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Why Are We Still Reading The Guardian? OR Is Assad really murdering children by sabotaging UN measles vaccines?

Britain’s most liberal newspaper is no less inclined to yellow journalism than any of its (marginally) more right-wing rivals. That modern liberalism has reduced itself to a self-willing adjunct of neoconservatism is a tendency that has been outlined at length elsewhere. I am still shocked, however, when the Guardian presents me with obvious examples of this tendency in practice.

Look at this story, filed by correspondents in Cairo and South East Turkey, which reports that 34 children have been killed in northern Syria because the measles vaccine admistered to them by some undisclosed anti-Assad activist group had been (according to some floating mouthpiece of an entity referred to as “the rebel government”) sabotaged by government forces.

“Primary investigations point to a limited security breach by vandals likely connected to the regime, which has been attempting to target the medical sector in Free Syria in order to spread chaos,” claimed a man identified as “the rebel health minister”. The rebs have sent samples have been sent to Turkey for testing.

Really? Could this story possibly be true? It already shows all the hallmarks of anti-Assad propaganda: dead children and lethal chemicals. It was posted on The Guardian website without a comments section.

The truth was buried elsewhere in the Guardian website later that same day. The rebel medics had tragically mixed up a batch of measles vaccines with a batch of muscle relaxants, with fatal consqeuences.

The earlier story, a work of unabashed disinformation, cloaks the real questions which foreign correspondents should be asking; namely, how the “humanitarian narrative” is used to futher the interests of Western powers at the expense of Arabic soverignty and Arabic lives. This has been the case in the Middle East since the days of T E Lawrence and before. The refugee camps around Syria are teeming with intelligence officers and rebel recruiters of various stripes. Nobody reports on that. Why are illiterates, who cannot even read the packaging on the vaccine box, administering intravenous drugs to children? One suspects they were appointed to the task because of their political allegience, not their medical capability. How did this come about?

It is also worth pointing out how the first story reflects the fact that the rebels (the “side” our government supports) are less trustworthy than the Damascus government. They lie reflexively as a matter or course, a characterestic which is also frequently exhibited by the new government in Kiev, another bunch of usurpers Western governments are keen to prop up. This is why stories from Syria and Ukraine always come with the implicit editorial instruction to believe one side over the other: because the side shovelling us the stories are the prime fabricators in both cases.

The names of the two journalists who filed the first story are Patrick Kingsley and Mowaffaq Safadi.

 

 

The 2014 NATO Summit in Cardiff and Newport

Being that Cardiff and Newport are home territory to me I popped down to Cardiff Castle last night to see this “ring of steel” that everyone was talking about. There is a massive fence around Cardiff castle, where there was a summit dinner last night, and also around the Celtic Manor Resort, where the summit itself is being held. A lot of roads are closed and there are half a dozen Royal Navy vessels in the Bay.

I expected that there might be protests, and where there are protests, there is generally trouble: kettling, mass arrests, and so on. The Minor Injuries Unit at Barry Hospital had been temporarily coverted to an emergency triage centre. At an anarchist bookfair in Bristol earlier in the year, I had met a man, who seemed to me very obviously like an undercover policemen, who was desperately trying to get people to sign up for “direct action” at the NATO summit. I mean literally sign up: he had a clipboard and he wanted names and email addresses. He had few takers but I detected what I thought was something of a groundswell.

I turned up in Cardiff wearing a jacket and tie, which is regulation attire for the protest voyeur, as it can help you get through a police cordon. But despite a heavy police presence from all over the UK, the atmosphere wasn’t oppressive. Although every constabulary in Britain clearly wanted a piece of the action (I saw police from Devon and Cornwall, Humberside and Kent) there was really very little for them to do but stand around and wave to small children. Unlike the last NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, I saw hardly any protesters at all. By that I mean less than thirty. There were less people in town than average too. Cardiff seems to have dealt with the summit by ignoring it.

There is much to be said about security theatre in general, and about NATO too, which is at present a profoundly terrible organisation without any core rationale, and thus subsumed totally by the fringe politics of Washington zealots, which has led to it doing more harm than good for the last few years. And by harm I mean killing thousands of civilians and violently destabilizing entire countries. However, in South Wales, absolutely nothing was happening. I had it in mind, before visiting, to write some “outpost of Empire” spiel about Fortress Cardiff and the new world order, but what a misconception that was. It turns out being an outpost of Empire is quiet pleasant, if a bit boring. It was a nice evening and I spent most of it in a beer garden with friends.

To be honest the worst thing about the Newport summit was that atrocious Welcome to Wales video with Matthew Rhys and Damian Lewis and HelenMcCrory. Somebody wrote and paid for that. I would love to know who.

On the plus side I did see a V-22 Osprey in flight, the most expensive helicopter ever built, zooming in low over Sofia Gardens at night. Very big and very quiet, like something out of a sci-fi film, with its lights slowly strobing. Oh, and there are going to be 300 new jobs in Caerphilly building Scouts (a small armoured fighting vehicle, or AFV) for General Dynamics UK. They look rubbish though, to be honest.

 

 

 

“We tortured some folks” and the death of journalism

One of the many pressing books sitting in my to-read pile is Janet Malcolm’s seminal The Journalist And The Murderer. It opens with the following sentence:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

It has taken me the better part of a decade to properly accept this fact. The journalist of my childhood was, after all, a hero. Superman was a journalist and so was his girlfriend. Spiderman was a photojournalist. Tintin was a reporter. The films I watched and the books I read were full of heroic journalists, each and every one a brave upholder of truth fighting a lonely struggle against injustice and deceit (Humphrey Bogart’s last movie remains a personal favourite). What a charming and romantic notion, and what dangerous ignorance too.

An avid and regular reader of the national press, my love affair with Fleet Street ended in 2003, when it effectively cheerleaded the coming of the Iraq War. The same goes for broadcast news, although I developed a general aversion to television around the same time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, I just couldn’t bear to see it anymore: the cynical, self-righteous masquerade of modern journalism. The hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry and the subsequent criminal trials were all pretty damning, but the media have done far worse things than hack phones. There is an utter immorality it its core, and this can be plainly seen in President Obama’s recent capitulation on some of the war crimes carried out during the War on Terror:

We tortured some folks,” he told a White House press room.

“It’s important for us not to feel to sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough jobs those folks had,” he added. By “folks” he meant torturers, one assumes.

A collective sigh of relief ran around the room. The press – the American press in particular – had for years been tiptoeing around the subject, using the euphemisms supplied to them by government, or sometimes inventing their own. “Brutal questioning,” “enhanced interrogation”, “harsh measures”, etc. Nobody present in that room asked “how many folks have we tortured”? It could have been thirty. It could have been three thousand. But questions beget answers, and answers can unsettle the easy narratives that big brand media relies on. It soaked up and absorbed the President’s seemingly off-hand remark with the minimum of fuss.

Five days later the executive editor of the New York Times wrote that despite the paper having some ongoing internal arguments over the precise legal definition of the word, “from now on, The Times will use the word ‘torture’ to describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

The New York Times will from now on use the word torture to describe torture. Because the President did.

Finally. After more than a decade. After two wars. After bombings, sanctions, and the armament of proxy groups. After half a million dead, maybe more. “We tortured some folk”. Where are these people? Where are the tortured? What happened to them? What to do they have to say?

The victims have been sworn to secrecy and monitored by the state. The charity groups that represent them are routinely bugged, infiltrated and harassed by the state. The media refer to them as extremists. The parts of government supposed to oversee issues of surveillance and interrogation – such as the US Congress – are spied on and bugged and lied to by the state. The NSA, the FBI and the CIA all now routinely lie to and spy on both the government and the public. Lesser law enforcement agencies, such as the LAPD, are not dissimilar. Meanwhile the media do nothing but continue to regurgitate vacuous tales of celebrity, while shamelessly promoting their friends and bosses and bosses’ friends.

In Britain the picture is no different. The Guardian, once the trusted paper of Britain’s left-wing liberals, is literally falling over itself in order to maintain the party line on Britain’s endorsement of torture. Now Obama has casually confessed, in his down-home folksy tone, both Downing Street and Fleet Street are left wondering how long the cover-up must endure. After all, protecting the Americans was apparently why neither bothered overmuch with the thorny issue of Britain’s torturing in the first place, but now the cat is out of the bag.

No Stalin, no Hitler, could corrupt the press as effectively as unfettered capitalism. Self-censorship has always been the most effective kind. And failing that, the simple strictures and structures of power will ensure that only plaint minds get promoted to the platform.

Noam Chomsky was right. Andrew Marr was wrong.

The only things you read about in the press are what the press are prepared to deal with.

I haven’t taken a newspaper for over ten years and feel far better informed as a result. I shudder to see them on the shelves whenever I am down the shops, and come to dread political discussions with friends who take their leads from the editorials of the day. If you want to understand the pitiful state of modern Britain at a glance, look at the front covers of its newspapers; not for the light they shine, but the darkness they reflect.

Shock and Awe at the Academy

RWAThis Friday night I attended the opening of Shock and Awe at the Royal West of England Academy, an exhibition of contemporary artists “at war and peace”, curated by Paul Gough. I suspect it was originally intended to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, but as the exhibition’s name suggests, it was the Iraq War which featured most prominently.

(Shock and Awe was a “rapid dominance” US military doctrine developed in 1996, and inspired by the massive “coalition” and bombing campaign of Desert Storm in 1991. Its proponents outlined the strategy by using a hypothetical future war with Iraq as an example. When war with Iraq did come, Shock and Awe featured prominently in the Pentagon playbook, and was a term used frequently by journalists and other observers to describe the saturation bombing that took place.)

That so much of this exhibition should touch upon Iraq is not remotely surprising. It is the most destructive and ruinous war we have fought since World War Two; it was an illegal war of aggression; it was war facilitated by lies and deception at the heart of government; its architects remain at liberty and much enriched. Most of all, this country’s cultural fabric and its body politic, its most basic sense of self, has never really been able to accept what we have done. We know, of course, individually all of us know, bar the wilfully ignorant or those locked in deep denial, but we lack any collective way of acknowledging this, let alone acting on it.

In terms of collective acknowledgement, our best hopes may lie in our art (or the arts). Artists are supposed and obliged to expose precisely this sort of cognitive dissonance as it affects society; their status as reflective outsiders gives them the necessary perspective to do so. In art we can see the wounds and dysfunctions of society, just as much as its hopes and strengths. This is practically a platitude, and it’s entirely unnecessary to provide examples, but I’m thinking of Otto Dix, or Goya; people like that.

So what is striking about Shock and Awe, really, is that the Royal West of England Academy is not an avant-garde institution. It is, if anything, conservative, traditional, and establishmentarian. That is not intended as criticism but as important context, because what struck me is how widespread our anger over Iraq is, and how for the most part our institutions have failed to express it. Our civil service, our media, our courts, our military, the government and the whole machinery of our democracy; our social institutions, as Karl Popper would have described them, have fallen into collective silence, or even embraced active duplicity, as regards the reality of the Iraq War. Only in art are the views of the people expressed.

I say “the people” in the most literal sense. The millions of people who protested reflected the majority of those who less obviously opposed the war. In turn, many of those who supported it now feel they were wrong, and are brave enough to say so. Every time I have spoken about my David Kelly biography at a festival or engagement, I have spoken to a room full of people. All of them know the war was wrong. They come from all walks of life – although I was astounded to meet someone who had worked, in a senior position, at GCHQ, who told me he had gone on the Stop The War march in 2003.

And so, although the Royal West of England Academy may be seen as somewhat staid by its younger rivals, it has done a decent and important job of expressing popular disgust over our Britain’s role in the conflict. Sadly, the Royal Academy on Picadilly has yet to host a similar show, and its First World War exhibitions remain focussed entirely on the work produced by that conflict and no other. How dull, how safe, and how typical. A few years back the Iraq Triptych by Michael Sandle was given prominent display during the “open” annual summer season, and ended up winning the Hugh Casson prize for drawing, but this was as near to the bone as the RA in London has got.

At the RWA I was struck by Jill Gibbon’s sketches from the various arms fairs she has infiltrated, which offered fleeting glimpses into a hideous world. Trade fairs are always terrible events, but Gibbon’s arms fairs combine the dull, hard-drinking, portly chauvinism of the conventional conference with the hellish reality of violent, arbitrary, civilian death. Her hastily drawn outlines (all sketches were covert and in situ) of beaming, bikini-clad women posing for fat, swinish businessmen, in order to flog cluster bombs and phosphorous shells, provided the most shocking work of the show.

Mercenaries, Jill Gibbon, 2013.

Mercenaries, Jill Gibbon, 2013.

Other artists provided work that was, fittingly for a Royal Academy, more institutional in its effect: this is what we think, this is what we are. While this academic trait can be stifling in other circumstances, it seemed vital here, given the subject at hand. The work of the late Richard Hamilton was here too, but only a single commemorative medal, commissioned by the British Art Medal Trust for the Medals of Dishonour exhibition at the British Museum in 2009. As it happens, that exhibition was another rare and amazing example of a British institution reflecting the reality of our guilt over the Iraq War. Hamilton’s piece was titled the Hutton Award, with Blair on one side and Campbell on the reverse. CONFIDIMVS DEO DE ABSOLVTIONE: MMIV the inscription runs, above our former Prime Minister; DIALBATI, it declares, above Campbell. This, as you might imagine, was something that took my interest.

The focal centrepiece was undoubtedly Casting A Dark Democracy by Academician Tim Shaw, a sculpture of at least twelve feet in height, made from steel and black bin bags: a reproduction of the what was perhaps the war’s most iconic image: the hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib, stood on a box, his arms raised, with electrodes on his fingers. It was not until I saw this that the exhibition really moved me to anger. The other exhibits reflected only what I had thought and felt for years, but was unable to read in any newspaper, or see on any television screen. This was different, because of its inversion of place.

Casting A Dark Democracy, Tim Shaw RA (image shows the sculpture as exhibted elsewhere)

Casting A Dark Democracy, Tim Shaw RA, 2008 (image shows the sculpture as exhibited elsewhere)

Standing before it I was soon reminded of the commemorative sculpture of other conflicts. Casting A Dark Democracy was a similar scale, it had a similar permanence (despite its polythene shroud), and it too spoke of the dead in a far-off land. Yet while the sculptures that memorialized the Great War typically possess a great humanity and restraint, they express not just loss but emotional restraint, stoicism, and nobility, they evince sacrifice and nobility. Sometimes, yes, there is a wonderful muted anger, but more often we have the downcast faces or the quiet contemplation of the bronze Tommies of the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

After the 1918 armistice, the Unknown Soldier was given form, in a way that makes us feel better. How different is Shaw’s sculpture to that idea. Dare I say, Shaw is precisely the sort of sculptor who, in an earlier age, would have made such art. He is a trusted, establishment-type professional, a member of the RA, an artist more inclined towards traditional form than conceptual innovation, and again, this is in no way intended as criticism. But what has happened to our government and our country in recent years has forced Shaw away from that safer form of expression and into potent criticism of the state. All Iraq War art is much the same: it can portray only victims and criminals. When the time comes to build our own Iraq War memorials, the commissioned sculptors, if they are any sort of artists at all, will have no choice but to follow suit. There will be no dignity to our remembrance. That was the first cusp of my anger.

The second was when I realised, very quickly, that art is not enough. There is even a sentimental decadence to such art, a woe-is-us inadequacy. Because the hooded prisoner of Abu Ghraib is not the Unknown Soldier. He is a real man, and his name may be Ali Shallal al-Qaisi, but nobody knows where he is now, or what happened to him afterwards. There is a real person behind this icon, whose suffering and restitution, if any, is unknown. If we can make a sculpture, if we can profit from his image, perhaps the least we could do is try to find out. We live in an age of images, and we forget too often the chasm between image and subject.

Also exhibited was Katie Davies’ excellent video art The Separation Line, which was the best work of the whole show. In the adjoining gallery was a collection of paintings by the Nash brothers, and oddly enough, only a few doors down at the Bristol Museum, was Jeremy Deller’s wonderful English Magic, fresh from the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, at which David Kelly and Iraq constituted an important element. I hope to write at greater length about these things in the near future; either here or elsewhere.

Yes we have no WMD: Iraq in 2014

Ah, the undying spectre of Iraqi WMD. It cannot be found. It cannot be killed. It cannot be destroyed. It cannot be stopped. It will sail forever, like the Marie Celeste, a phantom ship that docks at no port, a tale that is told whenever there is something to be gained by the telling. It was a legend, a myth, a neocon narrative that was years in the making: for thirteen years, from 1990 to 2003, hawks, hacks and liberals alike spent money and lives building it into something that would shape the destiny of nations. Lies like that do not disappear overnight, even with deserts scoured and palaces in ruins, even with a million dead. They drift like ghosts, cropping up here and there, revenants of what may be the biggest disinformation effort in human history. So guess who’s telling the Iraqi WMD story now? Iraq.

With ISIS in the ascendancy, Nouri al-Maliki’s government is now telling the world that these encroaching Islamist rebels have seized WMD sites in Muthanna and Mosul, and so they are now in possession of deadly WMD-related materials. Except, of course, they aren’t.

The Al Muthanna State Establishment (MSE) is 45 miles north west of Baghdad. It developed binary CW burster charges for R-400 “dumb” bombs in the eighties. Production was cancelled in 1988, after which it concentrated on research, although apparently there was still enough material around in the summer of 1990 to refill a stock of R-400s. But that was the last time there was ever any WMD at Al Muthanna. Still, the BBC have dutifully reported Baghdad’s claim that ISIS are now in control of facility where some 2,500 “degraded” rockets filled with nerve agent payloads.

It’s the usual nonsense. UNSCOM went there, UNMOVIC went there, the ISG went there, several times each, and god knows who else. UNSCOM spent about two years there in the early nineties, demolishing buildings and destroying material. According to the CIA:

“Between 1992 and 1994 and again in 1996, the Chemical Destruction Group oversaw destruction of 30,000 pieces of ordnance, 480,000 litres of chemical agents, and more than 2 million litres of chemical precursors. Eventually, most of the facilities at the complex the Iraqi’s destroyed and sold for scrap.”

Want to know what these “degraded rockets” look like? Here’s what they looked like in 2004:

Al Muthanna 1Al Muthanna 2That place is like the armoury of Ozymandias. Charles Duelfer described it a year later as “a wasteland full of destroyed chemical munitions, razed structures, and unusable war-ravaged facilities.” And sampling performed during the ISG revealed no traces of CW agents – unsurprisingly. Perhaps, in the areas that UNSCOM deemed unsafe to exploit, there may have been some spare explosive or usable munition left in some forgotten corner, which were lifted by looters and used as IEDS in the post-invasion insurgency, and indeed one or two seem to have cropped up, but nothing CW-related. Iraq had declared or destroyed its WMD arsenal, in its totality, by the summer of 1991.

So what does Maliki want? The same thing politicians have always wanted when they complain of WMDs in the Middle East: American airstrikes. There is no such thing as irony when it comes to issues of survival. But considering Obama wants to plough $500m into funding “moderate” Syrian rebels, who are at the very least ISIS-affiliated, I doubt he will be in a big hurry to offer the Iraqis any truly decisive help. I am reminded of US foreign policy during the Iran-Iraq war, when it armed both sides. Or when Washington first funded the Kurdish Peshmerga of Mustafa Barzani to rise up against Saddam in 1972, even though it knew they would fail and die in their tens of thousands.

“Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” was how Kissinger put it, when later hauled up before the 40 Committee.

Indeed. It is only through the assumption that some sort of self-interested covert agenda is in place that US foreign policy in the Middle East begins to make any sense at all. No wonder that Arabs are such vociferous conspiracy theorists (or so we are told). In the absence of any genuine national sovereignty, vortexes of conspiracy prevail.

I wonder how long it will be before the next Middle East WMD story. Days, hours?

Journeys with a Casio F91-W

casiof91wI bought a new watch yesterday, which brought on something of a Marcel Proust experience. Desperate for a timepiece but reluctant to fork out any more than absolutely necessary, I ended up with a Casio F-91W. I thought at first this was exactly the same watch as the first watch I had ever bought: a black plastic Casio from a kiosk vendor in a Cardiff shopping centre almost thirty years ago, but the F-91W did not come out until 1991, so that must have been some predecessor. The shopping centre in question has been demolished now, central Cardiff has changed tremendously, and the old man in the kiosk must be dead, but Casio are still making a practically identical watch.

So much has been and gone between these two watches. It is a funny thing, time; the application of a man-made mathematical system to the intuited linearity of human experience. I have set my F-91W to an hourly chime, the same chime I heard in primary school, in a village far away from me now. Vast gulfs and eddies of time, of life, hidden and swallowed and flowing, forgotten and remembered. Beep, says my watch, every hour. What oceans lie between those simple sounds, then and now. A digital watch from a pre-digital age. Memory hold the door.

By all accounts it loses no more than six minutes a year, which makes it more accurate than just about every Rolex ever made. Even so, its vast popularity passed without recognition until the US military decided it was a bomb maker’s tool, and thus every Arab who wore one automatically became a terrorist suspect. This began after 9/11, although Islamists were reportedly using Casios for bomb timers by the mid-nineties. The ‘Bojinka’ plotters intended to use this cheap timepiece to bring down eleven US airliners in 1995 (first they intended to assassinate Pope John Paul II). Their plans were abandoned, and the plotters were caught, apparently because of a fire in their apartment, but not before three Casio test bombs were detonated in the Philippines, injuring dozens, and nearly bringing down a 747.

The same hourly chime I now hear at my desk was heard briefly and fatally underneath the seat of a rising passenger jet out in the Pacific Ocean. A section of fuselage blew off, the air pressure dropped instantly, revealing a sun-dappled sea and one tiny Japanese island, and 24 year-old Haruki Ikegami, an industrial sewing-machine maker from Tokyo, died instantly. He was the first of the Casio deaths. It was also the first use of the “liquid bomb”. Airlines and airports knew about this type of device for eleven years before they introduced liquid restrictions in 2006, prompted by the uncovering of a non-existent “transatlantic airline plot” which occurred suspiciously close to the US mid-term elections. By this time, as Wikileaks later revealed, ownership of a F-91W was being used to justfify the continuing detention of 28 people at Guantanmo Bay.

Although it escaped my notice at the time, the markedly unfashionable F-91W became fashionable afterwards, or at least that is what the media told us. Journalists complained it was because of some terrorist cachet. I doubt it, although perhaps there is something stridently revolutionary about wearing something so perfectly functional and blatantly non-aspirational in today’s crassly commercialist age.

“It embodies that nice paradoxical conflict which adds an extra dimension of value,” Casio’s UK marketing director told the BBC, neatly and inevitably concerting anti-market sentiment into a marketable demographic. Whatever he might think, however, the watch remains the same, and sells by the bucketload from Venezuela to Vladivostok. Mine cost nine quid. It’s got a little light too, and if you hold down the C button the LCD numbers say the word CASIO.

It amazes me that people can spend two grand on a watch.

 

Impeaching Blair

The fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIS) has prompted further reflection on our decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Tony Blair has written a 3,000 word essay calling for military intervention, while at the same time blaming the Iraq’s violent fragmentation not on his invasion, but our “failure” to militarily intervene in Syria.

I find it tiresome in the extreme to unpick the arguments and pseudo-arguments of Iraq War enthusiasts, although it is necessary work and somebody has to do it. The volume of these hawkish voices, their hollow self-righteousness, their cavalier attitudes towards reason and objectivity, their scandalous calls to action: that even today these people can be so widely heard and read is deeply disappointing. I am too tired for a close analysis today, but there are some broad points I would like to make in summarizing the tone of the post-Mosul hand-wringing.

The lion’s share of the recent Iraq War articles have been written by those who supported it, and who now seek to distance themselves from an obvious failure of foreign policy, if not a subversion of democracy and outright illegality. Although they now concede their earlier positions were wrong, many such people retain their original trait of denigrating the “anti-war movement”. But there never was any such “movement” in any meaningful political sense. There was simply opposition to the proposed invasion and occupation. Their own endorsement of the invasion cannot be exculpated because amongst the tens of millions who opposed it, which very possibly represented a British majority, was included the Socialist Workers Party, or the Green Party, or Respect, or pro-Palestinians, or vegetarians, or any number of other groupings that the bomb Baghdad crowd found objectionable. This is egotistical and incredible nonsense.

Sadly, egotism has never been in short supply as regards the cheerleaders of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Frankly I find them all utterly ghastly people. I can’t bring myself to mention their names, quote them, or link to their articles. We have all had more than enough of them by now. Politicians, however, present a different prospect. We have duty to parse their pronunciations. Most disingenuous of them all has been Blair’s insistence that the rise of ISIS inside is Iraq is not a consequence of his invasion, but of “our” failing to bomb Syria.

Whatever Blair or anyone else says, the eventual fragmentation of Iraq was predicted by every credible observer during the run-up to war, and those predictions were widely reported. In November 2002 Blair himself had a meeting in Downing Street with three academics who told him precisely this (these three being Professor George Joffe of Cambridge, Professor Toby Dodge of SOAS, and Professor Charles Tripp, also of SOAS, and whose superb History of Iraq has never been far from my desk for years).

Joffe has told the Huffington Post that Blair sat silently while they expounded on the aftermath of the coming invasion, only to finally reply with the comment “but the man’s evil, isn’t he?”

I don’t know how Tony Blair defines evil, but British policy towards Iraq has been scandalous in its disregard for civilian life since at least 1991, when we commenced destroying the country from the air, whilst enforcing the most stringent sanctions regime in human history. Our failure to respect Iraqi sovereignty, on the other hand, is as old as Iraq itself, given the Britain only created the state so as to further its own imperial interests. If you want to examine Iraq through Tony’s Manichean prism of good and evil, one has to concede that the lion’s share of the evil can be attributed to the actions of the British, and more recently American, politicians, and not least amongst these is one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.

It is in this light we must consider the appeals of contemporary politicians such as Boris Johnson, that Blair “should put a sock in it.” Our greatest problem with our policy towards Iraq is one of collective cognition: as a country we have always been unable to accept the murderous destruction we have wrought upon the country. It as if the very fabric of the British state, our representatives and civil servants and media interlocutors, even our own electorate, may understand it individually but fear tremendously the possibility of expressing it as a whole. Thus it has become something we don’t talk about. Problematically, Blair can’t stop talking about it, and as time goes on his endless self-justification grows ever more appalling, as it flies further and further from palpable, ongoing reality.

I understand the perceived need not to make a fuss. I sympathise with those who feel the reputation of the government, the country, the civil service, the office of Prime Minister itself, the armed forces, our political parties and the intelligence services all stand to suffer terribly if we can officially admit the Iraq War to be a murderous, criminal, negligent, and pointless failure which was facilitated by gross deception. Yet we each of us know the truth, and so does the rest of the world. And the truth is that ultimately our institutions would be saved, not harmed, by delivering Tony Blair unto the judgement of an appropriate court, whether that be in Westminster or elsewhere.

It is not that we need closure, or vindication. We need justice. Blair knows he has a case to answer, hence his interminable excuses. In principle, if not in practice, there is no good reason on earth why even his supporters should object to him being tried. One need not presume guilt to concede the necessity of a trial. The time has come for Blair to account for himself under oath, not in the broadsheets, or on daytime television, or on his own website. As things stand now, it would appear that a Prime Minister can brazenly lie to the house in order to start an illegal war of aggression, and need fear nothing but the cynicism of the British public.

The Daily Mail observes that having Tony Blair as a Middle East peace envoy is an obscenity. Indeed it is, but it has been an obscenity for seven years now, and his posturing will continue indefinitely until someone picks him up on it.

Blair is certainly not the only person who can be blamed for the Iraq War, but in Britain, at least, he is the most culpable. Others on this isle may have been equally criminal, or perhaps more so, given the detailed deceptions they enacted on the British public (I am thinking of a few acquaintances of Malcolm Rifkind here). Yet the buck stops with Blair, and ironically, I don’t think the idea of life in a monastic-type cell would sit too badly with him. His fantasy life could have free reign there, without harming anyone. The messiah in him would relish the persecution. I can already hear his inner voice pontificating about how his incarceration would allow us to move on; how he was suffering so that we may heal. And at long last, he would finally be right.

In the Daily Mail Simon Heffer has called for a Select Committee to enable a Commons vote on trying Blair in the House of Lords, using an impeachment precedent not followed since 1806. The following day Sir Peter Tapsell, the Father of the House, raised the matter in PMQs (Cameron replied only that Labour had voted against the Iraq Inquiry on four separate occasions). Meanwhile the Arrest Blair campaign continues, but any talk of Blair appearing before the International Criminal Court is 99% fantasy as no one has formally agreed exactly what a crime of aggression is, and any such agreement is almost certainly not going to be retrospective. It’s Westminster or bust. What a shame our MPs are so terrible and irrelevant. 

On chips with mayonnaise, or: The Coming Failure of the Foodie Revolution.

Not so long ago it was considered exotic to put mayonnaise on your chips, as this 1994 exchange between Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield demonstrates.

Patat met mayo, ubiquitous to the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, parts of Germany and bits of France, was still a novelty in Clinton’s America, as it was in John Major’s Britain, and indeed all of the Anglophone world. For generations of Brits, if you put any kind of condiment on your chips at all, it was tomato sauce. Now this observation may seem like a platitude, but the banal can sometimes be profound, and understanding the modern disregard for culinary difference tells us a lot about the British relationship with food.

Consider Peter Kay’s famous skit about his dad’s attitude to garlic bread (all of this short clip is sort of germane to my argument here):

Kay’s garlic bread routine was once voted the funniest line in British comedy, but understand what is being satirized here. Superficially, we are laughing at a man who considers the commonplace combo of garlic and bread as alien and untrustworthy. But if we really drill down, we are laughing at a man who is actually a proponent of cuisine. He’s a guy who sees rules in food, just as Tarantino’s suited duo did.

Garlic bread is tasty, of course, and so is a dab of mayo on your chips, but cuisine makes no claim to be the best or tastiest food, and never has. Cuisine has never been anything more than a way of doing things, and it springs – indeed it must spring – from the practical reality of daily lives. From mundanity, in other words. What is available, affordable, practical and edible to a certain people, place and time: these are the only determinants of real cuisine. Everything else is basically marketing.

Given the true circumstances of the world’s peoples will always be different to each other, there will never be such a thing as a global cuisine. The concept is a chimera, just as global communism was, or as global capitalism remains today. Yet today’s foodies will laugh at someone who refuses to eat absolutely anything as a backwards pedant with a closed mind, and an enemy of the foodie revolution. These gourmands believe the world is their oyster, whereas the opposite is true: British cuisine is all but non-existent, and society is busy negating what little is left.

Once, the most important chef in our lives was our mother, or some other close relative. Now our most important chefs are television celebrities, and food has become a kind of pornography, as viewers drool over what they cannot have. This has nothing to do with cuisine.

Our chefs are businessmen who shill for supermarkets and restaurant chains while increasingly the average British meal is pre-prepared, a trend continuing even in low income households. Hell, even the kitchen staff at Gordon Ramsey’s place have been caught serving them. The foodie revolution is not about food at all. It’s about profit, and its capitalist, anti-cooking agenda has turned our daily bread into a positional good. The rise of Tesco’s Finest, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference, Morrison’s Kitchen and Asda’s Extra Special ranges is not down to a growing culinary aesthetic. Likewise, the street food “phenomenon” is not a way of making “global cuisine” accessible, but how entrepreneurs escape spiralling property costs, a “revolution” only exacerbating the gentrification impoverishing most people on this island. As freakonomists Stephen Dubner and Steven Merrit have pointed out, even the rise of the coffee shop reflects the need for alienated city dwellers to rent public space. The resurgence of street food has already led to fierce arguments about territory. I don’t want to get all Daily Mail but lest we forget, street food has led to serious violence in the past, in Glasgow and in London. It’s difficult to imagine that recurring, given that the new vendors are now middle class, but it shows that street food relates more to property rights than anything else.

Rather than turf wars over fast food, the biggest food story of recent years has been the horse meat scandal, and that wasn’t really about food at all, not at least in terms of price, taste or texture. All those things were fine. Tens of millions of us had been happily munching into one pound frozen horse meat lasagnes for years. The furore was essentially about packaging (which is just another form of marketing, of course). The only sensible reaction to the whole affair came from Princess Anne, a woman untroubled by social aspirations, who suggested that’s if what we were eating, then so what? Stick it on the label and get on with it. They eat horsemeat just about everywhere else in Europe, and ‘fessing up would improve the way horses were treated. It all fell on deaf ears. The food sellers simply improved their packaging. Predictably, the scheme was quickly mired in another controversy of no culinary value.

Food in Britain is about status, which makes it almost the opposite of cuisine, which is a kind of collective, participatory, rooted, tradition. Our non-cuisine is individualist, floating and exclusive, and functions as a social marker. Food in Britain, then, is a form of saying who you are. Few of us have ever really been content simply with the idea of food for food’s sake (I was not surprised to find that Britain provided the pioneers of post-industrial vegetarianism). Food here is always about something else. Perhaps, as Julian Baggini has suggested, this is a hangover from Puritanism. I’m more inclined to see it as an effect of capitalism, and so is Joanthan Meades. I overheard Meades date the decline of British cuisine to the Inclosures Acts – legislation which began in 1604. It sounds plausible to me. We have been falling a long time.

Meades was then attending the Abergavenny Food Festival, Aber being my home town. The council there made the news a few years back when it refused to let Tescos open an out-of-town supermarket. At the time it was the only town council to have ever turned the chain down, although within two years it let Waitrose open on the same site. Profit prevails, as long as it is marketed the right way. In my current city of Bristol, there was a huge protest about the opening of a Tescos in counter-cultural Stokes Croft. In fact, if you want to know what a real foodie revolution looks like, that was probably it. The police made over thirty arrests.

But that too was flawed and failed. The supermarket won out. The supermarkets always win out.

Don’t get me wrong. I eat chips with mayonnaise. I eat chips with anything. I eat burgers, curries, kebabs, pizzas, Chinese takeaways, the whole spectrum of junk food. This is the most authentic cuisine we have. It is the only cuisine we have. Mass-produced, factory-processed, pre-prepared, it is the cuisine of the modern peasant. Simply put, it’s what we eat: anything else is a status symbol. This foodie revolution isn’t going to change that. Neither will a television presenter. If we want to improve our diet, we don’t need re-education by the patronizing commissars of reality tv, nor by corporate spinners marketing sincerity; we need political and economic change. After all, Jamie Oliver’s big achievement had nothing to do with cooking. Rather, he  was able to persuade a populist prime minister to put extra money into the school dinners budget (that’s Jamie Oliver MBE FRCGP to you). That cash has now been spent, and school dinners are probably worse than they were before his show.

The British antipathy towards cooking reached its apotheosis in Heston Blumenthal OBE, another perfectly typical celebreity chef whose quest for consumerist novelty has led him to make dishes like chicken curry ice cream, camel burger, and king crab biscuits, a beyond-parody sort of character from the pages of Martin Amis or J G Ballard. Some of his dishes arrive with their own ipod, for mood music. His show-case restaurant The Fat Duck won a host of fawning reviews and three Michelin stars. It also poisoned dozens of its customers, as did its London successor, Dinner. Blumenthal’s lawyers and PR people were kept busy burying the story, and there’s no mention of it on his wiki. Inevitably, the man the Guardian’s food writer pronounced “the most original and remarkable chef this country has ever produced” had by then already signed up with supermarket chains at home and abroad to lend his profile to yet another series of ready meals for us plebs. But the emperor has no clothes.

If you want to know what genuine cooking looks like in the capitalist west, look over the Atlantic. There, creative everyday folk are reduced to juxtaposing ready-made meals alongside each other, like making a cake out of pizzas, or a sandwich from every item on the McDonalds dollar menu (see the aptly titled www.thisiswhyyourefat.com for more). I am reminded of the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when apes first use to learn bones as tools. Cooking now means little more than putting one block on top of another, like children playing with Duplo, that is how far removed we’ve become from what we eat.

Who know what happens next. Maybe we can build something from the rubble, but I suspect there is going to have to be some major social upheaval before we can become true foodies again. In the meantime, as I did last night, remember it was once unusual to have your chips with mayonnaise. Or if you’d prefer a condiment that was authentically British, go to Hull and get some chip spice. Like most authentic British foodstuffs, it’s entirely overlooked, but Peter Kay’s dad would probably like it.

(Actually, it’s sold as American Chip Spice, but it’s wholly a Hull thing.)

 

 

Hello world! versus I Am Cool

“Hello world!” crops up on all kinds of software systems these days, especially content management systems, but I didn’t know the phrase predated home computing. Turns out it’s been used for trial-runs and proof-of-concept tests since at least 1974, when it appeared in a programming manual for C, and it made its debut in a manual for BCPL written in Cambridge in 1967.

I can’t determine what its literary orgins are, if any, but I want to hazard a guess, which is that Martin Richards, the Cambridge scientist who wrote the BCPL manual was a fan of Ron Searle’s Wordsworth schoolboy books (Searle trained at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, as it happens).

These feature a drippy supporting character called Basil Fotherington-Thomas, who was fond of walking round the place saying things like “hello trees, hello sky.” And I think “hello world” sounds a bit like him.Fotherington-Thomas

We had BBC Micros in our primary school and I remember mucking around with Basic. The first run or “hello world!” equivalent for my generation was:

10 PRINT “I AM COOL”
20 GOTO 10
RUN

It hasn’t fared as well as “hello world” but I think it’s probably more in Molesworth’s line.

molesworth