Civilisation and its Malcontents

In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces.  Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people.  The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.

Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples.  In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.

This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts.  With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.

In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’

The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled  his Warsaw speech  with references  to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’

Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again.  And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’  Yeah, think of that.   And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget.   As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.

Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘  works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’

One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday.  According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating “terrorism” and maintaining national security’.   Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.

But then no one would expect him to.  Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies.   No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the  Sun  stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh,  warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’

How so?  Because many refugees ‘have no ­experience of civil society.  They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these ­conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’  Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’

Is it?  The sneaky bastards.  Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside.  No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.  Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’

Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation.  And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’

If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it.   In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who  told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’  I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.

Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws.  And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team.  It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing.  Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.

Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it.   Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis.  It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…





Europe: the return of the beast

In every  era and in every  society, there are those who would like to do to the left what the Chilean army once did to Victor Jara, or what the Freikorps did to Karl Liebnecht and Rosa Luxemburg.  It used to be common in Greece for Golden Dawn militants to taunt leftist anti-fascists by referring back to the Greek dictatorship and telling them ‘we fucked you once and we’ll do it again.’

Such fantasies are not unique to Greece.  The Guardian‘s Andy Beckett recently wrote of the anonymous soldiers or former soldiers on the British army’s online Army Rumour Service  who described    anti-capitalist protesters as ‘hypocritical, unemployable, leeching and parasitic’ and declared ‘ This scum needs a good dose … kicked into them.’

Last weekend National Front demonstrators in Dover told  an LBC broadcaster  that she ought to be raped so that she could not have children.  Amongst the comments  on the  Daily Mail’s  latest McCarthyist  smear on the ‘chilling’ London2Calais activists  Syed ‘Red’ Bokhari and his wife Mona Dohle, one poster looked forward to the day when ‘  the majority of the law abiding people in this country will wake up to the damage being done by these loonie lefties and will turn on them, sooner rather than later if we want to save our country.’

Usually the same people who would like to ‘turn on’ leftists would like to turn on immigrants and foreigners as well, because they see the left as the ultimate facilitators of the immigrant hordes who are paving the way for the destruction of their national cultures, fomenting multiculturalism and ‘mass immigration’, allowing ‘Muslim rape gangs’  to exploit ‘our women’ etc, etc.

The people who make these observations are never racists  or fascists  – in their own eyes at least – and any suggestion that they are is just another manifestation of the politically-correct elite conspiracy that has silenced the ‘truth’ that only they have the courage to proclaim; that Europe is becoming a ‘colony of Islam’; that all refugees are ‘economic migrants’,  rapists, parasites, terrorists, invaders and culturally incompatible aliens who cannot ever be like us and don’t even want to.

These truthtellers dream of ‘resistance’, of ethnic and civil wars in which they will drive out the immigrant invaders and the bleeding heart liberals and leftists who let them in, and shoot down refugees on land and on the high seas in order to ‘protect our borders’, and build enormous walls all around their countries that nobody will ever be able to cross without their permission.

From time to time they also act, as Anders Breivik did when he carried out his ‘inspirational’ slaughter of teenage Labour Party activists on Utoya island.  Or as Golden Dawn has done many times in its attacks on migrants and refugees and the leftists who have supported them.

In the last month vigilante groups have been beating up immigrants and foreigners in Cologne and other cities.  Last week a grenade was thrown at a refugee reception centre in the town of Villingen-Schwhenningen, which failed to go off.  This weekend hundreds of masked men went on the rampage in Stockholm, beating up North African refugee children  in order to ‘give them the punishment they deserved’, and National Front members in Maidstone daubed a coach with blood-stained swastikas.

At present such attacks are the work of a minority, but it’s a minority that clearly feels legitimized and emboldened by the current ‘refugee crisis’  and Europe’s chaotic and dysfunctional response to it.  There was a time when the hatred that feeds this kind of violence was confined to  the fringes of the internet, or weird Facebook selfies of isolated loners in army fatigues showing off their guns and knives.

Nowadays, however, it can be found on the comments pages of almost every national newspaper that posts an article about article about immigration or refugees, such as the Daily Mail reader called ‘Disgusted’ who wrote in response to last week’s failed grenade attack in Germany ‘Shame it was a dud.’

No one will be surprised to find such observations in a paper that has done more than any other newspaper in the country to foment hatred and prejudice towards immigrants, but look in the comments pages of supposedly liberal newspapers, and you will find the same implacable hatred, the same whining victimhood that presents  immigrants  as invaders and privileged usurpers, the same vicious condemnations of anyone who argues otherwise as a liar or an elite gatekeeper who has paved the way for the destruction of ‘their’ country..

These narratives are scavenger narratives that seize on anything that will suit them.  Isis terrorists with Syrian passports; refugees attacking ‘our’ women; immigrants stealing ‘our’ jobs; immigrants preventing our veterans from getting homes – anything will do, as long as it contributes to the demonisation and dehumanisation of the foreigner and the immigrant Other.

Make no mistake about it; such hatred is corrosive and corrupting.  It can easily deaden our sensibilities to the point  when the drastic solutions proposed by far right politicians such as Alternative for Germany’s Frauke Petry can become unproblematic and acceptable.

We haven’t reached the stage yet, when governments are prepared to implement Petry’s proposals that refugees should be shot at the border, but that is nothing to be complacent about.  Her party’s popularity is rising because of, and not in spite of its extreme proposals.    A few years or even months ago, no one could have imagined that European governments would oblige refugees to hand over their personal valuables, or that border guards in Hungary and Macedonia would fire tear gas at refugees and beat them with truncheons

Our preoccupation with the unique racial barbarism of Nazism and the lessons we have supposedly drawn from that experience can easily blind us to the dangers of a very different kind of fascist revival, which doesn’t necessarily require stormtroopers, jackboots and concentration camps – yet.

It is not melodramatic or hyperbolic to suggest that we are drifting towards a ‘pre-fascist’ atmosphere in which disenchantment and disgust with democratic politics as they are is overlapping with xenophobia, nativism and the new ‘culturalised’ racism.   These conditions haven’t sprung out out of nowhere.

For some years now the   politics – if not the violence – of the far-right and populist anti-immigrant parties have become increasingly indistinguishable from the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from mainstream newspapers and politicians, of which David Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ remark was one more example.

When Marion Maréchal Le Pen told Channel 4 News that her party’s positions on immigration and security were no longer very far removed from the other political parties in France, she wasn’t wrong.  So these are perilous times, and the dangers can’t be underestimated.

And now, more than ever, it is essential for those of us who believe in an open and inclusive Europe and in the principles of solidarity and justice,  to construct a broad political movement  that can force the haters, racists and xenophobes back to the fringes, and mobilize the millions of Europeans who have not yet succumbed to the fascist temptation,  in support of a very different project.

To say this is difficult in the present time doesn’t even begin to describe it, but if we can’t do it, then we are all lost.  And we may all live to see not so much a repetition of Europe’s dark past, but a new, ugly and terrifying chapter in the continent’s history, in which the haters finally get the chance to realize the fantasies they have been rehearsing in their own minds for so long, and the radical and drastic solutions that they have been proposing in the darkness are accepted as normal or necessary evils in broad daylight.



Europe Hearts Erdogan

It’s little more than a week since the worst terrorist attack in Turkish history – a vicious atrocity in which the government was at best neglectful and at worst actively complicit, in which more than 100 peaceful demonstrators were murdered because they called for an end to the ongoing war between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers Party.

Given the magnitude of these events, you would not think that this is really the time for a union of democratic governments to be handing out political rewards to the government responsible. But that is exactly what the European Union is doing,  as it cosies up to Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan with a haste that is just a little unseemly.

For years the EU has been trying to get Turkey to sign up to a readmission agreement that would enable it to send migrants back to Turkish territory if they have passed through it,  regardless of whether or not they fit the Geneva Convention criteria for refugee status,  and regardless of the fact that Turkey has a very weak tradition of refugee protection that make it legally questionable whether refugees applying for asylum should ever be sent back there.

Turkish governments have always looked askance at the notion that they should have to accept refugees seeking to enter Europe who only regard Turkey as a transit country.  At the same time they have tried to use these requests as a bargaining chip,  just as Ghaddafi did, when he threatened to ‘turn Europe black’ if he didn’t get the money he was asking for.

In Turkey’s case, the real prize was not money,  but EU membership and visaless travel.   Now the EU is poised to offer the latter, if Turkey will prevent refugees – most of whom are Syrian – from reaching Europe.  In addition, the EU is pledging 3 billion euros to help Turkey build ‘reception centres’ to keep the refugees who will be ‘readmitted’ or not allowed to leave.

Now I have nothing against Turkish citizens being allowed to travel more easily to Europe,  though it is worth pointing out that if Europe gave the same right to Syrians, Afghans and Eritreans, for example, then they would not be drowning in boats or paying their life savings to smugglers.  But entrance to Europe, like Herman Hesse’s Magic Theatre,  is not for everybody,  and Turks will only gain this right if they stop other people from trying to access it.

All this absolutely reeks.   Why should Turkey or any other country have to take responsibility for what is effectively a European problem?  Given Turkey’s record, what safeguards are in place to ensure that these planned reception centres don’t become another Nauru, or even worse, another Libya?  How does the EU think the Turkish police will treat refugees who don’t want to stay in these centres?

These are not questions to detain Donald Tusk or Angela Merkel – who appears to have recovered from her mysterious metamorphosis into Europe’s refugee Mother Courage, and has personally gone to Turkey to show Erdogan how much Europe now loves him – or at least needs him.

Contrary to Frau Merkel’s assertions, the gross hypocrisy of pretending that the EU only wants to keep Syrian refugees ‘closer to home’ does not make these proposals any less shameful,  and there is nothing humanitarian about them.   European governments don’t want migrants or refugees, and that is all this is about.

And in their pathetic desperation to  prevent them from coming,  the EU is prepared to actively reward an authoritarian leader who is leading is own country to disaster, by giving him a prize that Turkish leaders had sought for decades – on the eve of a crucial national election!

As John McEnroe used to say, you cannot be serous.   But tragically, they are.  And if Erdogan wins big in next month’s election, he will have the EU to thank for this disreputable deal that disregards the rights of refugees – and ignores the democratic forces in Turkish society that are seeking to stop Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party from permanently entrenching itself in power by unleashing the dogs of war.


Save a Refugee – Bomb ’em all to Hell

In less than a week, the British government has frantically changed its line on Europe’s refugee crisis like a twitchy gambler shuffling cards in the hope that the right one comes up.  First  David Cameron  rejected the notion that accepting more refugees was a ‘solution’ to the crisis, as if anybody had ever said it was.  Then, wrongfooted by an unlikely eruption of humanitarian fervour from the British tabloids, he agreed to take in a quota of 20,000 ‘vulnerable’ Syrian refugees over the next five years – though Syrian and other refugees already in Europe will not be allowed into the UK since that would only encourage others to follow them.

And now, with barely a pause for breath, Lord Snooty and His Pals are coolly plotting to transform the refugee crisis into a new casus belli in Syria and a justification for a new round of ‘humanitarian’ bombing against ISIS

That won’t be the end of it however, since Osborne warned  at the weekend that ‘  You have got to deal with the problem at source which is this evil Assad regime and the Isis terrorists.’ Yesterday the creepy neocon former defense secretary Liam Fox – a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like – was on Channel 4 News calling for the creation of a no fly zone to enforce safe havens in Syria that would protect ‘vulnerable people’ from ISIS.

When Fox talks about protecting vulnerable people one can only stifle a hysterical giggle – coupled with a certain feeling of nausea.   This is the man who supported the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Libyan War,  Israel’s Gaza wars, and favoured military action against Iran.

These wars not only failed to protect ‘vulnerable people’, they also killed a great deal of them, even as they generated refugees in their millions; 4 million in Iraq;  between 600,000 to 1 million  in Libya; nearly four million in Afghanistan.  Such outcomes ought to cast some doubt over the notion that bombing can serve a humanitarian purpose, but Fox is not the man to ask such questions.

He would like to use British air power to fight ISIS and establish these havens, but since ISIS doesn’t have an airforce then someone on the ground will have to ensure such protection.  Who?  Well naturally it can’t be our boys, since even Fox isn’t dumb enough to believe that British troops would be welcomed in Syria.

Instead he suggested that ‘Arab countries’ might do the job.  That would be some of the Gulf states which provided ISIS with its start-up funds?   Perhaps some members of the coalition who are currently doing such grand work in Yemen?  How about Turkey, not an Arab country, but one which has nevertheless done so much to facilitate ISIS and many of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting ‘vulnerable people.’

Maybe the Kurds could do it, except that they aren’t strong enough, and anyway the Western states that praised their defense of Kobane last year are now in the throes of betraying them once again in order to keep Turkey on board the great anti-ISIS coalition.   Still why worry about the details?   After all, we never did before.  The main thing is to bomb, because bombing is always better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

The Sun  certainly thinks so, and yesterday  carried a picture of refugees arriving in Germany with the headline ‘ Blitz ’em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria’ – a touching juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the limits to the Murdoch press’s humanitarian blip.

The Sun also assumes that a) bombing would protect ‘innocent civilians’ and b) that British air power could ‘destroy’ ISIS – something that months of bombing by the US-led coalition have failed to achieve.    Given the record of British military adventures over the last fifteen years, the government’s rush to bomb is alarming and almost mind-boggling for its cynicism and simplistic belief that if you just keep bombing someone, sooner or later it’ll all turn out right.

Osborne insists that ‘  You need a comprehensive plan for a more stable, peaceful Syria – a huge challenge of course, but we can’t just let that crisis fester.’  As Hugh Roberts argues in the LRB, Britain and its allies rejected the last political opportunity – admittedly slim – that might have helped demilitarize the Syrian conflict back in June 2012, when they scuppered Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a political compromise at Geneva by insisting that Assad could not be part of it.

They did this because they were committed to a policy of ‘regime change’ that was driven by purely geopolitical calculations, even though it was often given a humanitarian rationale. This policy wanted more militarization not less, regardless of its impact on Syrian society. Recently-published Pentagon documents reveal that as early as August 2012, the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.

At a time when Western states were publicly supporting the notion of a ‘moderate opposition’, US intelligence agencies privately recognized that the ‘major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ consisted of ‘ the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – as part of an opposition that was supported by ‘The West, Gulf countries and Turkey.’

It is nonsensical to imagine that these same countries can now protect civilians or bring about a ‘stable, peaceful Syria’ by bombing the ‘Salafist principality’ they helped create.   On the contrary, such ‘havens’ will inevitably exacerbate the fragmentation of Syria, and they will also be  used as bases to attack the regime – an option that was already being pursued in the first year of the conflict.

To point out this out does not mean that no one should do anything, or that external forces can be held entirely responsible for the catastrophe that has wrecked Syria.   Assad may not have seen himself as a tyrant when he inherited the family dynasty, but that is what he is,  like all the Arab rulers who were challenged during the ‘Arab Spring’, including those that have been trying to overthrow him.

Syria was a tyranny when the Syrian army colluded with Christian militias in the Lebanese Civil War; when Hafez Assad participated in Operation Desert Storm; when US intelligence flew terrorist suspects off to Syria to have their feet beaten by Syrian security services.

Such a regime has no more right to rule  than any of its counterparts,  and the staggering violence that it has unleashed against its own population is evidence of its political and moral bankruptcy.  Nevertheless, in the short-term at least, it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it, because Syria has become a country in which only bad choices are available.

The immediate priority in both Syria and Iraq must be to defeat the fascistic ISIS, both militarily and politically, and prevent the two states from the complete collapse that would pave the way for indefinite warlordism and jihadism.  But that ultimately, must be the task of Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and will be dependent on a degree of political will that has so far been absent.

The foreign  states that have done so much harm in Syria ought to commit themselves to that objective and use what powers they have to bring it about.

The question is whether they really want to, and it may be too late to do any of this.  The wars in Syria and Iraq may have to run their course, with all the devastation that involves, until there is very little left of either state in their present form.

That would be an absolute catastrophe, and it would generate a refugee crisis that will last for decades.   So we need to do anything we can to prevent it, but let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the current outpouring of public solidarity and empathy with refugees into believing that bombing is a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding.

And let’s not think that there is anything ‘humanitarian’ about rushing into a bombing campaign to save refugees in order to stop refugees from coming to Europe, because there really isn’t.