1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Reaching agreements …

We’ve seen a positive outcome to the climate change talks, and now an agreement at the UN in the Security Council for a peace plan for Syria. It’s not just the agreements themselves but the willingness to argue and discuss and actually reach agreements that I find encouraging. Both are under the auspices of the UN. And both have come about because of the engagement of all parties. China now fully recognises the urgency of measures to combat rising CO2 emissions, so too the US administration, if not the coalheads behind the American far-right in Congress. And Russia is now fully engaged in the Syria peace process, seen by some in the West a few weeks ago as a backward step, but as an interested party committed to the support of the Assad regime, with a naval base at Tartus in Syria, essential if a peace process was to move forward.

One reason for the failure of Obama’s attempted rapprochement with Putin was the fact that it was one-sided. Putin has now established himself, as he’s wanted all along, as an ‘equal’ partner. 2003 the US and UK tried to call the tune, and that can’t be the way forward anymore. We don’t have a democratic Russia, as we all hoped for after the fall of the Soviet regime, but we do have a government with whom we can deal and – possibly -reach agreement at a global level. We can establish areas of vital common interest and work out from there. Likewise with China: combating climate change has potential for being a major area of cooperation between China and the West. We can’t as yet resolve issues surrounding China’s imperial ambitions in the South China Sea, but working together in one area can only improve the prospects of doing so in others.

And there are serious – fundamental- issues of human rights. We have Saudi Arabia as an ‘ally’, and that’s pretty cynical in the scheme of thing. But we have to work from where we are. And what conflict tells us is that the big stick never works. So if we have to work with the likes of Putin, best to get on with it. Pragmatism is the best ally of idealism.

Another lesson – the importance of bodies such as the UN, above all the UN, under whose auspices the nations of the world can come together, and argue, and find common ground. Doing exactly what it was set up to do.

I’d put the European Community in the same category. What’s remarkable is that countries are working together, at a European – and a global level. War shattered Europe st  twice in the 20th century, and European institutions over the last sixty years have  cemented peace in a quite remarkable way. Walking away from the EU would be lunacy. Putting all our energies into reforming it so that it is and is seen to be an institution working for people at all levels is the only way forward.

And that requires strong leadership. Whether it’s Obama and Kerry, Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Hollande and Fabius, who acted as convenor at the the Paris talks – presidents and foreign ministers, the recognition of the interests of each of the parties involved is essential if common ground is to be established and agreements achieved.

This may be stating the obvious – but it’s why were getting agreements now, and we didn’t before.

After Paris

France, in President Hollande’s words, is now at war with IS. And that’s the way I think most of us in the UK feel as well.

War challenges us, challenges our humanity.

As I’ve often made clear in this blog, I aspire to time for quiet and reflection, for a life made more simple, where there’s time for close observation on the one hand, and time to rest in the sweep of the days and seasons on the other. It could be open country, or Kew Gardens, where we wandered recently amid cacti and orchids, or music …. in the way Autumn Leaves and its gentle melancholy accompanied me along the Camino.

How to combine a more reflective life with a political engagement, and with all the issues of everyday life, that’s the challenge I set myself.

When I returned from the Camino and read up on all the events of the month I’d been away I was grateful for the fact that nothing untoward had happened. Crises continuing, but nothing like the events of last Friday.

That shattered all calm. Anger and grief, and a desire for retribution, took over. But the enemy is elusive. It will take wisdom and detachment to find solutions. And also understanding other points of view – not the IS standpoint, which is beyond ordinary understanding, but the causes that lie behind their rise and their ability to recruit.

How to avoid giving IS a victory and closing national borders?  Remember – they are already in our midst and terrorists will funds ways of circumventing closed borders. IS has recruited readily among local populations in the UK, France, Belgium and elsewhere, where there’s unemployment, a lack of opportunity, alienation, exacerbated by anti-Islamic sentiment. Integrating those populations into wider society has to be a high priority, and it will be achieved by providing opportunities (no mean challenge, I accept), not by further cutting benefits.

Improved security along the EU’s external border is vital, not least shared databases. But closing that border, separating Europe off from the Arab and wider Islamic world – leaving them to fight their own wars – misses the point that they are our wars too. Populations intermix, resources and manufactures are traded and shared, and given our long involvement exploiting and influencing the region we have a moral responsibility too. More than that – the Arab world is not homogeneous – the difference between the before 2010 relatively mild and secular version of Islam practised in Syria and the Wahhabi variant in Saudi Arabia is vast. Iran despite the ayatollahs has a strong secular and western-focused culture, especially among the younger generations, and in the cities. The enmity between Sunni and Shia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is another matter: nonetheless populations have lived adjacent to one another in Syria and Iraq since the seventh century.

But when a central authority is taken out, and ideologues and hotheads find space to operate, chaos and civil war ensues, as happened in the Balkans twenty years ago, post Tito, and in Iraq after 2003. Scrapping both army and police in Iraq was a tragic mistake, so too, and more controversially, imagining that a Western-inspired democratic revolution could transform a region with little tradition of genuine democracy.

The law of unintended consequences worked to brutal effect.

I’m also well aware that under the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates, and in medieval Spain, Islam inspired a remarkable civilization, intellectual and artistic – and tolerant, with Muslims, Jews and Christian living side by side for many centuries.

First and foremost now we have to act decisively to take out IS, with the West and Russia combining, not just in military action, but in a solution which will involve huge compromises but can lead, I believe, to an end to hostilities between Assad’s forces and the original western-backed rebel forces. Sykes and Picot drew the original Syrian border in 1916. The USA, Russia, France, the UK, and others, will have to decide how Syria divides and is governed as part of a post-war settlement. There may be multiple authorities, and that may be all that can be achieved in the short and medium term.

The refugee crisis requires safe havens financially supported by all the countries of Europe within the countries of entry, and plans to facilitate and finance repatriation at the earliest opportunity. Some Syrians may want to stay in Germany, but Syria has been and can be – will be – again a remarkable country. So much of our civilisation and our values, our culture and our morality, comes from that part of the world, and their people could one day rise again to the heights their forebears achieved. That has to be their aim – and our aim.

(I’m adding here a quote from Barrack Obama, which I read after I’d uploaded this blog, and with which I wholeheartedly agree: ‘It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism.’)

No-one in the West can easily conjure solutions to the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shia and Sunni. But take out IS in Syria and Iraq as a warzone, and destroy that sense of invincibility IS have enjoyed, then potential recruits to other battlegrounds in Yemen, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere may think twice, and local populations left to live again side by side, as they have for centuries.

Likewise if IS is destroyed, its triumphalism punctured, and its followers in France, Britain and other countries of western Europe realise that violence and martyrdom are a fool’s game, then we can focus again on what we’ve failed to deal with over the last thirty and more years – the growing alienation of many young people in the Muslim communities in our midst.

It’s another area where skill and understanding will be required, and where closed minds and bigotry must be opposed at every turn.

We are all one people.

The dry bones of a thousand empires

Also from the Mark Twain quote:

(Damascus) has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.

When we talk of being part of a Christian tradition, we do need to widen that to encompass Judaic, Greek, Roman, Arab. Talk of a thousand empires may be a little exaggerated … but our spiritual and cultural traditions have been nurtured and fashioned over many millennia, and they’ve come down to us interpreted and recreated through (for the UK) a fifteen-hundred-year Christian history. When we try and conjure value systems without that spiritual content we are doing simply that – conjuring. Belief is one thing, faith is another, they can be disavowed, but to disavow our Christian tradition, to imagine that our values have simply an evolutionary explanation, is to deny history. I italicise simply. Scientific and cultural evolution work together. The former doesn’t have the conceptual framework remotely to encompass the latter, any more than the latter can explain the former (not that anti-evolution and intelligent design protagonists haven’t tried).

To get back to Damascus – ‘will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies’. Thing long, think in terms of centuries, even millennia. Every generation thinks it has solutions, and every generation comes up short. Put the rights of man and democracy in that context: if there is a promised land it will not come out a eureka democratic moment, it will evolve over historic time.

For Syria, as for all of us.

 

Damascus

Syria’s turmoil continues, with the numbers of refugees and violence and destruction at levels which would have seemed inconceivable three years ago. It is a reminder that the inconceivable can happen. Syria is such an extraordinary country, a crossroad and an intermingling of cultures, now as three thousand years ago. Diana Darke in her insider’s view of Syria and Damascus in particular (My House in Damascus) quotes Mark Twain (An Innocent Abroad):

She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality… Damascus has seen all that ever occurred on earth and still she lives.

She is being challenged now as never before, such is the ability of modern armament to flatten the old with same equanimity as it flattens the new. It will take an extraordinary mix of tolerance and goodwill to restore old harmonies and the old fabric. We may glibly think that democracy, western-style, is the answer. But leadership and vision must come first.

Democracy as in Algeria and Egypt and Libya can tear a country apart.