War Games

There’s a wealth of critical histories of the lives of British subjects during the colonial era. But if any of those histories presents a narrative that suggests the colonial system was primarily an abuse of power, an agent for rapacious politics and economics — or that the empire might have imposed itself upon its subjects at their exclusive cost, for the exclusive benefit of the imperial haute monde — it quickly becomes the subject of controversy. Niall Ferguson fumbles for his mobile to answer a Radio 4 producer, and gets ready for an early morning huff on the Today Programme, applauded by terraces of readers, fans, or otherwise indignant, besmirched listeners.

At the root of their rancour is, essentially, the assumption that the end justifies the means — be that proverbial end either: (a) railways; (b) a globalised economy; (c) political institutions; or (d) some other bequest sufficiently dignified or sexy to warrant trans-generational gratitude.

My principal contention with their contention is not ideological but, rather, the enduring lack of consistency. We see it each time the same constituency unites in a chorus of antipathy towards our political enemies. Reflecting on their own totalitarian past, they celebrate it, boast about it, eulogise and dramatise its most violent proponents, recreate and reminisce in endless lavish dramas for stage and screen, and neutralise its political toxicity by presenting it as an essential part of a process.

A process that, it’s claimed, led via Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and the Bill of Rights, to parliamentary democracy and, ultimately, to universal suffrage.

Faced with the Edwards of their political enemies, however, they pity their system, malign its beneficiaries, and advocate for its victims: first in sententious rhetoric, and later by bombing them.

Contrast, for example, mainstream opinion over the Kim family’s culpability for the North Korean famine with the same constituency’s opinion over the British Government’s culpability for the Bengal famine or, closer to home, the Irish famine. Most interesting is when you garner that opinion from those who openly confess to knowing very little about either. Try it at home! We’re peculiarly, and reliably, more tolerant of our own totalitarianism than others’.

Whilst making sense of whether we’re in the throws of a 21st Century Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s easy for amnesia to set in, in regard to how little we know about life in North Korea. The most interesting insights have been those that have challenged the western public’s received wisdom — with photos of normal people going about their lives in Pyongyang, candid photos of families playing at seaside resorts, or accounts of restaurant and market life on the Vladivostok border. As the growing montage of images of Pyongyang increasingly dispels visions of the dilapidated, Soviet-era basket-case city imagined by the western public, so the story grows of a city reserved for the privileged elite. Yet, housing 2.5m souls, or 10% of the national population, how relatively different is the exclusivity of Pyongyang from that of the affluent residential centres of London, New York, and Hong Kong?

The mainstream media consensus is doing little to enrich or inform public discourse, preferring instead to merely reaffirm poorly informed preconceptions, allowing the readership to nod through the analysis without pausing for thought.

North Korea is now, unambiguously, a nuclear state — so any ambitions, strategies, and actions based around preventing that outcome have failed, and western foreign policy must now be reframed. If there was ever a state for which ‘nuclear deterrent’ wasn’t simply a euphemism, it’s North Korea. Now with three children, Kim’s primary concern will be the continuation of his dynasty, which he well knows will end the day he invades his neighbours. So he will not. If a future smoking gun that triggered World War III on the Korean peninsula has North Korean fingerprints on it, they were put there by the PR agents of Kim’s enemies.

Left alone, the sociopolitical environment in North Korea will evolve, like it will everywhere else — and probably more swiftly in the absence of a foreign invasion force thirty miles across the border. Commentators and policymakers in the west still committed to their unique brand of sententious schizophrenia, which holds that we mustn’t sit idle while North Korean citizens suffer — but must instead send our children to kill theirs — are still living in Kissinger’s Cold War reality distortion field.

When the informational landscape is so sparse, as it is with North Korea, we should be suspicious when the public discourse is filled with more answers than questions. To some, North Korea may be intolerable; to some, it may simply be home; to others, it may be a source of pride. We could say the same of our contemporaries from Edwardian England. And perhaps Song China might have looked on in pity for England’s 13th Century peasants, and mused intervention with their greater social, political, and technological sophistication. How kindly do readers think imperialist Chinese warrior-philanthropists might have been received by England’s Plantagenet subjects?

Through the western cultural lens, the dress, style, language, and tone of North Korea is one-dimensional, tyrannical, eccentric, absurd. North Korea continues to fulfil the stereotype of the Cold War Bond villain. Trump says, in opposition to the new South Korean president’s nascent policy of appeasement, that there’s only one thing that the North Koreans understand — one of the few Trumpian claims considered uncontroversial by the wider public. But, in its anxiety to survive, North Korean policy has exposed the bitter irony of that premise. In the superpower’s unwillingness to relinquish its monopoly on power in the Pacific, there’s only one language that US foreign policy understands. And, with a nuclear deterrent, Kim’s speaking it fluently.

‘Enough is Enough’

Beyond the immediate violence and horror of a terrorist attack, and its wider fallout, the last of its victims is always perspective. It’s designed to be.

For the desperately unfortunate minority directly affected by heinous acts of violence, that perspective might reasonably be unrecoverable. For the more fortunate majority, it’s essential it never slips from our grasp.

It seems that the sub-cerebral response of an alarming range of political figures—if someone’s stabbed, bombed, or shot by some petty criminal-turned suicidal zealot—is to ramp-up public surveillance, erode civil liberties, dismantle civil protections within the criminal justice system, rant about ‘cowardly acts’, and anthropomorphise cities.

I’m unclear whether that’s because certain policymakers perceive an opportunity in the lack of public perspective, or whether they simply lack perspective themselves. In either case, what’s even more worrying is that the public seems to be in a growing state of consensus with them — if not emulation.

Usefully, The Telegraph on Sunday cited some figures from the Global Terrorism Database, which are altogether more helpful than HM Government’s public statements for making sense of recent chaos:

UK Deaths Owing To Terrorism

15-year period Number of Deaths
2000-2015 90
1985-1999 1,094
1970-1984 2,211

To add further perspective, I looked up the Office for National Statistics’ figures on UK homicides, which record 518 murders in the UK in the year ending March, 2015. Of these, 186 victims were women, of which 82 were murdered by their partner or ex-partner. That was, continuing a decade-long trend, the lowest number of homicides in ten years.

So:

  • 2015 saw the lowest number of UK homicides in the late modern era.
  • In 2015, 82 women were murdered by their partner or ex-partner.
  • In the 15 years from 2000-2015, 90 people were murdered in terrorist incidents.

If it’s a question of quantum, heterosexual relationships appear to be a greater threat to public safety than extremist Islam, by a factor of 15.

Shouldn’t we be affording crimes of passion 15 times the disapprobation than we afford a crime of terror? Has the heterosexual community had too little to say on the subject, given the heinous atrocities committed by its members?

With the benefit of perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a minority of nut-jobs who have fallen off the wagon, and park the problem with the criminal justice system. Without perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a wider narrative, and seek solutions from law makers, rather than from law enforcement. The threat becomes quantified by column inches, social media real estate, and leveraged by pre-existing prejudices.

The threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ has been a constant background noise in the informational world of western societies since 2001, and wider debate about the true nature, origins, and threats, is not one I’m suggesting that we mute. But, in the meantime, Khuram Butt’s decision to watch the Champion’s League final, and then embark on a murder-suicide rampage in a hired van, simply must not be used to calibrate civil liberties. And if Abedi’s murder of 23 people in Manchester alters someone’s perceptions of British Muslims, more than Harold Shipman’s murder of over 230 people alters their perceptions of white British GPs, we need to understand why.

Trump/Paris

Ok, so he pulled the trigger.

Or did he?!

Trump wants the withdrawal to be ‘consistent with the Paris accord’, which White House officials have confirmed to mean that the US will remain in the accord until November 2020 — that is to say, throughout Trump’s remaining term of office.

In the meantime: ‘We’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair’.

But the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, cited in the FT, stated that within the accord: ‘The US does not need to negotiate with others to adjust its contributions’.

Trump is pulling the US out. But leaving the US in for the remainder of his term. And he is going to adjust the US’s contributions, by negotiation — which the accord already allowed him to do, without negotiation.

Isn’t this just more Trumpian political theatre, placating his base by muscling to the centre of the global stage and making bombastic public statements, whilst quietly leaving almost all of the existing state machinery largely untouched?

Scheherezade came to Sindbad

(Rotate phone to view.)

Scheherazade came to Sindbad, as a refugee,
To face an unforgiving prince and a sleepless Grand Vizier.
Through wind-swept dunes of golden sand, her painted feet, his steady hand,
Lead from Baghdad to Samarkand, where freedom’s prayers disappear.
Her lips, tongue, majesty and youth whisper in the Sultan’s ear;
Softly, but in fear.

Adorned with Persian jewels and gold, and skin barely fifteen years old,
She smiths the words and spins the yarns that define her young career;
From all beneath her golden lace—the trembling lips of her veiled face—
Spawns a world of wonder and grace the nation’s longing to hear,
Of seven wondrous voyages, sailing out from bristling pier,
Carried by her fear.

Arabian waters glisten, arresting Shahryar to listen,
As audience, with her hero, sails from Basra to Tangier—
To every place waxed for her groom, whilst confined to his lavish room.
Her final day seems ever to loom, each week and month and year;
Draped in silk and fur he lays, offering to her mouth his ear,
Heedless of her fear.

Through bracing waves of cobalt sea, on rugged course to set her free,
Sindbad’s theft, murder and greed is honed to serve the sultan’s cheer;
Monstrous beasts and riches unseen in kingdom, palace, or harem,
Lure him from his murderous scheme, ending those he holds most dear,
Strangled under the furrowed brows from which muscled eunuchs leer –
Luridly, and in fear.

Enthroned behind the Tak Kasra, lounging in greed, the Shahanshah,
His corpulence and avarice suited just to mock and jeer;
Yet his alone, that mouth so sweet bids aching loins to moist retreat,
Fair oasis in desert heat, at his call she will appear;
Apostle of freedom, yes, but: at his disposal, I’m clear;
Yet comely, in fear.

Reflected in the sultan’s eyes the youth and splendour of her naked thighs,
While he ponders on bearded jinn imprisoned by lamp and word;
The captor I beg she despise, in constant fear of his reprise,
Exhausted now, it’s no surprise—nor to you, or so I’ve heard—
His garden of Persian virgins; by her alone now he’s stirred,
Fear, to him, absurd.

Hero, brigand, from her mind’s eye, each of them one other than I,
In alleys, shadows, desert and seas with dirk, sabre and spear;
On horseback, armed with shield and mace, to press the sultan’s fall from grace,
Herself remaining barely chaste, to her breast my thoughts so near;
Preserved each night, by me at least, in—I implore, I’m quite sincere—
Deference to her fear.

With a luscious, languid, lustrous form and Sal al Din’s panache,
Little memory of her sister, or her fretful father’s waxed moustache,
Goes she:
Through Arabian peninsula, Maghreb, and far from here,
A thousand nights to share her creed, pharmakon for the sultan’s greed,
His wealth the crop of slavery’s seed, purloined from subject and peer:
The land before the wells turned black in the call to prayer we hear —
Spoke always in fear.

Mouthed in a voice that falls like silk, warm with the wine, sick of his milk,
Come the savage brutes and beasts our protagonist plied to rear
From plaits and pearls and painted lips, and gold, threading over her hips,
In Hanging Gardens where she sips from fountains on every tier;
Her patience, virtue, silver tongue, the unbridled masses cheer,
Sanguine, but, in fear.

Shipwrecked again, truth aptly wanes,
Ne’er a lie, yet: just myth remains.

In her satin ribbons and bows, and unearthly lack of other clothes,
With sailor saved from slavery and the porter from his sneer,
She laces bells on painted feet and, golden skin kissed by the heat,
She ventures desert dunes to greet the equivocal Grand Vizier;
A possible epiphany; in prayer for a sign;
Between the Tigris and Euphrates a garden at last benign;
In their hope and, surely, fear,
But more likely just in mine.

— RM

Under the fiscal austerity of the Tory government, a highly controversial benefits cap has been established — at an income level that would secure a beneficiary his or her place amongst the top 1% wealthiest people in the world.

And most of the remaining 99% of the global population have to pay for their treatment of serious illness and long-term care out of that lesser income, or die painfully at home.

When voters wonder at the self-interest of the top 1% of UK earners, they might do so by reflecting on their own financial choices — and how they might be judged by the 99% of the global population that will regard them with similar moral despair.

While the UK population carries on its pillow fight in the business class cabin of humanity, those of us genuinely wanting a system that serves the greater good must engage the various constituencies that we share our highly privileged society with. That means selling a progressive agenda to the growing population that now enjoys unprecedented property wealth.

These are not people that fit the widely maligned conservative caricature, but rather comprise a generation that has worked hard to adapt to an unfair system — and who may fear their hard-won gains will be diminished by a political shift.

Preserving and advancing a progressive agenda can be achieved only with information, negotiation, and compromise. Nothing will be won by demonising the increasingly established middle class; by trading in soundbites, headlines, and incomplete or decontextualised factoids; or by a slavish commitment to the increasingly anachronistic wings of political ideology. The traditional left must engage the middle classes in a more cerebral and nuanced debate regarding who gets what, and how it’s funded — and to unite all classes on internationalism over nationalism.

The virtues of a stiff upper lip took a bashing in the lead up to the London Marathon, with the House of Windsor Millennials extolling the greater virtues of opening up about your feelings.

Personally, I’m all for droning on about me to the couple of poor sods whom I’ve learned will let me get away with it. I’m equally happy to listen: Despite too much casual judging of people that I don’t really know, when eyeball-to-eyeball with another human being I’m all ears.

Bob Hoskins was right all those years ago: It’s good to talk.

What I’m less certain about is consigning a growing share of our emotional life to mental health professionals. I won’t be depositing the most awkward parts of my mental life in the sickness account. Naturally, some of those that choose to do so — before or after the Heads Together campaign — may claim that their experiences are more disabling than mine. But that is a stubbornly complex claim.

Our biological life loaned the word ‘health’ to our mental life long before now. But as recently as the second half of the last century, leading left intellectuals dedicated their energy to deconstructing the role of mental illness as an establishment weapon, rather than to expanding its scope. Mental illness was, the likes of Foucault opined, a device for marginalising people, ideas, and behaviours that the state deemed undesirable — marginalising, very often, by way of incarceration.

Modern democracies marginalise people, ideas, and behaviours, on an arguably unprecedented scale — only in more subtle ways than incarceration. Subtle ways that might, indeed, benefit from increasingly subtle notions of mental illness. Powerful systems, particularly systems of power, adapt well to public demands, often granting them as a smokescreen for widening their own remit.

Care workers that spend their working lives assisting the most difficult autistic clients, or violent schizophrenics, may cite good cause to reject the theory that mental illness is fundamentally a myth. But it remains compelling that explanations for more common seemingly pathological emotions and behaviours — from stress, anxiety and depression, to alcoholism and suicide — might be less energetically sought from the individual, and more from the society we live in.

Mental health science relies in large part on the assumption of a certain ‘biological ~ psychological’ equivalence. It’s assumed, widely without challenge, that both might be understood in similar terms, and described in similar language; that both might be either healthy, or unhealthy, and — when the latter — treated in the same or similar institutions. It’s an assumption that is in the DNA of the political rhetoric in lobbying efforts for changes in public policy: in particular, for the expansion of public service provisions for mental health issues.

On the face of it, this is a progressive agenda. But the expansion of public services must not be mistaken as a discrete benefit that can be won without a cost. Beyond simply new fiscal implications, every benefit won brings an additional part of our life into the realm of public policy.

The state response to health issues has long been cross-departmental. Policy relative to smoking-related diseases is not limited to funding treatment: it extends to product-specific excise duty to regulate consumer choice; regulation of the advertising industry; regulation of behaviour in public and private spaces; information campaigns, and broader deployment of soft power to influence public life.

Many of us may agree that this is an example that has served the greater good. But it is important not to sleepwalk through the lesson that in the wake of our new entitlements, we are subject to new regulations. New provisions are woven into public policy, extending government reach, insidiously; irreversibly; in perpetuity.

In the wider context of many government departments — including the Department of Health — being granted the right to request UK citizens’ web browsing history, the state has already leveraged technological and legislative tools to gain unprecedented access to our psychological life. In our pursuit of mental health entitlement spending, we seem more likely to secure a Faustian pact than a more progressive social policy.

Our liberation from the morally and emotionally constipated sensibilities of our Victorian forefathers is a triumph for society that warrants a public holiday. Perniciously pathologising our thought processes, however, threatens rather than crystallises that liberation.

The current generation’s willingness, or otherwise, to endure with a stiff upper lip might have significant implications on the reach of the state into our children’s psychological world. Chaos theory’s butterfly wings flap particularly vigorously across generations of lawmakers.

Geneva

This is no letter that Endymion wrote,
But is to one I loved, in secret —
Occasionally together, now always apart.
And thence the weight of a withered heart:
Impassioned to lobby devoid ballot or vote —
Entreating in the mouth, drying in the throat.
There’s been little to liken myself with this part
Of the world known more for aspiration than art;
Till both had no you to look upon and gloat.

— RM

Better Together?

Under the leadership of one of the most credible contemporary political voices, and with just historical context, it’s no surprise to see the SNP stirring for another crack of the independence whip. More so, one might say, being faced as they are with a predominantly English vote to leave the EU.

It speaks volumes about the enduring Celtic enmity—with the Anglo-Saxon invader—that Scotland’s mourning of ‘ever closer union’ with Germanic tribes on the continental mainland gives reason for its ever greater disunion with the Germanic tribes closest to home.

In a fervour to distance ourselves from English nationalists, it would be easy for me and many of my English comrades to brother-up with Scottish nationalists in an act of Anglo-bashing empathy. Particularly, that is, for those of us that take no pride in the Edwards’ perversely celebrated obsession with using every manner of innovation in politics, economics and violence to bring independent Celtic kingdoms to the English monarchic heel. Or for those of us that are embarrassed by the muted tones in which Anglo-centric histories of Imperial Britain whisper of its Scottish economic, intellectual and cultural backbone.

But, in an increasingly fragile global system, with new, powerful state actors—already in conflict over territory, resources, and influence—I find it hard to parse the grammar of Scottish secessionist ambitions.

There’s also the inevitably nationalist premise of the project. As a general historical observation: whatever is said in mainstream media, rumour, and pub talk about the nihilism of Islamic terrorism, there’s been no greater force for bigotry, intolerance, and militaristic arrogance than nationalism. There has been no greater scourge of human solidarity than the cesspit of ideas that have festered under its banner. Even the most infamous religious wars in medieval Europe were largely using pontifical doctrine as a proxy for nationalism.

Those aggravating for ever-greater fragmentation of the most socio-culturally liberal bloc in the contemporary world—be it the UK dissolving its union with Europe, or Scotland dissolving its union with the UK—may ultimately celebrate their self-determination in increasingly inaudible cheers. The progressive decline of our collective cultural, political and economic relevance—however ardently dismissed by the nationalists as hyperbolic guff—is inevitable. That includes the diminishment of the Enlightenment values of logic and equity — the genesis of many of humanity’s most sane aspirations, and a particularly poignant reference in a discussion about Scotland.

However shrill it may sound on the lips of an Englishman, surely we’re Better Together.

Who poisoned Kim Jong Nam?

Do we even need to ask?

North Korea is the world’s leading pariah state, discredited and despised for the savagery and ineptitude of its unhinged leaders, their social and economic incompetence, their cartoon-like bellicose outbursts, and their insatiable appetite for impoverishing their charge with their ‘military first’ fiscal profligacy. It’s the world’s most odious dynastic dictatorship, hovering over its deranged worshipful masses — a population either beaten into stupefied adulation of their masters by thought control and fear; the victims of some mass experiment in stage hypnotism; or, otherwise, themselves no better than their leaders.

At least, that’s the prevailing narrative now embedded in western consciousness.

And that narrative frames public policy at home, editorial policy in mainstream media of both colours, and the mindset of their readers. I’ve read reader comments in the Financial Times, without qualifying any distinction between government and people, that North Korea is, simply, ‘an affront to humanity’ that should not be tolerated. And unlike the victims of other flavours of xenophobia and exceptionalism, the North Koreans are almost entirely without a champion. In the West, government, press, and people find themselves in a rare condition of alignment: the only solution, it appears, is: The Final Solution.

And it disgusts me.

Let’s not forget how often we hear about ‘the hermit state’ — the government tour guides prohibiting journalists’ visibility of ordinary people’s ordinary lives. Yet we mysteriously hear about Kim’s administration feeding dogs to their people, and about Kim feeding his administration to the dogs. It apparently doesn’t warrant an explanation as to how journalists access intimate secrets about events surrounding the North Korean ruling cabal, yet can’t get access to mundane information about the mundane lives of ordinary people.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, celebrity North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee is presented to readers as a channel providing unique insight into the inner world of her forebears. Readers come away with all of their prior assumptions unblemished. Not having visited North Korea for 20 years, and now replete with the full English of Gangnam-style cosmetic surgery procedures, I had to ask myself: Is Miss Lee a refugee from the most terrifying dungeon of humanity, or is she little different from any other émigré who’s made an arduous journey from a dead-end existence to a better life? And to help benchmark the distance of that socio-economic journey, how many Syrian refugees are presently queuing at Harley Street cosmetic surgery consultation rooms? What would Brexit voters make of it if they were?

The entire choreography of the anti-North Korean theatre, and all of its actors, combine to weave a narrative that differs from North Korean-style propaganda only in its sophistication. It frustrates me sufficiently that I’m prepared to risk being rude to Hyeonseo Lee to emphasise the point. During my lifetime, the dynastic dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates has sanctioned courts to sentence adulterous women to death by stoning, but the West is queuing to go do business with Dubai, or to go on holiday there — including HM Government, UK. Why? Because standards of living are better in UAE than North Korea? Might that not at least partly be attributable to more than fifty years of economic and diplomatic punishment of North Korea by the world’s superpower, which has proven as effective as it was designed to be?

Maybe Kim Jong Nam was murdered by the agents of Jong Un’s self-preservation programme. It seems perfectly possible. Maybe he was murdered by creditors after decades of propping up a gambling addiction in his adopted home of Macau, casino island of the East. That seems possible, too. Or, perhaps, it might transpire that he wasn’t poisoned by a Vietnamese woman wielding a rag — much like his uncle turned out not to have been fed to the dogs, after all. It’s hard to know, for those of us who are fans of Twelve Angry Men.

Most of the world east of the Mediterranean is as mystified by the West’s double standards on prejudice as the West is of popular North Korean support for the eccentric Kims. Why is their ruling family a laughing stock by dint of its three-generation dynasty alone, while a fifteen- to twenty-generation dynastic heritage alone is a badge of pride for ours? The Enlightenment might have won the West the modern race for living standards, but—doubtless to the chagrin of its pioneers—not for morality, nor for truth.