Bombs, folly and lies

Bombs, folly and lies

Amid all the arguments about whether the UK should be bombing Syria there’s a big and critical question that’s not being asked.

The arguments for joining the bombing campaign are patently feeble; you’d have to be feeble-minded to be persuaded by them. Cameron himself at the beginning of October criticised the Russians by arguing exactly the opposite view about the likely effect of bombing on the fundamentalist lunatics. Hilary Benn also took the opposite stance only a couple of weeks ago.

I haven’t met anyone outside parliament who doesn’t understand this. I’ve seen a few comments on social media supporting the bombing. Their arguments have been pathetic, mostly along the lines of “we have to do something”; yes we do, but it’s not a binary choice between bombing and doing nothing. As I’ll suggest in a minute, this false dichotomy seems to be at the heart of what’s going on.

Not everyone in parliament can be feeble-minded. Some probably are, but not all of them. I’m not sure David Cameron actually believes in anything apart from winning the political game, but I don’t think he’s exactly feeble-minded.

So the big question is this: why if these arguments are as dumb as they clearly are, why when they’ve been ridiculed by military experts and anyone with any serious knowledge of the Syrian situation, is the government pushing this nonsense and launching such murderous action in our name? If they are not feeble-minded, then there must be a cynical calculation that enough of us are, that a majority will accept this bullshit, so the government can get on with its real agenda.

I have no insider knowledge of what that agenda might be. But we have been here before. I was never convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but to my shame I was ready to believe that Blair’s government must have known something that they could not tell us, that there must be a good reason for this apparently grievous action. It seems now that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorists were much closer to the truth, that the Iraq war was driven mostly by the financial interests of Dick Cheney and his friends (which I’m sure they’d equate, falsely, to energy security for the West), partly by the delusion within the State Department that Saddam’s fall would turn the Middle East into a network of friendly client states for the US. The present consequence of this delusion is Daesh.

Why did Blair go along with this? There are no good reasons. Really, there are none. It may have been the entrenched fear in the Foreign Office, fifty years after the event, that there should never be another Suez, that the UK should never again find itself out of step with the US. It may have been a malingering post-imperial pride. Whatever the reason, we would better have served our US ally by standing against its folly, as France did. That’s worth remembering, when we’re told that one reason for joining the bombing campaign is the need to show solidarity with our allies, including France. There is no question of appeasing Daesh, of being “terrorist sympathisers”. What matters is what will work, and even Cameron can have no illusion that stepping up the bombing via eight Tornado jets will have any helpful effect in destroying Daesh, and in the meantime innocent people will be killed, a hard fact we will hide from through the murderous euphemism of “collateral damage”.

I’m not easily sympathetic to conspiracy theories, but when we’re being asked to swallow an argument so weak, so obviously wrong, we have to ask why.

In particular we have to ask why this feeble argument has been presented as our only option, when there are some pretty obvious alternatives.
It is not controversial to suggest that rather than trying to bomb Daesh into submission, it would be more promising to starve them of resources, at the same time as working single-mindedly to unite Syria’s warring factions against them (bombing, it’s widely acknowledged, will have the opposite effect).

But this could only be done by addressing the tacit support for Daesh in the Gulf States, and maybe Turkey. That would mean upsetting nominal allies, and more importantly, key players in energy supply to the West. None of this has been properly discussed in parliament, and although I’m congenitally disposed to be suspicious of conspiracy theories, it’s hard not to conclude that the real reason for putting everything into a debate about bombing is to bury these harder questions about alternative, more effective action against Daesh, an alternative that would go against other aspects of US-led policy which have been deemed more important than removing Daesh. In a truly grim, murderous way, this bombing is a displacement activity.

Perhaps Cameron and his friends can convince themselves they they are serving deeper national interests by playing these games. The experience in Iraq tells us otherwise. Since 1945 US foreign policy has, with only a few exceptions, been an unmitigated disaster. The British record has hardly been much better.

I don’t know whether the “allied” stance on Syria is in reality being driven by power games about energy security. Perhaps it really is just incompetence and arrogance. (If Iraq is anything to go by it’s both.) But when you’re asked to believe a story which won’t stand five seconds’ scrutiny, you have to ask what’s really going on.

Whatever the truth, we can say with confidence that here is yet another lie woven into the fabric of deceit which shrouds government action, certainly here in the UK, and probably the US too. That fabric makes a mockery of democracy, the value which above all we’re supposed to be upholding and evangelising. Daesh is monstrous, but such certainty is little comfort when we’re apparently led by such knaves or fools, and probably both.

Easter on-message

Easter on-message

It says something about our times that just about the most plangent critiques of the state we’re in are coming not from political leaders but from Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile we’re told our prime minister, who has kicked off his election campaign with an unprecedented series of unabashed lies, took his place on Easter morning in church near his home in Oxfordshire.

Perhaps he believes sincerely that he’s building a society in which people take better responsibility for their lives, and that this is somehow in keeping with the Christian message. I know conservatives with an upper and lower case “c” do believe this sort of thing, though it’s a position that can only be sustained by ignoring quite a lot that Christ is reported to have said. But the lies are inexcusable by any Christian standard. An “h” word comes to mind for Mr Cameron, and it’s not humility.

I wouldn’t call myself a Christian these days, though was I brought up as a Catholic and indeed until about ten years ago was a practising member of the Church. Even when I was practising I thought Catholic ideas about life after death were at best ridiculous, and I wanted no truck with their bigoted ideas about women or homosexuality, or indeed sexuality generally. After many years these contradictions became too difficult to bear and I went my own way.

I’m still on that way, even if I can broadly welcome signs that the Pope wants to set the church on a different course from his predecessors.

But the contrast between our political and religious leaders also bears thinking about.

It’s worth thinking about in the light of the good things that most religions have in common. I’m well aware in saying this that historically and still in many ways today religion can foster crude judgementalism and some crazy ideas about how things are, that it can be divisive and full of hate (even while preaching love). I don’t want to excuse any of this. What’s more, because we can say nothing sensible about life after death, and because the eschatological ideas religions have put forward are apparently driven by a mixture of self-interest and wishful thinking the only sensible thing we can do is say nothing at all about heaven, hell, reincarnation or whatever other stories we’ve made up to comfort ourselves or give us power over others.

The “good thing” I want to focus on is a kind of disposition towards experience, common to all major faiths from Buddhism to Islam. It could be summed up by the notion of “love” though I think that notion needs some unpacking. It’s an openness to the needs and diverse nature of others, an acceptance of our responsibilities towards others; it’s a joyful sense of wonder at the world, a wonder rooted in an awareness of that world’s indifference to us.

There’s a paradox here. We need to embrace our own irrelevance in a bigger scheme of things while seeing the being of others as insistently important. This contradiction is more apparent than real though it’s difficulty has some bearing on the frequently twisted knickers of religious thought.

It feels very like a sense of gratitude, though gratitude requires an object, a being we can be grateful to, and perhaps this is part of the reason why we have had to construct a notion of a creator in our own image (because we need a human-like object to carry this kind of emotion, an entity which at least in our imaginations could offer the reciprocity on which our moral feelings generally depend). But then we can understand this emotion as being like gratitude, without it needing to be gratitude; it could be better understood as a kind of gladness.

Clearly you don’t have to be religious to feel these things, and some religious people don’t seem to feel even this much. There are other good aspects to religious feeling which go beyond or deeper than this generalised disposition to love, and specifically to love the fact that the world is bigger and more enriching than the small circles of our own lives. But it is one of the defining characteristics of good people, including religiously good people, and it carries obligations to other people which our neo-liberal political orthodoxies have tried to sideline.

It stands too in opposition to crude materialist or mechanistic views of how we see ourselves: this is not to usher in any kind of mysticism, but to note that a crude materialism certainly under-describes common human experience. We need a better answer to that crudity than fantasies of universal connections; we need to be careful to describe our experience fully while being mindful of the limits of what can be sensibly said.

This disposition underpins the way Pope Francis and Justin Welby see the world, and it’s taken them to a place of opposition to the political mainstream.

You might say that politicians need to concern themselves with more practical things. I’d argue that their approach to practical things (at least in the West) in the last thirty years has been dogmatically detached from reality. Moreover, the separation of personal ethics from political decisions has very clearly not improved those decisions. I don’t suppose the Catholic Tony Blair would ever pick up a gun and start shooting strangers, and yet he was prepared to support a chain of events where this slaughter was always going to be part of the outcome.

As for Cameron and his lies, no doubt he’d see them as part of a game that must be played for what he believes is a greater good. But in this he is as deluded as he is deluding. We need our politicians to throw off their blinkers. Perhaps then they might start offering us an authentic vision of how even the political world could be inspiring.

This is a big (and important) subject. Your ideas and comments would be very welcome.

The image, by the way, is a painting by my brother Mark, which he presented as an Easter greeting to his many loved ones. If you like it you can find more of his work at

Death and politics

Death and politics

I heard today that an old friend had suddenly dropped dead, alone in her flat where she was discovered by the police a day or so later. She was a very smart, warm and gifted woman, in her mid 50s. I’ve been told it was probably a heart attack. She wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke, or (as far as I know) drink excessively or play with life-threatening drugs. It was just one of those things, without significance but for the grief of those who have lost her.

And yet there’s nothing like death to send us scrabbling after meaning, wanting to make sense of our lives, other lives. It’s why the grieving often throw themselves into charity work, trying to help others (often with some kind of connection to whatever caused their loss): this can’t really make our loss meaningful, but what it does I suppose is re-establish us in a place where meaning doesn’t elude us, instead creating value (which for good reason feels meaningful) by doing the best human things we can do, asserting the value of our common humanity.

It’s either ironic or just plain miserable then that our political leaders will clutch at the illusions of geo-political meaning to obscure their personal murderousness. As the G20 summit grinds to a predictable halt (you couldn’t call it a conclusion), as Obama, Putin (and somewhere down the line, the pathetic figure of David Cameron) jockey for global positioning and elsewhere al-Assad and the Syrian rebels do their version of the big boy posturing, it’s hard not to reflect that the powerful have always felt entitled to kill hundreds, even thousands of people in pursuit of whatever they might feel are their immediate interests, interests beyond their personal lives, and seemingly working on a different scale.

This chasm between personal and political life has long been noted by sensitive writers. It runs through King Lear, and the great late metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell wrote of Oliver Cromwell (who he knew)

“Tis madness to resist or blame
The face of angry Heaven’s flame;
And if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

Who, from his private gardens, where
He lived reservèd and austere
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot),

Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time”

(Marvell, though on the parliamentary side, also famously said of the English Civil War, that it was a “cause too good to have been fought for”: violence destroys the principles it is supposed to be defending.)

I don’t want to end up sounding like John Lennon: I’ve long detested the saccharine vision of Imagine (a candidate for the worst song ever written, despite the great piano riff) just because it blands out the real hardness of life and the absorbing complexity of that hardness. I rather doubt the world will ever live as one, but all the same we should be clear headed about how utterly disgusting our leaders are, embodying all that’s worst about humanity, forcing us to ask where their humanity got lost.

Alex McKie, who spent her working life thinking about culture and social interaction, was herself cultured and mindful of other people. Perhaps some political leaders have these qualities, but if so it seems they need to suppress them in their working lives, and always have done, and that’s exactly why the world is as fucked up as it is.  

RIP Alex, whatever that means.