Put the flags out!

November 18, 2018

I have recently finished reading Tim Marshall’s book Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags. I am not an expert in vexillology, the study of flags, but I find it a really intriguing topic. The author delves the origin stories of flags for countries, terrorist groups and supranational organisations, as well as others you might not expect such as the Jolly Roger, the Olympic and the Rainbow. National flags, the main focus of Marshall’s book, have frequently been born in violence, and their origin stories tell us a great deal about identity, culture, and nationhood. The use of flags as we know them today goes back some 3000 years to China. There had been symbols and painted cloth before, but silk proved to be a game changer; you could paint them in your colours, taking them long distances, and, of course, carrying them into battle. This material would travel along the aptly named Silk Route, where it would be adopted by the Arabs and then the Europeans. There are so many flags that Marshall tells us about – I cannot do justice to them here. Nevertheless, here are a few of the more interesting stories I found in Marshall’s book and from my own research online:

The Dannebrog

The flag of Denmark, the Dannebrog, was created in 1219 and was flown during Battle of Lindanise of 1219. It holds the world record of being the oldest continuously used national flag. It was in 2006 that it became the world’s most burned flag after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bosnia, Gaza, Iraq, Kashmir, Lebanon, Nigeria, Syria are among the countries that saw the burning of the flag. According to Marshall, the flags of Switzerland and the Savoy were also set on fire. This may have been due to the fact many of the flags were home-made. There was also, according to Slate magazine, alternatives provided by the market:

Doing it yourself may save you some money, but you can also try to grab a Danish flag at your local flag store. Reuters interviewed a shopkeeper in Gaza who stocked his PLO Flag Shop with 100 Danish and Norwegian flags when he heard about the cartoons. He gets his flags from Taiwan and charges $11 for each. Flag manufacturers in China and Thailand might also be able to provide Danish flags on short order.

Marshall also writes about the other Scandinavian Cross flags. All these countries use this basic traditional design on their flags. The cross design represents Christianity and in all of them it is shifted towards the hoist side. What varies is the colour scheme.

The Stars and Stripes

At one time “Old Glory” actually had 15 stripes after Vermont and Kentucky were admitted as states in 1795. It was this 15-star, 15-stripe flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, which later became “The Star Spangled Banner.” In 1818 it was decided that the flag would have 20 stars, with a new one to be added when each new state was admitted. The number of stripes, however, was reduced to 13 to honour the original colonies. The current 50-state version dates from 1960. Robert G. Heft was a 17-year-old high school junior back in 1958. As part of a history project he designed a 50-star flag. He spent 12 hours cutting out stars.

His teacher was not impressed. Mr. Pratt pointed out to Heft that that he had too many stars on the flag – “You don’t even know how many states we have.” He also claimed that it lacked originality and that anyone could make a flag; he gave him B- for his efforts. Yet, Heft’s design is what we see today. Here he explains what drove him:

As the designer of our Nation’s current flag: the flag I made in 1958 has taken me to all 50 states and 57 countries, promoting the country that I love.

I followed a dream and turned that history class project into a history making event. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone believe in you?

That very flag is now being sold to help me on medical bills and to establish educational funds for my little great nephews and great nieces.

I love the freedoms we got in this country, I appreciate your freedom to burn your flag if you want to, but I really appreciate my right to bear arms so I can shoot you if you try to burn mine.

 Alas, Mr. Heft died of a heart attack in 2009.

The European Union

The European Union has its own blue flag, complete with twelve stars, which dates back to 1955. The twelve stars do not represent member states, as there are currently 28. Rather, it is thought to be a symbol of unity and perfection.

Once the flag appeared other more bizarre interpretations began to gain currency.

The University of Luxembourg’s CVCE.eu research unit has this about the religious symbolism of the number twelve:

Twelve is also a number in Judaeo-Christian symbolism. The tree of life has 12 fruits; there are 12 sons of Jacob, 12 patriarchs, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 gates of the New Jerusalem. Moses sent 12 explorers to the lands of Canaan, the bread multiplied by Jesus was placed in 12 baskets and Jesus speaks of 12 legions of angels after the kiss of Judas; lastly, there are 12 apostles. The number 12 is also the product of multiplying three, always a divine number (the trinity), by four, the number of the earth with its four cardinal points; 12 is therefore the symbol ‘of the union between the divine and the terrestrial world’, which, as we know, embodies the central mystery of Christianity.”

Marshall himself quotes Revelations, 12,1:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.

Does this Marian reference explain differing religious sensibilities towards the EU? Public opinion surveys going back as far the 1970s show that Catholics tend to favour European integration, whereas Protestants are more prone to resist it. Europe may be becoming more secular, weakening the effect, but it has not disappeared altogether. In 2005 Adrian Hilton, a Tory candidate standing in Slough, argued  the EU was a Catholic plot to impose Vatican sovereignty over Britain and would result in “the subjugation of Britain’s Protestant ethos to Roman Catholic social, political and religious teaching“.

Catholic conspiracy theories aside, it is also the flag of the Council of Europe, the 47-member state organisation, whose aim “to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.”

The Flag of the Arab Revolt

The Flag of the Arab Revolt was used by the Arab nationalists during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It was the idea of the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes (he of the Sykes-Picot Agreement) in order to create a sense of “Arab-ness” to fuel the anti-Ottoman revolt. This flag would inspire the flags of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and Palestine among others.

ISIS

One of Isis’s most recognisable symbols is its black and white flag adorned with Arabic lettering. The white banner at the top of the flag reads: “There is no god but Allah [God]. Mohammad is the messenger of Allah.” This declaration of faith is known as the shahada and is used across Islam.  Underneath is a white circle emblazoned with black writing reading “Mohammed is the messenger of God”. This is a copy of the Seal of Mohammed, which the prophet is believed to have used to seal letters he wrote to foreign leaders when he asked them to join him. It is designed to give the organisation a veneer of religious and historical authenticity. They have cleverly appropriated the flag from other Jihadi groups and made it their own.

China

The flag of China was officially adopted on October 1, 1949. The red of the Chinese flag symbolizes the communist revolution, and it’s also the traditional colour of the people. The large gold star represents communism, while the four smaller stars represent the social classes of the people – the working class, the peasantry, the urban petite bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie)

The Black Liberation flag

The Black Liberation flag is also known as the UNIA flag, Afro-American flag, Black Liberation Flag, Marcus Garvey Flag and various other names – is a tri-colour flag consisting of three equal horizontal bands of (from top down) red, black and green. It can be seen as a riposte to a popular turn-of-the-century racist song “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon”:

“Bonny Scotland loves a thistle,

Turkey has her crescent moon,

And what won’t Yankees do for the old red, white and blue?

Every race has a flag but the coon.”

At that time, the goal of the movement, which was led by Garvey, was to establish a political home for black people in Africa. He was heavily influenced by other nationalist movements at that time – Zionism, Irish Republicanism to name two, as well as the Russian Revolution.  It would later become a black nationalist symbol in the 1960s.

The flag was adopted by the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) on August 13, 1920 in Article 39 of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. The Universal Negro Catechism, published by the UNIA in 1921, explains the meaning of the colours of the flag:

Red is the colour of the blood which men must shed for their redemption and liberty; black is the colour of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; green is the colour of the luxuriant vegetation of our Motherland.

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Last post of the season and my summer reading

June 17, 2018

So summer is almost here once again. In Madrid we haven’t reached 40 degrees, like last June. I normally finish at the end of June, but this year I need to start my reports and the World Cup has just started, and so this will be my last post until the autumn. Now is a great time to catch up on reading. Here are some of the books I am thinking of reading over the summer:

The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – Anonymous

I love law and am looking forward to this critical insider’s account of the current state of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Writing under the pseudonym of The Secret Barrister was originally a successful blogger. It is not a positive view:

Walk into any court in the land, speak to any lawyer, ask any judge and you will be treated to uniform complaints of court deadlines being repeatedly missed, cases arriving underprepared, evidence lost, disclosures of evidence not being made, victims made to feel marginalised and millions of pounds of public money wasted”.

Chicago – David Mamet

David is better known as a playwright and screenwriter. I haven’t read of his three previous novels, but I have seen a number of the films he’s been involved in: The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Verdict, House of Games, Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross, State and Main, Heist and The Winslow Boy. His fourth book, his first in 20 years, is a story set in prohibition era in the Windy City.

Heavens on Earth – Michael Shermer

I am a big fan of the sceptic Michael Shermer’s work. Since reading Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time some twenty years  I have read The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule, The Mind of The Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths and The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Apart from liking long titles, he is an excellent proponent of the sceptical point of view. In this book he goes in search of what drives our belief in life after death. He does explore religious worldviews, but he seems especially interested in the scientific quest for immortality, the world of extentionists, extropians, transhumanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders. I did read Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death last year, but I am looking forward to getting Shermer’s take on this. In last year’s summer reading I mentioned that I had been panning to blog about the singularity. I still haven’t got round to it and at this rate I think it may arrive before I actually write about it.

The Black Book – Ian Rankin

I am gradually working my way through Rankin’s oeuvre; this is the fifth Rebus novel, which came out in 1993.  After one of his colleagues is brutally attacked and left in a coma John Rebus finds himself in a case involving “a hotel fire, an unidentified body, and a long-forgotten night of terror and murder”.

The Vietnam War-  Ken Burns

This is the companion book to the Ken Burns’ Vietnam War ten-part documentary series on PBS. I am a big fan of Burns documentary work and this will help me remember this powerful series, which looks at the conflict from multiple perspectives.

A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in the Trash – Alexander Maters

The author Alexander Masters is an author, screenwriter, and worker with the homeless. I haven’t read Stuart: A Life Backwards, his unconventional biography of Stuart Shorter. As the title implies, the book begins with Shorter’s adult life, going back in time through his troubled childhood, examining how his family, education and disability shaped his life.  The book I’m planning to read, A Life Discarded is from 2016. The source of this biography was the 148 diaries that Masters’ friends Dido Davies and Richard Grove, both Cambridge professors, found in a skip. The anonymous author was a prolific diarist, who averaged 2,500 words a day.

Rethink – Steven Poole

I am really interested in innovation and have done a number of posts about its importance. In this book The Guardian’s Steven Poole argues that innovation and progress are often achieved by going back to old ideas and revamping them. The ultimate message seems to be if you want to change the future, you need to begin by looking at the past.

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Skin in the Game is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s fifth book, and I think I have read the previous four – Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes and Antifragile. In his latest work Taleb argues for the importance of players having skin in the game. This is the idea that they should have something at stake, something to lose.

Taleb is not a fan of fund managers that get a percentage on wins, but no penalty for losing, or the war hawks don’t themselves bear any risks of dying during a war which they have championed.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

I don’t know too much about this book, but it seems to have transferred Mary Shelley’s work to the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. The main character Hadi is a junk peddler who starts to bring home body parts, left in the streets from the day’s explosions. Feeling they deserve a dignified burial, he begins to stitch these bits together. If he can create a whole corpse, he hopes someone will bury it.

 

Anyway have a great summer and I’ll be back in early October.

 


Notes on a scandal

June 10, 2018

Nobody does political scandals quite like the English. I live in Spain and we’ve had our share over the last few years, but for sheer entertainment value it’s hard to compete with the Profumo Affair, Labour MP John Stonehouse’s faked suicide, Jeffrey Archer and the prostitute, Jonathan Aitken and the Paris Ritz Hotel bill allegations, and David Cameron’s notorious university initiation ceremony involving inserting a private part of his anatomy into the mouth of a dead pig. It is such a competitive field, but I still feel pride of place goes to the downfall of the charismatic leader of the Liberal party.

The story was told in a 2016 book called A Very English Scandal by John Preston. Curiously, in Wikipedia it is called it a true crime non-fiction novel. But no it is a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless, it turns out to be a real page turner with an amazing cast of characters. It was recently adapted into a three-part drama series by the BBC, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Jeremy Thorpe was an MP by 30, and just seven years later he became one of Britain’s youngest ever party leaders. he was a brilliant politician, who had an eccentric fashion sense and according to Preston, “favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat.” There was his lover, Norman Scott, who was mentally unstable and had a tendency to blame everyone but himself for his problems. There was Peter Bessell a fellow Liberal MP and a failed businessman, who took money from party funds to hire a hitman. The professional killer, Andrew Newton was known to his friends as chicken brain.

After a chance meeting in a friend’s stable in 1960, Thorpe commenced a sexual relationship with a young man who was then called Norman Josiffe. He subsequently changed his surname to Scott, which was how he was known when he became famous. At the time homosexuality was still against the law. Once the affair was over Thorpe saw Scott as a blackmailer who could wreck his political career. The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott.

After the break-up Scott found employment here and there, but he never really stuck at anything.  He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness that led to a suicide attempt. Given his financial difficulties, he would look to Thorpe, the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong in his life. He was particularly obsessed with his National Insurance card, which he needed to get a job or benefits. Thorpe would wash his hands of his erstwhile lover and he would leave it all to Peter Bessell. By 1974 Thorpe was on the verge of joining a coalition with the Conservative leader Ted Heath, where he might have headed the home or Foreign Offices. That did no happen. Norman Scott would not go away. There were compromising letters and journalists sniffing around. Something would have to be done. Thorpe wanted to have Scott killed.

This is where it all descends into farce. Andrew “Gino” Newton, the man Thorpe’s men chose for the job, was so incompetent that he went to look for Scott in Dunstable instead of Barnstaple. The former town is in Bedfordshire, where Newton would spend a couple of days before he was told he was in the wrong place. He then had to drive 230 miles to the north Devon town, where he finally found Scott. He persuaded him that he had been hired by an anonymous benefactor to protect him from a hired hitman

He too him in his car out to Exmoor First he shot Scott’s Great Dane. He was then going to shoot his intended victim, but his gun jammed and Scott was able to get away. Newton had to speed off and Scott was able to hail down an approaching car. The first thing he said to the driver was that it was Jeremy Thorpe who was behind it all. The shooting of Rinka the Great Dane on October 23 1975 at a wet and windy lay-by on Exmoor had the opposite effect to what was intended. A scandal that may well have gone away would now wreck the career of Jeremy Thorpe. He would subsequently be arrested and would appear in court.

The trial began on the 8th May 1979, just five days after the election that saw Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Incredibly,       Thorpe had stood in his own North Devon constituency, where he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. Another of those standing was the satirist Auberon Waugh who campaigned against Thorpe representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. In an election address declared: “Rinka is not forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof, woof.”

There were four defendants, but only Thorpe faced two charges. Thorpe hired a superstar lawyer, George Carman. He did a brilliant job of discrediting the three star witnesses – Bessell, Scott and Newton- as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars. Well it is true that they were not perhaps the most credible of witnesses to start with. His other stroke of genius was to persuade Thorpe not to testify. That could have been a real disaster.

The star of the show was the judge, the Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley. His fair and ballanced summing-up has entered the annals of legal history:

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

This summing up was brilliantly satirised by Peter Cook in his Entirely A Matter For You sketch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyos-M48B8U

After deliberating for 52 hours, the jury unanimously acquitted all four men on all charges. The previously impassive Thorpe broke into a broad smile, tossed the three red cushions on which he had been reclining out of the dock, then leaned over and kissed his wife. ‘Darling, we won!’ he exclaimed to her, while he congratulated his old Oxford chum Carman with the words: ‘Well rowed, Balliol!’

Despite his acquittal, Thorpe’s reputation never recovered and he faded into obscurity. Had all this not happened, Thorpe would now be remembered as one of the most of the great politicians of his era. In an interview not long before his death in December 2014, he remarked: “If it happened now, the public would be kinder.” He is surely right about attitudes to homosexuality – the past was another country. Yet it is amazing that the Rt Hon Jeremy Thorpe seemed blithely unaware that murdering someone might actually be wrong. In 2014 Michael Bloch published biography of Thorpe, which had had to wait until after his death. He said that Thorpe was a man with a massive sense of entitlement, who thought who thought the rules were for little people. He also had a penchant for illicit sex and got a thrill from being able to escape the consequences; he had a Houdini complex. In the end though, Scott would be his nemesis.

 


The Road to Unfreedom – Timothy Snyder and Cold War 2.0

May 13, 2018

 

Timothy Snyder had originally set out to write about Russia and its relations with Ukraine and Europe. However, events let to a different book. It evolved into The Road to Unfreedom, a history of Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US in the 2010s. Russia would end up playing an key role in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election, which saw Donald J. Trump elected as the 45th president of the United States. Many   local journalists who had seen Putin’s playbook in Russia and the Ukraine were not at all shocked by Trump’s victory. Snyder, who was born in 1969, is an American historian, a specialist in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. The Yale professor’s most famous work is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, in which he explored how “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people.” It was an acclaimed book, which I must get round to reading.

A central idea The Road to Unfreedom is the distinction between two opposing narratives of history. The narratives of inevitability include free market evangelicals who prophesy the triumph of the free market or Marxists who foresee the withering away of the state. For them history is moving inexorably toward a clear end. Events such as the fall of communism and the Global Financial Crisis have seen these narratives being challenged by the narratives of eternity Here’s how Snyder describes it:

“The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.

 In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.”

Snyder introduces us to a thinker I had not heard of before – an obscure Russian fascist, called Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin. Such is Putin’s devotion that he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. According to Ilyin, God made a mess of the world but fortunately there was one pure and innocent being — the Russian nation. Consequently, whatever Russia did, and does, to defend itself is legitimate. One day it will find its redeemer – inevitably a strong and virile man – and triumph. I wonder who that might be.

This redeemer will wage war on Russia’s enemies. These foes start with his own citizens who have the impertinence to demand democratic rights. Then, we get Ukrainians and other neighbours who dare to be independent. Finally, we have the European Union and the United States, who offer the temptations of a more prosperous way of life. Snyder has an interesting take on Putin’s strategy, which he calls strategic relativism:

 “The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be gained by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skilful player will lose less than everyone else.”

Apparently Putin once described the internet as a CIA conspiracy. That was then. Now the Russian state has unparalleled expertise at manipulating cyberspace to apply Sun Tzu’s “confusion to our enemy” principle to a mass disinformation war. They have effectively transformed international affairs by waging a systematic war on the very concept of truth. The internet has made getting into the heads of Europeans and Americans is considerably easier than it was in the past. The Russians like to fight in this psychosphere rather than on the battlefield.  With electronic screens you can create havoc with a few cleverly targeted messages. The great advantage of this way of fighting is that the bang for the rouble is unbeatable; Russia’s cyber budget is less than an F-35 according to Snyder.

How Russia employed propaganda in the Ukraine is fascinating. They were able to use the internet to target opposing political susceptibilities. To appeal to the right they argued that the Ukraine was an artificial construction run by an international Jewish conspiracy. To attract the left, Ukraine was an artificial construction by fascists. Then there was the brazen lying with Putin denying that Russia had invaded the Ukraine. This was complemented by something that is more traditional – the atrocity story:

One day after Russia began shelling Ukraine, Russian television provided a compelling escalation in the competition for innocence. On July 12, 2014 Pervyi Kanal [First Channel] told a stirring—and entirely fictional—story of a three-year-old Russian boy who was crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk. No evidence was provided, and independent Russian journalists noted the story’s problems: none of the people in the story existed, nor did the “Lenin Square” where the atrocity supposedly transpired. When confronted with this, Russia’s deputy minister for communications, Alexei Volin, said that ratings were all that mattered. People watched the cruci-fiction, so all was well.

 Finally they created a cacophony of competing rumours to create doubt. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, the Russians did not deny it. What they did instead was to float a series of possible conspiracies. One of these was that it was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet. Instrumental in this campaign was Russia Today, whose slogan is – “Question More“. Yana Erlashova, who used to be one of the star reporter for the Moscow-based, international news network claims to have found many witnesses who said they had seen jet fighters:

I don’t push any scenarios or theories, I just report what people say.”

Despite this modesty she has produced a documentary called “MH17: A Year Without Truth” I found it referenced on what seems to be a far-right website, which praises the video:

“The anti-Putin agenda of the Zionist-controlled media in the West, however, blames Russia in this blatant false-flag operation and ignores the facts and evidence.  This video is highly recommended viewing.”

The Dutch Safety Board’s official technical report concluded that a single, powerful, Russian-made Buk ground-to-air missile had hit the plane.

These dark arts employed in Ukraine were then employed in the west. In Germany Russia spread false information, like the fake story of a German schoolgirl’s gang-rape by Muslims. The bombing in Syria created millions of refuges, many of whom ended up in Germany. This provided a fertile area for the German far-right; Alternative for Germany In the 2017 German federal elections the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the best performance of such a party since 1933. Snyder shows how Russian news sources promoted the idea that the Scottish independence referendum had been “rigged”. The goal of course is to undermine faith in democratic institutions and processes. They have also sought to sew division in the European Union. Russia TV regularly featured Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Russia’s great European success was the Brexit referendum. However, they were not finished yet.

Snyder dubs Trump Russia’s candidate. The hacking of emails, the spreading of disinformation, the Russia-linked Facebook ads and the troll farms may well have decided an election where the margins were very small. I don’t know what Mueller will unearth in his investigation. But what Snyder has shown already seems scandalous. He talks about how Trump would retweet Russian propaganda posts. He also shows how Trump’s business was saved by Russian buying his properties in order to launder money. What about Paul Manafort, the American lobbyist, political consultant and lawyer, who joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team in March 2016. As well as lobbying dictators like the Philippines’’ Ferdinand Marcos, and the   Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, he was promoting the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. According to leaked text messages between his daughters, Manafort was also one of the proponents of violent removal of the Euromaidan protesters which resulted in police shooting dozens of people in 2014. In one of the messages his daughter writes that his “strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.”

Ultimately there is a fascinating dovetailing between Russian disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness. Of course politicians have always been economical with the truth. But Trump has a total disregard for the truth.  One unlikely hero in this story is Mitt Romney. When he called Russia the US’s number one geopolitical foe, he took a lot of flak. Obama quipped that “the 80s called and wants their foreign policy back.” According to the New York Times Romney’s words displayed “a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” Now amid Mueller’s probe of the 2016 presidential campaign Romney appears to have been prescient. And we are living in a world turned upside down, with the Republicans blasé about Russia and the Democrats hawks. Indeed one Democratic senator compared the Russian intervention to Pearl Harbour

I have always found Putin’s mix of Soviet nostalgia, Orthodox Christianity Fascism and homophobia difficult to understand. Snyder’s book has helped me see things a bit more clearly. I can also see how this all relates to what has been happening in the West. Snyder likens Putin to a perverse doctor who diagnoses you and then tries to make your diseases worse. Nevertheless, Putin’s diagnosis is correct.  Wealth inequality, economic problems, voter suppression and gerrymandering, race relations, and the opioid crisis are all very real. Without these Putin’s efforts would not have had the impact that they undoubtedly did.  I will admit that I am intrigued by the way Putin has been able to achieve his geopolitical goals. I have always had a sneaking admiration for the KGB, one of the few things that actually worked in the Soviet Union. I would also say that none of this is new. When I hear about the meddling in the U.S. election, I do remember that the Americans have been known to influence elections in a number of countries. However, we will have to look at how we can make our societies immune to such damaging interventions.


Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters

May 6, 2018

The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad has carved out a niche for herself depicting war zones and political extremism. The author Luke Harding has described Seierstad as “the supreme non-fiction writer of her generation”.  I mentioned her in a previous post, where I looked at her 2013 book One of Us, the tale of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Oslo on Friday July 22nd, 2011. One of Breivik’s principal motivations was his outrage at the presence of Muslims in Norway. Now, in her latest book, Two Sisters, Seierstad looks at the other side of the coin, Islamist extremism. The two sisters, in the book given the pseudonyms Ayan and Leila, left Norway to join ISIS. How could these girls just up and leave Norway and go to war-torn Syria and marry ISIS fighters?

At the heart of the story is the Juma family. Their father, Sadiq, had been a child soldier in Somalia. He was on the winning side, but things didn’t work out for him. So he ended up in Norway, where one year later he would bring his wife, Sara and their five children.

In general they were well integrated, but the mother never learnt the language and was unable to fully adjust to Norwegian life. As her children were growing up, she became increasingly worried that her children were becoming too Norwegian. She went to her local mosque, where they recommended they receive religious instruction from a Koran teacher. And so, a number of parents clubbed together to pay for the services of Mustafa, a respected and sought-after teacher, who was not yet 20. The reality is that Mustafa imparted a doctrine of hatred, with an unhealthy obsession with death and martyrdom. This is when, at least according to Sadiq, their nightmare began.

At first, the mother was pleased the two girls began to become more observant. But then they began the slide into extremism. Ayan became deeply involved with the extremist Muslim youth organisation Islam Net. The sisters even started wearing the full niqab, which incidentally is not a Somali tradition. What seems to have happened is that Ayan was the first one who radicalised and she in turn influenced her younger sister, Leila. The book is full of telling vignettes. This one is about Leila.;

On another occasion a boy who had forgotten his pencil case asked to borrow a pen. She said, “All right, but then I can’t ever use it again.”

He did not quite understand. Before she tossed it to him, she said, “Just keep it. I can’t touch anything you’ve handled.”

This is just one example of the retrograde ideas that the sisters would adopt. It did not happen overnight. Both their parents, the more liberal father and the more traditional mother failed to see the dangers. This failure was shared by the school, who automatically assumed that it was the parents who were radicalising their children.

It was on October 17, 2013 that the girls would leave for Syria. They explained it all in an e-mail. After wishing “Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon their parents in Somali. The text continued in Norwegian:

We love you both sooo much and you have given us everything in life. We are eternally grateful for everything ♥.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s [Subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “May He be glorified and exalted”] sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws, and commands.

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear what ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement.

Just three days after the girls’ escape, Sadiq got himself the to the Turkish-Syrian border. With the help of a middleman, he managed to get into Syria. Somehow he tracked down the girls. He was allowed to spend five minutes with Ayan. It did not turn out as he had expected. He was not able to persuade her to come back with him; she had married to an ISIS fighter and had no intention of accompanying him.  It got worse – he was put in prison, where his jailers interrogated and tortured him. He saw cellmate after cellmate being taken away and killed, but he was finally released. However, he has not seen either of his daughters since.

To bring the story up to date, we do not know where they are. It is nearly five years since they left Norway. They became mothers.  Her parents do not even know if they are alive. The situation of ISIS in Syria is much worse now. They control only a few slivers of territory. They have been from Raqqa, where the cities were. If they are still alive, their prospects look rather grim.

What lessons can we learn from this? Seierstad provides a riveting account of what happened, but there are no definitive answers.  The sisters played no part in the book. They refused to give their side of the story, which undoubtedly does raise important ethical questions. Is it ethical to focus on the lives of two girls who have not given their consent?

I do agree with Seierstad that we are not talking about brainwashing. That is a lazy way of thinking. They do not start out as evil. Their radicalisation is a gradual process. One factor is how important is identity. Islamism gave them an identity they valued. And religion itself played a key role. For example, I would question the role of the mosque and the Koran teacher. There are certain governments in the Middle East who promote Wahabbism, an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It is a hate-filled creed that should have no place in the modern world. I do not know what became of Mustafa, but the tragedy is that it was the parents themselves who brought him in. However, the girls’ brother, Ismael attended the same classes and was not radicalised. Indeed, after seeing the transformation his sisters underwent, he has become an atheist.

Although Seierstad offers no definitive answers, her book is so hard to put down. I do like her novelistic non-fiction. What’s more it seems to be meticulously researched. Ultimately her goal is to report. Two Sisters is a fascinating, but harrowing read, essential for these times .


Witty book titles

April 15, 2018

Don’t judge a book by its cover – judge it by its title instead. There are some really clever book titles out there. They often involve puns or allusions to other books. Here are some of my favourites:

The Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O’Conner33 Revolutions  Per Minute, Dorian LynskeyHere’s Looking at Euclid, Alex BellosMoby-Duck, Donovan HohnYoung Winstone, Ray WinstoneThe Missionary Position, Christopher HitchensA Very British Coop: Pigeon Racing From Blackpool To Sun City, Mark CollingsKill Two Birds & Get Stoned, Kinky FriedmanGone with the Windsors, Laurie GrahamPies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, Stuart MaconieSleeping Dogs Don’t Lay: Practical Advice For The Grammatically Challenged, Richard Lederer


Once upon a time…

March 18, 2018

I have recently finished reading Marina Warner’s Once Upon A Time A Short History of Fairy Tale. I wasn’t as bowled over as many critics, but it did set me thinking about what is a fascinating topic. Warner examines what fairy tales are, where they come from and what they mean. They provide a window into attitudes to morality, sexuality, and society. Fairy tales belong to the larger genre of folklore that also encompasses folktales, legends and myths. These stories of evil stepmothers, wicked queens, dark curses, frightening ogres, little mermaids, fairy godmothers, beautiful princesses and Prince Charmings have enchanted readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary dates the expression “fairy tale” back to 1635, it

was the French writer Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy who popularised the term with her “Les Contes des Fées” in 1697. There is a controversy among folklorists about whether to define a “fairy” as distinct from a “folk” tale. Nevertheless, they do agree that the presence of fairies is not required, but they do usually contain some type of magical element. Curiously, the opening words “Once upon a time” are actually older, dating back to  at least the 14th century.

Only in the mid-19th century did fairy tales become associated with children. The original versions, however, could be rather gruesome. In the first Grimm Brothers’ version, Little Red Riding Hood is only able to escape when a woodcutter frees her and her grandma by slitting open the wolf’s belly. And in their 1812 version of Snow White it is her jealous mother (not her stepmother) who wants to kill her. She is forced to attend Snow White’s wedding wearing red-hot iron shoes and dance in them until she drops dead. In one telling of Goldilocks And The Three Bears the golden-haired girl ends up impaled on the steeple of St Paul’s Cathedral. Some early versions of Cinderella have one of the Ugly Sisters hacking her toes off to make the glass slipper fit her foot. In Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 story, Pinocchio falls asleep in front of the fire and his feet burn off. He had previously killed the cricket with a wooden mallet. After being turned into a donkey, he is tied to a rock and thrown over a cliff.  This is just a small sample of the gratuitous violence in these stories.

What most intrigues me is the way academics have interpreted them. I am most interested in the psychoanalytical interpretation. I am a bit of a sceptic when it comes to psychoanalysis. Bruno Bettelheim was considered one of the great child psychologists of the twentieth century. The Viennese-born professor had an international reputation in such fields as autism, child psychiatry, and Freudian analysis. Bettelheim also had a cameo role as himself in Woody Allen’s Zelig. Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales was a study of fairy tales and their role in understanding childhood development. He argued that the child intuitively comprehended that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue. As a good Freudian, Bettelheim argues that fairy tales allow children to tackle problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries. Warner provides a couple of his interpretations:

All through ‘Little Red Cap’, in the title as in the girl’s name, the emphasis is on the colour red, which she openly wears. Red is the colour symbolizing violent emotions, very much including sexual ones. The red velvet cap given by Grandmother to Little Red Cap thus can be viewed as a symbol of a premature transfer of sexual attractiveness, which is further accentuated by the grandmother’s being old and sick, too weak even to open a door … Little Red Cap’s danger is her budding sexuality, for which she is not yet emotionally mature enough.

However Cinderella may have felt about dwelling among the ashes, she knew that a person who lives thus appears to others as being dirty and uncouth. There are females who feel this way about their sexuality, and others who fear that males feel this way about it. That is why Cinderella made sure that the prince saw her in this state also before he chose her. By handing her the slipper to put her foot into, the prince symbolically expresses that he accepts her the way she is, dirty and degraded

Interestingly, after Bettelheim passed away, his academic credentials were found to have been falsified; he had only taken three introductory classes in psychology. He also plagiarised material for The Uses of Enchantment. But what was most serious was the abusive treatment of students at the Orthogenic School for Disturbed Children at the University of Chicago, where he was the director of from 1944 to 1973.

Fairy tales stories have also proved ripe for literary reinterpretation. I remember reading James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories more than 20 years. It still makes me laugh:

There once was a young person named Red Riding Hood who lived with her mother on the edge of a large wood.  One day her mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother’s house — not because this was womyn’s work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community.  Furthermore, her grandmother was not sick, but rather was in full physical and mental health and was fully capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.

So Red Riding Hood set off with her basket of food through the woods.  Many people she knew believed that the forest was a foreboding and dangerous place and never set foot in it.  Red Riding Hood, however, was confident . . .

On her way to Grandma’s house, Red Riding Hood was accosted by a Wolf, who asked her what was in her basket.  She replied, “Some healthful snacks for my grandmother, who is certainly capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult.”

The Wolf said, “You know, my dear, it isn’t safe for a little girl to walk through these woods alone.”

Red Riding Hood said, “I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, entirely valid worldview.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”

Another of my favourites has to be The Guardian’s Cannes Lion Award-Winning “Three Little Pigs advert” from 2012:

And in her short story, The Company of Wolves, Angela Carter explored the sexual awakening of young women. Her Little Red Riding Hood character has become into a tale of female empowerment. She willingly takes the wolf to bed.

As well as Carter authors such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Roald Dahl and Gregory Maguire have all been inspired by fairy tales. But they are all surely surpassed by Amelia Hamilton:

…The wolf leaned in, jaws open wide, then stopped suddenly. Those big ears heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun’s safety being clicked off. Those big eyes looked down and saw that grandma had a scattergun aimed right at him. He realized that Grandmother hadn’t been backing away from him; she had been moving towards her shotgun to protect herself and her home. 

 “I don’t think I’ll be eaten today,” said Grandma, “and you won’t be eating anyone again.” Grandma kept her gun trained on the wolf, who was too scared to move. Before long, he heard a familiar voice call “Grandmother, I’m here!” Red peeked her head in the door. The wolf couldn’t believe his luck—he had come across two capable ladies in the same day, and they were related! Oh, how he hated when families learned how to protect themselves.

If you hadn’t realised, this story written by the conservative blogger Hamilton appears on the NRA blog. As we can see fairy tales are very much alive. I am sure they will be providing inspiration for many years to come.