Charlie Hebdo massacre: Colonial blowback

 

The final death toll in the West’s illegal war against Iraq can never be accurately determined because the bloody repercussions are still ongoing. Let it suffice to say it will be in the hundreds of thousands. But if we include the stunted lives caused by that criminal intervention along with the civil war that has ensued, the numbers will certainly turn out to be in the millions. And behind these statistics are real people with real families with real hopes and aspirations for the life ahead.

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REVOLUTION, Russell Brand, Century, London, 2014

 

This is a damn good book. In fact a great book. Great in the sense that it is a great read, and great also in that it is of great importance. It is an intelligent book and in places touches the sublime, almost poetic level. Not bad for a recovering junkie. If you start the book and find yourself getting irritated and a tad frustrated in places, don’t give up on it. Complete the book and your efforts will be handsomely rewarded. Sure, Brand drifts in and out of incoherent, metaphysical ramblings. All that stuff about transcendental meditation changing the world and other obscurantist nonsense can definitely irritate. This is its central flaw, yet paradoxically, it is precisely because it is flawed that it is so engaging. Brand has not produced some dry political Marxist text preaching a didactic blueprint for revolution. And Brand would be the first to admit this.  On the contrary, what Brand has produced is a loveable and rambling stream of consciousness, part autobiographical, part pub philosophy and part impassioned but reasoned plea for us to collectively create something better, something more rational, something more humane. And the end result is a thousand times more persuasive than any dry academic Marxist text could ever hope to be.

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The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath FF Classics 1963

I suspect Sylvia Plath’s poetry anthology and her one single novel have been examined and analysed ad infinitum, and I’m damn certain I can offer nothing remotely new. But having just reread ‘The Bell Jar’ some fifty years after its publication, it seems there is still much of relevance for our contemporary times. Two central themes from ‘The Bell Jar’ still resonate today. Firstly, questions surrounding mental illness and clinical depression are far from having been resolved. Is mental illness and breakdown a social phenomenon or simply the result of a chemical imbalance? Or more likely, is it a complex combination of the two?  Secondly, and I would suggest of equal relevance to our times, is the role of monogamy, marriage and patriarchy in contemporary society, both east and west. To Plath’s credit, I found absolutely nothing dated about this novel; it felt as fresh and as engaging as the day it was published.  And I should add, the tragedy of Plath’s suicide is as poignant today as it was half a century ago.

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Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, 2014

There is a consistent historical materialism running throughout Harari’s Sapiens, and for that he should be congratulated and his eminently readable book widely recommended. There is no pandering to imaginary gods or other supernatural forces, just a down to earth account of the human story from the time of the big bang right through to our genetically and biologically modified future. From our humble hunter- gatherer beginnings, through the Neolithic revolution and onwards to both the industrial and now information revolutions, Harari paints a convincing narrative. This sort of text is desperately needed to help counteract the superstitions and historical ignorance that amazingly, still persists to this day. ‘ Sapiens’ is the sort of text that should be compulsory reading for all GCSE and A Level students, with a simpler, scaled down version available for younger children. Rather than the hotchpotch of chronologically disjointed nonsense that is currently served up to our students, here is a chronologically coherent account of the history of mankind.

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Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker, Channel 4

At last a gem emerges from the sea of dross that is British TV. And what a gem it is. It is difficult to find the superlatives to adequately describe Charlie Brooker’s  ‘Black Mirror’. A powerful and disturbing technological dystopia. A masterpiece of futuristic gloom. An unparalleled examination of where our new technological powers might be leading us to. Charlie Brooker must now be considered Britain’s pre-eminent TV dramatist with no one else remotely close. This is up there with the very best of British TV; Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective, I Claudius, Talking to a Stranger, Our Friends from the North and This Life.

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London Calling: A Very Brief History.

 Londinium dates back to Roman times

Where its ambitious administrators hailed from sunnier climes.

And with the fall of Rome came new masters aplenty

Vikings, Saxons and Norman gentry.

 

Feudal London was blighted by plague and fire

Life was brutish, living conditions dire.

But mercantile trade began to expand

 

London pre-eminent, king of the land.

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Small Island, Andrea Levy, Review, London 2004

If you need help in exploding the UKIP fantasy of a golden era of England, where there were no thieving, scrounging, terrorist migrants to blight this green and pleasant land, Small Island is the perfect place to start. For in reality, England had no such golden era. Prior to post war immigration, Britain was a miserable class ridden, bigoted island, where working class poverty was deeply entrenched, the ruling class elite lived in their protected private school bubble, and social mobility was virtually non-existent. Furthermore, attitudes across the board were profoundly insular and blatantly racist. The idea that England had fought a war to keep the world safe from fascism is something of a joke. British people were having none of Hitler’s talk of a Germanic master race because the British themselves had been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe it was they who were actually the master race. Blacks and Jews and Irish need not apply. Andrea Levy, in five hundred pages of wonderfully constructed prose, sets out to explore the real England of 1948 and what a magnificent job she makes of it. All the plaudits her book has received are more than fully deserved.

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The Ukip Blues.

I don’t want to fly no Union Jack

It don’t mean nothing to me.

And I don’t want to fly no Cross of St George

Xenophobia ain’t never gonna set us free.

 

The European Union is a step in the right direction

An attempt at regional cooperation, as far as I can see.

But I’d like to see an expanded Eurasian Federation,

From the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea.

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Fury, Salman Rushdie, Random House, London 2001

Well, that makes it three in a row. First there was John Williams’ stunningly imagined 1965 ‘Stoner’, dragged out of obscurity for a new lease of life in the 21st century. Then pops up Ian McEwan’s ‘Saturday’, where we can engage with his brilliantly drawn Henry Perowne. And more recently,  I stumble upon Salman Rushdie’s turn of the century ‘Fury’ where we can follow the travails of the angst ridden Malik Solanka. All three novels have as their overriding theme the horrors of mid-life existential dread.

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Poppy Day

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride

Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside

And rest for a while in the warm summer sun

I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done

These are the opening lines of The Green Fields of France/No Man’s Land, a searing anti-war balled written and recorded by Scottish/Australian folk singer Eric Bogle in 1976. I came across it first in the early 80s when it was recorded by The Fureys and became a huge hit in my native Ireland. Since then I have sung it myself on numerous occasions and it rarely fails to move an audience.

The song was inspired by Bogle’s trip to Flanders in the mid 70s and his experiences within the massive cemeteries he visited there. The song takes the form of a monologue directed at the gravestone of young soldier who died in World War I.

I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen

When you joined the great fallen in 1916

Well I hope you died well

And I hope you died clean

Or young Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

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UKIP: Let All the Pus Run Out

If you think for a moment that all the narrow minded, xenophobic, little Englander sentiment is neatly wrapped up in the UKIP party you would be very wrong. The Conservative ranks are full of such stuff as is the Labour Party and the accompanying trades union movement. And the least said about the fascist British National Party, many of whose supporters have quietly decamped to UKIP, the better.  No, UKIP does not have a monopoly on such reactionary and inward looking ideas. Such ideas permeate all sections and social strata within British society. Maybe it’s a throwback to the days of Empire or more likely a hankering for the return of that empire. To have to doff the cap to German industrialists and financiers must be an indignity indeed for the British Ruling classes and those lower orders that managed to secure a few crumbs from the imperial table. The toxicity of empire has not been fully exorcized from the British psyche and the rise of UKIP is a stark reminder of that fact. 

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Saturday, Ian McEwan, Vintage, London, 2005

It has become popular to mourn the passing of ‘community’ and ‘society’ as the juggernaut of global capitalism crushes all before it. I must confess to having indulged in that pastime myself. But on deeper reflection could it not be possible that the seeming inevitability of personal atomisation is a good thing, or if not actually good, then at least a necessary stage in our collective human development? Could it not be argued that to stand naked, free of all the idiocy of religion, nation, race and tribe, in front of an uncaring, unblinking universe, is the real starting point of human adulthood? To be forced to find meaning in a meaningless universe, without recourse to gods, divine or supernatural, is perhaps the hardest task of all. To take comfort and joy in the mere wonder of it all, and to celebrate the staggering uniqueness and sheer mathematical improbability of human consciousness. Could this not be the real starting point of the human journey? A blank canvass where we are free to paint a trillion adventures unencumbered by ancient superstitions and religious and political dogmas. Somehow I suspect that Ian McEwan’s wonderfully drawn character, Henry Perowne, in his quite brilliant novel ‘Saturday’, is taking us precisely in this direction. Perowne has his work, his family and his political and existential angst. And in one single day we are witness to Perowne’s every conflicted thought. And we the reader are privileged to watch  McEwan interweave Perowne’s tormented and conflicting thoughts with consummate ease.

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Success versus winning in sport

I have been meaning to write about the sporting concept of “winning” for a while. However, as I tried to establish some concrete approach to this, “a unified theory of winning things” if you will, it became clear that instead of winning I was actually thinking about “success”.

Winning is often beyond us, whereas Success is always a possibility. My father is a good example of this. A fierce competitor, in his youth (and beyond his youth) he played football and developed a reputation as a determined and tricky winger, relentlessly pressuring the opposing full-backs. He played until his early forties when his body told him that getting slide tackled a few dozen times every Sunday was no longer sensible. So he took up tennis and for the next 40 years he cultivated a reputation at club level as a dogged baseliner, chasing down balls that many younger men would leave. Now in his 80s, tennis is beyond him. However, even now, at his local senior pitch-and-putt club events, he is there to win, if he can. He’s even been known to instigate the odd steward’s enquiry if he loses. Success for my father involves competing as hard as he can for as long as he can.

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Johnny Rotten versus Russell Brand

Is it possible for two seemingly opposite positions to both be true and at the very same time? Yes it is. Given that ‘truth’ invariably has a huge dollop of subjectivity wrapped up in it, it is entirely plausible that two opposing positions, contradictory as they may be, both contain at least sizable chunks of truth. But before we get carried away, let’s be crystal clear about this ‘truth’ business. Some propositions are definitively true while others are definitively false. The dinosaurs, for example, existed some sixty million years before the evolution of the biped, and those that have argued, and those that continue to argue that dinosaurs and man roamed the earth together are simply wrong. No debate, no ambiguity, no partial meeting of minds. Similarly, Copernicus and Galileo were absolutely correct about the place of the Earth in relation to the solar system, and the Catholic Church, which bitterly opposed these two great thinkers, was absolutely wrong. Ditto for those that argued a ‘flat Earth’ position and those that courageously disputed it. So we have learnt through the scientific age that certain propositions can be proved true or false through rigorous and repeated testing. While always retaining an element of scientific scepticism, we have forged our modern world on the basis of such scientific rigor. All opinions are not equal. Some are demonstrably correct and others are patently false. But when it comes to political ‘truths’ things get a bit messy.

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J, Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Cape, London, 2014

Karl Marx was once asked what his views were on the ‘Jewish Question’. Marx curtly replied, ‘What Jewish Question?’ In a similar vein, Einstein was asked if he thought there was anything special about the Jews. He quickly replied he could discern nothing special and he was certain that if the Jews ever were to attain nationhood they would soon behave like every other nation. It seems that Howard Jacobson has not taken on board either of these eminent men’s wisdom, both of whom by the way were committed atheists from a Jewish background. No, our Mr Jacobson, though I suspect he himself probably tends towards an atheist view of the world, insists on conjuring up a Jewish predicament when indeed there is no such thing. What there is, is a human predicament, which although takes on distinct national and religious particularities, is in the end nothing but the residual ripples of an ancient but stubborn human tribalism. The ‘Jewishness’ that Jacobson is perpetually preoccupied with is nothing more than an accumulation of acquired superstitions, as are all religions, including the two other Abrahamic religions that have grown out of ancient Judaism. By giving oxygen to the so-called Jewish predicament, Jacobson serves only to perpetuate those very superstitions.

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Iraq: Eleven Awkward Questions.

  1. How is the Saudi regime, a supposedly key component of the ‘international coalition against Islamic State’, complete with its routine beheadings and draconian subjugation of women and gays, qualitatively different from IS?

  2. How does the Saudi regime continue to substantially fund Al Qaida, the Taleban and now Islamic State yet still be courted as a key player in the ‘international coalition’ against Islamic terror?

  3. How does Israel, with its relentless occupation of Palestinian land and its regular slaughter of Palestinian civilians differ from the brutality of Islamic State jihadists?

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