the left for some time. 2012 was the year it became too apparent to ignore. It became clear during the Assange/Galloway furore that a significant part of the left has no time for feminism, sexual freedom or gender equality, which it regards as irrelevant middle class distractions from the glorious struggle against neoliberal imperialism. This is clear in the SWP’s support for far right Islamic fanatics, and it’s long been my contention that many anaemic middle aged leftwing males would rather like a society where women cover up and do as they are told.

Is it a surprise, then, that when rape allegations are made within the party, SWP members rejected the ‘bourgeois court system’ in favour of a hastily convened tribunal consisting of friends of the defendant (but apparently one of them used to volunteer at a rape crisis centre, which makes it okay)? This is a cult. These people do not believe in the rule of law and it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows that they should try to essentially secede from the UK criminal justice system, and treat a serious criminal matter with a bullshit disputes committee process rightly compared to sharia.

Two objections are generally raised at this point. Members have told me that the complainant explicitly stated she didn’t want to go to the police. Maybe so, and that’s her choice. But we also have a duty to listen to people who know the organisation, and have made the choice to walk out. Tom Walker, experienced SWP journalist, has said that:

It is stated that the accuser did not want to go to the police, as is her absolute right if that was truly her decision. However, knowing the culture of the SWP, I doubt that was a decision she made entirely free from pressure.

Do not underestimate the pressure the SWP can bring to bear on members by telling them to do or not do things for the ultimate cause of the socialist society the party’s members are all fighting for.

Objection two is that these are just allegations. The McAlpine rules apply and you can’t convict Comrade Delta in the kangaroo court of public opinion. True again. But there is going to be no due process in this case because the party has decided that there won’t be. Unless the police make an independent decision to investigate, we’ll never know. Even if Comrade Delta is innocent, the whisper of the political village will follow him to the grave.

All this we know. This story ain’t going away and we have not heard the last of this. There have been further rape allegations and so much insight, argument and commentary that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it (although Jim Jepps does his best). I just want to pick up on something Paul Anderson has touched on: that there has been far too much credit and good faith given to the SWP ‘oppositionists’.

The best known SWP writers in the UK are probably the novelist China Miéville and my old friend Richard Seymour. Neither has quit the party as far as I know. Both of them have written long condemnathon posts at Lenin’s Tomb, and Seymour has set up a new blog, International Socialism, featuring posts from the rank and file. Their denounciations of the SWP leadership are welcome. But these guys have been cadre for years. Why has it taken a leaked committee report for them to speak out?

The SWP has a great talent for hyperbole. One post on Seymour’s blog shrieks that ‘The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP… the SWP remains, for all I’ve said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.’ During the crisis, it has fallen back on its reputation. ‘Our record on women’s rights is SECOND TO NONE,’ a paper seller bellowed at me in Manchester. (Second to none? ‘YES’.) This is bullshit, of course. Close examination reveals SWP claims as defenders of feminism to be lies. The initial allegation was followed by the worst kind of Unilad slut-shaming. Laurie Penny writes: ‘not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.’

Clearly there has been a misogynistic canteen culture within the organisation for decades. And Seymour and Mieville only notice this at the moment the leaked report detonated onto the internet? As Omar says in The Wire: ‘Nigger, please.’

Fact is, the SWP can’t come back from this. It is finished. As the Very Public Sociologist put it:

They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ‘democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.

The SWP recruit predominantly from universities and it can’t do that as the SWP after this. The young people coming up now (and by ‘young people’ I don’t mean bloggers in their thirties, I mean people born in 1985-1995) are strongly feminist. Think of a popular young writer or blogger – Laurie Penny,  Helen Lewis, Zoe Stavri, Juliet Jacques, the Vagenda team, Sianushka, the Nat Fantastic – and s/he is likely to come from a passionate feminist position. Big grassroots organisations are increasingly feminist and any far left group simply won’t get the numbers without them. The only remaining power play for a far left activist is to disassociate completely with the SWP and set up as some kind of new party that doesn’t have the SWP’s black past. Maybe I’m being too cynical and Richard Seymour really does have the sisterhood’s best interests at heart. But ask yourself: can you really trust a man who writes that badly?

Penny writes that ‘Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members’ of the SWP.’ She could have said that most of them became important writers and thinkers after they left the SWP. Paul Richards nails it, in his indispensable essay on the cult:

They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel. They turn people off progressive politics for life. They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground.

The problem with the SWP isn’t that it acts on naive, utopian and impractical politics, it’s that it actively crushes and destroys human creativity, idealism, hopes and dreams.

A very big rock has been lifted up. Whether it’s Savile, Cyril Smith or the WRP, this stuff always comes out eventually. Thank god for the internet. It exposes everything.

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Update: The brilliant Zarathustra, of Not So Big Society, has made a Nice Guys of SWP Tumblr:

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Mediocre Books: The Mary Whitehouse Experience

December 16, 2012

marywhitehouseYou’re a professional in a public facing role. A complaint lands on your desk. The complaint will be at least three pages or a thousand words long. The letterhead address will be a house that has a name, in one of a thousand forgotten English towns. The handwriting will be preposterous, and the prose seasoned with random punctuation and unnecessary capitalisations. Its subject will be some trivial local issue, or a G-spot national policy debate – immigration, international aid, Iraq, Israel or welfare. Regardless of content, the tone will essentially be reactionary, self-satisfied and provincial. The complainant will look down on migrants, foreigners in general, and benefit claimants. (The complainants probably don’t work themselves, but then, why should they?) If the complaint has arrived by email, it will have been cced (not bcced) to every influential person with a publicly available address, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Duchess of Cornwall. There will be little concession to courtesy or readability. The message will end with a thinly disguised threat to take the complaint to the papers if whatever impossible demand is not met. I say threat, but it’s unlikely even a regional editor would be interested in what the complainant has to say. The complainant will be the kind of person who does not appear in newspapers unless the story ends with ‘and ordered to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register for three years.’

In the para above I have tried to encapsulate the kind of complaint that gets sent to councils, politicians, police forces, newspapers and TV stations. These days of course everyone’s a complainant. The internet has given us an orchestra of one-man media monitoring services. Bloggers and tweeters ruthlessly analyse and critique media representations and attitudes. Leveson said the web was an ethical void. If anything the internet is too moral. A UKIP councillor says something bigoted, a newspaper prints a chauvinist op-ed, and it’s halfway around the world in seconds and it dominates the cycle at the expense of more important stories. Where this departs from my dismissive caricature is that many complainants these days are progressive or at least think they are. As the journalist David Hepworth said, Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells has become Appalled of Stoke Newington. And so perhaps this stupid, overlong and overhyped book can actually tell us something. In his introduction to Mary Whitehouse’s letters, Ben Thompson claims that ‘From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, and the Taliban and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse’s monuments are all around us.’

Ban This Filth has been reviewed along the lines of ‘Well, we laughed at her, but maybe the old girl was right after all.’ The broadsheet critics have a point. There is far more to complain about than in Whitehouse’s day. How can you not be angry and appalled at a culture that sells dangerous diabetes-inducing junk food to children, where women writers receive violent and sexualised misogynist abuse and death threats, where the broken people are encouraged to parade their dysfunctional lives through reality shows that could have been devised by a Nietzschean fantasist? Too often our culture seems summed up by creepshots and Jeremy Kyle. It’s a world where hatred passes for criticism and casual cruelty passes for comedy.

I have no problem with traditional values and there’s a strong case for having some kind of vanguard for public decency. Many of Whitehouse’s targets appeared radical at the time, but were self-satisfied Footlights acts dated even back then. And in an era with only a few television channels and no internet it was fair enough to debate what should fill the limited airtime. But Mary Whitehouse was not content to campaign against merely distasteful and explicit programming. She was a Christian evangelical who wanted to impose her interpretation of the world to the exclusion of everything else. And she had some familiar Christian hangups. ‘I am writing in response to press reports that the ‘EastEnders’ cast is to include a homosexual couple living together,’ she wrote to the BBC. The following para gives us an insight into the nature of bigotry:

I cannot emphasise too strongly our anxiety about the threat to the young – and others – of any ‘normalising’ of homosexual practices in your programmes. It is important that we have compassion and concern for homosexuals. It is equally, if not in your circumstances more important, that concern for the impact of such material upon viewers in particular should be paramount.

This encapsulates Christian prejudice. Whitehouse does not want to lock gay people up or put them in camps. She would probably have been horrified by that idea. The term ‘homosexual’ is used in a clinical sense: Whitehouse sees gay people as if they suffer from some tragic and transmittable disease. Gays are not actively wicked but they are sick and it is necessary that they be kept out of sight, lest their condition become ‘normalised’. This is not homophobia in its contemporary sense, but anxiety and disgust and even a terrible kind of compassion.

Well, Whitehouse lost that one. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out yesterday, it was that cultural  ‘normalisation’ of gay lives just as much as political activism that made equal marriage possible. Conversely, Whitehouse’s attempts at cultural cleansing were undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of avoidable human suffering. There is a letter from a gay man in Northern Ireland asking for help and support for what he saw as a shameful condition.

I have never quite belonged to the lobby who sees the new ‘gaiety’ as ‘normal’ behaviour, nor have I ever joined any gay organisation. As a musician and creative artist I have chosen to channel my frustrations into altruistic channels – but the feedback is not without its moments of despair. I have often contemplated thoughts of suicide.

The letter is heartbreaking to read, and made me wonder why we see Whitehouse as worthy of our time, why her legacy is seen as worth having. I wonder if the gay Northern Irish man is still alive. I hope he learned he had nothing to be ashamed of.

An uninterrupted volume of Whitehouse’s correspondence would be a pointless dirge, unreadable even for ironic value. So Thompson is obliged to pad out the letters with lengthy commentary in that jaunty and verbose style that passes for wit in the English bourgoisie. This is never less than irritating and at some points akin to torture. To give Thompson credit he does touch on the controversial points of Whitehouse’s philosophy: ‘The dispiriting impact of the stratospheric levels of bigotry on display in many of the letters she received is often compounded by a closing signature that begins with the prefix ‘Rev’ (translation: Whitehouse was supported by bigoted priests who shared her prejudice against gays). There are attempts to draw parallels with the Islamic grievances that would hold the creative world to ransom from 9/11 on. In his own review the Observer’s Andrew Anthony quipped that ‘Perhaps Whitehouse would have been taken more seriously by her liberal antagonists if her supporters had offered a plausible violent threat.’

In general Thompson treats Whitehouse with a joshing affection she clearly doesn’t merit. We hear almost nothing about the lady’s personal life – she would want it that way – but you get a picture of a disagreeable egotist: six autobiographies, numerous libel writs, including a private prosecution of the magazine Gay News, after it published an erotic poem about Jesus. Thompson’s epilogue includes this revealing line: ‘When interviewed by David Dimbleby for Person to Person, Mary’s husband Ernest spoke of her in the same breath as the suffragettes and the great anti-slavery campaigner Lord Wilberforce.’ There is a kick in moral superiority. The rush of self-satisfaction is a narcotic.

I’m guessing Thompson’s book went to press before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, for there’s no mention of it here. I think it’s fair to say that people in the media class knew. There are throwaway lines in interviews and sitcoms that are chilling in retrospect. In Britain, if you have the power, if you’re a big fish in a small pond, you can do pretty much anything. You can rape and hurt women and children, if that’s your inclination. The libel laws will protect you, and hey, it’s all for charity. Think of all those starving kids in Africa and say nothing.

Reading Hunter S Thompson’s letters, I came across a letter to Olympia in which HST turned down the opportunity to endorse George Kimball’s novel, which he saw as a ‘violent sex book’. Thompson was offered $500 to write ten words, and at a time when the money was badly needed. But the drug-fiend gonzo journalist could not ‘under any circumstances endorse that heap of deranged offal that Mr Kimball has coughed up in the shameful guise of art.’ He added: ‘pornography is one thing, but raw obscenity is quite another.’ Around the same time Cyril Smith was mayor of Rochdale and Jimmy Savile was doing youth TV, dancing around at some community fun day, hiding in plain sight. I make this juxtaposition because common decency can come from the most unlikely places. And sometimes it’s wholesome family values that protect and enable the true capering and corrupting evil.

The Rise of the Authoritarian Left

October 17, 2012

Mehdi Hasan says the Prophet Mohammed is more important to him than his children. He also uses his own experience of fatherhood as an argument for making other people’s decisions for them. This is why deeply religious people tend to unsettle me no matter how benign they seem. I mean, I’m sure Mehdi Hasan’s a great guy. I just wouldn’t like to be with him in any kind of enclosed space.

Mehdi Hasan stresses that his position on abortion isn’t anything to do with his Islamic faith. Rather it’s an attempt to reclaim the ‘pro life’ cause for the left. ‘It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice,’ he complains. Well, I’m not crazy about abortions either. I think there is a point where an embryo becomes a human being and I think current law reflects this. I know a few people who’ve undergone the procedure, it’s not a thing I’ve seen done lightly. It’s a sad, distressing thing. In an ideal world no one would need abortions. No one would ever be raped, contraception would be 100% foolproof and love a thing that never went wrong.

Fact is though, the right not to have a child if you don’t want to is absolutely key to secular civilisation. Childbirth keeps women in their place. The right to opt out is crucial. For that reason I don’t truly believe you can be a feminist if you want to limit that right. Fuck with it and you fuck with freedom.

Another problem with pro life arguments is the awful aggressive cloying sentimentality that always has to accompany the process. As soon as the blue line comes up the discussion becomes about the needs of a hypothetical child over a living, breathing person. So Hasan writes: ‘Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?’ The best response to this comes from Wilbur Larch, the orphanage director and abortionist in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. In a letter to FDR, he implores the President that ‘Mr. Roosevelt – you, of all people! – you should know that the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born! Please take pity on the born!’

There is a wider implication here. Hasan writes:

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and ‘defending the innocent’, while left-wingers fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

‘My body, my life, my choice.’ Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.

To argue that the concept of choice is essentially rightwing, something evil and capitalist, is not a good position to be in. We are in danger of forgetting first principles. You can’t be a free or happy person without making choices. But there are prominent voices on the left, religious or religiously influenced, who argue for the community and the struggle over individuality, free decision making and personal autonomy. This has been developing for years but has become apparent now over the controversy around Galloway and Julian Assange. No wonder in the debate with David Aaronovitch Hasan claimed that free speech was being ‘fetishised’. ‘We were in a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’

The result is that smart women are leaving the left. Here’s Naomi McAuliffe:

To view women’s rights as simply desirable rather than essential, as an optional extra rather than necessary for our mere survival, is what allows us to negotiate with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. Peace is important but peace for women and girls can wait no matter how many 14 year old girls are shot in the head for wanting an education. It is the idea that women’s rights will be achieved AFTER other ‘more important’ ‘male’ rights are achieved. It allows people on the left to think that women’s right to justice for allegedly being raped and molested are not as important as an imaginary global conspiracy to jail a darling of the Left. The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism. But of course it never comes. There is always another reason why women have to wait for their rights and why they are being selfish for having the temerity to fight for them.

Loads Of Angry Muslims

September 23, 2012

The debate about the Innocence of Muslims film has been fairly predictable so far. There’s Deborah Orr in the Guardian complaining about Western ‘arrogance’ and quoting the Quran, Seamus Milne trying to marshall the Arab street into his discredited anti-imperialist matrix, and a letter in the Guardian which declares ‘Surely those who made and then distributed this disgusting – not laughable – film, bear as much responsibility for the violence as those who are reacting against it.’

The idea is that all that Enlightenment stuff about free speech is all very well, but you can’t challenge worldwide religious ideas and you can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Because when my feelings are hurt I cheer myself up by setting fire to a building.

But there are a couple of things that are new.

The first is the fairly obvious political gamesmanship behind the whole thing. It’s more and more apparent that dictators and clerics in the theocratic world generate this kind of hysteria because it distracts Arab street’s attention from the horrendous poverty, discrimination and misery in their own countries, most of which is the fault of the dictators and clerics. Avaaz has a good, pointed article on the Salafi activists who distributed the film and organised the embassy burnings. Rebels in Syria are infuriated that the controversy over a stupid thirteen-minute YouTube clip has eclipsed Assad’s war against his people – death toll 26,000, 250,000 refugees, and counting. Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid told the Daily Beast that: ‘To Assad, the rallies spurred by the Islam-bashing film were heaven-sent: they have given credence to his claims that the Arab Spring is at heart an Islamist spring and that al Qaeda and its affiliates will be empowered as a result.’

Chomsky was wrong. What’s behind this is not the manufacture of consent, it’s about the manufacture of outrage, and it’s striking that so many on the Western Marxist left seem to miss the blatant ruling class politics going on here. There is hope though. Avaaz estimates that the numbers on the streets are tiny in comparison to the street demonstrations during the Arab Spring. The Arab street wants what the rest of us wants. There have even been demonstrations in Libyan cities where people have come out with placards apologising for the violence and condemning terrorism.

I’d also highlight this article by Richard Dawkins. He’s a more measured and nuanced thinker than the militant atheist of Guardian caricature, and he concedes that the critics of free speech have a point: ‘While anybody has a perfect right to say what they like about any dead prophet, in this case you kind of wish they wouldn’t.’ But he goes on to talk about the classic Monty Python film Life of Brian, which showed that ridicule and derision can, paradoxically, have a civilising effect.

Life of Brian reminds us of the contrast between Christian and Muslim reactions to offence. Christians were furious about that sublimely brilliant film, and they blathered and pontificated pathetically (in notorious cases never having seen it), but they stopped short of murder and arson. It would be completely impossible for the Monty Python team to get funding to make a comparable film about Mohammed. An additional consequence of Muslim intransigence and violence, then, is that high quality, sharply satirical movies about Mohammed cannot be made.

That is it. Because of the huge social taboo against critiques of Islam, thoughtful and reasonable criticisms don’t happen. People who respect civility just don’t go there. (I follow an ex-Muslim on Twitter who ended a series of quality points on Mohammed idol worship with the line ‘And I am only saying this because Twitter has allowed me to do so anonymously.’) Only the provocateurs, the attention seekers and outright racists feel that they are up to the challenge.

I don’t believe in offence for its own sake. Civility and etiquette are worth having. Intellect shades so seamlessly into emotion and some ideas are so much a part of people’s identities that to challenge them will cause emotional pain. But it’s the restrictions and taboos around what you can and cannot say about Islam, that in their perverse way facilitate the causing of offence.

The Arab Street, yesterday. Image: Gawker

Sleepwalking Into Prohibition: Notes on The Sex Myth

September 17, 2012

I loved the Belle de Jour books and have just got round to reading The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti‘s non fiction critique of contemporary attitudes on sexuality. As you’ll see I disagree with many of her conclusions, but the book is fascinating and beautifully written and, on many big questions, she gets it right. We haven’t totally outgrown Victorian puritanism and morbid assumptions – one example, particularly annoying for me, is the convention that men are only interested in getting laid, while women only submit to the whole beastly business because it allows them to start a family. There is the elitist view, also shared by the Victorians, that the masses can’t ‘handle’ erotica and need to be protected from it, just as they need to be protected from alcohol and tobacco.

Finally Magnanti discusses The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s novel of puritan totalitarianism. In her novel Atwood explores the convergence between religious fundamentalist and rad-fem politics and, as Magnanti explains, ‘People in the middle, who had no particular investment or opinion either way, got caught in the resulting military dictatorship.’ It’s a powerful study about the unforeseen consequences of political activism, the unconscious enabling of authority and power, the way that people, with the best possible intentions, can sleepwalk into totalitarianism. Be careful what you wish for, Atwood says. It’s something many people have either forgotten or never learned, but Dr Magnanti’s book is also in its way a testament to Atwood’s warning.

Update: Michael Ezra has picked me up on a point.

Also, in articles, here’s my recent piece on the new Raymond Chandler bio.

This Whole Article, I Just Can’t Even

September 2, 2012

I have to ask: does the Guardian never get sick of itself? Since the mid 2000s it has published countless attacks on atheist and secular thinking, repeating the same old arguments to the point of inanity. I used to argue against these on my blog but gave up a few years ago, recognising it as an exercise in futility. However, I wanted to highlight this latest piece by Francis Spufford, because as well as being repetitive and unoriginal, it is just so poorly written. It is a paceless and incoherent dirge of clunky run-on sentences, in a tone of prancing sarcasm and hysterical self-pity. Are you ready? We’re going in:

My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We’re weird because we go to church.

This means as she gets older there’ll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she’s a teenager they’ll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we’re too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy. That we’re savagely judgmental. That we’d free murderers to kill again. That we’re infantile and can’t do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we teach people to hate their own natural selves. That we want people to be afraid. That we want people to be ashamed. That we have an imaginary friend, that we believe in a sky pixie; that we prostrate ourseves before a god who has the reality-status of Santa Claus. That we prefer scripture to novels, preaching to storytelling, certainty to doubt, faith to reason, censorship to debate, silence to eloquence, death to life.

For most people who aren’t New Atheists, or old atheists, and have no passion invested in the subject, either negative or positive, believers aren’t weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable; because, when there’s no necessity for it that anyone sensible can see, we’ve committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes that obtrude, that stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respectworthy or principled way, either. Believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity play into your earhole, apparently not noticing that childhood is over. And as well as being childish, and abject, and solemn, and awkward, we voluntarily associate ourselves with an old-fashioned, mildewed orthodoxy, an Authority with all its authority gone. Nothing is so sad – sad from the style point of view – as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday.

What goes on inside believers is mysterious. So far as it can be guessed at it appears to be a kind of anxious pretending, a kind of continual, nervous resistance to reality. We don’t seem to get it that the magic in Harry Potter, the rings and swords and elves in fantasy novels, the power-ups in video games, the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween, are all, like, just for fun. We try to take them seriously; or rather, we take our own particular subsection of them seriously. We commit the bizarre category error of claiming that our goblins, ghouls, Flying Spaghetti Monsters are really there, off the page and away from the CGI rendering programs. Star Trek fans and vampire wanabes have nothing on us. We actually get down and worship. We get down on our actual knees, bowing and scraping in front of the empty space where we insist our Spaghetti Monster can be found. No wonder that we work so hard to fend off common sense. Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – la la la, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the sound of the real world.

This is a melodramatic caricature. Worse, it’s dated. The only example Spufford gives of atheist oppression is the London atheist bus campaign, way back in 2008. It was a light-hearted crowdsourced campaign – and set up in response to existing fundamentalist propaganda on bus adverts, although Spufford doesn’t mention that. It was never going to change the world, but in this harmless little campaign Spufford sees something much more sinister.

Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being ‘worried’ by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

There’s a bizarre category error here, certainly. Transport for London accepts advertising from more or less anyone. It has run adverts from the Alpha Course and other fundamentalist loons. One advert, from an outfit called ‘Jesus Said’, carried a link to a website warning nonbelievers that ‘You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell.’ There are limits. To his credit, Boris Johnson pulled an advert from Anglican bigots promoting the quack homophobic idea that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ that can be cured through ‘reparative therapy’. Promotions for the Islamic hate fest al-Quds day were also pulled. But adverts for Iranian propaganda arm Press TV are apparently okay.

My point is that, in a pluralist society, surely atheists should be able to use these facilities, if religious nuts can, and that it’s better to promote a positive message of carefree enjoyment, than incitements to hatred and fear. Spufford’s tired anti-consumerist objection is just silly here, but in the next para, it becomes problematic.

But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there’s no help coming. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.

This para is almost flattened by the weight of its assumptions. Not only does Spufford read so much into the atheist bus campaign that simply isn’t there. He denies the ability of working class Londoners to evaluate it critically. As Spufford must know, London’s poor face a great deal of challenges, including overcrowded and substandard accommodation and a failed job market caused by the disastrous austerity strategy. London bus advertising that might, or might not, make them feel unhappy has to come fair low down on the list. But Spufford doesn’t have to talk to poor people, or listen to them. This is the religious caricature of the dispossessed: simple folk, shuffling in sackcloths between cleaning jobs, carrying a prayer book and twirling rosary beads on the 5am tube. No atheists in foxholes, and none in council tower blocks.

It’s the overall defensive nature of the article that gets to me. Believers are oppressed all over the world. In the twenty first century they are oppressed mainly by other believers, and not so long ago by totalitarian atheist regimes. Let’s not have any delusions about the moral perfection of atheism. Atheists can kill. But who exactly is harassing Francis Spufford for his beliefs, or asking him to apologise for them? He criticises atheists who ‘contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do.’ But if it’s pathetic to worry about the established Church (which has land, and legislative influence, and a media platform, and frequently takes stupid and bigoted positions – if it’s not too militantly atheist of me to say so) what does it say about Francis Spufford who believes himself persecuted by a group of mid-2000s writers and scientists, one of whom is now dead?

From the anti-capitalist angle he takes, I’d guess Spufford would place himself on the political left. But there is an increasing convergence between his kind of pro-faith left arguments, and those on the conservative right. This week Michael Nazir-Ali, bishop of Rochester, told European judges that the ‘human rights agenda’ has become an ‘inhuman ideology’ that promotes an ‘increasingly aggressive secularism’. Nazir-Ali’s going to be the next Archbishop, and he’s going to lead a growing anti-liberal religious critique mobilised against secularism, multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the rule of law and personal autonomy. I’m not at all surprised to see the CiF left jump on that bandwagon. But do the defenders of the faith ever consider that it’s this shrieking defensiveness and melodrama that makes religion such an unappealing prospect to younger generations?

Society and Individualism: Why Giles Fraser Is Wrong About Everything

July 22, 2012

Giles Fraser is a really nice guy. Inner city clerics like him do a great deal of good work and should be recognised. However, he has written something recently that helped me to understand why his kind of benign religious leftism puts me on edge, despite the good practical results it sometimes achieves.

In the piece Fraser declares that he is ‘not a liberal. No, I’m not a conservative either. I’m a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal.’ Here, Fraser defines ‘the essence of liberalism’ as ‘a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods.’ Fraser explicitly rejects that belief – ‘I don’t buy this’ – and affirms a ‘robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.’

What Fraser’s done there is prioritised the group above the individual. It’s not hard to understand why he thinks that’s a good thing. G4S, Libor, tax avoidance cartels, the HSBC narcotrafficking scandal – none of this is an advertisement for capitalist individualism. The 1970s neoliberal idea has become synonymous with desperate poverty, rotting infrastructure and sclerotic, unaccountable, dysfunctional elites. There’s a general diffuse yearning for togetherness and order, to which post-Thatcher governments have responded with soothing communitarian rhetoric.

The failure in the priest’s case, a failure of imagination and perspective, is that Fraser never defines what kind of community he imagines we all live in. The word ‘community’ conjures up a small-town arcadia of quiet happiness and simple, decent routine. But many communities as they actually exist are not like that. Communities tend towards homogenity, and there are always people within those communities who are at risk of marginalisation, isolation… or much worse.

Does Dr Fraser think the community should come first in the following cases:

- Mr Y is a African refugee who fled his native land after his activism in a reformist political party led to attempts on his life. Following an asylum application, the UK Border Agency puts him in a white working class tower block on an edge of town where social workers routinely have police escorts, and where the BNP enjoys wide and vocal support. Attacked, exploited and living on the breadline, he jumps to his death from the sixteenth floor.

- Miss X grows up in a traditional Muslim family in an inner city Asian ghetto. She plans to go to college and qualify as a lawyer. However, her father and brothers want her to marry a distant Mirpuri cousin three times her age. If she protests, they beat her. When she leaves the house, she is followed in cars. Eventually, she is kidnapped, taken to rural Pakistan and  never heard of again.

- Kid Z is a black British teenager from an East London estate where almost everyone is connected in some way to the drug trade. At fifteen he still goes to school for two or three days a week, and finds the work interesting, but his friends and relatives ridicule him for studying. Instead of sitting his GCSEs, Kid Z drifts into a street gang. A year later, he stabs and kills a man in a dispute over a £12.50 drug debt. Six months after that, he is serving life for murder.

Fraser’s work as a city priest should tell him that these are not extreme cases. And he refers to that work in an oblique way:

For liberals the word community means little more than co-operation for mutual advantage. Here, individuals exist fundamentally prior to community. There is no such thing as society, and so forth. Liberals are doing it for themselves and rely on the invisible hand of self-interest to do the community work for them. This sort of philosophy has little to offer those who are trying to eke out a living in the tower blocks of south London. It is a philosophy that has demonstrably failed.

But the prolier-than-thou note misses the point that what the coalition is doing to these South London families, at least in terms of cuts to benefits and services, is being done in the name of communitarism. We’re all in this together, but if you can’t or won’t contribute, society won’t take care of you no matter how sick you are.

And yet Fraser persists in seeing individualism purely in terms of material desires. In his last piece he wrote that: ‘making choice the gold standard in every circumstance is to concede to the moral language of capitalism.’ We can argue whether the instinct to work and get on is some kind of sin in itself – I’m not sure that it is – but individualism is also about the right not to be hurt, not to be killed, to be kept safe and happy as far as is possible, and to make our own way in the world without terrible things happening to us. The communitarian model only works if we accept the huge assumption that our peers, our parents, our community and spiritual leaders always have our best interests at heart. The evil truth of the Sophie Lancaster case was that if Lancaster had left her home town, she probably would have lived.

Does Fraser understand that not everything about a community is necessarily good for everyone within it? Maybe not. Last week he slammed a Cologne court’s reasonable decision to outlaw circumcision. The court based its ruling on the fact that babies aren’t in a position to consent to delicate physical alteration. In that article, Fraser complained that ‘one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head.’ In fact:

This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. ‘We’ comes before ‘I’. We constitutes our horizon of significance.

Got that? And if circumcision is an essential part of this ‘horizon of significance’, why not FGM, the widow pyre and the ducking-stool?

There is certainly a critique to be made of secular liberal individualism. Greed and the love of status, self-aggrandisement, personal vanities, rages and delusions, the refusal to believe that the other 99% of the population exist – all that has led to a tsumani of avoidable suffering and evil. And we have learned the hard way that a free world guarantees only the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, and that even in a free world not all of us are going to find love, or live a fulfilled life.

This tragic contradiction is best explored in literature and the arts. When it comes to politics, we haven’t even worked out a way for everyone to get enough to eat. Wittgenstein said when all the practical questions are solved the real problems of life remain completely untouched. But the belly comes before the soul and we are still stuck with practicalities. We are still struggling to establish what Norman Geras calls the ‘minimum utopia’ of rights, protections, duties and welfare. And yes, one of these rights should guarantee some kind of personal autonomy. Another should be the protection of difference. To reject a community, to leave if you want to. The living, breathing, flawed human individual, in all its manias, stories, elegies and complications, must come before the group, the community, the religion or the concept. If Fraser can’t accept this, he will show not just a failure of imagination but a failure of compassion.

Update: Sarah and Norm have also written on this.

The Siege Diaries: Samar Yazbek’s Syria

July 18, 2012

So much of the information I have about that family and other families seems like the stuff of novels and fictional stories; it was all so strange and scandalously mired in injustice.

- Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution

This is perhaps the first book published about the Syrian revolution. Samar Yazbek was a Syrian novelist living in Damascus at the time the uprising began. She became involved in the demonstrations, organised anti-regime groups and records the stories of protestors and defectors during the revolution’s first hundred days. It got noticed. She was followed, and picked up. In July she made the decision to run, and you can’t really blame her.

Imagine the worst thing a government can do to its people, and you will find that Bashar al-Assad has got there first. His regime puts entire cities under siege, fires live rounds into peaceful demonstrations, and bombs pharmacies so that protestors cannot treat their wounded. He has soldiers fire into funeral cortages to pick off friends and relatives, and snipers target people who speak from the podium. There is incarceration, there are beheadings, and the use of rape as a weapon of repression. There is murder and torture, including the murder and torture of children. People are taken to the prisons, and come out mutilated, or not at all. Yazbek claims that the bodies of some activists were returned with their stomachs stitched up, as if they had undergone a kind of slapdash surgery. A Midan activist told Syrian specialist Michael Weiss that Assad’s men are asset-stripping banks and museums at gunpoint to sustain the money flow. Could it be that the regime is harvesting the organs of its citizens on the black market to maintain liquidity? Crazy and impossible… but in Syria, nothing is impossible.

Bashar al-Assad was a dictator by default. Since 1970 Syria had been ruled by Hafiz al-Assad of the Ba’ath Party, the same aggressive pan-Arab clique that brought us Saddam Hussein. While Hafiz’s elder son Bassel was prepped for the succession, Bashar was sent to London to become an ophthalmologist. The younger brother comes off as a sidelined nonentity. Then Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994, and in 2000 the old man checked out as well. As Yazbek’s  translator Max Weiss tells it, Bashar al-Assad ‘somewhat awkwardly and hesitantly inherited the reins of power.’ The awkwardness and hesitation wouldn’t last. After a brief reformist softening in the early 2000s, Bashar’s Syria reverted to the standard Ba’athist secret police and Soprano state. He’s in blood, and doesn’t give a fuck. Returning is as tedious as go o’er.

Assad is maybe the most technologically savvy of modern tyrants. He hired Bell Pottinger and Brown Lloyd James – top reality-handlers, that had previously worked with Thatcher and Bush – to portray an image of sophisticated Arab pragmatism. It wasn’t as difficult as you’d think. Assad studied in London, his wife grew up there. The Guardian noted that Assad ‘appears to have grown increasingly reliant on media advice from a group of young, westernised Syrian expats’ – beautiful women with US educations and experience at America’s best PR firms. Their offensive worked. Western media found the Assads quite delightful company. ‘He speaks English,’ a Washington Syria specialist explained, ‘and his wife is hot.’ The success of Assad spin culminated in a 3,000 word Vogue profile of the First Lady, now considered so embarrassing that the magazine wiped it from its digital archive (it can still be found on a Ba’athist fan site). It’s probably worth quoting from this:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her ‘the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.’ She is the first lady of Syria.

The first lady works out of a small white building in a hilly, modern residential neighborhood called Muhajireen, where houses and apartments are crammed together and neighbors peer and wave from balconies. The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement – a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: ‘I was, like. . . .’

The positive coverage faded around the time the serious killing started. In March this year, towards the anniversary of the uprising, the Guardian published something startling: a cache of Assad’s emails. These were messages sent between the first family and their intimates, and  hacked by Syrian activists. The correspondence didn’t touch on the bloodshed, except in fleeting and dismissive mentions. Instead the Assads focused on personal and cultural enthusiasms. And when I say ‘culture’, I’m talking America’s Got Talent.

We think of evil as bound up with intellectualism: Hannibal Lecter enjoying his Chateau Y’quem, or SS officers who kick back with Goethe and Rilke after a long day at the ovens. What a humiliation for the credulous Western interviewers to find that Assad spends his leisure hours giggling at YouTube, or chillaxing to Right Said Fred, while his wife blows tens of thousands on Christian Loboutin pumps and chocolate fondue sets! Far from the moderating influence portrayed by Vogue - a cool hand on the fevered Assad brow – Asma al-Assad comes off as a materialistic shrew, haggling over Chelsea cabinets while Rome burns. From the Guardian: ‘While the country was rocked by Assad’s crackdown on dissent, his inner circle was concerned about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.’ The cache reads like Marie Antoinette’s diaries, rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis.

What is all this like on the ground? Samar Yazbek gives us an idea. The prose is fast, almost rushed, the writing of someone who knows every word could be her last. Yazbek misses fiction. She writes: ‘I want to reclaim my ability to obliterate real circumstances… I want the luxury of choosing the faces I will lavishly bestow upon my intimate life.’ That luxury’s gone, at least for a while, but the novelist’s talent captures the thud and roar of a world under siege. Here are lines that jump.

A taxi pulled up and as I got in I thought about how many people were fated to die between morning and afternoon in this land.

Sadness and death and prison have all become a part of our diaries, like water and the air we breathe.

On the way home I felt like my skin was grimy, that a layer of the blazing sun had settled on top of my pores.

Fear is a human condition that humanity has never given its due, a mysterious commentary on meaning or love. Fear means you are still human amidst the rubble.

Now that I have crossed paths with death, I am prepared to see more of it.

Yazbek retains the imaginative empathy every fiction writer must cultivate, even for Assad’s goons: ‘I wonder what murderers think about during the moment in which they shoot unarmed young men in the chest.’ A page later, she discovers new depths in herself; after a regime officer makes threatening innuendos about the fate of her daughter, Yazbek writes that: ‘If time allowed me to see that man again, I wouldn’t think twice about killing him. That’s another thing I’ll never forgive them for. They made me know what it feels like to think about ending someone else’s life.’

Yazbek was in a difficult position even for an oppositionist Syrian. As an Alawite she was a member of Assad’s favoured sect. A Syrian-Mancunian told me (I paraphrase, we were drinking, but this is the gist of it): ‘Assad is smarter than Gaddafi. He creates financial interests among pockets of the population so they have something to lose if he goes.’ Assad promoted Alawites to elite positions and, when the revolution came, armed their villages. Yazbek: ‘The murderers and I are from the same city. Some of their blood flows in mine.’ When she made her stand, her family and hometown disowned her, and she became a target for the shabbiha, Assad’s mercenary ghost squads.

Yazbek did the best she could to break the sectarian deadlock. And many Alawites seemed to resent their assigned role as Assad’s human shield. Alawites demonstrated alongside Sunnis in Latakia. A man stood up in the crowd and said: ‘I’m an Alawite and I’m participating in the demonstrations. I’m against the regime; they forced me from my home for many years. We are a single nation.’ The Assad line is that this uprising is Islamist, and this feeds into the line of the foreign policy ‘realists’, who say: Look at Egypt. Look at Tunisia. Where’s your Arab Spring now? But the rebels didn’t act like they wanted a Syrian Caliphate. It was easier to demonstrate through mosques as even the regime is reluctant to bomb places of worship, but the protestors Yazbek met there were secular leftists. An early conference of the Syrian National Council affirmed pluralism, secularism and liberal freedoms. Its chair, Dr Burhan Ghalioun, said that:

There is a kind of undeclared, practical alliance between the political dictatorship and the dictatorship of religious authority from all groups, who do the impossible in order to remove all the people who hold different views – politicians, thinkers, and intellectuals – whether by accusing them of secularism, which means heresy, or by accusing them of modernism, of having ties with the West, or of collaborating with colonialism.

As Michael Weiss commented: ‘If this was some kind of clever taqqiya manoeuvre to trick a complacent West into supporting the Syrian people, then all credit to these Machiavellian revolutionaries who found the time to collectively dissemble as they and their families were being shot, electrocuted, tear gassed, dismembered, disappeared, raped and pounded with tank artillery shells.’

How will it end? Is it going to end? The exhausted West can’t summon either the cash or the public support for another foreign war (according to Weiss, after the latest defence cuts our armed forces will be smaller than the Free Syria Army). Russia and China can veto any action by the useless UN, which anyway continues to pursue a strategy of ‘engagement’ even though practically everyone in Syria war correspondents talk to says that there is no point in ‘engagement’ with a regime that tortures thirteen-year-old boys into pieces. Meanwhile Russia, Iran and Hezbollah continue to provide moral and military support.

Coming from my layman’s perspective and reading what I have read, the only hope that I can see is the regime itself, which is rotting from the inside out. Yazbek’s diary just manages to catch the first wave of military defections, which have increased in seniority and volume. People generally join the army to fight for their country, not to repress their own people. Many soldiers walked out because they were sick of the innocent blood on their hands. Those that have stayed are heavily monitored, and some have a sideline in selling arms to the rebels. It’s been estimated that a staggering 40 percent of Free Syrian Army weapons come from regime sources. There’s also a rumour that Assad’s inner circle no longer issues written orders. This is the endgame and they know it.

Yazbek writes that ‘intellectuals live in a frozen environment, the world has passed them by. And the mobilisation that has taken place in Syria, what spurred people into the street, was not the writers or the poets or the intellectuals.’ But they can still bear witness, and Samar Yazbek’s document does that with courage, lyricism and mordant wit.


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