20 years on: still searching for the truth about 9/11

John Pilger, who stands out as one of the few remaining independent voices, says that he began to understand how censorship works in so-called free societies when he reported from totalitarian regimes. During the 1970s, he filmed secretly from within Czechoslovakia (still, as then, a Stalinist dictatorship), interviewing members of the dissident group Charter 77. There the novelist Zdenek Urbánek explained the situation to Pilger as follows:

“In dictatorships we are more fortunate than you in the West in one respect – we believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers, and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know it’s propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West, we’ve learnt to look behind the propaganda, and to read between the lines. Unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive.” 1

In challenging the official story of the 9/11 attacks, here is Gore Vidal saying something remarkably similar:

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Released in 2006, 9/11: Press for Truth is a documentary directed by the American filmmaker Ray Nowosielski. Partially based on The Terror Timeline, by Paul Thompson, the film recounts the inspiring story of the Jersey Girls (Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken, and Mindy Kleinberg), all residents of New Jersey and the widows of individuals killed in the September 11th attacks, who tenaciously lobbied the Bush administration to open an investigation. It was their demands that culminated in the eventual formation of the 9/11 Commission.

Although the film sticks rigorously to the facts and credible claims reported and published by reputable journalists, you will almost certainly never see this documentary aired on BBC, Channel 4 or ITV. The reason for this is that mainstream outlets have consistently shunned all serious challenges to the official story. Moreover, they have dependably concealed two inconvenient facts.

Firstly, they continue to ignore how the US government delayed and then used tricks to control and suppress a full investigation. Secondly, they have cultivated a fiction that the 9/11 families and other victims fully accept the official story and just want to be left in peace. In reality it was the Jersey Girls and other members of 9/11 Family Steering Committee who were entirely instrumental in the creation of the 9/11 Commission.

Nowosielski’s documentary is outstanding in that it shows how the investigation was deliberately set up to fail and how the truth surrounding the crimes of 9/11 has been systematically covered up both prior to the Commission and since:

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Although its portrayal of the September 11th attacks is perhaps the most poignant of all memorials, another documentary that has not received a mainstream airing during this anniversary (or indeed at any other time) is Michael Moore’s evergreen Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).

A special screening shown online yesterday with live Q+A is embedded below (and cued up to begin at the start of the film):

Moore’s mistake was to contextualise too much. The film’s pre-credits tell the story of the brazen election fraud in Florida that sealed Bush’s victory and how that led to unprecedented scenes on the day of his inauguration as the presidential motorcade was held up by thousands of protesters.

Moore then highlights the multiple warnings of threats of an imminent terrorist attack, which are interspersed with reminders of American collaboration with soon-to-be-villains Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, before he moves to consider relations with the Saudi regime. Indeed, the central focus of Moore’s investigation (although there is a great deal besides) reveals the intimate ties between the Bush family and the Bin Ladens.

Moore’s accusing figure points to the nefarious role played by the Saudis, and in fact the subsequent release of the so-called 28 pages entirely vindicates this accusation, although this too is evidently part of an ongoing limited hangout. Moore treads very carefully throughout this film and if I have a criticism it is only that he does not go far enough. That said, what he does show is damning enough and sufficient enough reason to call for a new investigation.

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In the mainstream tributes and memorials instead, we hear solely from those who don’t protest too loudly. All official tributes have been obliged therefore to ignore the plight of Bob and Helen McIlvaine, whose son, Bobby, was killed inside the World Trade Center, and who alongside other families are continuing the campaign to get justice for their loved ones and the thousands of other victims:

Nor will you hear from Matt Campbell, the brother of Geoff, a British victim who died in the North tower, and who has requested the Attorney General to open a new inquest in the UK under Section 13 of the UK Coroners Act 1988:

Nor from fire commissioner Christopher Gioia whose fire district recently passed a historic resolution supporting a new investigation and seeking justice for firefighters:

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Barry Jennings is another who was desperately looking for answers. As the Deputy Director of the Emergency Services Department for the New York City Housing Authority, Jennings inadvertently became a crucial eyewitness when, on the morning of September 11th, he was trapped together with Michael Hess, the New York City Corporation Counsel, inside Building 7 (or WTC7).

Following their rescue, Michael Hess gave a live interview with Frank Ucciardo, in which he stated:

“I was up the emergency management center on the 23rd floor and when all the power went out in the building, er, another gentleman [Barry Jennings] and I walked down to the 8th floor where there was an explosion and we were trapped on the 8th floor with smoke, thick smoke, all around us for about an hour and a half”

Barry Jennings confirmed the account of explosions in an interview shortly after his own escape from the building:

A few years later in 2007, Barry Jennings gave a lengthier account in an interview to Dylan Avery – for some reason the full interview is extremely hard to locate and in the version embedded below his testimony has been truncated, however this seems to be the best version currently uploaded:

William Rodriguez, the caretaker of the WTC, courageously went back into the main towers with his master key to help rescue others who were trapped inside. For a time Rodriguez was actually granted the status of a national hero.

However, Rodriguez is another 9/11 victim who finally became frustrated by the lack of formal investigations and although he was able to give evidence to the Commission, he was not granted permission to testify publicly and none of his testimony appears in the final report.

Like Jennings, Rodriguez has consistently maintained that explosions happened inside the buildings. Memorably he once compared the whole event to a magic trick (previously he had worked as a magician’s assistant).

Today it is remarkably difficult to find clips of William Rodriguez retelling his account or questioning the official narrative of 9/11 (although for a brief period he has made a number of TV appearances including at least one in Britain). Such is the degree of censorship across the web this is the single extended presentation I can actually find on Youtube:

Click here to listen to a radio interview with William Rodriguez.

The Jersey Girls and the other families as well as so many firefighters and first responders are still desperately seeking answers. Before he sadly passed away, Barry Jennings was one of countless victims more quietly seeking the truth. He and William Rodriguez are just two amongst many who directly witnessed the events and could not believe the official story. All want answers. All seek justice. This is why I support their cause for 9/11 truth and in a small way have tried to act on their behalf by presenting their stories and delving into the subject more deeply myself (see below and read this previous article published for the tenth anniversary).

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You may have noticed that up to this point, I have carefully steered clear of any mention of the dread word “conspiracy”. My reason for this avoidance is obvious enough: that the word “conspiracy”, though acknowledged as a valid synonym for plot, intrigue and affair in both dictionaries and, perhaps more significantly, in courts of law, has increasingly been tarnished.

More often than not conjoined with another otherwise neutral term “theory”, it nowadays functions as a compound noun of exceptionally potent force. For it is next to impossible to hear the words “conspiracy theorist” and not think “conspiracy nut”. In short, “conspiracy theory” is a weaponised term; its use is therefore tantamount to pointing the finger and saying: “are you an idiot or charlatan?”

But there is a “conspiracy theory” at work, of course, and James Corbett brilliantly elucidates the absurdity of it in his miniature Youtube masterpiece [only 4 mins long] aptly entitled “9/11: a conspiracy theory”:

As with all the best satire, its brilliance resides in its closeness to reality. This really is the official story of 9/11 and Corbett provides links to verify the many statements in his own transcript which I have reproduced in full below as an addendum.

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Gore Vidal once said “I am not a conspiracy theorist, I am a conspiracy analyst”. And Vidal, a close friend of the Kennedys and a close student of history, was one of the most high-profile figures to call for a reopening of the investigation into 9/11.

What Vidal understood from firsthand experience is that politics is replete with instances that would be labelled “conspiracy theories” except the fact that they have already been proven “conspiracy fact”.

I shall list a few that are both germane and that have been established with historical certainty:

Firstly, the coups: Guatemala (Operation PBSuccess, 1953), Iran (Operation Ajax, 1954), the various CIA attempts to kill Castro, and significantly the overthrow of democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile on another day of infamy, September 11th 1973, that led to 16-year reign of terror by the Pinochet regime.

On a special edition of RT’s ‘Going Underground’ embedded below, Farhaan Ahmed spoke with Pablo Vivanco, a Chilean journalist and the former director of TeleSUR English. They marked the 48th anniversary of coup and the subsequent transformation of Chilean society into one modelled on the Chicago Boys’ neoliberalism, and also discussed the rise of a continent-wide purge of the left through the US-organised Operation Condor:

More controversially, under the codename Operation Gladio, a network of “stay-behind” anti-communist armed groups, presided over by US and British secret service agents, infiltrated extremist groups around Europe during the 1970s, and were used to assist and provoke multiple terrorist attacks (this was well-documented in an excellent three-part BBC Timewatch special by filmmaker Allan Francovich):

Other so-called ‘false flag’ provocations have included the Gulf Of Tonkin incident, a hoax that served as the pretext for the Vietnam War, and Israel’s attack and attempt to sink the unarmed USS Liberty during the Six-Day War, with the intention of attributing blame to the Egyptians in the hope of bringing America into the war.

False pretexts for war are so common in fact, that very few wars are ever started without them. Notoriously, the first Gulf War was commenced following the completely staged false claims of “babies out of incubators”. On the occasion of the subsequent Iraq War there were a variety of falsehoods including yellowcake, Colin Powell’s vial of anthrax at the United Nations Security Council and the UK’s ‘Dodgy Dossier’.

Prior to Nato’s assault on Libya, the media reported unsubstantiated claims that Gaddafi’s forces were committing mass rape with use of Viagra. More recently again, the Syrian army has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons to kill civilians – accusations that have since been challenged by multiple whistleblowers inside the OPCW (see here).

Beyond the coups and the false flag attacks, there have also been many other well-established secret operations. One of the better known is Project MKUltra, in which the US covertly subjected members of its military and civilian population to mind-control experiments (this included the work of Canadian psychiatrist Ewan Cameron, who subjected many patients to horrendous doses of drugs and ECT in any attempt to literally erase their minds – some of his victims later won claims for compensation).

Any attempt to provide a complete list of known conspiracies involving US intelligence services alone would require library shelves full of material, so allow me to finish with just one more historic example to illustrate the point. The Iran-Contra affair (or simply Irangate), when money from the secret sale of arms to Iran was used to fund right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, journalist Gary Webb exposed how the CIA was also covertly involved in drug-running cocaine.

In short, post-war history shows how terrible crimes of every conceivable kind have been committed for the purpose of grabbing power and perpetuating war. Secret conspiracies to these ends happen routinely.

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The events of 9/11 served as a unique opportunity both domestically and for foreign policy. It was a made-to-measure “New Pearl Harbor” that happened almost a year to the day after the neo-con faction who seized power had publicly called for it. The 9/11 attacks gave rise directly to the Patriot Acts and mass surveillance on the population that NSA whistleblower William Binney has described as “better than anything that the KGB, the Stasi, or the Gestapo and SS ever had”. 2 They also enabled the Bush administration to launch an immediate war against Afghanistan and shortly after a “shock and awe” regime change in Iraq. They have continued to shape the world two decades later.

Nine years ago, I launched a separate blog where a more detailed analysis can be found. As I wrote at the time under the heading “11 years on”:

We still have the right to know the truth…

More than a decade on and the horrific attacks of September 11th 2001 continue to cast a long shadow over all of us. The ridiculous “war on terror” that commenced after the Twin Towers had crumbled to dust is still determining the foreign and domestic policies of many governments throughout the world.

9/11, as the atrocity was quickly re-branded, has been used to legitimise not only the subsequent neo-imperialist adventuring into Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, but also the opening of Guantanamo and with it, the approved use of torture. At the same time, the “war of terror” is still used to justify the escalating assault on personal privacy, on freedom of speech, and our right to dissent. The decade long crackdown on civil and human rights that began with 9/11 has now culminated in America with the removal of habeas corpus – under the Obama authorised NDAA 2012, the indefinite detention of US citizens being made permissible on the ill-defined grounds of having “substantially supported” terrorists or their “associated forces,” and without properly defining what any of these terms precisely mean.

For all these reasons, 9/11 remains vitally important, and yet the events of that terrible morning have still never been properly investigated. My attempt here is put forth another challenge to the commonly held opinion that the case should now be closed, and to shed a little light into the many areas of darkness that remain. In doing so I have tried to investigate the details of the case as accurately as I can, with objections to the official narrative being backed up with more detailed footnotes. If there are errors within my analysis then please feel free to send updated evidence that refutes any of my statements. On the other hand, if you are simply intent to darken the debate with lies and obfuscation then your comments will be deleted.

The survivors, the first responders, and the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks, many of whom continue their fight for a full and independent inquiry, deserve our respect and our support.

On the back of this I accepted an invitation to give a talk in London about discrepancies in the official account and specifically in relation to the physics of the building collapses. My presentation is embedded below:

In posting this article I genuinely do not expect to change anyone’s view while being fully aware that it is counterproductive to step too far into this debate – something Spike Lee found out during the release of his recent HBO documentary series. As I have written previously about dissenting voices:  it is not that one person’s actions will change the world (of course to some degree all actions do), but that you are able to find a way to stop the world adversely changing you.

There are, of course, many better sources to read that challenge the official story of 9/11 (for instance here and here), and so I have referenced my own small contribution above purely as a continuing act of solidarity with the 9/11 families and other victims seeking the truth.

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Update:

This year’s anniversary was marked by a Media Roots special in which Abby Martin and Robbie Martin spoke with independent researcher Gumby in a two-part broadcast entitled “The Return of the 9/11 Conspiracy Left, Restrategizing & Turning Over More Stones”:

After taking listeners on a brief tour of the early rise of the 9/11 Truth movement with its predominantly left-leaning origins, explaining how it reached a critical mass within anti-George W Bush liberalism, they then remind us of the prominent political figures, intellectuals and Hollywood celebrities who spoke out and questioned the official story, and how that legacy has been whitewashed today.

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Addendum: Transcript to James Corbett’s “9/11: A Conspiracy Theory”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 men armed with boxcutters directed by a man on dialysis in a cave fortress halfway around the world using a satellite phone and a laptop directed the most sophisticated penetration of the most heavily-defended airspace in the world, overpowering the passengers and the military combat-trained pilots on 4 commercial aircraft before flying those planes wildly off course for over an hour without being molested by a single fighter interceptor.

These 19 hijackers, devout religious fundamentalists who liked to drink alcohol, snort cocaine, and live with pink-haired strippers, managed to knock down 3 buildings with 2 planes in New York, while in Washington a pilot who couldn’t handle a single engine Cessna was able to fly a 757 in an 8,000 foot descending 270 degree corskscrew turn to come exactly level with the ground, hitting the Pentagon in the budget analyst office where DoD staffers were working on the mystery of the 2.3 trillion dollars that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had announced “missing” from the Pentagon’s coffers in a press conference the day before, on September 10, 2001.

Luckily, the news anchors knew who did it within minutes, the pundits knew within hours, the Administration knew within the day, and the evidence literally fell into the FBI’s lap. But for some reason a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists demanded an investigation into the greatest attack on American soil in history.

The investigation was delayed, underfunded, set up to fail, a conflict of interest and a cover up from start to finish. It was based on testimony extracted through torture, the records of which were destroyed. It failed to mention the existence of WTC7, Able Danger, Ptech, Sibel Edmonds, OBL and the CIA, and the drills of hijacked aircraft being flown into buildings that were being simulated at the precise same time that those events were actually happening. It was lied to by the Pentagon, the CIA, the Bush Administration and as for Bush and Cheney…well, no one knows what they told it because they testified in secret, off the record, not under oath and behind closed doors. It didn’t bother to look at who funded the attacks because that question is of “little practical significance“. Still, the 9/11 Commission did brilliantly, answering all of the questions the public had (except most of the victims’ family members’ questions) and pinned blame on all the people responsible (although no one so much as lost their job), determining the attacks were “a failure of imagination” because “I don’t think anyone could envision flying airplanes into buildings ” except the Pentagon and FEMA and NORAD and the NRO.

The DIA destroyed 2.5 TB of data on Able Danger, but that’s OK because it probably wasn’t important.

The SEC destroyed their records on the investigation into the insider trading before the attacks, but that’s OK because destroying the records of the largest investigation in SEC history is just part of routine record keeping.

NIST has classified the data that they used for their model of WTC7’s collapse, but that’s OK because knowing how they made their model of that collapse would “jeopardize public safety“.

The FBI has argued that all material related to their investigation of 9/11 should be kept secret from the public, but that’s OK because the FBI probably has nothing to hide.

This man never existed, nor is anything he had to say worthy of your attention, and if you say otherwise you are a paranoid conspiracy theorist and deserve to be shunned by all of humanity. Likewise him, him, him, and her. (and her and her and him).

Osama Bin Laden lived in a cave fortress in the hills of Afghanistan, but somehow got away. Then he was hiding out in Tora Bora but somehow got away. Then he lived in Abottabad for years, taunting the most comprehensive intelligence dragnet employing the most sophisticated technology in the history of the world for 10 years, releasing video after video with complete impunity (and getting younger and younger as he did so), before finally being found in a daring SEAL team raid which wasn’t recorded on video, in which he didn’t resist or use his wife as a human shield, and in which these crack special forces operatives panicked and killed this unarmed man, supposedly the best source of intelligence about those dastardly terrorists on the planet. Then they dumped his body in the ocean before telling anyone about it. Then a couple dozen of that team’s members died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

This is the story of 9/11, brought to you by the media which told you the hard truths about JFK and incubator babies and mobile production facilities and the rescue of Jessica Lynch.

If you have any questions about this story…you are a batshit, paranoid, tinfoil, dog-abusing baby-hater and will be reviled by everyone. If you love your country and/or freedom, happiness, rainbows, rock and roll, puppy dogs, apple pie and your grandma, you will never ever express doubts about any part of this story to anyone. Ever.

This has been a public service announcement by: the Friends of the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, SEC, MSM, White House, NIST, and the 9/11 Commission. Because Ignorance is Strength.

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1  John Pilger speaking about his book “Freedom next time” at Socialism 2007: Socialism for the 21st Century, June 16th, 2007. Transcribed by the author from a film made by Paul Hubbard and broadcast as Democracy Now – the War and Peace Report, August 7th, 2007. Available on the internet.

2 From an article entitled “Obama’s Crackdown on Whistleblowers” written by Tim Shorrock, published in The Nation magazine on March 26, 2013. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/obamas-crackdown-whistleblowers/

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Filed under al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, campaigns & events, did you see?, John Pilger, Saudi Arabia, September 11th, USA

beware the naysayers!

The following article is the Prologue of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority… Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” 1                                                                     

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Two decades ago, relaxing in a local pub at the end of an anti-Iraq War march, I chanced upon a discarded copy of the magazine Red Pepper. Flicking through the pages, I came to a short article written by a person I will refer to only as R. A brave soul who had gone to Baghdad as the war drums beat loudly to hunker down as a human shield in the hope that her sacrifice would deter an attack on its civilian population. Impressed by her self-sacrifice but concerned that such goodwill might be hijacked and manipulated to serve the ends of Saddam’s regime, I decided to write a letter – helpfully, there was an email address appended to the article.

To my surprise, I received a very prompt and full reply, and more surprisingly, discovered that R was a Canadian grandmother. Here is part of the reply I received:

Thank you for writing. Your letter gives me courage that there is still time to stop the awful situation. I wish I knew how. But all I can think is that with the majority of the people in the world believing this war is wrong there has to be a way to stop the terrible madness. I am now in Albania. I left Iraq and drove back to France, then flew to Albania as I have a commitment here to build a garden in the centre of this terribly damaged country. I am very torn to have left Baghdad. Some of the friends I travelled with are still there. I am not able to contact them easily except by transmitting messages through the staff at the hotel where we were living. I am very touched by the hotel team when I call because they seem so glad to hear from me and I feel I have done so little.

The following day, March 11th, I wrote back as follows:

Dear R,

How kind of you to return my letter so swiftly. You can hardly imagine how surprised I was to discover not one but two replies to my short note. In some respects I am glad to hear that you have left Baghdad and certainly you have every reason to hold your head high and to tell your grandchildren about the courageous stand you and your friends have taken. Perhaps if you were naïve then that was only in your belief that thousands would follow you into danger, since it is hard to follow your grand commitment (and more importantly, most, like myself, quite frankly lack the courage, if not also the conviction, to do so). The fact that the media were more interested in Gustavo than the human volunteers says much, I feel, for our difficulty in seeing the innocence of others (it is easy to sympathise with a dog who “has no axe to grind” but what motivates the rest of you it is easy to wonder?) And many will be cynical, since it’s hard to comprehend acts of selflessness when you inhabit a world fashioned by the heartless demands of global capitalism.

It is worrying to hear that the other human shields have been moved to “strategic sites”. This was reported on the news and given as the reason why many had already left Iraq, and we have also heard that Saddam used human shields in the last conflict to protect his armaments. I hope that your friends will not allow themselves to be sacrificed to protect Saddam – that would be an appalling tragedy.

Your analysis of the crisis is spot on: “it is unforgivable that men of violence keep each other in power by persuading frightened people that violence is the only path”. We all should act against this barbarism. You have played a big part whereas a million in London have made our voices heard in a smaller way. You ask if I have any ideas. Then may I quote you again: “protest against this war loudly and strongly in whatever way you can”! And here I believe that in Britain more than anywhere we hold the real key. The population is split and it is reckoned that without a second resolution (which in any case will undoubtedly be vetoed by the French) only something like 30% are in favour of war, which means a very sizeable majority remain frustrated. Tony Blair is a frightened man and I don’t know if you saw how badly Jack Straw (our foreign secretary) lost his composure at the UN recently. So the ruling Labour Party is deeply divided (yesterday Clare Short, a cabinet member, described Blair as “reckless”). On top of this there is a groundswell.

Last week hundreds of schoolchildren in Britain abandoned their lessons and took to the streets. In Sheffield they marched into the university and drummed up support from the much older students and then collectively they marched into the city centre. This is unprecedented. And these disaffected groups have such a diverse make-up, crossing the usual boundaries of age, class, or nationality.

These are a few very good reasons for optimism though at heart I confess that I am pessimistic for the simple reason that Blair takes no notice. ONE MILLION march into London and all he does is to acknowledge our right to free speech! That is simply not enough! What kind of democracy is run on the whim of one man? What is needed then is some way of demanding Blair’s attention.

There is a plan that when war begins (as it surely will) people should drop whatever it is they are doing and congregate outside the town hall wherever they happen to be and protest. That we should block the streets, cause peaceful civil unrest, and demand our right to be heard. If this happens then it represents the beginnings of a sea-change in what might loosely be called politics. But will it happen? Will I join the protests? Certainly I support the idea. But success depends on solidarity and a movement of colossal size when probably most (myself included) will stay at our desks (either too disinterested or too cowed to take such daring unilateral action). In any case, when war has begun it will be hard not to think that we have already failed.

Perhaps the best hope then is that we can forestall the war indefinitely – though the date indelibly in the Bush diary is March 17 – but the fact that France, Russia and Germany are refusing to co-operate and that Hans Blix has remained so unflinching throughout keeps the pressure on. We too must try to keep the pressure up, though this is difficult with time running short. One beautiful thing that happened yesterday was that at the end of a TV debate Tony Blair was actually slow hand clapped by the audience – he must be getting the message by now!

Before I finish, may I just ask about Albania? Albania is one of those places that gets forgotten. I have no idea what Albania is like these days (not that I have much idea what Albania was like during the Cold War). Then today I read an article in The Guardian newspaper saying that Britain is intending to send its asylum seekers to camps in Albania. For a government that claims to want “to liberate the people of Iraq” it takes a rather dim view of “illegal immigrants” who are we’re told “an increasing problem”. So we will send them away to camps in Albania, where The Guardian claims, they will be faced with rabies and encephalitis-carrying ticks amongst the other hazards. My government makes me sick. To judge from the tail of your email you have a much better chap in charge of Canada.

I hope that this letter finds you happy and well. I will send it to your old email address since there is nothing urgent contained within its rambling bulk. I hope I haven’t disillusioned you by taking a more pessimistic tone. And thank you for the quote from Lao Tzu (may we all be as wise) and let me finish with another, and one that is perhaps better known:

heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs

In the words of Philip Larkin, we should be kind to one another, while there is still time.

Warmest regards, James.

Little more than a week later, on March 20th (and so a mere three days after the date anticipated) war on Iraq began in earnest. Shock and awe missile strikes punishing those down on the streets of Baghdad who had no quarrel with us at all.

As the months passed, increasingly disillusioned with the state of world affairs and depressed by problems at work which were affecting me more personally, I had continued writing to R who was keen that we should keep in contact. She was still helping out on the garden project in Albania. Eventually, however, the correspondence between us dried up, perhaps, the ties were frayed as (when I look back honestly) I increasingly presented her with issues and problems, seeking her counsel as a sort of surrogate therapist, instead of maintaining proper relations as a distant friend. In any case, the last reply I received from R began as follows:

You sound like you are in a real muddle.

Suddenly finding you are about to lose your work, part-time or otherwise is disconcerting at the best of times. Indeed, we have never met in person but nonetheless, from your writing and description of yourself you sound like someone deep in thought and short on action. I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to say so. I am a bit of an introvert myself so I can recognize the symptoms. At least I think I can.

So….my best advice of the day is to get out and get in touch with the world. Stay connected. The world is full of good and decent people but you have to seek them out. I get terribly depressed when I listen to the American media talk about Iraq and suggest that an Iraqi life is not worth that of an Americans’. It makes me sick. But as Henry Miller said to Erica Jong…..”don’t let the naysayers get you down”. Life is long and all you can really do about it is get up each day and put one foot in front of the other.

Am I that transparent, I wondered. A few informal letters and I’m an open book! No doubt this is a reason her advice stuck with me ever since. 2 But the part of her letter that most caught my attention was the quote… “don’t let the naysayers get you down”. I have frequently pondered it ever since, before gradually forming an opinion that leads to a contrary but complementary conclusion. Not that we should let the naysayers get us down, obviously, but that aside from carrying a psychological shield to guard against their highly infectious gloom and doom, we might also take great care to guard against the eternal hope of the yea-sayers.

For though, in the West at least, we are lucky to be alive during times of incomparable plenty and considerable social freedom, not to mention relative peace and political stability, there is a great deal we are justified in feeling miserable and resentful about. Firstly, that this ‘best of all times’ is already under a sustained attack, and unless we organise our fight back then this decline is likely to accelerate, both our freedom and relative prosperity withering away altogether. But secondly, that we, the human race, have long since held far greater potential, and might easily surpass this false summit offered by our impressive western civilisations. For it is really not that our ease and pleasure still relies for its purchase on the burdened backs of those who distantly suffer; if indeed it ever truly did. There is no zero-sum game at work in this regard. Moving our slavery abroad has instead created a new and different kind of underclass at home, bringing unprecedented miseries since ones never before juxtaposed by such comparative wealth.

Not long ago, the vast majority of resources were remote and insecure. Mere survival forced almost everyone into hours of labour that were excessively long and hard. Today with abundant resources, human labour is being made redundant thanks to new technologies. It is self-evident that we need to find fairer methods for distributing our resources as well as a sensible approach to maximising the new freedom arising from our gradual replacement by automated systems. Certainly we should not let the Malthusian naysayers get us down, although we must of course guard against Pollyanna optimism too, and especially of those who tell us to enjoy the good times and stop moaning. For so long as the good times can and should be far better again, then surely moaning is the least we can do. We stop moaning at our peril!

First chapter…

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1 Martin Luther King, jr, Strength to Love. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963/1981: 27-28

2 In the same letter, R also suggested “putting one foot in front of the other” more literally, recommending, to help clear away the cobwebs, that I might like to walk the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a major route of Christian pilgrimage which starts from many locations in France, Belgium, German or inside Spain itself extending for over a thousand miles and finishing at Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Spanish province of Galicia. I have yet to pick up her prescription (though perhaps one day in the future I shall).

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Filed under Albania, « finishing the rat race », Iraq

Afghanistan: the war you didn’t see

A war that began with the massacre of hundreds of captured Taliban soldiers who were crammed into shipping containers and left to suffocate under the baking desert sun – the containers vented with machine gun fire once the victims pleaded for air – now ends with the targeted drone killing of a family and credible reports of the indiscriminate shooting of dozens more innocent civilians in the ensuing pandemonium after Thursday’s ISIS-K suicide bombing:

With the spotlight now fixed on Afghanistan and Kabul in particular, these latest atrocities have received an uncommon level of mainstream coverage, shedding light on what the public is only seldom permitted to see. These images and reports present us with the true face of the West’s dirty war and a glimpse of the day-to-day evils of a foreign occupation. They should also lead to the following questions:

How many more men, women and children have been casually butchered by “soldiers” an ocean away playing computer games for real in their air-conditioned offices? Moreover, what warfare could ever be more asymmetric than the cowardly terrorisation of a population by drones?

How many innocent others have been mown down by the indiscriminate fire of automatic weapons, whether unleashed by panicked troops or else with cold-blooded deliberation?

And lastly, how many more horrific war crimes have been perpetrated by western troops or their “allies” in the vast wilderness of the Afghan deserts?

As Harold Pinter said in his Nobel Prize winning speech delivered in 2005:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.

Continuing:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

Watch it above and read it in full here – it is without doubt one of the greatest political speeches of all-time.

Update:

Glenn Greenwald contrasts the US media’s immediate embrace of the Biden administration’s false claim that its Afghan drone strike killed no civilians, with its polar-opposite Trump-era posture of extreme scepticism:

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In 2011, investigative journalist and filmmaker John Pilger released a documentary entitled “The War You Don’t See” in which he exposed the western media’s central role and historic complicity in manufacturing consent for wars.

In the film, he says:

“We journalists… have to be brave enough to defy those who seek our collusion in selling their latest bloody adventure in someone else’s country… That means always challenging the official story, however patriotic that story may appear, however seductive and insidious it is. For propaganda relies on us in the media to aim its deceptions not at a far away country but at you at home… In this age of endless imperial war, the lives of countless men, women and children depend on the truth or their blood is on us… Those whose job it is to keep the record straight ought to be the voice of people, not power.”

Framing the current plight of the people of Afghanistan within its broader political and historical context, Pilger writes in his latest article:

As a tsunami of crocodile tears engulfs Western politicians, history is suppressed. More than a generation ago, Afghanistan won its freedom, which the United States, Britain and their “allies” destroyed.

In 1978, a liberation movement led by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the dictatorship of Mohammad Dawd, the cousin of King Zahir Shar. It was an immensely popular revolution that took the British and Americans by surprise.

Foreign journalists in Kabul, reported the New York Times, were surprised to find that “nearly every Afghan they interviewed said [they were] delighted with the coup”. The Wall Street Journal reported that “150,000 persons … marched to honour the new flag …the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.”

The Washington Post reported that “Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned”. Secular, modernist and, to a considerable degree, socialist, the government declared a programme of visionary reforms that included equal rights for women and minorities. Political prisoners were freed and police files publicly burned.

Under the monarchy, life expectancy was thirty-five; one in three children died in infancy. Ninety per cent of the population was illiterate. The new government introduced free medical care. A mass literacy campaign was launched.

For women, the gains had no precedent; by the late 1980s, half the university students were women, and women made up 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s doctors, 70 per cent of its teachers and 30 per cent of its civil servants.

So radical were the changes that they remain vivid in the memories of those who benefited. Saira Noorani, a female surgeon who fled Afghanistan in 2001, recalled:

Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go where we wanted and wear what we liked … We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian films on a Friday … it all started to go wrong when the mujahedin started winning … these were the people the West supported.

For the United States, the problem with the PDPA government was that it was supported by the Soviet Union. Yet it was never the “puppet” derided in the West, neither was the coup against the monarchy “Soviet backed”, as the American and British press claimed at the time.

President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, later wrote in his memoirs: “We had no evidence of any Soviet complicity in the coup.”

In the same administration was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser, a Polish émigré and fanatical anti-communist and moral extremist whose enduring influence on American presidents expired only with his death in 2017.

On 3 July 1979, unknown to the American people and Congress, Carter authorised a $500 million “covert action” programme to overthrow Afghanistan’s first secular, progressive government.  This was code-named by the CIA Operation Cyclone.

The $500 million bought, bribed and armed a group of tribal and religious zealots known as the mujahedin. In his semi-official history, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward wrote that the CIA spent $70 million on bribes alone. He describes a meeting between a CIA agent known as “Gary” and a warlord called Amniat-Melli:

Gary placed a bundle of cash on the table: $500,000 in one-foot stacks of $100 bills. He believed it would be more impressive than the usual $200,000, the best way to say we’re here, we’re serious, here’s money, we know you need it … Gary would soon ask CIA headquarters for and receive $10 million in cash.

Recruited from all over the Muslim world, America’s secret army was trained in camps in Pakistan run by Pakistani intelligence, the CIA and Britain’s MI6. Others were recruited at an Islamic College in Brooklyn, New York – within sight of the doomed Twin Towers. One of the recruits was a Saudi engineer called Osama bin Laden.

The aim was to spread Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia and destabilise and eventually destroy the Soviet Union.

Aptly entitled “The Great Game of Smashing Countries”, I very much encourage readers to follow the link to the full article and so will merely add Pilger’s concluding remarks:

The invasion of Afghanistan was a fraud. In the wake of 9/11, the Taliban sought to distant themselves from Osama bin Laden. They were, in many respects, an American client with which the administration of Bill Clinton had done a series of secret deals to allow the building of a $3 billion natural gas pipeline by a US oil company consortium.

In high secrecy, Taliban leaders had been invited to the US and entertained by the CEO of the Unocal company in his Texas mansion and by the CIA at its headquarters in Virginia. One of the deal-makers was Dick Cheney, later George W. Bush’s Vice-President.

In 2010, I was in Washington and arranged to interview the mastermind of Afghanistan’s modern era of suffering, Zbigniew Brzezinski. I quoted to him his autobiography in which he admitted that his grand scheme for drawing the Soviets into Afghanistan had created “a few stirred up Muslims”.

“Do you have any regrets?” I asked.

“Regrets! Regrets! What regrets?”

When we watch the current scenes of panic at Kabul airport, and listen to journalists and generals in distant TV studios bewailing the withdrawal of “our protection”, isn’t it time to heed the truth of the past so that all this suffering never happens again?

Click here to read John Pilger’s full article published by Counterpunch on Wednesday August 25th.

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Additional:

On August 27th, independent journalist Katie Halper spoke with three-times Nobel Peace Prize nominated peace activist Kathy Kelly, who since 2010 has made thirteen trips to Afghanistan, and with anti-war veteran and author Danny Sjursen. They discussed the true motives behind the Afghanistan War and carefully deconstructed the media narrative about women’s rights and human rights:

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Filed under Afghanistan, al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, analysis & opinion, John Pilger, USA

failure in Afghanistan was inevitable yet the noble lies of the “war on terror” persist

In the last few days we have heard a great deal about the plight of Afghanistan, which is in stark contrast to the last two decades when there has been next to no news reporting from this war-torn and beleaguered nation. The officially recorded quarter of a million lives lost in the last twenty years of western invasion and occupation have mostly happened unseen; the millions more soldiers and civilians who lost their limbs, eyes, genitals or were otherwise mutilated by shrapnel and high explosives and others who fell victim to shadowy CIA-backed death squads have likewise hardly received any mention.

On December 18th 2020, Democracy Now! spoke to Andrew Quilty of The Intercept about his shocking exposé of how CIA-backed death squads in Afghanistan have killed children as young as eight-years old in a series of night raids on madrassas, which are Islamic religious schools:

Yet it is only in the aftermath of America’s shambolic and humiliating exit when suddenly there is any outpouring of expressed concern for the plight of women and children (in particular), as if all the drones and the air strikes and the CIA black sites and Trump’s “mother of all bombs” were their last and only salvation from the admittedly monstrous Taliban. And I say admittedly monstrous, but again, these are strictly speaking our monsters; ones America trained and funded to be the cat’s paw that ultimately defeated the Soviet Union.

As Hillary Clinton admitted an interview to Fox News: “we have helped to create the problem we are now fighting”:

And here is a different statement made by Hillary Clinton justifying the US support for the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets under Operation Cyclone:

Click here and here to watch different uploads of the same clips available on DailyMotion.

More recently the western powers have trained, funded and also provided air support for comparable and arguably worse Islamist factions in order to bring about regime change in Libya and to attempt another overthrow in Syria – if you’ve never heard of it, look up Timber Sycamore. This is how western foreign policy operates covertly today.

For a better perspective on moral responsibility, here is Noam Chomsky’s response to a concerned pro-war critic speaking at a forum held on October 18th 2001 (the war began on October 7th) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):

Click here to watch the full debate. The excerpt above is from 3:50 mins of the second part which is a Q+A session.

The extreme levels of hypocrisy and ahistorical revisionism surrounding the Afghan War (so often downplayed as merely an “intervention”) make the task of unravelling the truth a difficult one, so I shall leave it to two US war veterans turned activists to supply the details.

Mike Prysner served in Iraq and afterwards became co-founder of March Forward!, an organisation of active-duty members of the U.S. military and veterans that encourages current active-duty service personnel to resist deployment. Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. A veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, he also served in seven other conflict areas.

In an interview with Katie Halper (embedded below), Mike Prysner addresses a range of questions that cover the true historical background to conflict, the serious issues around women’s rights, and gives valuable insight into how for more than a decade the war was officially but secretly acknowledged as a failure. In more sardonic tone, Stan Goff gives praise to Biden for finally ending the perpetual war and considers the true repercussions of the US withdrawal. Please skip down the page for these excellent pieces.

Update: On Thursday 19th, Novara Media spoke with British Labour MP Clive Lewis, a veteran of the Afghanistan War who did not get a chance to speak during the previous day’s parliamentary debate:

My purpose here is instead to scrutinise the latent ideology that actually drove the West into this well-named “graveyard of empires” and that entirely inflamed the “war on terror”. Once this is properly understood, it becomes clear that as Joe Biden confessed in his recent White House speech on Monday 16th:

Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.

Of course, for these candid admissions, Biden has received furious bipartisan opprobrium from the usual hand-wringing politicians and media alike, although this part of his statement is nothing more than the unvarnished truth.

Moreover, when George W Bush told the world two decades ago that America was hunting down Osama Bin Laden “wanted: dead or alive”, he was clearly playing both to an audience traumatised by the attacks of 9/11 and one brought up on Hollywood stories where the guys with the white hats are unimpeachably good and always win.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the neo-con faction who seized power were eager to launch a global US-led military offensive on the pretext of a “new Pearl Harbor” that neatly fitted the one outlined in their own document Rebuilding America’s Defenses published almost precisely one year earlier.

Furthermore, if the Afghanis were the immediate victims of this neo-con strategy that got the ball rolling on “the New American Century”, then even from the outset it was abundantly clear that the next target would be Iraq. In a letter to President Bush dated September 20th (scarcely more than a week after 9/11), the neo-con think tank Project for the New American Century (PNAC) led by William Kristol and Rober Kagan already implored the president to ramp up his “war on terrorism”, specifying:

We agree that a key goal, but by no means the only goal, of the current war on terrorism should be to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and to destroy his network of associates. To this end, we support the necessary military action in Afghanistan and the provision of substantial financial and military assistance to the anti-Taliban forces in that country.

Continuing in the next paragraph under the heading “Iraq”:

We agree with Secretary of State [Colin] Powell’s recent statement that Saddam Hussein “is one of the leading terrorists on the face of the Earth….” It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.

Clearly then, the neo-cons were not interested in “justice” (the official spin) but determined to embark on a vast neo-imperialist project that in their own terms would bring about a Pax Americana. However even this is a lie, of course, as they knew perfectly well too, since peace was never a serious concern. But the neo-cons unflinchingly justified every deception in terms their intellectual progenitor Leo Strauss espoused: for these were “noble lies”.

Significantly, the neo-cons are the direct heirs of Strauss and not only because Paul Wolfowitz was one of his most notable students. Strauss’s uncompromising worldview is the main inspiration to the whole neo-con ideology. In order to better understand their methods and motives, therefore, we must take a closer look at Straussian philosophy.

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In 2003, Danny Postel, who is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and former senior editor of openDemocracy, produced an extended article based on an interview with Shadia Drury, professor of political theory at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and a leading scholarly critic of Leo Strauss.

The article entitled “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” is a really excellent one and its significance is very much resonant today – why? Because although the discussion surrounds the illegal Iraq invasion, it considers the motives of the same cast of neo-cons who launched the “war on terror” against Afghanistan; both conflicts clearly intended to deliver corresponding geopolitical ends.

Of course, it more or less goes without saying that the “war on terror” was an absolute godsend for the military-industrial complex. As America’s most decorated general Smedley Butler told us: war is a racket! – which is always the bottom line.

Top 5 US Defence Contractors shock market gains since 2001

But what of the ideology behind the neo-cons and the importance of Leo Strauss? Well, the key to following their methods, and to seeing why their approach has been so succesful in inculcating a pro-war consciousness amongst the liberal classes, lies in understanding their basic stratification of society into three layers: the wise few (the elite, and in their terms, rightful rulers), the vulgar many (the majority), and the gentlemen. Crucially, it is role of the gentlemen to be the unwitting enablers, who, according to this scheme, although well-intentioned are simply useful idiots who are manipulated to achieve the desired ends for the ruling elite. As Shadia Drury says:

“There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the higher pleasures, which amount to consorting with their puppies or young initiates.

“The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that is, the illusions of the cave [reference to Plato’s cave]. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.

“The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.”

She continues:

“For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.”

Drury then considers Strauss’s immediate philosophical influences, before summarising his general political outlook as follows:

“Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and creature comforts. Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.

“This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.

“I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.”

Understood in this context, it is perfectly easy to see why the neo-cons would be keen to initiate conflicts that might then go on indefinitely. Although Drury herself offers a caveat saying that factions within the neo-cons may also have somewhat different aspirations; ones that more closely align with those ‘the gentlemen’ are in fact encouraged to believe:

“I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these idealists and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.

“I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching, which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the nocturnal or covert teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.”

To sum up then, the chief architects of the “war on terror” which began in Afghanistan hold views that are (in Drury’s own terms) wholly fascistic, although into that mix we must admit that some do believe in globalised neoliberalism. Soft or hard, the imperialist desire is both undeniable and unrestrained.

I have appended an unabridged version of their “guide to his influence on US neo-conservatism” that takes the form of Q+A interview with all highlights and links retained at the end and recommend reading it all – indeed following the link to read the original article.

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Understanding Afghanistan with Anti-war Iraq Veteran Mike Prysner

On August 16th, political commentator Katie Halper invited Mike Prysner, an Iraq veteran, anti-war activist and organiser, producer of Empire Files and co-host of the Eyes Left Podcast to share his thoughts on the war in Afghanistan, what needed to happen, and what needs to happen next. Their discussion features in the first 45 minutes of the video upload embedded below. I have also produced a full transcript with relevant links included.

Katie Halper: [from 2:05 mins]

I just wanted to know your perspective on this as someone who was an anti-war former soldier, a current veteran – I guess you’re always a veteran – what you thought of what’s happening in Afghanistan. If you could just set up where we are right now and I guess the question I have is what could have been done? What should have been done? And what needs to happen now?

Mike Prysner: [from 2:30 mins]

I just want to say from the outset that I wasn’t in Afghanistan – I was in Iraq. I joined the army two months before the September 11th attacks in 2001, so I witnessed the Afghanistan war from an inside perspective. From the beginning, even though I was sent to, as Obama called it, ‘the dumb war’, instead of ‘the smart war’ which is Afghanistan: that whole framing…

But I’ve been super-engaged in this issue for the duration because after I separated from the military in 2005 and became a part of the anti-war movement, since then [I’ve been] very much a part of organising around the Afghanistan war specifically – so mobilisations for the anniversary of Afghanistan, but in particular, working with active-duty soldiers who were deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq. And so, I got that inside perspective of organising with Afghanistan veterans who were then returning to the country, helping them resist orders to go, and still to this day I’m in touch with that community.

I know a lot of people normally don’t talk about Afghanistan – a lot of people are talking about it now who never talked about it before. But my engagement with the issue of Afghanistan was always around creating media content and agitation directed at active-duty soldiers who were about to deploy. So having to follow the issue very closely because we were literally on a military bases talking to soldiers who were having orders to go – and talking to them about their options for why they should not go, and all the political and strategic reasons why they shouldn’t as well.

My take on what’s happening now is… what we’re seeing now is what we knew back in Obama’s first term. You know I think in 2009-2010 there was probably still some hope among the Pentagon establishment that the war could be turned around. I mean the Taliban were dispersed within the first months of the US invasion, but then once they started mounting a comeback there was probably some belief in the Pentagon brass that they could turn the war around and emerge victorious.

But by 2011, it was clear to the military establishment – the top generals, the commanders, all of them – they knew that they couldn’t win. They knew that they could never defeat the Taliban. They knew that the only possible victory that the US military and US government could get out of Afghanistan was putting enough military pressure on the Taliban where the Taliban would enter a power-sharing agreement. Where they’d say okay we get 50% of the new government and the US-backed puppet government will get 50%.

So that since about 2010 that’s what the US has been pursuing. The troop surge in Afghanistan – all these massive strategies that led to large numbers of people dying on US and Afghan sides and the Nato side – all of that was on the understanding that the US couldn’t actually defeat the Taliban. All they could do was maybe give them enough of a bloody nose where the Taliban would concede and say maybe we’ll do a 50/50 government. So that’s really been the goal of the war for the entire time.

You know in 2011, is when there is this major report came out by a guy named Lieutenant-Colonel [Daniel] Davis, and he was tasked by the Pentagon to travel to every province in Afghanistan – travel 9,000 miles across the country – and give an honest assessment of how everything was going. And he came back and he went out to the media and he said ‘we’ve got to get out now’. He’s like ‘I’ve seen the war more than anyone else – for a longer period of years than anyone else – and we have lost and there is no possibility for us to win’. I mean this is back in 2011 that he did this.

From that point on the Pentagon knew that there was no military victory against the Taliban and the best they could do was unity government. Even that seemed almost impossible to accomplish because the Afghan puppet forces were not reliable, they weren’t capable, and you know the Taliban were just a strong resistance force. And that knew then too that if there was a US withdrawal the very situation we are seeing today would happen.

You know in 2019, we had the Pentagon Papers [aka Afghanistan Papers], the bombshell revelation that came out, which made a little bit of a media splash but not much – you know Joe Biden was very much implicated in the Pentagon Papers as one of the people who helped cover up how badly the Afghanistan war was going. He got one debate question the Primary that was hammering him for it, but he never really had to answer for that.

For those who don’t know, really what the Pentagon Papers revealed was that, particularly throughout the Obama administration, all of the generals were going to the White House and saying ‘by every metric we have lost the war – by every metric’ and the Obama administration went back and said ‘well create a metric that has us winning the war’. So they created all these false charts for progress of oh, we built this many schools compared to five years before, so that shows we’re winning! They just created all these fake rationales to show there was progress. To deceive the American people into thinking there was some hope for a victory in Afghanistan, while they knew all along they were just lying to the American people.

So, for example, the maps that we are seeing now of how quickly the Taliban took over – where you see the provinces outlined – and saying two months ago the Afghan government controlled all of these provinces and now it’s all Taliban controlled – I mean most of those have been under Taliban control forever – as the Pentagon Papers show, the US is just lying about what provinces the US-backed Afghan government controlled. So this has been, of course, a dire situation for the US for a long time.

For the United States they know that it looks bad for the image of the empire. A war that they can’t win – to just be bogged down for twenty years in a military quagmire where we can talk about how badly they were losing – but when they try to go out into the countryside they are hammered and kicked back to the main bases and then they could have dealt with maybe this endless stalemate situation, but that looks back for the empire. And so for a long time the Pentagon has acknowledged that they need to retreat. They need to leave.

And really this is what happened under Obama, when Obama announced his troop surge – his flooding of soldiers into every remote area of Afghanistan – like bulking up troop numbers to 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan bolstered by a lot of Nato forces too – because it wasn’t just a defeat for the US but every other major imperialist army was a part of this. You know when Obama announced we are going to do this troop surge but then we’re going to leave in two years – announcing the end of the war – they knew that they are going to be retreating and so it’s very similar to the Vietnam war where once the White House and the Pentagon knew ‘we’ve lost – we can’t win’ instead of just saying ‘well if we’ve lost and we can’t win and the outcome of a conquest by our enemies is the same no matter what, [so] why don’t we  just leave right now and stop killing people and stop having our own people [killed]’ but the hubris of the American political machine doesn’t allow that.

I mean what President wants to admit defeat at the hands of an insurgency that’s using rifles from a hundred years ago? No-one wants to be in that position of admitting defeat and so what we’ve seen over the past more than a decade has really been a slow-motion retreat by the US empire. Knowing that eventually they are going to fully leave, but like Nixon did, the strategy of ‘peace through honour’, meaning ‘yes we’ve lost, we’ve got to end the war, but we’re going to kill a bunch more people on our way out, so it doesn’t seem like the empire has been defeated so badly’.

So that’s really been the strategy [with] an acceptance that the US would eventually leave…

[connection problems briefly cut the conversation]

Katie Halper: [from 10:40 mins]

I was listening to you on Brian Becker’s show on his podcast [embedded immediately below], and I don’t know if I ever knew this, or I don’t know if my politics were so naive that I didn’t think this was a big deal, but I didn’t realise that… the Taliban said that they were willing to give up Osama Bin Laden and the United States said ‘we refuse to negotiate with terrorists’ – again, it shouldn’t have been shocking, but it was shocking. Can you talk about that and what the significance is and what it reveals about the United States’ motives in Afghanistan?

Mike Prysner: [from 11:20 mins]

Yeah. Well, it’s important to remind people that the Taliban had nothing to do with the September 11th attacks – no role in it. Of course, Bin Laden from being essentially an operative and ally of the United States through the war in the 1980s and funded by the United States, you know had training camps and a base of operation for his al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. And maybe there was some overlap with Taliban people going to the al-Qaeda schools. You know they’re in a war with a group called the Northern Alliance and so they would send some of their soldiers to al-Qaeda training camps that existed in Afghanistan.

But the Taliban did not support the 9/11 attacks. They condemned the 9/11 attacks, so it was a shock to them when all of a sudden the US was talking about the Taliban and at the time the Taliban was trying very hard to prevent that from happening.

And we’re not just talking about this ragtag group that’s just issuing statements from the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had a robust press network and so they’d have spokespeople who would give press conferences in English in countries in the region and would be talking directly to the United States saying ‘we’re trying to negotiate; we don’t support what happened; we want to find a resolution’ and they even said in these press conferences ‘the United States used to call us freedom fighters, not too long ago – and then all of a sudden we’re terrorists and they won’t negotiate with us’.

So that is what happened, as you recounted it Katie. The Taliban offered a solution where the US didn’t have to invade and occupy the government in Afghanistan but that wasn’t really the motives for the US going into Afghanistan. The US didn’t really invade Afghanistan because they thought that was the only way to destroy al-Qaeda and get Osama Bin Laden. They easily could have done that through other methods.

The reason that they wanted to invade Afghanistan is because the Taliban weren’t subservient collaborators to the United States. I mean Clinton in the ’90s had tried very hard to build relationships. He didn’t care that the Taliban lynched people when they came to power in the ’90s. He just cared that maybe they could sign an oil contract together. Unocal, the oil company, flew delegations of Taliban leaders to Texas to stay in their ranches and discuss plans for oil pipelines.

But the Taliban wasn’t that interested in that kind of development and they weren’t a subservient client state to the United States. So any country that is in its own orbit – [enjoys] its own independence – and isn’t a client to US corporations and subservient to the US government, they get targeted for destruction. And so when 9/11 happened, the US government said ‘great, this is perfect’ because we’ve been trying to negotiate with these guys and they won’t let us build this pipeline, or they won’t let us have a military base, so we’ll just overthrow them, set up our own puppet government – move over to Iraq, overthrow them, set up a puppet government, move over to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Sudan – all the countries that were on their list for overthrow after the 9/11 attacks.

So that was the reason in the first place. I mean that’s really what’s behind it. It was never really about al-Qaeda. And it was never really about giving the Afghan people a better life from the Taliban. But to answer your question, yes, it was a totally avoidable war in the first place – there was no reason to do – but if you can remember at that time, I mean support for it was high.

[And 9/11] was used as a way for the US to achieve its other objectives, which is proven by the fact that we ended up in Iraq a year later, which had less to do with 9/11 than the Taliban.

Katie Halper: [from 15:25 mins]

There’s a kind of parallel between the way people frame the war in Afghanistan with the first Iraq War. There’s a whole group of liberals who consider the first Iraq War, ‘the good Gulf War’, and the war in Afghanistan, ‘the good response to 9/11’. As you have pointed out, and others have pointed out, that’s not the case and… I don’t know if you know about Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez – they started “not in our name” – their son Greg was in one of the towers when he was killed, and they immediately knew that the US government was going to try to use this to justify a war and they wrote a letter saying “Not in our son’s name”… you know, he didn’t die so that you could use his name to invade another country.

And you know what she told me…? She told me that they wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that they didn’t publish. Can you imagine? Right after 9/11, you have one of the parents of the people who died saying ‘don’t go to war in our son’s name’ – can you imagine the gall of the New York Times not even printing that op-ed?  Like not even seeing the newsworthiness of it? They’re such ideologues that they would not publish that.

Mike Prysner: [from 16:50 mins]

The first major demonstration against war on Afghanistan occurred, I think it was four days after the September 11th attacks. It was about 40,000 people – so it’s not a small crowd. The slogan of the march: the banner was “war won’t bring our loved ones back”, and the march was led by people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks [Guardian report from Sept 20th ­­] .

And then all the headlines about this fairly significant anti-war demonstration after 9/11 was like ‘people rally in support of terrorists’ and ‘people rally in support of negotiating with terrorists and not fighting terrorism’ and things like that. So it just gives you a window into the war fervour in the country post-9/11, which continued for quite a long time.

I mean even in the anti-war movement there was an entire sector that supported the Afghanistan war. Even in Veterans Against the War, it was controversial – it wasn’t okay to talk about Afghanistan too, in fact it was too alienating to lots of veterans who were in the anti-war movement – ‘I joined the army to go fight in Afghanistan, I didn’t join to go fight in Iraq’. It was a significant faction that had to be battled against for a long time.

And so that’s [what] Obama essentially campaigned on: he campaigned on the intense opposition to the Iraq War, but kind of this idea: ‘weren’t we supposed to go fight in Afghanistan…? And then immediately we went to Iraq and then we lost the war in Afghanistan’. So Obama’s thing was, we’re going to get out of Iraq (‘the dumb war’) and then we’re going to win the war in Afghanistan. And that got a lot of support from liberal-minded people as well.

But that’s when that new era began that really defined the Afghanistan War. The US said: ‘okay, we were slacking, focussing too much on Iraq, so now we’re going to get everyone out of Iraq (not everyone) but we’re going to get a good portion of people out of Iraq and send them right to Afghanistan, and then we’re going to try to completely overwhelm the Taliban’. And even when the United States had an insane number of troops there – and they were everywhere in Afghanistan – there was really no place where they really could win or beat back the Taliban. So I think that’s one of the hidden histories of the Afghanistan War.

I mean you have the US outposts out in the middle of the countryside with [about] 40 soldiers there – 40 US troops – this is what a normal day would be like: you would get up (and this is just recounting from countless friends of mine) and you would leave the gates of your base to go on a patrol that had no purpose other than to say ‘hey, we’re here! we’re patrolling this area’.

You get a hundred yards off the base, if you’re lucky, when you start getting shot at by people that you do not see – they are a thousand yards away just harassing you with sniper fire and machine gun fire – at some point on your little walk, your little pointless walk through a bunch of fields that have no purpose to walk through for any reason, some will get blown up by an IED because you’re walking on paths every day – and you know the signature wound of the Afghan War around that time (the surge time) was triple amputations; so losing usually two legs and one arm and your genitalia (I think when the troop surge happened there was about a 92% increase in wounds to genitalia – that became really the most common wound)… If you kept your legs you probably lost a bunch more flesh down there.

So every day you’d go on these completely meaningless, pointless patrols, where basically the point was just to get shot at so then you know who to shoot back at, which most of the time they didn’t do anyway. Then you’d go back to your base at night, and then at night you would just come under heavy assault by missiles and mortars and indirect fire. And sometimes you’d have hundreds of Taliban fighters assaulting a little outpost that had 40 US soldiers. And this was happening all over the country… and in a lot of cases you had Taliban fighters getting over the wall, and being inside the US base and being killed inside the US base.

The job of US soldiers then was basically to be bait for these Taliban to come – it was exactly like the Vietnam War: you’re on a hilltop [and] you’re just bait for the Taliban to attack, and your job is to survive long enough for air support to get to you. So you start getting attacked, you call in air support, it takes 30 minutes or so for the Apache helicopters, the A-10s, [and] the B-52 bombers to come in and just level the area where you’re being attacked from with heavy munitions.

So that really defined the troop surge era of the war. I mean it was just a complete failure from a military standpoint and it was just completely senseless bloodshed. There’s even a lot of rebellion and opposition among soldiers who are very pro-military and pro-war – blowing the whistle on all this, just saying there’s no reason for us to do this; there’s no reason for us to go on these convoys; no reason to go on these patrols. We’re just meant to be bait. We’re just meant to be sitting ducks.

All of those deaths then were just completely pointless. And then the US realised, you know this strategy doesn’t work at all. They retreated from all those areas all across the country – you know places like Korangal Valley [nicknamed “The Valley of Death”] which was ‘the most strategically important valley’ of the Afghanistan War. Like 120 US soldiers died defending just this one valley and then at the end of this two year period of huge battles there, the Pentagon said: ‘you know what this valley doesn’t actually matter at all, we’re just going to go back here’. So that really was emblematic of the war.

So then the US pulled back to its main bases and that defined the war in the post-surge era when US casualties went down, but that’s because they basically had retreated from most of the country already [and] were just holed up on the big bases, where they are operating through proxy forces and special operations. And then the ironic thing about that too is that the US said: the US casualties are getting too serious, we need to just hide out on the bases and send our proxy forces out. Well, when they tried that strategy the number one killer of US troops became the Afghan soldiers who they were training just killing them.

So you had tons of people who were either Taliban or just anti-US joining the Afghan army and then within a week they’re sitting there with US soldiers getting trained on how to shoot, they just turn their guns around and kill all the US soldiers training them. So then it became even too strategically untenable to have US soldiers training troops back in these supposedly super-safe and secure bases. So from every angle it was a total military defeat. Mind you we’re talking about a decade ago that it was that bad, and they knew at that point we’re not going to make any more progress.

You know Trump came in and thought he could win the war by taking bombing to a whole new level, and that was really Trump’s legacy in Afghanistan. Although he campaigned on ending the war, he was responsible for more civilian casualties for two years in a row than any other previous year of the war, just through air strikes. And that says a lot because Obama was in charge of the troop surge. A lot of people died in the troop surge. Trump killed more people just by changing the rules of engagement so they could really drop huge munitions everywhere in the country. And that didn’t do anything either.

I mean I guess it got the Taliban to the table in the sense that they would accept this deal which they did accept – and the Taliban spokesman before we started talking said we are going to honour our commitment to not allow terrorist attacks against the United States from Afghanistan, and we’re not going to punish anyone in the former government – it’s kind of sticking to the Doha Agreement so they have some kind of legitimacy.

I think the important thing is that the generals, the Pentagon, the White House; they’ve always known that this was inevitable anyway, unless we just stayed forever holed up on a base in Kabul. But what we didn’t have was a president that was willing to say: ‘I’m going to end the war and I accept the responsibility for it looking bad when the Taliban comes in to take over’.

And it’s funny that Biden is that person, because Biden doesn’t have any guts. He never has been advocating for withdrawing from Afghanistan because it’s the right thing [and] it is the right thing. A full, complete and immediate withdrawal of US troops is the right thing. Biden never advocated for that. He always advocated staying until the Afghan government was stable enough to stand on its own, which was always a pipedream.

So I think he was just kind of the fall guy, you know. He came in after campaigning on staying in Afghanistan – criticising Trump’s Taliban agreement and saying that we need to leave 3,000–4,000 troops because we can’t abandon the Afghan government. After a couple of months in office, he’s like: ‘actually, you know what? we’re going to leave Afghanistan fully’. So he does press conferences now and [he gets]: ‘what do you mean the Taliban are going to take over the government? what are you talking about?’

So instead of having a president saying ‘finally I’m willing to do the right thing even though it’s going to end up aesthetically bad, it’s still a war that we need to get out of’, he didn’t do that for that reason… and the proof that Biden thought it was going to look good for him – ‘I’m the one who ended the war that the Americans are tired of’, which they are; polls show that about 70% of Americans support the withdrawal – Biden actually thought he could have a 9/11 victory lap celebration. And they’ve been planning this event for 9/11 where he could boast that our administration ended the war: we did it; we ended a long, unpopular forever war. I don’t think they’re going to be doing that celebration any more.

And even if back in April they were getting some good press around this: for ending the war; people want the war to end. You know this is maybe a good thing. Kamala Harris came out and leaked to the press back in April: ‘I helped convince Biden to do a complete withdrawal’ and ‘the last person Biden talked to before making his decision was me, Kamala Harris’; trying to take credit because she anticipated that the story was actually going to look good for the Biden administration.

I think now that the press is pretty negative – it’s a pretty humiliating, embarrassing defeat for the US that their puppet forces fell so dramatically – but the Pentagon knew. You had Pentagon insiders weeks ago saying the Taliban will probably take over within 30 days. And there was a real disconnect between what Biden and Harris were projecting out to the public and what the actual Pentagon officials were telling them.

Katie Halper: [from 27:35 mins]

So why is the withdrawal happening when it’s happening?

Mike Prysner: [from 27:40 mins]

I think the US really just needed to get out. I mean obviously the US is going to stay engaged in some way. They’re going to continue with probably bombing Afghanistan whenever they feel like it; just like they did a B-52 bombing just a week ago against a school and a health clinic and killed about 20 civilians. There’s still going to be CIA operatives and proxy forces on the ground – you know the death squads that have been terrorising the country for 20 years. They are of course still going to be there.

But the US lost and I think a lot people just thought well there’s money to be made in the Afghanistan War and so they’re going to stay forever. So job of the state (which includes the military establishment) is to advance the collective interests of the ruling class, right? – so yes, there are particular industries (the weapons manufacturers, the mining companies, energy companies) that probably aren’t happy with the withdrawal. But it’s not about this or that sector of the ruling class that matters, it’s what collectively is good for the empire; what’s collectively good for American capitalism and American imperialism.

US Defence Contractor board members and revolving doors of govt

And so the state [and] military establishment calculated that ‘you know we’re not really achieving our objectives here’. We can’t have a puppet government because the Taliban are too powerful. We can’t defeat the Taliban. And this idea of well we can be there to steal Afghanistan’s mineral resources – well, how are you going to build a mine if you’re coming under attack by the Taliban constantly? And they knew that it was never going to be resolved. They were never going to be able to build a pipeline through Afghanistan, or mine Afghanistan, so long as they were in a war with the Taliban.

So they figured we can get out of Afghanistan and then just do what we do with every country: we negotiate with them; sanction them if they don’t do what we want; bomb them if they don’t do what we want; but try to get something out of the situation. Because they knew that staying and fighting endlessly wasn’t going to. So they felt that the time had finally come. They had a president who was willing to – whether he was conscious of it or not – bear the brunt of all the negative press that’s going to come down. And then they’re going to treat the Taliban government like they do others that they try to get something out of who, you know, they don’t approve of everything they do, but well as long as you’ll meet our strategic interests we’ll work with you, and if you don’t we’ll just bomb you.

Katie Halper: [from 30:15 mins]

And what do you say to people who are arguing that women are going to be especially vulnerable? I’m not talking about cynical people who have shitty politics. I’m talking about people who really are in good faith worried about the civilian population. What’s your response to that?

Mike Prysner: [from 30:35 mins]

Sure well, the backwardness that exists there, first of all is a construct of the United States. It was the legacy of US intervention in the country that even brought to prominence these reactionary forces; these right-wing forces. I mean they are completely born from the US intervention in the ’80s. So first off, the situation for women in Afghanistan is because of the United States in the first place. So the idea that it could be solved by continued US intervention is just also kind of absurd.

Everyone talks about the Taliban’s treatment of women but the Afghan puppet government was also really bad towards women. And that was never really scandalous in the media that the Afghan puppet government had almost the same policies towards women as the Taliban…

To understand that the majority of civilian casualties – for people who care about women in Afghanistan – are from US air strikes, and US forces, and US proxy forces. So it’s kind of disingenuous to say the US military can play some sort of role of protecting women in Afghanistan. But how many women have been killed by US air strikes over the last 20 years? A lot.

The US government doesn’t care about that. They’re happy to work with Saudi Arabia. They’re happy to work with other countries that have horrible repressive policies towards women. And they will be happy to work with the Taliban, as long as the Taliban say ‘hey, we’re ready to work with you’, the US government [in] Washington will forget about all of the criticisms they have of the Taliban’s treatment of women.

And just one thing I’ll say about the conduct of US forces in Afghanistan. There is an expose by The Intercept. It was covered on Democracy Now! I think the Washington Post did a story on it also. But the CIA, you know these Special Activities Divisions – the CIA soldier, ground troops – did a couple of operations where they went to religious schools in Afghanistan. They rounded up these children – some of them were as young as eight-years old, nine-years old – they took them all into one room together and then they executed them.

I mean this is Americans – CIA soldiers, ground troops – who were executing children. Shooting children in the head to create the sense of terror that if you one day – you know, this is what happens if you go to a religious school that could one day feed people into the ranks of the Taliban army. And that’s pretty brutal. That’s pretty representative of the conduct of Afghan military, Afghan special operations, US special operations. I mean summary executions were so, so commonplace, especially by special operations, US and CIA and others.

So the idea that an occupying military force that is carrying out over the last 20 years these type of actions can be some sort of force that can protect people is just false. Afghanistan can [move] forward; it can move towards progress; just like so many other countries that are plagued with the backwardness of just the impact of US imperialism. They can’t begin to move forward – they can’t begin to progress – until they solve that main contradiction, which is the contradiction with imperialism; an occupying foreign army.

So any [progressive] forces in Afghanistan – women’s activism – none of that will be able to get momentum or steam to push Afghanistan in the direction that it needs to go socially if there’s a war in the country between an occupying imperialist power – multiple ones – and an insurgent force that’s fighting it – that gets pretty popular fighting it, because most people don’t like the foreign occupying troops.

Of course we want to see social progress in Afghanistan, but that is a chapter that has to start with the elimination of an occupying imperialist force – when that exists it sucks up everything [and] becomes the main problem in the country. And I think now that that’s gone, it opens up an entirely new space for there to be social progress.

And the last thing I’ll say is I don’t want to paint any kind of rosy picture of the Taliban, or make any optimistic predictions about the kind of government that they’re going to impose on the country, but I will say that one of the recent statements by the Taliban was saying ‘we want to create a unity government’, and even said specifically ‘we believe in the right of women to get an education and so forth’ and so they seem to be trying to have some kind of PR around the fact that ‘we’re not what everyone says we are, we’re not going to do things that are objectionable, we’re going to be a legitimate government of a sovereign country on the world’s stage’.

So I don’t want to give that too much credence – I mean we’ll have to see – but that’s also the kind of thing that you don’t see in the dire projections. Not only that but also the impact on women by the US occupation.

Katie Halper: [from 35:55 mins]

Yes, that’s a really important point, and the civilian deaths are something that don’t really get talked about.

Can you also share what changed your politics?  I mean you were in the army, so what changed your politics? Why are you anti-war now? And what were your politics like when you enlisted?

Mike Prysner: [from 36:15 mins]

Well like I said, I joined before 9/11, so it was just a different climate. Everyone I was in training with, everyone was just like ‘we’re not going to have to go to war’. Like the last war in our memory was the Gulf War when barely anyone went and all of the soldiers who died – like 99% – died from friendly fire: everyone blowing themselves up!

So there wasn’t really a consciousness about ‘oh, we’re going to go to war’. The memory of Vietnam was [that] that was the way wars were fought in the past, whereas they aren’t fought this way anymore. So everyone in my generation who joined was like ‘ah, we’re never going to go to war’.

I think the Iraq War in particular was just so outrageous, so heinous, that it didn’t matter how much propaganda and racism we were fed. I mean being in Iraq as an occupying soldier, pretty quickly you see that everything Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were saying on TV when you were going were just complete lies and that there was no justification…

For me I think that the thing that turned me around – which was the thing for most soldiers, because thousands of active-duty people turned against the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War too, but predominantly the Iraq War – is realising we’d be doing the same thing if we were Iraqi. And seeing what US forces were doing in the country.

I mean even if they weren’t just driving around shooting random people – which was happening – just being there, just being this kind of messed up occupying force, you know imposing a new government on people, subjecting people to checkpoints and home raids and all of these things – everyone I was with was basically like: ‘if I was Iraqi I’d be shooting at American forces’. You know who wouldn’t? It was like Red Dawn – everyone’s like this is like Red Dawn, except that we’re the bad guys!

So it wasn’t a big leap for people to not only to see through the propaganda, but identify with the people that we were told were enemies – and to see a great deal of commonality between the Iraqi people and ourselves. That’s really what moved me was feeling an intense brotherhood and kinship and commonality with the people that I was interacting with every day as an occupying soldier and understanding.

You know it reached the point where we’d be getting attacked and I’d be [thinking] I support this even though I might die, you know I definitely support that this is happening. Because I’d become so disgusted with what the Iraqi people had been made to live under.

And so I think that that actually happens in every war that the US wages, and that’s really the history of US intervention in every war – I mean going back to the 1800s [with] US occupation of the Philippines and so forth, you had soldiers who basically switched sides. I think that’s going to be the case in future wars also, but it’s also part of the history of the Afghanistan War. Large numbers of Afghanistan veterans became fighters and activists against it and they’re as much a part of the history as the history that’s going to be written for us.

After Obama ended the Iraq War, you know he declared this new national holiday: I thnk it was called ‘Freedom Day’ or something; marking the end of the Iraq War. And just laid out: this is the legacy of the Iraq War. The White House gave their own convoluted narrative history of the Iraq War, which was completely false and fake.

So it’s up to people like us to make sure they don’t do the same thing with the Afghanistan War. They’re going to try to rewrite the narrative, rewrite the history of what happened, what US forces did, but of course it’s going to bear no real resemblance to what really happened, and that’s up to grassroots independent media to make sure that stuff is still on the record.

Katie Halper: [from 40:10 mins]

A lot of people are talking about the poppy fields. Do you know what the significance of those are and the motives of the United States?

Mike Prysner: [from 40:25 mins]

Yeah, Afghanistan is like the biggest heroin producer. I mean it wasn’t until the US invasion. The Taliban had strict rules against cultivation of opium and so they had eradicated most of the opium production in the country. The US comes in and I think there’s a lot of speculation that the CIA wanted the opium because it was using it for dark money for black ops, and there probably was some degree of that.

The Taliban and the US basically allowed the cultivation of poppy in the country. The Taliban because it was a big money-maker. They had moral objection to it, but when you’re fighting a war against not only the United States, but all of the Nato powers, all the big imperialist countries, and all of their technological advance, it helps to have, you know, a few million dollars a week rolling in in heroin money.

How Afghan opium farming expanded during US occupation

But also the US allowed the heroin production because the US is stationed in all these middle-of-nowhere areas in Afghanistan; they’re having to have the loyalty of local farmers [as] people that they want to trust and say don’t let the Taliban put IEDs on our path. Tell us if there are insurgents who are going to come kill us. So in order to maintain good relationships with farmers in the countryside, they had to not just let them grow opium, but protect the opium.

And so you’ll hear any soldier who was stationed in the area where they were growing opium – there’d be paths where there would be IEDs on them, where you know if you walk down this path you’re going to get blown up – then there’s the opium field where you know if we walk through the field there’s probably not a good chance that there’s going to be an IED because where would you put them, it’s such a huge field? But they would get in trouble for walking through the opium field, because then the farmer would get mad and then they would call the commanders and the commanders would say ‘don’t walk through the opium fields’.

So then who knows how many people are walking around right now, or who are not walking around, [but] in wheelchairs or missing arms and legs, missing their genitals, simply because they didn’t want to walk through the opium fields because they would make someone [mad] who the commander thought was strategically important. So that speaks to the absurdity of the war the entire time.

The US of course would have liked to have a puppet government in Afghanistan – you know big pharma buys opium from places like India – I mean it is a commodity on the market; the US doesn’t really grow it itself. So of course the US, if they had won the Afghanistan War, would have thought ‘oh great, now we have a supply of opium that’s under our own jurisdiction’. And so yes, that was probably one of the ideal outcomes for the US war on the country – not just the oil industry, not just the mineral industry, not just the defence industry, but big pharma had a lot to gain from it also.

So I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of opposition in the media. In the corporate media there’s a lot of anger about the withdrawal right now. Number one, because it’s just humiliating and makes the US look bad, and so they’re all mad that it happened in such a disastrous way. But there are sectors of the ruling class that are pissed that they are going to miss out on a huge cash crop unless they can have some kind of long-shot deal with the Taliban.

It’s funny because normally the media are just stenographers of the Pentagon, but it’s more that they’re just supporters of war whatever war it is. Because the Pentagon wants to leave: this is the Pentagon’s plan, and so it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the entirety of the establishment media, and all these big talking heads, go against the wishes of pretty much the entire Pentagon establishment is when they’re actually pulling back from a war. So it made me reevaluate that they don’t just repeat everything the Pentagon says, but [only] when it’s pushing more war around the world.

Katie Halper: [from 44:15 mins]

Yes, that’s really interesting.

And finally, [a listener] asks “isn’t this withdrawal to help with the new cold war with China?”

Mike Prysner: [from 44:20 mins]

Oh, absolutely. I mean that’s probably the most important thing about this.

When Obama came into office, he became very critical of Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. He said, ‘you screwed up Afghanistan; that should have been a quick easy in-and-out war’. But the case that Obama made was not that Iraq was just immoral and wrong, Afghanistan was a complete mistake to do this – his thing was: the American empire has become bogged down in the Middle East, and it is preventing us from pointing towards our real enemy which is China, and this doctrine of great power confrontation.

‘The Asia Pivot’ – many people will know that term, ‘the Asia Pivot’, which was Obama’s foreign policy orientation towards confronting China and building up military forces against China and rallying all our allies and potential allies to create confrontation and conflict with China

Pivot away from what? He meant pivot to Asia from the Middle East. So that was the Obama Doctrine: pivot away from the Middle East towards our real enemy China.

The drawdown, which is also happening in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, this is very much a re-orientation. That’s been happening for a little while. A re-orientation of US foreign policy and imperialism to try to disrupt and confront China, and other places in the world as well. But it’s harder to do that when you’re bogged down in a lost war. So yes, that’s obviously something everyone needs to be very conscious of.

You know I see a lot of comments saying, ‘the empire’s crumbling, the empire’s in decline’, because it’s been dealt this big embarrassing, humiliating military defeat. You know it was defeated very badly in Korea. The US was defeated very badly in Vietnam. That didn’t mean the US backed off at all: ‘hey man, we’ve got to relax on this war stuff’. They just went towards other parts of the world. They went to Latin America, and they went to the Middle East. I mean it doesn’t matter and it’s almost like they need to redeem themselves.

You know after the defeat in Vietnam, they were like: ‘communism got one over on us, but we’re going to get one over on the communists in Latin America’, and sponsor all these dirty wars, and start funding coups of independent and socialist governments around the world.

They’re not going to take this well. They know they look very bad. And what they can do to recover from it is focus everyone’s attention on some other theatre or some other American victory around the world, which we should be a little nervous about, but also prepared to confront it, because that’s of course what’s necessary.

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In Praise of Joe Biden | Stan Goff

The following extended excerpt is taken from an article published by Counterpunch on August 18th.

The US is not morally, socially, or politically fit to run the affairs of people halfway around the world. Forgotten — in the plethora of images being pumped into the fires of public outrage by the military-industrial-media complex — are the atrocities of “our side,” of the state of extreme exception that has been normalized since 2001, of the expansion of the war into seven countries by Obama, of the torture and execution black sites, the drone strikes against civilians, and the fascist Patriot Act. Unreported were the day-to-day humiliations and abuses that are committed by ALL occupying forces everywhere and throughout history.

I’ll tell you who made out like bandits, though. War industries and their politicians. Mercenary “contractors.” Cable news.

I completely understand, even if I disagree with, the sentiment of veterans and military families: “Can this all be for nothing? Did all those people spend all that time and effort, some losing life, limb, or eyesight . . . was all that treasure spent ($2.26 trillion conservatively) . . . for nothing?”

It’s an important question, because it’s the question that will become a campaign slogan soon enough, even though the answer is far less satisfying and politically effective than attacking Joe Biden for this affront to the nation’s masculinity. To those veterans and military families — from a retired Army veteran who belongs to a very military family — I say, yes, it was all for nothing . . . like a tragic accident, only one that someone did on purpose. It was all for nothing . . . if we let it be; that is, if we fail to learn from this. That’s how we make it “worth it,” as if such an accounting weren’t part of the bodyguard of lies that accompanies all wars.

I’m praising Joe Biden. This departure took guts. It takes guts in a culture so steeped in simulacra, manufactured myth, and incessant political maneuvering to do a thing that’s simultaneously necessary and sure to produce unsavory results. Whatever else Biden does that pisses me off in the future — and that’s a sure thing — he deserves credit, not all this hand-wringing and blame. He has confronted the Archons of the military-industrial-media complex, who are writhing and raging now across the screens of cable news — an industry taken over by the same ideology that got us into Afghanistan in the first place: neoconservatism, an arrogant and clueless late imperial ideology now spouted on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC.

Biden is not to blame for a “debacle” in Afghanistan.

This exercise in mortal stupidity started with George W. Bush, and cheered on by the media. It was extended and expanded by Bush II (Obama). It was denounced by Trump, but allowed to go on, because even Trump didn’t have the guts to risk a hit to the very performative masculinity that fueled his popular appeal. The occupation was not wine, improving with age. It was a wound festering to gangrene, and now there had to be an amputation. And none of them, not Bush, not Obama, not Trump, had the guts to say, “Stop!” Only Biden, at long last. Praise be!

Click here to read the full article entitled “In Praise of Joe Biden” by Stan Goff, published by Counterpunch on August 18th.

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Addendum: a guide to Leo Strauss’s influence on US neo-conservatism

A natural order of inequality

Danny Postel: You’ve argued that there is an important connection between the teachings of Leo Strauss and the Bush administration’s selling of the Iraq war. What is that connection?

Shadia Drury: Leo Strauss was a great believer in the efficacy and usefulness of lies in politics. Public support for the Iraq war rested on lies about Iraq posing an imminent threat to the United States the business about weapons of mass destruction and a fictitious alliance between al-Qaida and the Iraqi regime. Now that the lies have been exposed, Paul Wolfowitz and others in the war party are denying that these were the real reasons for the war.

So what were the real reasons? Reorganising the balance of power in the Middle East in favour of Israel? Expanding American hegemony in the Arab world? Possibly. But these reasons would not have been sufficient in themselves to mobilise American support for the war. And the Straussian cabal in the administration realised that.

Danny Postel: The neo-conservative vision is commonly taken to be about spreading democracy and liberal values globally. And when Strauss is mentioned in the press, he is typically described as a great defender of liberal democracy against totalitarian tyranny. You’ve written, however, that Strauss had a profound antipathy to both liberalism and democracy.”

Shadia Drury: The idea that Strauss was a great defender of liberal democracy is laughable. I suppose that Strauss’s disciples consider it a noble lie. Yet many in the media have been gullible enough to believe it.

How could an admirer of Plato and Nietzsche be a liberal democrat? The ancient philosophers whom Strauss most cherished believed that the unwashed masses were not fit for either truth or liberty, and that giving them these sublime treasures would be like throwing pearls before swine. In contrast to modern political thinkers, the ancients denied that there is any natural right to liberty. Human beings are born neither free nor equal. The natural human condition, they held, is not one of freedom, but of subordination and in Strauss’s estimation they were right in thinking so.

Praising the wisdom of the ancients and condemning the folly of the moderns was the whole point of Strauss’s most famous book, Natural Right and History. The cover of the book sports the American Declaration of Independence. But the book is a celebration of nature – not the natural rights of man (as the appearance of the book would lead one to believe) but the natural order of domination and subordination.

The necessity of lies

Danny Postel: What is the relevance of Strauss’s interpretation of Plato’s notion of the noble lie?

Shadia Drury: Strauss rarely spoke in his own name. He wrote as a commentator on the classical texts of political theory. But he was an extremely opinionated and dualistic commentator. The fundamental distinction that pervades and informs all of his work is that between the ancients and the moderns. Strauss divided the history of political thought into two camps: the ancients (like Plato) are wise and wily, whereas the moderns (like Locke and other liberals) are vulgar and foolish. Now, it seems to me eminently fair and reasonable to attribute to Strauss the ideas he attributes to his beloved ancients.

In Plato’s dialogues, everyone assumes that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece. But Strauss argues in his book The City and Man (pp. 74-5, 77, 83-4, 97, 100, 111) that Thrasymachus is Plato’s real mouthpiece (on this point, see also M.F. Burnyeat, Sphinx without a Secret, New York Review of Books, 30 May 1985 [paid-for only]). So, we must surmise that Strauss shares the insights of the wise Plato (alias Thrasymachus) that justice is merely the interest of the stronger; that those in power make the rules in their own interests and call it justice.

Leo Strauss repeatedly defends the political realism of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli (see, for example, his Natural Right and History, p. 106). This view of the world is clearly manifest in the foreign policy of the current administration in the United States.

A second fundamental belief of Strauss’s ancients has to do with their insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.

The people will not be happy to learn that there is only one natural right the right of the superior to rule over the inferior, the master over the slave, the husband over the wife, and the wise few over the vulgar many. In On Tyranny, Strauss refers to this natural right as the tyrannical teachingof his beloved ancients. It is tyrannical in the classic sense of rule above rule or in the absence of law (p. 70).

Now, the ancients were determined to keep this tyrannical teaching secret because the people are not likely to tolerate the fact that they are intended for subordination; indeed, they may very well turn their resentment against the superior few. Lies are thus necessary to protect the superior few from the persecution of the vulgar many.

The effect of Strauss’s teaching is to convince his acolytes that they are the natural ruling elite and the persecuted few. And it does not take much intelligence for them to surmise that they are in a situation of great danger, especially in a world devoted to the modern ideas of equal rights and freedoms. Now more than ever, the wise few must proceed cautiously and with circumspection. So, they come to the conclusion that they have a moral justification to lie in order to avoid persecution. Strauss goes so far as to say that dissembling and deception in effect, a culture of lies is the peculiar justice of the wise.

Strauss justifies his position by an appeal to Plato’s concept of the noble lie. But in truth, Strauss has a very impoverished conception of Plato’s noble lie. Plato thought that the noble lie is a story whose details are fictitious; but at the heart of it is a profound truth.

In the myth of metals, for example, some people have golden souls meaning that they are more capable of resisting the temptations of power. And these morally trustworthy types are the ones who are most fit to rule. The details are fictitious, but the moral of the story is that not all human beings are morally equal.

In contrast to this reading of Plato, Strauss thinks that the superiority of the ruling philosophers is an intellectual superiority and not a moral one (Natural Right and History, p. 151). For many commentators who (like Karl Popper) have read Plato as a totalitarian, the logical consequence is to doubt that philosophers can be trusted with political power. Those who read him this way invariably reject him. Strauss is the only interpreter who gives a sinister reading to Plato, and then celebrates him.

The dialectic of fear and tyranny

Danny Postel: In the Straussian scheme of things, there are the wise few and the vulgar many. But there is also a third group the gentlemen. Would you explain how they figure?

Shadia Drury: There are indeed three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the higher pleasures, which amount to consorting with their puppies or young initiates.

The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment’s notice.

The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.

Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato’s real solution Strauss pointed to the nocturnal council in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.

The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss’s The Argument and the Action of Plato’s Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon makes that clear to us.

For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.

Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.

This is made clear in Strauss’s exchange with Kojève (reprinted in Strauss’s On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and creature comforts.” Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.

This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.

I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.

Danny Postel: You’ve described Strauss as a nihilist.

Shadia Drury: Strauss is a nihilist in the sense that he believes that there is no rational foundation for morality. He is an atheist, and he believes that in the absence of God, morality has no grounding. It’s all about benefiting others and oneself; there is no objective reason for doing so, only rewards and punishments in this life.

But Strauss is not a nihilist if we mean by the term a denial that there is any truth, a belief that everything is interpretation. He does not deny that there is an independent reality. On the contrary, he thinks that independent reality consists in nature and its order of rank the high and the low, the superior and the inferior. Like Nietzsche, he believes that the history of western civilisation has led to the triumph of the inferior, the rabble something they both lamented profoundly.

Danny Postel: This connection is curious, since Strauss is bedevilled by Nietzsche; and one of Strauss’s most famous students, Allan Bloom, fulminates profusely in his book The Closing of the American Mind against the influence of Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.

Shadia Drury: Strauss’s criticism of the existentialists, especially Heidegger, is that they tried to elicit an ethic out of the abyss. This was the ethic of resoluteness choose whatever you like and be loyal to it to the death; its content does not matter. But Strauss’s reaction to moral nihilism was different. Nihilistic philosophers, he believes, should reinvent the Judæo-Christian God, but live like pagan gods themselves taking pleasure in the games they play with each other as well as the games they play on ordinary mortals.

The question of nihilism is complicated, but there is no doubt that Strauss’s reading of Plato entails that the philosophers should return to the cave and manipulate the images (in the form of media, magazines, newspapers). They know full well that the line they espouse is mendacious, but they are convinced that theirs are noble lies.

The intoxication of perpetual war

Danny Postel: You characterise the outlook of the Bush administration as a kind of realism, in the spirit of Thrasymachus and Machiavelli. But isn’t the real divide within the administration (and on the American right more generally) more complex: between foreign policy realists, who are pragmatists, and neo-conservatives, who see themselves as idealists even moralists on a mission to topple tyrants, and therefore in a struggle against realism?

Shadia Drury: I think that the neo-conservatives are for the most part genuine in wanting to spread the American commercial model of liberal democracy around the globe. They are convinced that it is the best thing, not just for America, but for the world. Naturally, there is a tension between these idealists and the more hard-headed realists within the administration.

I contend that the tensions and conflicts within the current administration reflect the differences between the surface teaching, which is appropriate for gentlemen, and the nocturnal or covert teaching, which the philosophers alone are privy to. It is very unlikely for an ideology inspired by a secret teaching to be entirely coherent.

The issue of nationalism is an example of this. The philosophers, wanting to secure the nation against its external enemies as well as its internal decadence, sloth, pleasure, and consumption, encourage a strong patriotic fervour among the honour-loving gentlemen who wield the reins of power. That strong nationalistic spirit consists in the belief that their nation and its values are the best in the world, and that all other cultures and their values are inferior in comparison.

Irving Kristol, the father of neo-conservatism and a Strauss disciple, denounced nationalism in a 1973 essay; but in another essay written in 1983, he declared that the foreign policy of neo-conservatism must reflect its nationalist proclivities. A decade on, in a 1993 essay, he claimed that “religion, nationalism, and economic growth are the pillars of neoconservatism.” (See The Coming Conservative Century, in Neoconservatism: the autobiography of an idea, p. 365.)

In Reflections of a Neoconservative (p. xiii), Kristol wrote that:

patriotism springs from love of the nation’s past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness. Neoconservatives believe that the goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of national security. It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny not a myopic national security. The same sentiment was echoed by the doyen of contemporary Straussianism, Harry Jaffa, when he said that America is the Zion that will light up all the world.

It is easy to see how this sort of thinking can get out of hand, and why hard-headed realists tend to find it naïve if not dangerous.

But Strauss’s worries about America’s global aspirations are entirely different. Like Heidegger, Schmitt, and Kojève, Strauss would be more concerned that America would succeed in this enterprise than that it would fail. In that case, the last man would extinguish all hope for humanity (Nietzsche); the night of the world would be at hand (Heidegger); the animalisation of man would be complete (Kojève); and the trivialisation of life would be accomplished (Schmitt). That is what the success of America’s global aspirations meant to them.

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is a popularisation of this viewpoint. It sees the coming catastrophe of American global power as inevitable, and seeks to make the best of a bad situation. It is far from a celebration of American dominance.

On this perverse view of the world, if America fails to achieve her national destiny, and is mired in perpetual war, then all is well. Man’s humanity, defined in terms of struggle to the death, is rescued from extinction. But men like Heidegger, Schmitt, Kojève, and Strauss expect the worst. They expect that the universal spread of the spirit of commerce would soften manners and emasculate man. To my mind, this fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.

To be clear, Strauss was not as hostile to democracy as he was to liberalism. This is because he recognises that the vulgar masses have numbers on their side, and the sheer power of numbers cannot be completely ignored. Whatever can be done to bring the masses along is legitimate. If you can use democracy to turn the masses against their own liberty, this is a great triumph. It is the sort of tactic that neo-conservatives use consistently, and in some cases very successfully.

Among the Straussians

Danny Postel: Finally, I’d like to ask about your interesting reception among the Straussians. Many of them dismiss your interpretation of Strauss and denounce your work in the most adamant terms (bizarre splenetic). Yet one scholar, Laurence Lampert, has reprehended his fellow Straussians for this, writing in his Leo Strauss and Nietzsche that your book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss contains many fine skeptical readings of Strauss’s texts and acute insights into Strauss’s real intentions. Harry Jaffa has even made the provocative suggestion that you might be a closet Straussian yourself!

Shadia Drury: I have been publicly denounced and privately adored. Following the publication of my book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss in 1988, letters and gifts poured in from Straussian graduate students and professors all over North America books, dissertations, tapes of Strauss’s Hillel House lectures in Chicago, transcripts of every course he ever taught at the university, and even a personally crafted Owl of Minerva with a letter declaring me a goddess of wisdom! They were amazed that an outsider could have penetrated the secret teaching. They sent me unpublished material marked with clear instructions not to distribute to suspicious persons”.

I received letters from graduate students in Toronto, Chicago, Duke, Boston College, Claremont, Fordham, and other Straussian centres of learning. One of the students compared his experience in reading my work with a person lost in the wilderness who suddenly happens on a map. Some were led to abandon their schools in favour of fresher air; but others were delighted to discover what it was they were supposed to believe in order to belong to the charmed circle of future philosophers and initiates.

After my first book on Strauss came out, some of the Straussians in Canada dubbed me the bitch from Calgary. Of all the titles I hold, that is the one I cherish most. The hostility toward me was understandable. Nothing is more threatening to Strauss and his acolytes than the truth in general and the truth about Strauss in particular. His admirers are determined to conceal the truth about his ideas.

Respond to this article, and debate Strauss, philosophy and politics in our forum.

My intention in writing the book was to express Strauss’s ideas clearly and without obfuscation so that his views could become the subject of philosophical debate and criticism, and not the stuff of feverish conviction. I wanted to smoke the Straussians out of their caves and into the philosophical light of day. But instead of engaging me in philosophical debate, they denied that Strauss stood for any of the ideas I attributed to him.

Laurence Lampert is the only Straussian to declare valiantly that it is time to stop playing games and to admit that Strauss was indeed a Nietzschean thinker that it is time to stop the denial and start defending Strauss’s ideas.

I suspect that Lampert’s honesty is threatening to those among the Straussians who are interested in philosophy but who seek power. There is no doubt that open and candid debate about Strauss is likely to undermine their prospects in Washington.

Click here to read the full article written by Danny Postel based on an interview with Shadia Drury, published in October 2003.

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John Pilger on the trials of Julian Assange and journalism’s surrender

Having attended last week’s US extradition hearing of Julian Assange, on Friday [Aug 13th] John Pilger published a report in Counterpunch. He writes:

Yesterday, the United States sought the approval of Britain’s High Court to extend the terms of its appeal against a decision by a district judge, Vanessa Baraitser, in January to bar Assange’s extradition.  Baraitser accepted the deeply disturbing evidence of a number of experts that Assange would be at great risk if he were incarcerated in the US’s infamous prison system.

Professor Michael Kopelman, a world authority on neuro-psychiatry, had said Assange would find a way to take his own life — the direct result of what Professor Nils Melzer, the United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, described as the craven “mobbing” of Assange by governments – and their media echoes.

Those of us who were in the Old Bailey last September to hear Kopelman’s evidence were shocked and moved. I sat with Julian’s father, John Shipton, whose head was in his hands. The court was also told about the discovery of a razor blade in Julian’s Belmarsh cell and that he had made desperate calls to the Samaritans and written notes and much else that filled us with more than sadness.

Watching the lead barrister acting for Washington, John Lewis — a man from a military background who deploys a cringingly theatrical “aha!” formula with defence witnesses — reduce these facts to “malingering” and smearing witnesses, especially Kopelman, we were heartened by Kopelman’s revealing response that Lewis’s abuse was “a bit rich” as Lewis himself had sought to hire Kopelman’s expertise in another case.

Lewis’s sidekick is Clair Dobbin, and yesterday was her day. Completing the smearing of Professor Kopelman was down to her. An American with some authority sat behind her in court.

Dobbin said Kopelman had “misled” Judge Baraister in September because he had not disclosed that Julian Assange and Stella Moris were partners, and their two young children, Gabriel and Max, were conceived during the period Assange had taken refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

The implication was that this somehow lessened Kopelman’s medical diagnosis: that Julian, locked up in solitary in Belmarsh prison and facing extradition to the US on bogus “espionage” charges, had suffered severe psychotic depression and had planned, if he had not already attempted, to take his own life.

For her part, Judge Baraitser saw no contradiction. The full nature of the relationship between Stella and Julian had been explained to her in March 2020, and Professor Kopelman had made full reference to it in his report in August 2020. So the judge and the court knew all about it before the main extradition hearing last September. In her judgement in January, Baraitser said this:

[Professor Kopelman] assessed Mr. Assange during the period May to December 2019 and was best placed to consider at first-hand his symptoms. He has taken great care to provide an informed account of Mr. Assange background and psychiatric history. He has given close attention to the prison medical notes and provided a detailed summary annexed to his December report. He is an experienced clinician and he was well aware of the possibility of exaggeration and malingering. I had no reason to doubt his clinical opinion.

She added that she had “not been misled” by the exclusion in Kopelman’s first report of the Stella-Julian relationship and that she understood that Kopelman was protecting the privacy of Stella and her two young children.

In fact, as I know well, the family’s safety was under constant threat to the point when an embassy security guard confessed he had been told to steal one of the baby’s nappies so that a CIA-contracted company could analyse its DNA. There has been a stream of unpublicised threats against Stella and her children.

Click here to read John Pilger’s full article entitled “A Day in the Death of British Justice”, published by Counterpunch on Friday 13th.

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On the same day, John Pilger was interviewed by RJ Eskow for The Zero Hour. The conversation opens with Pilger’s overview of the Assange case and how his incarceration has been prolonged despite the fact that the original charges against him were dropped many years ago. Pilger says the likelihood is that the October hearing will settle his fate without any appeal to the Supreme Court.

In summary, Pilger says: “It’s got very serious now for those who practice real journalism and that’s what’s on trial with Julian Assange: real journalism; because if he is extradited to the United States, the intimidation of that, the effect of that will be disastrous. It will be insidious – it won’t have to be spelt out – but through generations of journalism there will be the example of Assange who went too far.”

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corona marginalia: origin unknown #2

Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and other health officials testified before the US Senate on May 11th 2021. They answered questions on ongoing Covid-19 prevention measures and guidance, however, Fauci was also directly challenged by Senator Rand Paul about the origins of the virus and specifically his part in gain-of-function research on SARS viruses and with regards to collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV):

When asked by Paul, “Do you fund Dr. Baric’s gain-of-function research?” Fauci made the following admission (italics are mine), “Dr. Baric does not do gain-of-function research, and if it is, it’s according to the guidelines and it is being conducted in North Carolina, not in China.” [from 2:10 mins]

The full exchange between Paul and Fauci is reprinted below. A complete transcript of the Senate hearing is available here: https://www.rev.com/blog/transcripts/dr-fauci-cdc-director-testify-before-senate-on-covid-19-guidelines-transcript

Sen. Rand Paul:

Dr. Fauci, We don’t know whether the pandemic started in a lab in Wuhan or evolved naturally, but we should want to know. Three million people have died from this pandemic, and that should cause us to explore all possibilities. Instead, government authorities, self-interested in continuing gain-of-function research say there’s nothing to see here. Gain-of-function research, as you know, is juicing up naturally occurring animal viruses to infect humans. To arrive at the truth, the US government should admit that the Wuhan Virology Institute was experimenting to enhance the coronavirus’ ability to infect humans.

Juicing up super-viruses is not new. Scientists in the US have long known how to mutate animal viruses to infect humans. For years, Dr. Ralph Baric, a virologist in the US, has been collaborating with Dr. Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Virology Institute, sharing his discoveries about how to create super-viruses. This gain-of-function research has been funded by the NIH. The collaboration between the US and the Wuhan Virology Institute continues. Doctors Baric and Shi worked together to insert bat virus spike protein into the backbone of the deadly SARS virus and then use this man-made super-virus to infect human airway cells.

Think about that for a moment. The SARS virus had a 15% mortality. We’re fighting a pandemic that has about a 1% mortality. Can you imagine if a SARS virus that’s been juiced up and had viral proteins added to it, to the spike protein, if that were released accidentally?

Dr. Fauci, do you still support funding of the NIH funding of the lab in Wuhan?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [1:50 mins]

Senator Paul, with all due respect, you are entirely and completely incorrect that the NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Sen. Rand Paul: [2:05 mins]

Do they fund Dr. Baric?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [2:10 mins]
We do not fund gain-

Sen. Rand Paul:

Do you fund Dr. Baric’s gain-of-function research?

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [2:15 mins]

Dr. Baric does not do gain-of-function research, and if it is, it’s according to the guidelines and it is being conducted in North Carolina, not in China.

Sen. Rand Paul: [2:25 mins]

You don’t think concerning a bat virus spike protein that he got from the Wuhan Institute into the SARS virus is gain of function?

Dr. Anthony Fauci:

That is not…

Sen. Rand Paul: [2:30 mins]

You would be in the minority because at least 200 scientists have signed a statement from the Cambridge Working Group saying that it is gain-of-function.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [2:40 mins]

Well, it is not. If you look at the grant and you look at the progress reports, it is not gain-of-function, despite the fact that people tweet that, they write about it-

Sen. Rand Paul: [2:50 mins]

Do you support sending money to the Wuhan Virology Institute?

Dr. Anthony Fauci:

We do not send money now to the Wuhan Virology Institute.

Sen. Rand Paul: [2:55 mins]

Do you support sending money? We did under your tutelage. We were sending it through EcoHealth. It was a sub-agency and a sub-grant. Do you support that the money from NIH that was going to the Wuhan Institute.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [3:10 mins]

Let me explain to you why that was done. The SARS-CoV-1 originated in bats in China. It would have been irresponsible of us if we did not investigate the bat viruses and the serology to see who might have been infected in China.

Sen. Rand Paul: [3:30 mins]

Or perhaps it would be irresponsible to send it to the Chinese government that we may not be able to trust with this knowledge and with this incredibly dangerous viruses.

Government scientists like yourself who favour gain-of-function research maintain the disease arose naturally.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [3:45 mins]

I don’t favour gain-of-function research in China. You are saying things that are not correct.

Sen. Rand Paul: [3:50 mins]

Government defenders of gain-of-function, such as yourself, say that COVID-19 mutations were random and not designed by man. But interestingly, the technique that Dr. Baric developed forces mutations by serial passage through cell culture that the mutations appear to be natural. In fact, Dr. Baric named the technique the “No See ’em” technique, because the mutations appear naturally. Nicholas Baker in the New York Magazine said, “Nobody would know if the virus had been fabricated in a laboratory or grown in nature.” Government authorities in the US, including yourself, unequivocally deny that COVID-19 could have escaped a lab, but even Dr. Shi in Wuhan wasn’t so sure. According to Nicholas Baker, Dr. Shi wondered could this new virus have come from her own laboratory. She checked her records frantically and found no matches. “That really took a load off my mind,” she said. “I had not slept for days.”

The director of the gain-of-function research in Wuhan couldn’t sleep because she was terrified that it might be in her lab. Dr. Baric, an advocate of gain-of-function research admits the main problem that the Institute of Virology has is the outbreak occurred in close proximity. What are the odds? Baric responded, “Could you rule out a laboratory escape? The answer in this case is probably not.”

Will you in front of this group, categorically say that the COVID-19 could not have occurred through serial passage in a laboratory.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [5:20 mins]

I do not have any accounting of what the Chinese may have done, and I’m fully in favour of any further investigation of what went on in China. However, I will repeat again, the NIH and NIAID categorically has not funded gain-of-function research to be conducted in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Sen. Rand Paul: [5:45 mins]

But you do support it in the US. We have 11 labs doing it, and you have allowed it here. We have a committee to do it, but the committee is granted every exemption. You’re fooling with Mother Nature here. You’re allowing super-viruses to be created with a 15% mortality. It’s very dangerous. I think it was a huge mistake to share this with China. It’s a huge mistake to allow this to continue in the United States. We should be very careful to investigate where this virus came from.

Dr. Anthony Fauci: [6:10 mins]

I fully agree that you should investigate where the virus came from. But again, we have not funded gain-of-function research on this virus in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. No matter how many times you say it, it didn’t happen.

Sen. Rand Paul: [6:25 mins]

You’re parsing words. You’re parsing words. There was research done with Dr. Shi and Dr. Baric. They have collaborated on gain-of-function research where they enhance the SARS virus to infect human airway cells. They did it by merging a new spike protein on it. That is gain-of-function. That was joint research between the Wuhan Institute and Dr. Baric. You can’t deny it.

*

No research has yet turned up any evidence of an intermediate host for Covid-19 and this leads many scientists to question official claims of zoonotic origins of the virus. On Thursday [Aug 5th], a very detailed and referenced summary of the latest findings was published as an extended article by Counterpunch. The conclusions of authors Jonathan Latham, editor of Independent Science News and Allison Wilson, Science Director at The Bioscience Resource Project, are as follows:

To date, both the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the EcoHealth Alliance (EHA) in New York have refused requests by Congress and others, to allow public access to their existing coronavirus samples and their viral databases. These may hold answers to all the origin questions. But if publicly-funded virologists will not share the samples they already have, and are apparently unwilling to face the conclusions public access might entail, why should anyone reward them to collect more? Indeed, how can research into the origins of COVID-19 meaningfully proceed if virologists will neither share their data nor follow where it leads when they do?

The abject failure of the WHO and also of established science, in China and elsewhere, to genuinely investigate the origin question can thus be explained. The problem is not lack of data. As this article and the creative approaches of members of DRASTIC, and others, have shown, there is plenty of valuable data waiting to be brought forth. Rather, the obstacle is simply a deep and broad fear on the part of the scientific establishment that the trail might lead to a lab leak.

The lack of outrage, or even concern, among the rank and file of the scientific community at the flagrant obstructionism of the WIV and the EHA demonstrates the extent of this fear as clearly as could be wished.

The underlying problem is that academic science is enmeshed in a wider transnational Pandemic Virus Industrial Complex (PVIC) that has sought to suppress lab origin theories and within which the WIV and the EHA are just minor cogs.

The important consequence of this is that outbreak origin investigations are always challenging. They require people who are expert but are either not conflicted or who have demonstrated their independence. Consequently, the best data and analysis on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 will continue to come, we predict, mainly from individuals acting independently of established institutions.

Click here to read the full article entitled “Phylogeographic Mapping of Newly Discovered Coronaviruses Pinpoints the Direct Progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 Originating in Mojiang, China”, published by Counterpunch on August 5th.

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aimless weather

The following article is Chapter One of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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“Let no one enter here who does not have faith”

— Inscription over the door on Max Planck’s Laboratory

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“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

These were the words spoken by the astronauts on board Apollo 8 once they had established a lunar orbit, thereby becoming the first humans ever to leave Earth fully behind them. As a literary choice, it was one that inevitably caused considerable irritation, and especially amongst atheists around the world.

Undoubtedly there was more than a little politics involved when it came to the Apollo astronauts making a decision to read passages from the Bible. Given that the Cold War face-off had provided such impetus for the entire space programme, having steadily beaten off the challenge of the godless Soviets, if nothing else the words transmitted a kind undiplomatic rebuke, redoubled when the Eagle landing module touched down just a few months later, and the astronauts’ first duty became to plant the Stars and Stripes in the pristine moon dust. Skipping about in delight, taking some holiday snaps and bringing home a basket full of moon-rocks no longer enough.

Not that I am trying to rain on anyone’s parade. Far from it. The Moon landing involving not merely a tremendous technical achievement but also a hell of a lot of guts. It was one moment when ordinary Americans had every reason to feel pride. Viewed in an alternative light, however, this towering and singular accomplishment was also the extraordinary end product of many centuries of truly international effort. A high point in a centuries long science and engineering project set in motion by pioneers like Galileo, Kepler and, of course, Newton, which only then culminated on July 20th 1969 with such a genuinely epoch-marking event that for many minutes the world collectively held its breath … 1

Apollo 8 had been just another of the more important reconnaissance missions necessary to lay the groundwork for the moon landing itself. Another small step that led directly to that most famous step in history (so far), although as a step, the Apollo 8 mission was also breathtaking in its own right. As for the grumbling about the transmission of passages from Genesis, well the inclusion of any kind of religious element seemed inappropriate to many. After all, science and religion are not supposed to mix, but on top of which, having gained seeming ascendancy why was Science suddenly playing second fiddle again?

Religion, as a great many of its opponents readily point out, is superstition writ largest. Science, by contrast, purposefully renounces the darkness of superstition, and operates solely by virtue of the assiduous application of logic and reason. Science and religion are therefore as incompatible as night and day, and so when it came to the cutting edge of space exploration, just what did the Bible have to do with any of it? Sir Isaac Newton was doing the driving, wasn’t he…?

On the other hand, and playing Devil’s Advocate, why not choose these words? After all, the circumstances rendered a strange appropriateness and charge to the plain vocabulary of Genesis: heaven and earth; void and darkness; the face of the waters. A description of the act of creation so understated, and yet evocative, that it’s hard to recall a more memorable paragraph in the whole literary canon, and few with greater economy. If the astronauts or NASA were endorsing the biblical story of creation that would have been another matter, of course, but here I think we can forgive the perceived faux pas – ‘one false step amidst a giant leap forward for mankind!’

My personal wish is that as Neil and Buzz were setting off to “where no man had gone before”, climbing into their Lunar Landing Module and sealing the air-lock behind them, they might forgetfully have left the flag behind to keep Michael Collins company. Leaving no signs of their extraordinary visit besides the landing section of the strange metal beetle they had flown in, and, beside it, their monumental, and somehow still astonishing, footprints.

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Very occasionally I happen to meet intelligent and otherwise rational people who’ll made the claim that the biblical story of creation is broadly supported by the latest scientific discoveries. The universe began at a moment, they’ll explain, just as it is written. There then followed a succession of events, leading to the eventual rise of Man. All of this, they’ll insist, accurately checks out with the opening page of Genesis, whilst the theories of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology simply patch the occasional missing details. And truly, this is a desperate line of defence!

For there is no amount of creative Biblical accountancy – of interpreting days as epochs and so forth – which can successfully reconstruct the myth of Genesis in order to make it scientifically sound. The world just wasn’t created that way – wasn’t created at all, apparently – and creationism, which often claims to be an alternative theory, when it offers no theory at all, also fails to withstand the minutest degree of scrutiny. No, creationism survives merely on account of the blind and desperate faith of its adherents. Here indeed is how a modern cosmologist might have gone about rewriting the Biblical version (if by chance they had been on hand to lend God a little assistance):

“In the beginning God created a small but intense fireball. A universal atom into which space and time itself were intrinsically wrapped. As this primordial fireball very rapidly expanded and cooled, the fundamental particles of matter condensed out of its energetic froth, and by coalescence, formed into atoms of hydrogen, helium and lithium. All this passed in a few minutes.

Clouds of those original elements, collapsing under their own weight, then formed into the first stars. The loss of gravitational potential energy heating the gases in these proto-stars to sufficiently high temperatures (many millions of degrees) to trigger nuclear fusion. In the cores of such early giants, the atoms of hydrogen and helium were now just beginning to be fused into ever-heavier elements through a series of stages known as nucleosynthesis. Happily this fusion of smaller atoms into increasingly larger ones generated an abundance of energy. Enough to keep the core temperature of each star above a million degrees; hot enough to sustain the fusion of more and more atoms. So it was that the hydrogen begat helium, helium begat lithium, lithium begat beryllium and boron… And God saw that it was good.

After a few billion years had passed, these same stars, which had hitherto been in a state of hydrostatic balance – thermal and radiation pressure 2 together supporting the weight of the gases – were burning low on fuel. During this last stage, at the end of a long chain of exergonic 3 fusion reactions, atoms as large as iron were being created for the very first time. Beyond the production of iron, however, this nucleosynthesis into even heavier elements becomes energy exhaustive, and so the process of fusion could no longer remain self-sustaining. So it came to pass that the first generation stars were starting to die.

But these stars were not about to fizzle out like so many guttering candles. The final stage of their demise involved not a whimper, but bangs of unimaginable power. Beginning as a collapse, an accelerating collapse that would inevitably and catastrophically rebound, each star was torn apart within a few seconds, the remnants propelled at hyper-velocities out into deep space. And it was during these brief but almighty supernova explosions when the heavier elements (lead, gold and ultimately all the stable elements in the periodic table) came into being.

Ages came and passed. Pockets of the supernova debris, now drifting about in tenuous clouds, and enriched with those heavier elements, began to coalesce a second time: the influence of gravity rolling the dust into new stars. Our Sun is one star born not from that generation, but the next, being one of almost countless numbers of third generation of stars: our entire Solar System emerging indeed from a twice-processed aggregation of swirling supernova debris. All this had passed around 5 billion years ago, approximately 14 billion years after the birth of time itself.”

Now very obviously in this modern reworking there can be no Earth at the time of creation, so the story in Genesis fails to accord with the science right from its outset: from chapter one, verse one. For there is simply no room for the Earth when the whole universe is still smaller than a grapefruit.

I can already hear the protests of course: for Earth we must read Universe apparently, in order to make any meaningful comparison. Okay, so playing along, what then becomes of heaven? For God created both heaven and earth remember. Well, if heaven was once some place above our heads (as it surely was for people living under the stars at the time when Genesis was written) then to accord with the current theories of cosmology, perhaps those who still subscribe to the entire Biblical story imagine its existence as a parallel universe; linked through a wormhole we call death. Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways!

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Some readers will doubtless baulk at the idea of God being the creator of anything, and yet I think we should honestly admit that nothing in modern cosmology with certainty precludes the existence of an original creative force; of God only as the primum mobile, the first-mover, igniting the primordial spark. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to discover (as it did for me) that one of the first proponents of the currently accepted scientific theory – now universally known as the Big Bang Theory – was by vocation a Roman Catholic priest.

Father Georges Lemaître, a Belgian professor of physics and astronomy, having quickly recognised the cosmological possibilities latent within Einstein’s then still novel theory of General Relativity, published his ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’ in the prestigious scientific journal Nature as long ago as 1931. Yet interestingly, his ideas did not receive much support at the time, in part due to lack of evidence, but also because many contemporary physicists initially rejected all such theories of spontaneous universal origin as being an entirely religious import. But science isn’t built on belief, and so it can’t be held hostage to orthodoxy in the same way that religious conviction can. This is where science and religion absolutely depart. Although, in order to explore this further, it is first helpful to consider two vitally important though rather difficult questions: “what is science?” and “what is religion?”

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I have a friend who tells me that science is the search for knowledge; an idea that fits very happily with the word’s etymology: from Latin scientia, meaning “to know”. Meanwhile the dictionary itself offers another useful definition: “a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematized observation of, and experiment with phenomena.” According to this more complete description, science is not any particular set of knowledge, but rather a system or systems that aim at objectivity.

Scientific facts exist, of course, but these are simply ideas that have been proved irrefutable. For instance, that the Earth is a ball that moves around the Sun. This is a fact and it is a scientific one. For the most part, however, scientists do not work with facts as straightforward as this. And rather than facts, the most common currency of working scientists is theories. Scientific theories are not to be believed in as such, but a means to encompass the best understanding available. They exist in order to be challenged, and thus to be improved upon.

In Science, belief begins and ends as follows: that some forms of investigation, by virtue of being objective, lead to better solutions than other, less objective approaches. This is the only orthodoxy to which all scientists are committed, and so, in the final analysis, being scientific means nothing more or less than an implicit refusal to admit knowledge aside from what can be observed and measured. For Science is an inherently empirical approach, with its prime directive and perhaps also its élan vital being that: in testing, we trust.

I could leave the question of science right there and move on to consider the question of religion, but before I do so, I would like to put one important matter straight. Whatever it is that science is and does, it also helps to understand that the majority of scientists rarely if ever consider this question.

As a physics undergraduate myself, I learnt quite literally nothing about the underlying philosophies of science (there was an addition module – a final year option – addressing this topic but unfortunately it was oversubscribed). Aside from this, I was never taught to analyse the empirical method in and of itself. I personally learnt absolutely nothing about hypotheses, let alone how to test them (and in case this should lead readers to think my university education was itself substandard, then let me also admit, at the risk of appearing an arrogant braggart, that I attended one of the best scientific academies in the country – Imperial College would no doubt say the best). Yet they did not teach us about hypotheses, and for the simple reason that the vast majority of physicists rarely bother their heads about them. Instead, the scientists I’ve known (and again, I was a research student for three years) do what might be broadly termed “investigations”.

An investigation is just that, and it might involve any variety of techniques and approaches. During the most exciting stages of the work, the adept scientist may indeed rely as much on guesswork and intuition as on academic training and logical reasoning. Famously, for example, the chemist August Kekulé dreamt up the structure of benzene in his sleep. Proving the dream correct obviously required a bit more work.

The task set for every research scientist is to find answers. Typically then, scientists are inclined to look upon the world as if it were a puzzle (the best puzzle available), and as with any other puzzle, the point is just to find a satisfactory solution.

So why then did I begin with talk of scientific methods? Well because, as with most puzzles, some methods will prove more efficacious than others, but also because in this case there is no answer to be found at the bottom of page 30 – so we’d better be as sure as we can, that the answer we find is the best available one. Which in turn means applying the best (i.e., most appropriate and reliable) methods at hand, or else developing still better ones.

By ‘method’, I do not mean simply whatever approach the scientist employs to test his or her own guesses about the puzzle, but just as importantly, a system that can be used to prove this solution to the satisfaction of a wider scientific community. For methods too are accepted only once they have been tried and tested.

So when the philosopher Karl Popper claims that the scientific method depends upon “testable hypotheses” (or as my friend calls them “detestable hypotheses”) I would say fair enough… but let’s not mistake this definition for a description of what scientists actually do. We may accept that science must make statements that can be falsified – this is indeed a useful “line of demarcation”, as Popper puts it 4 – and we can call these statements “testable hypotheses” if we choose – but science is simply about broadening and refining our knowledge and understanding, and any approach that is scientifically accountable will really do just fine.

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So what of religion? Well, that’s a pricklier issue again, of course, so let me swerve clear of any direct answer for the moment so as to draw a further comparison with science.

Where a religious person may say, I have faith in such and such because it is written so, a scientist, assuming she is honest, ought only to say that “given the evidence we have thus far collected and collated, our best explanation is the following…” As more evidence becomes available, our scientist, assuming she has integrity (at least as a scientist), may humbly (or not) concur that her previously accepted best explanation is no longer satisfactory. In short, the scientist is always required by virtue of their profession to keep an open mind; the truth of their discipline being something that’s forever unfolding and producing facts that are rarely final.

For the religious-minded, however, the very opposite may apply, and for all who know that the true shape of things is already revealed to them through faith, there must be absolute restrictions to further open-minded inquiry. (Not that all religions stress the importance of such unassailable beliefs – some do not.)

Where it is the duty of every scientist to accept all genuine challenges, and to allow (as Richard Feynman once put it) for Nature to come out “the way she is”, it is the duty for many religious believers (though not, as I say, of all who are religious) to maintain a more rigidly fixed view of the world. Here again, however, it ought to be stressed that the scientist’s constant and single-minded aim for objectivity is not necessarily dependent on his or her lack of beliefs or subjective opinion – scientists are, after all, only human. So virtually all scientists come to their puzzles with preconceived hunches, and, whether determined by the head or the heart, have a preference for one solution over another. But this doesn’t much matter, so long as they are rigorous in their science.

Indeed, many of the most brilliant scientific minds have also held strongly religious convictions (Newton and Darwin spring immediately to mind). In studying that great work called Nature, Newton was implicitly trying to understand the mind of God, and finally Newton’s discoveries did not shatter his belief in God, but instead confirmed for him that there must be an intelligent agency at large, or at least one that set things initially in motion.             Darwin’s faith was more fundamentally rocked (as we shall see), yet he came to study Nature as another devout believer. But the art of the scientist in every case is to recognise such prejudices and put them to one side, and this is the original reason for developing such strict and rigorous methodologies. Ultimately, to reiterate, Science is no more or less powerful than its own methods for inquiry. Which is how it was that physicists and astronomers gradually put aside their reservations as the evidence grew in favour of Father Lemaître’s theory of creation.

So the lesson here is that whereas religion demands faith, science asks always for the allowance of doubt and uncertainty. And just as St Thomas asked to see the holes in Christ’s palms, so too every responsible scientist is called to do the same, day in and day out. Doubting Thomas should be a patron saint of all scientists.

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I wish to change the subject. It is not my aim to pitch science against religion and pretend that science is somehow the victor, when in truth I regard this as a phoney war. On its own territory, which is within the bounds of what is observable and measurable, science must always win. This is inevitable. Those who still look for answers to scientific questions in the ancient writings of holy men are only deceiving themselves.

But science too has its boundaries, and, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued in his famous (if notoriously difficult) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – proceeding via an interwoven sequence of numbered and nested propositions and aphorisms to systematically unravel the complex relationship between language, thought and the world – rational inquiry, though our most promising guide for uncovering the facts of existence, can never be complete.

Just as the Universe apparently won’t allow us to capture every last drop of heat energy and make it do work for us, at least according to current thermodynamic theories, so Wittgenstein argued (to his own satisfaction and also to the exacting standards of Bertrand Russell) an analogous limitation applies to all systems of enquiry designed for capturing truth. Even the most elaborate engines in the world cannot be made 100% efficient, and likewise the most carefully constructed forms of philosophical investigation, even accepting Science as the most magnificent philosophical truth engine we shall ever devise (as Wittgenstein did 5), will inescapably be limited to that same extent – perfection in both cases being simply unattainable.

Many have racked their brains to think up the most cunning of contraptions, but none have invented a perpetual motion machine, and the same, according to Wittgenstein, goes for anyone wishing to generate any comprehensive theory of everything, which is just another human fantasy. 6 Most significantly and most controversially, Wittgenstein says that no method can be devised for securing any certain truths regarding ethics, aesthetics, or metaphysics, and that consequently all attempts at pure and detached philosophical talk of these vital matters is mere sophistry.

Having revealed the ultimate limitations to reasoning, Wittgenstein then arrives at his seventh, and perhaps most famous proposition in this most famous and celebrated of works. A stand-alone declaration: it is the metaphorical equivalent of slamming the book shut!

“What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” 7, he says, suddenly permitting himself the licence of a poet.

This was his first and also last hurrah as a philosopher (or so he thought 8), Wittgenstein taking the lead from his own writings – and what greater measure of integrity for a philosopher than to live according to their own espoused principles. Ditching his blossoming career at Cambridge, he set out in pursuit of a simpler life back in his Austrian homeland, first (and somewhat disastrously) as a primary school teacher, and then more humbly as a gardener at a monastery. (Although at length, of course, he did famously return to Cambridge to resume and extend his “philosophical investigations”).

But isn’t this all just a redressing of much earlier ideas of scepticism? Well, Wittgenstein is quick to distance himself from such negative doctrines, for he was certainly not denying truth in all regards (and never would). But faced by our insurmountable limitations to knowledge, Wittgenstein is instead asking those who discuss philosophies beyond the natural sciences to intellectually pipe-down. Perhaps he speaks too boldly (some would say too arrogantly). Maybe he’s just missing the point that others more talented would have grasped, then stomping off in a huff. After all, he eventually turned tail in 1929, picking up where he’d left off in Cambridge, returning in part to criticise his own stumbling first attempt. But then what in philosophy was ever perfectly watertight?

The one thing he was constantly at pains to point out: that all philosophy is an activity and not, as others had believed, the golden road to any lasting doctrinal end. 9  And it’s not that Wittgenstein was really stamping his feet and saying “impossible!”, but rather that he was attempting to draw some necessary and useful boundaries. Trying to stake out where claims to philosophic truth legitimately begin and end. An enterprise perhaps most relevant to the natural sciences, an arena of especially precise investigation, and one where Wittgenstein’s guiding principle – that anything which can be usefully said may be said clearly or not at all – can be held as a fair measure against all theories. Indeed, I believe this insistence upon clarity provides a litmus test for claims of “scientific objectivity” from every field.

Embedded above is a film by Christopher Nupen entitled “The Language Of The New Music” about Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arnold Schonberg; two men whose lives and ideas run parallel in the development of Viennese radicalism. Both men emerged from the turmoil of the Habsburg Empire in its closing days with the idea of analysing language and purging it with critical intent, believing that in the analysis and purification of language lies the greatest hope that we have.

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Let me return to the question of religion itself, not to inquire further into “what it is” (since religion takes many and varied forms, the nature of which we may return to later), but rather to ask more pragmatically “whether or not we are better with or without it”, in whatever form. A great many thinkers past and present have toyed with this question; a considerable few finding grounds to answer with a very resounding “without”.

In current times there has been no more outspoken advocate of banishing all religion than the biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who aside from being a scientist of unquestionable ability and achievement, is also an artful and lively writer; his books on neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory being just as clear and precise as they are wonderfully detailed and inspiring. He allows Nature to shine forth with her own brilliance, though never shirking descriptions of her darker ways. I’m very happy to say that I’ve learnt a great deal from reading Dawkins’ books and am grateful to him for that.

In his most famous (although by no means his best) book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins set out to uncover the arena wherein the evolution of life is ultimately played out. After carefully considering a variety of hypotheses including competition between species, or the rivalry within groups and between individuals, he concludes that in all cases the real drama takes place at a lower, altogether more foundational level. Evolution, he explains, after a great deal of scrupulous evidential analysis, is driven by competition between fragments of DNA called genes, and these blind molecules care not one jot about anything or anyone. This is why the eponymous gene is so selfish (and Dawkins may perhaps have chosen his title a little more carefully, since those who haven’t read beyond the cover may wrongly presume that scientists have discovered the gene for selfishness, which is most certainly not the case). But I would like to save any further discussion about theories of biological evolution, and of how these have shaped our understanding of what life is (and hence what we are), for later chapters. Here instead I want to briefly consider Dawkins’ idea not of genes but “memes”.

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In human society, Dawkins says in his final chapter of The Selfish Gene, change is effected far more rapidly by shifts in ideas rather than by those more steady shifts in our biology. So in order to understand our later development, he presents the notion of the parallel evolution between kinds of primal idea-fragments, which he calls “memes”. Memes that are most successful (i.e., the most widely promulgated) will, says Dawkins, like genes, possess particular qualities that increase their chances for survival and reproduction. In this case, memes that say “I am true so tell others” or more dangerously “destroy any opposition to my essential truth” are likely to do especially well in the overall field of competition. Indeed, says Dawkins, these sorts of memes have already spread and infected us like viruses.

For Dawkins, religious beliefs are some of the best examples of these successful selfish memes, persisting not because of any inherent truth, but simply because they have become wonderfully adapted for survival and transmission. His idea (a meme itself presumably) certainly isn’t hard science – in fact it’s all rather hand-waving stuff – but as a vaguely hand-waving response I’d have to admit that he has a partial point. Ideas that encourage self-satisfied proselytising are often spread more virulently than similar ideas that do not. Yet ideas also spread because they are just frankly better ideas, so how can Dawkins’ theory of memes bring this more positive reason into account? Can his same idea explain, for instance, why the ideas of science and liberal humanism have also spread so far and wide? Aren’t these merely other kinds of successful meme that have no special privilege above memes that encourage sun worship and blood sacrifice?

My feeling here is that Dawkins comes from the wrong direction. There is no rigorous theory for the evolution of memes, nor can there be, since there is no clearly discernible, let alone universal mechanism, behind the variation and selection of ideas. But then of course Dawkins knows this perfectly well and never attempts to make a serious case. So why does he mention memes at all?

Well, as an atheistic materialist, he obviously already knows the answer he wants. So this faux-theory of memes is just his damnedest attempt to ensure such a right result. Religion operating as a virus is an explanation that plainly satisfies him, and whilst his route to discovering that answer depends on altogether shaky methodology, he puts aside his otherwise impeccable scientific principles, and being driven to prove what in truth he only feels, he spins a theory backwards from a prejudice. What Dawkins and others have perhaps failed to recognise is that in the fullest sense, questions of religion – of why we are here, of why we suffer, of what makes a good life – will never be cracked by the sledgehammer of reason, for questions of value lie outside the bounds of scientific analysis. Or if he does recognise this, then the failing instead is to understand that there are many, quite different in temperament, who will always need attempted answers to these profound questions.

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I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious environment. My mother had attended Sunday school, and there she’d learnt to trust in the idea of heaven and the eternal hereafter. It wasn’t hell-fire stuff and she was perfectly happy to keep her faith private. My father was more agnostic. He would probably now tell you that he was always an atheist but, in truth, and like many good atheists, he was actually an agnostic. The test of this is simple enough: the fact that he quite often admitted how nice it would be to have faith in something, although his own belief was just that Jesus was a good bloke and the world would be much nicer if people to tried to emulate him a bit. (Which is a Christian heresy, of course!)

I was lucky enough to attend a small primary school in a sleepy Shropshire village. Although it was a church school of sorts, religious instruction involved nothing more than the occasional edifying parable, various hymns, ancient and modern, and the Lord’s Prayer mumbled daily at the end of assembly. Not exactly what you’d call indoctrination. At secondary school, religious instruction became more formalised – one hour each week, presumably to satisfy state legislature. Then, as the years went by, our lessons in R.E. shifted from a purely Christian syllabus to one with more multicultural aspirations. So we learnt about Judaism, Islam, and even Sikhism, although thinking back I feel sure that our teacher must have delivered such alternative lessons through gritted teeth. I recall once how a classmate confused the creature on top of a Christmas tree with a fairy. Hark, how you should have heard her!

Being rather devout, this same teacher – a young, highly-strung, and staunchly virginal spinster – also set up a Christian Union club that she ran during the lunch hour, and for some reason I joined up. Perhaps it had to do with a school-friend telling me about Pascal’s wager: that you might as well believe in God since you stand to gain so much for the price of so small a stake. In any case, for a few weeks or months I tried to believe, or at least tried to discover precisely what it was that I was supposed to be believing in, though I quickly gave up. Indeed, the whole process actually made me hostile to religion. So for a time I would actively curse the God in the sky – test him out a bit – which proves only that I was believing in something.

Well to cut a long story short, whatever strain of religion I’d contracted, it was something that did affect me to a considerable extent in my late teens and early twenties. Of course, by then I regarded myself a fervent atheist, having concluded that “the big man in the sky” was nothing more or less than an ugly cultural artifact, something alien, someone else’s figment planted in my own imagination… and yet still I found that I had this God twitch.              Occasionally, and especially for some reason whilst on long journeys driving the car, I’d find myself ruminating on the possibility of his all-seeing eyes watching over me. So, by and by, I decided to make a totally conscious effort to free myself from this mind-patrolling spectre, snuffing out all thought of God whenever it arose. To pay no heed to it. And little by little the thought died off. God was dead, or at least a stupid idea of God, a graven image, and one I’d contracted in spite of such mild exposure to Christian teachings. A mind-shackle that was really no different from my many other contracted neuroses. Well, as I slowly expunged this chimera, I discovered another way to think about religion, although I hesitate to use such a grubby word – but what’s the choice?

Spirituality – yuck! It smacks of a cowardly cop-out to apply such a slippery alternative. A weasel word. A euphemism almost, to divert attention from mistakes of religions past and present. But are there any more tasteful alternatives? And likewise – though God is just such an unspeakably filthy word (especially when He bears an upper case G like a crown), what synonym can serve the same purpose? You see how difficult it is to talk of such things when much of the available vocabulary offends (and for some reason we encounter similar problems talking about death, defecation, sex and a hundred other things, though principally death, defecation and sex). So allow me to pass the baton to the greatly overlooked genius of William James, who had a far greater mastery over words than myself, and is a most elegant author on matters of the metaphysical.

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“There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of ‘survival’, an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown; and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract. This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions. Let me call it the ‘Survival theory’, for brevity’s sake.” 10

Here is James steadying himself before addressing his conclusions regarding The Varieties of Religious Experience. The twentieth century has just turned. Marx and Freud are beginning to call the tunes: Science, more broadly, in the ascendant. But I shall return to these themes later in the book, restricting myself here to James’ very cautiously considered inquiries into the nature of religion itself and why it can never be adequately replaced by scientific objectivity alone. He begins by comparing the religious outlook to the scientific outlook and by considering the differences between each:

The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism… Science on the other hand, has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogues her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearing on human anxieties and fates… 11

This is such a significant disagreement, James argues, that it is easy to sympathise with the more objective approach guaranteed by hard-edged precision of science, and to dismiss religious attitudes altogether:

You see how natural it is, from this point of view, to treat religion as mere survival, for religion does in fact perpetuate the traditions of the most primeval thought. To coerce the spiritual powers, or to square them and get them on our side, was, during enormous tracts of time, the one great object in our dealings with the natural world. For our ancestors, dreams, hallucinations, revelations, and cock-and-bull stories were inextricably mixed with facts… How indeed could it be otherwise? The extraordinary value, for explanation and prevision, of those mathematical and mechanical modes of conception which science uses, was a result that could not possibly have been expected in advance. Weight, movement, velocity, direction, position, what thin, pallid, uninteresting ideas! How could the richer animistic aspects of Nature, the peculiarities and oddities that make phenomena picturesquely striking or expressive, fail to have been singled out and followed by philosophy as the more promising avenue to the knowledge of Nature’s life. 12

As true heirs to the scientific enlightenment, we are asked to abandon such primeval imaginings and, by a process of deanthropomorphization (to use James’ own deliberately cumbersome term), which focuses only on the precisely defined properties of the phenomenal world so carefully delineated by science, sever the private from the cosmic. James argues, however, that such enlightenment comes at a cost:

So long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. 13

Thus, to entirely regard one’s life through the pure and impersonal lens of scientific inquiry is to see through a glass, not so much too darkly, as too impartially. Whilst being expected to leave out from our descriptions of the world “all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, [and] all the various spiritual attitudes”, James compares with being offered “a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal.” He expresses the point most succinctly saying:

It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result.

This is the heart of the matter, and the reason James surmises, quite correctly in my opinion:

… That religion, occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history. 14

*

Mauro Bergonzi, Professor of Religion and Philosophy in Naples, speaks about the utter simplicity of what is:

*

“I gotta tell you the truth folks,” comedian George Carlin says at the start of his most famous and entertaining rant, “I gotta tell you the truth. When it comes to bullshit – big-time, major league bullshit! You have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: Religion! Think about it! Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man! – living in the sky! –  who watches everything you do, every minute of every day…”

And he’s right. It’s bonkers but it’s true, and Carlin is simply reporting what many millions of people very piously believe. Sure, plenty of Christians, Muslims and Jews hold a more nuanced faith in their one God, and yet for vast multitudes of believers, this same God is nothing but a bigger, more powerful, humanoid. A father figure.

“Man created God in his own image,” is the way a friend once put it to me. And as a big man, this kind of a God inevitably has a big man’s needs.

Of course, the gods of most, if not all, traditions have been in the business of demanding offerings of one kind or another to be sacrificed before them, for what else are gods supposed to receive in way of remuneration for their services? It’s hardly surprising then that all three of the great Abrahamic faiths turn sacrifice into a central theme. But then what sacrifice can ever be enough for the one-and-only God who already has everything? Well, as George Carlin points out, God is generally on the lookout for cash:

“He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing and all-wise, but somehow just can’t handle money!” But still, cash only goes so far. Greater sacrifices are also required, and, as the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac makes abundantly clear, on some occasions nothing less than human blood-sacrifice will do. 15 The implicit lesson of this story being that the love of our Lord God requires absolute obedience, nothing less. For ours is not to reason why…

“Oh, God you are so big!” the Monty Python prayer begins – bigness being reason enough to be awed into submission. But God also wants our devotion, and then more than this, he wants our love to be unconditional and undiluted. In short, he wants our immortal souls, even if for the meantime, he’ll settle for other lesser sacrifices in lieu.

As for the more caring Christian God (the OT God restyled), well here the idea of sacrifice is up-turned. The agonising death of his own son on Golgotha apparently satisfying enough to spare the rest of us. It’s an interesting twist, even if the idea of a sacrificed king is far from novel; by dividing his former wholeness, and then sacrificing one part of himself to secure the eternal favour of his other half is a neat trick.

But still, why the requirement for such a bloody sacrifice at all? Well, is it not inevitable that every almighty Lord of Creation must sooner or later get mixed up with the God of Death? For what in nature is more unassailable than Death; the most fearsome destroyer who ultimately smites all. Somehow this God Almighty must have control over everything and that obviously includes Death.

“The ‘omnipotent’ and ‘omniscient’ God of theology,” James once wrote in a letter, “I regard as a disease of the philosophy shop.” And here again I wholeheartedly agree with James. Why…? For all the reasons given above, and, perhaps more importantly, because any “one and only” infinitist belief cannot stand the test at all. Allow me to elucidate.

The world is full of evils; some of these are the evils of mankind, but certainly not all. So what sort of a God created amoebic dysentery, bowel cancer and the Ebola virus? And what God would allow the agonies of his floods, famines, earthquakes, fires and all his other wondrously conceived natural disasters? What God would design a universe of such suffering that he invented the parasitic wasps that sting their caterpillar hosts to leave them paralysed, laying their eggs inside so that their grubs will eat the living flesh?

The trouble is that any One True Lord, presuming this Lord is also of infinite goodness, needs, by necessity, a Devil to do his earthly bidding. This is unavoidable because without an evil counterpart such an infinite and omnipotent God, by virtue of holding absolute power over all creation, must thereby permit every evil in this world, whether man-made or entirely natural in origin. And though we may of course accept that human cruelties are a necessary part of the bargain for God’s gift of freewill – which is a questionable point in itself – we are still left to account for such evils as exist beyond the limited control of our species.

Thus, to escape the problem of blaming such “acts of God” on God himself, we may choose to blame the Devil instead for all our woes, yet this leads inexorably to an insoluble dilemma. For if the Devil is a wholly distinct and self-sustaining force we have simply divided God into two opposing halves (when He must be One), whereas if we accept that this Devil is just another of the many works of the One God, then the problem never really went away in the first place. For why would any omnipotent God first create and then permit the Devil to go about in his own evil ways? It is perhaps Epicurus who puts this whole matter most succinctly:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? 16

It is here that we enter the thorny theological “problem of evil”, although it might equally fittingly be called the “problem of pain”, for without pain, in all its various colourations, it is hard to imagine what actual form the evil itself could take.

So confronted by the Almighty One, we might very respectfully ask, “why pain?” Or if not why pain, as such, for conceivably this God may retort that without pain we would not appreciate joy, just as we could not measure the glory of day without the darkness of night, we still might ask: but why such excessive pain, and why so arbitrarily inflicted? For what level of ecstasy can ever justify all of Nature’s cruelties?

At this point, James unceremoniously severs the Gordian knot as follows: “… the only obvious escape from paradox here is to cut loose from the monistic assumption altogether, and allow the world to have existed from its origin in pluralistic form, as an aggregate or collection of higher and lower things and principles, rather than an absolutely unitary fact. For then evil would not need to be essential; it might be, and it may always have been, an independent portion that had no rational or absolute right to live with the rest, and which we might conceivably hope to see got rid of at last…”

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There are many who have set out to find proof of God’s existence. Some have looked for evidence in archeology – the sunken cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the preserved remains of Noah’s Ark, and most famously, the carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin – but again and again the trails lead cold. Others turned inwards. Searching for proof of God through reason. But this is surely the oldest mistake in the book. For whatever God could ever be proved by reason would undoubtedly shrivel up into a pointless kind of a God.

But there is also a comparable mistake to be made. It is repeated by all who still try, and after so many attempts have failed, to absolutely refute God’s existence. For God, even the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, can in some more elusive sense, remain subtle enough to slip all the nets. He need not maintain the form of the big man in the sky, but can diffuse into an altogether more mysterious form of cosmic consciousness. In this more mystical form, with its emphasis on immediate apprehension, history also sinks into the background.

Dawkins and others who adhere to a strictly anti-religious view of the world are in the habit of disregarding these more subtle and tolerant religious attitudes. Fashioning arguments that whip up indignation in their largely irreligious audience, they focus on the rigid doctrines of fundamentalists. And obviously, they will never shake the pig-headed faith of such fundamentalists, but then neither will their appeals to scientific rationalism deflect many from holding more flexible and considered religious viewpoints. The reason for this is simple enough: that man (or, at least, most people) cannot live by bread alone. So, for the genuinely agnostic inquirer, strict atheism provides only an unsatisfactory existential escape hatch.

In the year 2000, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion 17. In his acceptance speech he staked out the rightful position of religion as follows:

I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe. Why are we here? Does the universe have a purpose? Whence comes our knowledge of good and evil? These mysteries, and a hundred others like them, are beyond the reach of science. They lie on the other side of the border, within the jurisdiction of religion.

So the origins of science and religion are the same; he says, adding a little later:

Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided; neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. 18

By restoring mystery to its proper place at the centre of our lives, Dyson’s uncertainty might indeed offer the possibility for actual religious progress. It might achieve something that the purer atheism almost certainly never will. Hallelujah and amen!

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Once upon a time I was an atheist too, only slowly coming to realise that being so sure-footed about the inessential non-spirituality of existence requires an element of faith of its own. It requires a faith in the ultimate non-mystery of the material universe. That everything is, in principle at least, fathomable. Not that this means our atheistic scientific worldview must inevitably be duller nor that it automatically considers life less wonderful. Not at all. Life and the rest of it may appear to be just as aimless as weather, to steal James’ choice metaphor, but this has a kind of beauty of its own, as many an atheist will affirm. And there’s security of a different, some would say higher form, in the acceptance and affirmation of perfectly aimless existence. It can feel like a weight lifted.

Yet, the rarely admitted truth is that the carriers of the scientific light of reason (of whom I remain very much one) are just as uncertain as the average Joe Churchgoer about what might loosely be termed the supernatural (or supranatural) – by which I mean both the ultimately unknowable, and also, whatever strange and various events still remain unexplained by our accepted laws of the natural world. All of which stands to reason: the inexplicable lying, by its very definition, outside the province of science, whilst, at the same time, a bristling realisation that the universe is inherently and intractably mysterious stirs unconsciously at the back of all our minds, even those of the most logical and rational of thinkers. For the stark truth is that existence itself is spooky! And consequently, scientists too are sometimes afraid of the dark.

Finally then, the practising scientist, putting aside all questions of ultimate meaning or purpose, for these concerns are beyond the scope of their professional inquiries, must admit that they sideline such matters only on the grounds of expedience. The only useful scientific questions being ones that can be meticulously framed. So whilst science is necessarily dispassionate and preoccupied with material facts, it does not follow that being scientific means to mistake the world as revealed by science for the scientific model that approximates it – any model of the universe being, at best, obviously a pale approximation to the true complexity of the original.

Scientists then are not the new high priests and priestesses of our times, because their role is cast quite differently. Gazing downwards rather than upwards, to earth rather than heaven, they pick away at the apparently lesser details in the hope of unravelling the bigger picture. Turning outwards instead of inwards, deliberately avoiding subjective interpretations in favour of tests and measurements, they seek to avoid opinion and to rise above prejudice. All of this requires a kind of modesty, or should.

But there is also a fake religion, one that dresses itself in the brilliant white of laboratory coats. It pleads that the only true way to understanding is a scientific one, disavowing all alternatives to its own rational authority. Of course such claims to absolute authority are no less fraudulent than claims of papal infallibility or the divine right of kings, but true devotees to the new religion are blind to such comparisons. More importantly, they fail to see that all claims to an exclusive understanding, whether resting on the doctrines of religion or by the microscopic scrutiny of science, aside from being false claims, necessarily involves a diminution of life itself. That at its most extreme, this new religion of scientific materialism leads unswervingly to what William Blake called “the sleep of Newton”: a mindfulness only to what can be measured and calculated. And truly this requires a tremendous sacrifice.

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James Tunney, LLM, is an Irish Barrister who has lectured on legal matters throughout the world. He is also a poet, visual artist, and author of “The Mystical Accord: Sutras to Suit Our Times, Lines for Spiritual Evolution”. In addition, he has written two dystopian novels – “Blue Lies September”, and “Ireland I Don’t Recognize Who She Is”. Here he speaks with host of “New Thinking Allowed”, Jeffrey Mishlove about the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ tradition found in cultures throughout the world, for which the essential core tenet is mysticism. What is meant by mysticism is discussed at length, and as Tunney explains, one important characteristic shared by all mystical traditions is the primary recognition of humans (and animals) as spiritual beings. Thus, scientism as a cultural force, by virtue of its absolutist materialist dogma, is necessarily antagonistic to all forms of mysticism:

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So by degrees I’ve been converted back to agnostism, for all its shamefulness. Agnosticism meaning “without knowledge”. I really have no idea whether or not a god of any useful description exists, nor even whether this is a reasonable question, yet I can still confidently rule out many of his supposed manifestations (especially those where his name is top-heavy with its illuminated capital G). But any detailed speculation on the nature of god or, if you prefer, the spiritual, is what William James calls “passing to the limit”, and in passing that limit we come to what James called the “over-beliefs”.

Over-beliefs are the prime religious currency in which churches do the bulk of their business. They are what most distinguish the Lutherans from the Catholics; the Sunnis from the Shias; and more schismatically again, the Christians from the Muslims. All the carefully formulated dogma about the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the virgin birth; the sacraments and the catechisms; and the ways of invocation of the One True God; or in more Easterly traditions, the karmic cycle and the various means and modes of reincarnation, and so on and so forth, all are over-beliefs, for they attempt to cross the threshold from “the sensible and merely understandable world” to “the hither side”. In his own conclusions, James suggested a more “pluralistic hypothesis” to square the varieties of religious experience:

Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all…

These are James’ overbeliefs and they broadly concur with my own. Though mine have also been tinted a little by Eastern hues. Intuitively I am drawn by the Taoist notion of the constant flux of eternal becoming. An unnameable current of creation with an effortless strength like the strength of water, which is subtle, flexible and unstoppable. Accordingly, my intuition respects the Taoist directive to flow effortlessly with this eternal current, for there is no sense in swimming against it. And this is a philosophy that compliments well the mindfulness of Zen (or Ch’an), with its playful seriousness, its snapping fingers calling the wandering attention back to the here and now. I can easily empathise with the Zen student’s search for the raw nakedness of naked existence, with its requirement to the strip all veils of presumed understanding; focusing upon where the outer and inner worlds reflect, to achieve a spontaneous but ineffable awakening. I can see it as a potentiality, and it does not jar against the hard-won rationality of my scientific training. In contrast to so much of the declarative wiseacring of Western philosophy, mastery of both disciplines is all about knowing when to shut up. As mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, once said:

God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or nonbeing. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not. Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows. 19

I am not of course a Taoist nor a Buddhist of any kind. I am unaffiliated to any church. But I am drawn to Taoism and Zen Buddhism because of their appeals to objectivity, with emphasis on revelation above and beyond belief. For in neither Taoism nor Zen is any shape of God decreed or delineated: God being as much a zero and a one. And as a one-nothing, or a no-thing, this no-God requires no sacrifice, no high calls to blind obedience; for the Universe is as the Universe does. Yet something of the religious remains, beyond the purely philosophical, a something that strict atheism lacks: a personal role within the cosmic drama, which escapes the absurd chance and purposeless drifting of materialist scientism. 20

So it is that I choose to adopt them to an extent. To draw on their philosophies, and to marry these on again with ideas found in strands of Western Existentialism, to aspects of liberal humanism and to the better parts of Christianity (distilled in the songs of Blake, for instance). But whilst it may be edifying to pick the best from traditions of both East and West, to satisfy my god-shaped hole, I see too that such a pick-and-mix approach is prone to make as many false turns as any traditional religious route – it is interesting to note here that the word “heretic” derives from the Greek hairetikos, meaning “able to choose”. For there are no actual boundaries here. So what of the many shamanic traditions and tribal gods of primitive society? What about our own pagan heritage? Isn’t it time to get out the crystals and stuff some candles in my ears? Mesmerised by a hotchpotch of half-comprehended ideas and beliefs, just where are the safeguards preventing any freewheeling religious adventurer from falling into a woolly-headed New Ageism?

Well, it’s not for me or anyone else to call the tune. Live and let live – everyone should be entitled to march to the beat of their own drums, always taking care not to trample the toes of others in the process. But this idea of the New Age is a funny business, and I wish to save my thoughts on that (perhaps for another book). Meanwhile, my sole defence against charges of constructing a pick-and-mix religion is this: if you’d lost your keys where would you look for them? In your pocket? Down at your feet? Only under the streetlights? Oh, you have your keys – well then, good for you! Now, please don’t expect everyone else to stop looking around for theirs, or restricted to searching only under the most immediate and convenient lamppost.

Having said all this, and rather shamefully spoken too much on matters that better deserve silence, it now behoves me to add that I am certainly careful when it comes to choosing between personal over-beliefs, adhering to one rule: that what is discredited by steadfast and rigorous scientific trial is guaranteed baloney. Miracles, of course, are quite out of the question, failing on account of their own self-defining impossibility. Equally I have no time for animalistic gods of any persuasion, whether or not they share a human face. But my deepest distrust is not of religions per se (since, to repeat, these are many and varied in form, and then good and bad in parts), but more specifically, for the seemingly numberless religious organs we call creeds, sects, churches and so on.

To contend that religion is always about power is to miss the bigger picture, as I hope I’ve satisfactorily shown, and yet… It would be wise for the sheep to beware the shepherd. This much agreed, however, I feel sure that religion, in some wiser form, still has an important role to play in many of our individual lives and for the sake of all our futures. You may be surprised to learn that George Orwell thought similarly, and made his opinion felt in his essay Notes on the Way (an essay which, at intervals, I shall return to later):

… Marx’s famous saying that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is habitually wrenched out of its context and given a meaning subtly but appreciably different from the one he gave it. Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above; he said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognized to be a real one. ‘Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people.’ What is he saying except that man does not live by bread alone, that hatred is not enough, that a world worth living in cannot be founded on ‘realism’ and machine-guns? If he had foreseen how great his intellectual influence would be, perhaps he would have said it more often and more loudly. 21

Next chapter…

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Addendum: mind over matter

Physicists speak about a ‘quantum theory’ but when asked what the physical reality this ‘theory’ describes is truly like, they have no useful or consistent answers at all. It works, they say, and at a mathematical level is the most precise ‘theory’ so far devised, so “shut up and calculate!” Or, if you prefer (with apologies to Shelley): look upon our quantum works and do not despair… certainly not about any gaps in our understanding about the true nature of reality that may or may not underlie it. This non-philosophical culture was the norm by the time I went to university; an opinion that was seldom if ever challenged and thus easily instilled.

Of course, quantum reality does come as a shock at first. I had genuinely felt an acute anxiety on first hearing of Schrödinger’s poor cat forever half-dead in her box. Not that we ever learnt about the famous thought experiment in class of course: no, physics abandoned Schrödinger’s cat to her interminable state of limbo long ago. Any underlying ontology was reading for pleasure only; a late-night topic for post-pub discussions.

But physics is mistaken in its beliefs. It has mixed up its modern ignorance with ultimate incomprehensibility. Schrödinger’s cat was actually meant to shock us all: most importantly, to wake up all those physicists who chose to interpret the abstraction as the world itself and decide without proof that nothing of reality exists beyond it. But we have incorporated the semi-corporeal cat into the mix of quantum oddities: as evidence of our unreal reality when the whole point was that such quantum half-death is absurd.

Moreover, what physicists today describe as ‘quantum theory’ is not strictly a theory at all but actually just a powerful predictive recipe and an engineering tool, whereas a genuine theory is yet to be written: the true quest for it is disguised by language again, because this potential future theory is what physicists currently sideline under the label ‘interpretations’ – as if they don’t much matter.

Professor of Philosopher at NYU, Tim Maudlin, explains the problem with quantum theory today and how the foundations of quantum mechanics should be understood (please ignore the perturbing observable in the background!):

Although the notion that consciousness plays a key role in quantum mechanics was seriously considered by many of the scientific luminaries of the early Twentieth Century including John von Neumann who discussed its salient role in his treatise The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, such interpretations have since fallen mostly out of favour (certainly amongst physicists). More recent empirical findings are however just beginning to challenge this scientific orthodoxy and may indeed rock the assertion that there is an inherent distinction between what I above called “quantum choice” and our conscious choice. In fact in contradiction to what I originally wrote, some of the latest studies are producing results that show astonishingly high correlation between conscious intention and the so-called “collapse” of the wave function.

The last word (of this chapter – not the subject!) I shall leave to Freeman Dyson:

I cannot help but think that the awareness of our brains has something to do with the process that we call “observation” in atomic physics. That is to say, I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by electrons.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

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1    Not quite true actually. Apparently my father was one of a small number who decided not to bother watching the first men step onto the moon’s surface. He tells me that he was so sure they would make it, he couldn’t see the point. My mother watched, and apparently so did I, although still not two years old. I can’t say that I remember anything about the moment, and probably found it a lot less interesting than Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men, but perhaps it affected me on some deeper level — could it be that seeing the first moon landing at such a tender age was part of the reason I ended up studying comets?

2    Radiation pressure is the consequence of light itself (photons) having momentum.

3    A process that releases energy to the surroundings in the form of work as opposed to endergonic, which means energy consuming. These terms are closely related to exothermic and endothermic, where energy release and absorption take the form of heat transfer.

4    Karl Popper’s precise “line of demarcation” was that, if any theory can be shown to be falsifiable, then it can usefully be described as scientific.

5

“The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).”

— Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.11

6

“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both were right and both wrong; though the view of the ancients is clearer insofar as they have an acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.” — Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.371-2.

7    In German: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”

8    “the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive.” Taken from the preface to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

9    In this first treatise of Wittgenstein (which was the only one he ever published – his later philosophy contained in “The Philosophical Investigations” being published posthumously), he begins with the totally unsupported and deeply contentious assertion that, in effect, all meaningful language involves a description, or more correctly a depiction, of fact. This follows because the use of all language involves a correlation between objects in the world and names for those objects. This is his so-called “picture theory of language” which requires, Wittgenstein claims, a one-to-one correspondence between names and objects. This given, he demonstrates that if any proposition is to be genuine it must have a definite sense, or to put it differently, for a statement to admit to any test of proof then it must at least be possible for that question to be set out absolutely clearly. For Wittgenstein this means that questions about ethics, aesthetics and theology fall outside the realm of philosophy; the reason being that they rely on words such as “goodness”, “beauty”, “truth” and “god” which have no clear one-to-one correspondence. Wittgenstein of course later changed his mind on some of this. Recognising that his picture theory was overly simplistic he returned to philosophy with a radically new idea. That the meaning of language is contained in its social usage, thereby reassigning the work of philosophers to the study of language within its natural social environment. The purpose of philosophy was now to untie the knots of these so-called “language games”. But it is easy to mistake him here – and many do – his notion being that science can properly be understood and appraised only by those who know its language, religion likewise, and so on. And not that all inquiry is merely a matter of “playing with words”.

10  The Varieties of Religious Experience: a Study in Human Nature by William James, Longmans, Green & co, 1902; from a lecture series.

11  Ibid.

12  Ibid.

13  Ibid. Italics maintained from the original source.

14  Ibid. James earlier says, “It is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places, – they are strung upon it like so many beads.”

15  Genesis Ch.22 tells how God commanded Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and to there offer up his own son Isaac as a sacrifice. The patriarch travels three days until finally he comes to the mountain, just as God had instructed, and there he tells his servant to remain until he and Isaac have ascended the mountain. Isaac, who is given the task of carrying the wood on which he will soon be sacrificed, repeatedly asks his father why there is no animal for the burnt offering. On each occasion, Abraham says that God will provide one. Finally, as Abraham draws his knife and prepares to slaughter his son, an angel stops him. Happily, a ram has been provided and it can now be sacrificed in place of Isaac.

16  This is sometimes called “the riddle of Epicurus” or “the Epicurean Paradox” even though Epicurus did not in fact leave behind any written record of this statement. The first record of it appears some four hundred or more years after and in a work by the early Christian writer Lactantius who is actually criticising the argument.

17  Freeman Dyson is undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists never to win the Nobel Prize. However, he was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1966 and Max Planck medal in 1969. In March 2000 he was also awarded the Templeton Prize. Created in 1972 by the investor, Sir John Templeton, in an attempt to remedy what he saw as an oversight by the Nobel Prizes, which do not honour the discipline of religion. Previous Templeton Prize recipients have included the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Charles Colson, Ian Barbour, Paul Davies, physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, and Mother Teresa.

18  Extracts from Freeman Dyson ‘s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.

19 From an interview conducted in 1987 by American journalist Bill Moyers as six-part series of conversations with Joseph Campbell entitled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The quote is taken from Episode 2, ‘The Message of the Myth’ broadcast on June 26, 1988. The full transcript is available here: https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-2-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-message-of-the-myth/  

20  It is even tempting to envisage some grand union of these two ancient Chinese philosophies, called Zow!-ism perhaps.

21  Extract taken from Notes on the Way by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940.

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Craig Murray becomes the UK’s latest prisoner of conscience

 

FORMER UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, is to begin an eight-month jail term after being found guilty of contempt of court after an appeal bid was refused.

Murray was sentenced to eight months imprisonment after a judge ruled that he had unlawfully published details about the identities of female witnesses in Alex Salmond’s criminal trial on his blog last year. But he was released on bail in order to launch an appeal bid that has now failed.

Murray continues to deny intent to breach the court order protecting their identities, and that such a breach took place.

Lady Dorrian laid down her verdict in May, saying that Murray’s blog could lead to jigsaw identification of four of those involved, if read with other published materials.

A statement released yesterday said the 62-year-old would “surrender himself to police shortly and begin to serve the custodial sentence handed to him”.

That comes after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

Sentence was deferred for that purpose but will now begin

Click here to read the full article entitled “Craig Murray to hand himself over to police to face jail sentence” written by Kirsteen Paterson published in The National on July 29th.

For more details surrounding the case you can find many articles on Craig Murray’s website. For a summary and overview I recommend this one written by Kirsten MacDonald: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2021/06/craig-murrays-trial-what-happens-next/

It begins:

On Monday morning [June 7th], Lady Dorrian and two supporting judges will hear the application from Roddy Dunlop QC for Craig Murray to be allowed to appeal to the UK Supreme Court against both their verdict of contempt of court for jigsaw identification, and against the disproportionate sentence.

It is widely expected, given the obvious animus against Murray she has shown throughout the proceedings, that leave to appeal will be refused and Lady Dorrian will commit Craig Murray to jail, probably from Wednesday 9 June. At that stage, Murray’s legal team will have to apply direct to the UK Supreme Court to grant him an appeal, but his eight month sentence will likely be served before the Supreme Court even looks at whether to consider it.

Concluding:

Murray is of course one of Sturgeon’s fiercest critics and opposes both the abolition of juries and the abolition of the right of defence lawyers to cross-examine accusers. The prime thrust of the reporting for which he is being jailed was that Nicola Sturgeon was behind the false accusations that were made against Alex Salmond.

There is a real possibility that aspects of Dorrian’s handling of the Murray case could come in for serious criticism by the Supreme Court. These include her acceptance of a handful of anonymous tweets claiming to have learnt identities from Murray’s blog (with zero evidence they actually knew identities) as having important evidential weight, her effective dismissal of his entire affidavits as lies despite hearing no evidence that contradicted them, her making no reference at any stage to Salmond’s acquittal (indeed both her judgement and sentencing remarks on Murray refer to Salmond’s “victims” and “offences” with no “purported”, “alleged” or other qualifier, even after the acquittal), her extremely low bar for jigsaw identification (to any individual who already had specialist knowledge), the breathtakingly draconian sentence, and the curt and offhand dismissal of all Article X ECHR freedom of speech arguments.

If Dorrian grants the appeal to the Supreme Court, she is opening herself up to criticism at a crucial time in her career. As one lawyer put it to me, to grant the appeal would be “asking for a kicking”. If she refuses permission to appeal, she is putting back any Supreme Court decision probably for two years, and giving herself the ability to imprison and silence Murray in the interim.

Murray’s team have very little hope for Monday.

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Now a prisoner himself, Craig Murray has been at the forefront of the campaign calling for the release of Julian Assange. Held indefinitely in Belmarsh, Assange currently faces extradition to the US on the basis of charges relating solely to allegations made by an Icelandic informant, Sigi Thordarson. Thordarson is a registered sex offender guilty of online activities with under-age boys. He was also convicted of stealing approximately $50,000 from Wikileaks as well as of impersonating Julian Assange online. More recently, Thordarson confessed that his claims against Assange are entirely false.

As Murray reported a month ago on June 29th:

Thordarson has now told Icelandic magazine Stundin that his allegations against Assange contained in the indictment are untrue, and that Assange had not solicited the hacking of bank or police details. This is hardly a shock, though Thordarson’s motives for coming clean now are obscure; he is plainly a deeply troubled and often malicious individual.

Thordarson was always the most unreliable of witnesses, and I find it impossible to believe that the FBI cooperation with him was ever any more than deliberate fabrication of evidence by the FBI.

Edward Snowden has tweeted that Thordarson recanting will end the case against Julian Assange. Most certainly it should end it, but I fear it will not.

Many things should have ended the case against Assange. The First Amendment, the ban on political extradition in the US/UK Extradition Treaty, the CIA spying on the preparations of Assange’s defence counsel, all of these should have stopped the case dead in its tracks.

It is now five months since extradition was refused, no US government appeal against that decision has yet been accepted by the High Court, and yet Julian remains confined to the UK’s highest security prison. The revelation that Thordarson’s allegations are fabricated – which everyone knew already, Baraitser just pretended she didn’t – is just one more illegality that the Establishment will shimmy over in its continued persecution of Assange.

Assange democratised information and gave real power to the people for a while, worldwide. He revealed US war crimes. For that his life is destroyed. Neither law nor truth have anything to do with it.

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full piece “FBI Fabrication Against Assange Falls Apart”.

As Julian Assange languishes in prison under conditions described by UN special rapporteur, Nils Melzer, as torture for no crime other than publishing facts that are embarrassing to the British and US State, now Craig Murray too has been jailed for publishing unwanted facts and, in this case, ones already widely available in the public domain.

Assange and Murray are Britain’s most prominent political prisoners. Their prosecutions represent the finals blows to the last vestiges freedom of speech in the UK. Meanwhile, where is the outcry from the liberal media? The Guardian which once worked with Assange in releasing Wikileaks documents, today fabricates and disseminates savage but idiotic propaganda hit-pieces that it then fails to retract even when caught out.

And where too is the outcry from backbench and/or opposition politicians including Labour leader Keir Starmer who is the former Head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and Director of Public Prosecutions?

Following the expected outcome of his own case, Craig Murray issued a response on his official website yesterday under the title “Going Dark” with a statement from his wife, Nadira:

This blog will be going dark for a few months. The Queen kindly paid for my dinners for over twenty years while I was a British diplomat and Ambassador, and now she is going to be paying for my dinners again. That is very kind, I thought she had forgotten me.

The following is a statement from Nadira:

29.07.21
Today is the most heartbreaking day. My husband whose health has been found to not be suitable for prison must hand himself in for detention within hours following the UK Supreme Court’s decision not to hear his appeal.

We were extremely hopeful that the Supreme Court would hear his case and had no doubt that this particular case should have been heard given how important and relevant it is in the context of Freedom of Speech in the UK. Instead, the Supreme Court declined to hear it.

Yet again my heart is deeply saddened to find that the UK, once a country which placed great importance on Human Rights issues, has failed to listen to my husband’s case. Additionally, the Scottish Court outright dismissed Craig’s poor health, having been made aware through the mandatory Social Work report and doctor’s reports that his wellbeing would be at risk if forced to go to jail.

At first I tried to come to terms of him being jailed in the hope he would be granted dignified conditions in jail but I am saddened and shocked to learn he could be placed among criminals, with no ability to bring books or enable him to write, with no entertainment allowed. He is being treated like a criminal. This is not a just punishment, this is a deliberate attempt to break the spirit of anyone brave enough to make use of free speech.

Given a pen and paper what do you do? You write in your own voice speaking the truth. Having been with Craig for two decades he has always spent his time and energy highlighting injustices and standing up for what is right, carefully, considerately and consistently.

I was brought up during Soviet times, and post independence in my own country, Uzbekistan. I have witnessed and personally experienced myself what the price of freedom of speech truly is. Opponents were ‘disappeared’ or it was claimed they had ‘taken their own life’, or been locked away in asylums. I am filled with fear this pattern is now repeating itself in the UK. It is appalling to see Craig is going through the same treatment in the so-called ‘human rights’ respecting country UK.

This is an attack on Truthtellers. His writings are those of a highly qualified Journalist, Human Rights Activist, former Rector of Dundee University and former British Ambassador. To us, his family, this situation is devastating: I am now left with my 5 months old baby, yet to find a good way to explain Craig’s jail sentence to his confused and anxious 12 year old son.

Of any readers concerned with the loss of freedom of speech and equality before the law I ask that you show active and outspoken solidarity with my partner.

A Craig Murray Justice Campaign has been formed which I hope you can support. Find them on twitter @cmurrayjustice. Their website will be up shortly and details will be posted on this site.

*

Update:

The Campaign for Justice for Craig Murray has released an official statement which is reproduced in full below:

Legal precedent will be set tomorrow as Craig Murray will be the first person to be imprisoned on the charge of jigsaw identification in the UK, and indeed in the entire world. Scotland’s second most senior judge, Lady Dorrian, sentenced Murray to 8 months of incarceration following a contempt of court charge for ‘jigsaw identification’ relating to the trial against Alex Salmond.

In May Lady Dorrian said that in her view Murray had intended to release identities of Salmond’s accusers. Mr Murray has always denied any intent to identify and that anybody was actually identified. Murray had not directly identified any of the accusers in the Salmond trial, but Dorrian argued identification may be possible if his reporting of the case was read in connection with other materials in the public domain.

No one aside from Murray was charged with jigsaw identification in connection with the Salmond case, despite the fact that 81% of respondents in a Panelbase survey who believed that they had learned identities, gave mainstream media as the source of their knowledge. Lady Dorrian specifically stated that bloggers and mainstream media should be treated differently, as mainstream media are self-regulated.

Murray is the first person to be imprisoned in the UK for a media contempt for over 50 years, and in Scotland for over 70 years.

Murray’s imprisonment comes after an announcement from the UK Supreme Court that it will not hear his appeal. Former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray will surrender himself to Police shortly and begin to serve the custodial sentence handed to him. A public protest against Murrays’ incarceration is planned. Murray’s wife and mother of their 5 month and 12 year old sons Nadira has written an open letter asking for “active and outspoken solidarity from anyone concerned about the loss of freedom of speech and equality before the law”.

Murray had recently been called as a witness in a case brought by Spanish state prosecutors against UC Global for allegedly acting on behalf of the CIA in covertly spying on Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy. Material before the Spanish court includes several hours of covert surveillance video of Murray in private conversation with Assange on the future of Assange and Wikileaks. The Scottish court removed Murray’s passport expressly to prevent him traveling to Spain to testify.

Craig Murray commented:

“I go to jail with a clean conscience after a Kafkaesque trial. I genuinely do not know who I am supposed to have identified or which phrases I published are said to have identified them, in combination with what other information in the public domain. This judgement will have a chilling effect on reporting of the defence case at trials, to the detriment of justice, and the different treatment of bloggers and approved media is sinister. I carefully protect the identities of the accusers in my reports. I believe this is actually the state’s long sought revenge for my whistleblowing on security service collusion with torture and my long term collaboration with Wikileaks and other whistleblowers. Unfortunately important free speech issues are collateral damage.”

Murray and the Craig Murray Justice committee have both signalled their intention to continue to resist the penalty handed to him by continuing to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights via all routes required. They are particularly concerned that in her opinion Lady Dorrian implied that bloggers and public commentators like Murray ought to be punished more severely than mainstream journalists for the same offense. Ellen Joelle Dalzell, coordinator of the Craig Murray Justice campaign group stated:

“The sentence handed to Craig Murray not only sets legal precedent in terms of a custodial sentence for the charge of jigsaw identification, it represents an attack on free speech in general, and a tangible threat to the free reporting of legal trials in particular. The judgement is excessively punitive, is likely to have severe implications for Murray’s poor health and represents a dangerous precedent for journalists and other writers who seek to fairly report or comment on matters of public law.”

*

Additional:

On August 1st, Craig Murray posted the following article summarising once again the importance of issues surrounding his own case and in a response to the ensuing Twitter storm. I have reproduced his article in full including the embedded House of Commons speech made by Kenny MacAskill MP with transcript supplied beneath courtesy of Hansard:

I want to make one or two points for you to ponder while I am in jail. This is the last post until about Christmas; we are not legally able to post anything while I am imprisoned. But the Justice for Craig Murray Campaign website is now up and running and will start to have more content shortly. Fora and comments here are planned to stay open.

I hope that one possible good effect of my imprisonment might be to coalesce opposition to the imminent abolition of jury trials in sexual assault cases by the Scottish Government, a plan for which Lady Dorrian – who wears far too many hats in all this – is front and centre. We will then have a situation where, as established by my imprisonment, no information at all on the defence case may be published in case it contributes to “jigsaw identification”, and where conviction will rest purely on the view of the judge.

That is plainly not “open justice”, it is not justice at all. And it is even worse than that, because the openly stated aim of abolishing juries is to increase conviction rates. So people will have their lives decided not by a jury of their peers, but by a judge who is acting under specific instruction to increase conviction rates.

It is often noted that conviction rates in rape trials are too low, and that is true. But have you ever heard this side of the argument? In Uzbekistan under the Karimov dictatorship, when I served there, conviction rates in rape trials were 100%. In fact very high conviction rates are a standard feature of all highly authoritarian regimes worldwide, because if the state prosecutes you then the state gets what it wants. The wishes of the state in such systems vastly outweigh the liberty of the individual.

My point is simply this. You cannot judge the validity of a system simply by high conviction rates. What we want is a system where the innocent are innocent and the guilty found guilty; not where an arbitrary conviction target is met.

The answer to the low conviction rates in sexual assault trials is not simple. Really serious increases in resources for timely collection of evidence, for police training and specialist units, for medical services, for victim support, all have a part to play. But that needs a lot of money and thought. Just abolishing juries and telling judges you want them to convict is of course free, or even a saving.

The right to have the facts judged in serious crime allegations by a jury of our peers is a glory of our civilisation. It is the product of millennia, not lightly to be thrown away and replaced by a huge increase in arbitrary state power. That movement is of course fueled by current fashionable political dogma which is that the victim must always be believed. That claim has morphed from an initial meaning that police and first responders must take accusations seriously, to a dogma that accusation is proof and it is wrong to even question the evidence, which is of course to deny the very possibility of false accusation.

That is precisely the position which Nicola Sturgeon has taken over the Alex Salmond trial; to be accused is to be guilty, irrespective of the defence evidence. That people are oblivious to the dangers of the dogma that there should be no defence against sexual assault allegations, is to me deeply worrying. Sexual allegation is the most common method that states have used to attack dissidents for centuries, worldwide and again especially in authoritarian regimes. Closer to home, think of history stretching from Roger Casement to Assange and Salmond.

Why would we remove the only barrier – a jury of ordinary citizens – that can stop abuse of state power?

I am worried that this abolition of juries will have been enacted by the Scottish Parliament, even before I am out of jail. I am worried Labour and the Lib Dems will support it out of fashionable political correctness. I am worried an important liberty will disappear.

I want to touch on one other aspect of liberty in my own imprisonment that appears not understood, or perhaps simply neglected, because somehow the very notion of liberty is slipping from our political culture. One point that features plainly in the troll talking points to be used against me, recurring continually on social media, is that I was ordered to take down material from my blog and refused.

There is an extremely important point here. I have always instantly complied with any order of a court to remove material. What I have not done is comply with instructions from the Crown or Procurator Fiscal to remove material. Because it is over 330 years since the Crown had the right of censorship in Scotland without the intervention of a judge.

It sickens me that so many Scottish Government backed trolls are tweeting out that I should have obeyed the instructions of the Crown. That Scotland has a governing party which actively supports the right of the Crown to exercise unrestrained censorship is extremely worrying, and I think a sign both of the lack of respect in modern political culture for liberties which were won by people being tortured to death, and of the sheer intellectual paucity of the current governing class.

But then we now learn that Scotland has a government which was prepared not only to be complicit in exempting the Crown from climate change legislation, but also complicit in hushing up the secret arrangement, so I am not surprised.

What is even more terrifying in my case is that the Court explicitly states that I should have followed the directions of the Crown Office in what I did and did not publish, and my failure to not publish as the Crown ordered is an aggravating factor in my sentencing.

If the Crown thinks something I write is in contempt and I think it is not, the Crown and I should stand as equals in court and argue our cases. There should be no presumption I ought to have obeyed the Crown in the first place. That Scottish “justice” has lost sight of this is disastrous, though perhaps as much from stupidity as malice.

My next thought on my trial is to emphasise again the dreadful doctrine Lady Dorrian has now enshrined in law, that bloggers should be held to a different (by implication higher) standard in law than the mainstream media (the judgement uses exactly those terms), because the mainstream media is self-regulated.

This doctrine is used to justify jailing me when mainstream media journalists have not been jailed for media contempt for over half a century, and also to explain why I have been prosecuted where the mainstream media, who were provably responsible for far more jigsaw identification, were not prosecuted.

This is dreadful law, and my entire legal team are frankly astonished that the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal on this point. This excellent article by Jonathan Cook explains further the chilling implications.

Those articles which the Court ordered me to take down, have been taken down. But I was not ordered to take down this one, which was found not to be in contempt of court. I was also not ordered to take down my affidavits, which though slightly redacted are still extremely valuable. I swore to the truth of every word and I stick by that. At the time I published these, far less was known about the Salmond affair than is known now, and I believe you will find it well worth reading them again in the light of your current state of wider knowledge – absolutely nothing to do with learning identities, but to do with what really happened on the whole plot to destroy Alex Salmond (something the judgement states I am allowed to say).

Finally I urge you to consider this truly remarkable speech from Kenny MacAskill MP. Scotland’s former Justice Secretary, and consider its quite staggering implications. It tells you everything you want to know about the British Establishment’s capture of the Scottish government, that the mainstream media felt no need to report the main points he was making, which constitute a simply astonishing outline of corrupt abuse of power.

Kenny MacAskill:

Before the post of Secretary of State for Scotland was created, the Lord Advocate was the power in the land, and some postholders were despotic indeed. The transportation of Thomas Muir and the hanging and beheading of Baird, Hardie and Wilson, the Scottish radicals and 1820 martyrs, are crimes that lie with them. Thankfully, the post devolved and became a purely legal role, but an anachronism was built in, for the postholder is both principal legal adviser to the Scottish Government yet also head of the prosecution service—the Crown Office, as it is known. That is something replicated neither elsewhere in the United Kingdom nor, indeed, in any modern democracy. Conflict of interest precludes it. In England and Wales, an Attorney General advises the Government from within. Meanwhile, a head of the prosecution service is both separate and independent from Government. But not so in Scotland, and therein lies the problem.

To be fair, apart from those despotic years, postholders, irrespective of political hue and whether pre or post-devolution, have acted with the impartiality expected. Modest steps were taken to mitigate the conflict of powers. Under Alex Salmond’s Administration a convention was invoked that the Lord Advocate appeared at Cabinet only when legal advice was to be given and did not participate in wider political debate. But the anachronism still lingered. Under Nicola Sturgeon’s Administration it has been brutally exposed by both Scottish Government and Crown Office actions, with the Lord Advocate straddling both. Change is now needed, and fast.

Firstly, there has been an admission by the outgoing Lord Advocate of malicious prosecutions involving the administrators in the Rangers FC liquidation. That is unprecedented in Scotland, not just in recent years but since those days of the early 19th century. Even south of the border there have been no such cases since 1999, and high-profile cases before such as the Winston Silcott and Daniel Morgan cases were rare. It has caused alarm with the public and been of huge reputational damage in an organisation where impartiality is imperative. It has also caused consternation and anger within police and prosecution services, where the overwhelming majority of staff act without bias and free of any favour or prejudice. The reputation of the many has been traduced by a few.

It was the former Lord Advocate’s decision, and seeking to cast blame on his predecessor was shameful and inadequate. An inquiry, perhaps even by a non-Scottish judicial figure, has been promised. Additionally, there is the financial cost. The quantum of damages is for the court, but suggestions are that the final bill could reach £60 million or £80 million—this in an organisation with an annual budget of £300 million, struggling to meet existing commitments. The price will be paid by Scottish taxpayers and the loss felt by hard-pressed Scottish public services.

Secondly, and just as alarming, has been the role of the Lord Advocate and a coterie around him within the Crown Office in the Alex Salmond case, and the fallout from it. It is another instance of the public having to pay the price of Government incompetence, with the legal expenses bill in the civil case amounting to £500,000, but where the issue of impartiality as well as competence was raised. In the civil case, the presiding judge described the Scottish Government’s actions as “unlawful”, “unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”. During proceedings, senior external counsel, Roddy Dunlop QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, expressed horror at the situation he and his colleague had been put in by their client. They could no longer rest on pleadings they knew to be untrue. The client was the Government, and their senior legal adviser was the Lord Advocate. A criminal case followed the failed civil case and was prosecuted by the Crown Office, where the same Lord Advocate remained in office.

Despite growing pressures on police and prosecution, nothing has been spared—nothing has been too trivial—but the targets always seem selective. The Alex Salmond case saw resources deployed that are normally reserved for serious organised crime figures or serial killers, for charges that, were it not for who was being prosecuted, would either never have seen the light of day or appeared only in the lowest courts, not the High Court. I say that as someone who was Justice Secretary for seven and a half years but also a defence agent for 20 years. As it was, Mr Salmond was acquitted on all charges, by a majority female jury.

It is standard practice in cases involving politicians that the Lord Advocate recuses himself from involvement in the consideration or prosecution of the case, and that was done here, with no direct involvement in the prosecution. However, at the same time, the Lord Advocate had been, and was, sitting on Scottish Government committees dealing with the civil case, where referral or prosecution was being actively sought and advised by the Administration.

Let us recall that a prosecution was sought by the Scottish Government, as the actions of the director of human resources in contacting the police confirm. Many—indeed, most—complainers were and remain at the heart of Government, or are officials or otherwise closely linked with the governing party. Prosecution was encouraged and pressed for by the chief executive of the governing party, who is the First Minister’s husband.

Chinese walls and recusal are entirely inadequate. In one role, the Lord Advocate was supporting a Government pursuing prosecution; in another, he was denying that it was anything to do with him. A separation of powers this certainly was not. When James Wolffe appeared before the Holyrood Committee considering the Salmond prosecution, he was frankly evasive and obfuscating, mirroring the actions of the Crown and the Government in a lack of openness and transparency. There was neither contrition nor candour. Open government this certainly was not.

The fallout and failures continue to reverberate. Following on from the Alex Salmond case has been that of Craig Murray, a writer and former diplomat. His conviction is under appeal at the Supreme Court; accordingly, I refrain from commenting on specifics of the case. Instead, I restrict my remarks to the decision by the Crown to prosecute Mr Murray for jigsaw identification of complainers in the case. Why was he prosecuted when others who did so—in one case certainly overtly, and in many others much more flagrantly than by Mr Murray—were not? No action was taken against them.

Moreover, publications that in any other case would have constituted a clear contempt of court went without censure by the Crown. They included newspaper articles as prejudicial as I have ever seen, but they were supporting prosecution, whereas Mr Murray, though seeking to report factually, was not. It seems that the Crown has one law for those supporting the Government line and another for those who challenge it.

Click here to read the full transcript of Kenny MacAskill’s House of Common’s speech.

And here to read Craig Murray’s original post entitled “Keeping Freedom Alive”.

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the stuff of dreams

The following article is Chapter Two of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

*

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Oats and beans and barley grow,

Do you or I or anyone know,

How oats and beans and barley grow?

— Traditional children’s rhyme

*

One of my earliest memories at school was being told that rabbits became quick to escape foxes, and likewise, foxes had become quicker to catch rabbits. This, the teacher said, is how one type of animal can slowly change into a new type through a process known as evolution. Well, I didn’t believe that for a minute. Such dramatic outcomes from such unremarkable causes. And why, I wondered, would something change simply because it had to – having to isn’t any reason.

Of course in many ways my teacher had missed the point (though in fairness, perhaps it was I who missed his point, off in a daydream, or curiously intent on the inconstant fluttering of a leaf against the window, or otherwise lost to the innocent pleasures of childhood reveries). Either way it doesn’t matter much. Importantly, my teacher had done his job – and done it well! He had planted a seed, which made this a most valuable lesson. But in his necessarily simplified account of evolution there was a flaw (and his version would by virtue of necessity have been a simple one, because however much I may have been distracted, the subtleties of evolution were beyond the grasp of our young minds). For what he had missed out is not why the rabbits became faster but how. The question being what “adaptive mechanism” could have driven any useful sequence of changes we might call ‘evolution’. And this is really the key point. Leaving out mention of any kind of adaptive mechanism, he was leaving open all sorts of possibilities. For instance, Lamarckism and Darwinism, though both theories of evolution, paint very different accounts of how life has developed, for they presume quite different adaptive mechanisms. I will try to explain the matter more carefully and in terms of giraffes.

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You might ask a great many questions about giraffes. For instance, how on earth their extraordinary and striking markings could ever provide useful camouflage, though if you’re ever lucky enough to see one step almost invisibly out of dappled foliage into full light, you will certainly be sure that the effect is near perfect. Alternatively, you might ask why it is that they walk with both legs on the same side moving together. A very elegant form of locomotion. However, by far and away the most frequently asked question about giraffes is this: why do they have such long necks?

Well, here’s what Lamarck would have said. Giraffes began as ordinary antelope. Some of the antelope preferred grass and others preferred leaves. The ones that preferred leaves had an advantage if they could reach higher. To achieve this they would stretch their necks a little longer. As a direct result of acquiring this new characteristic, the foals of those slightly longer necked antelope would be also be born with slightly longer necks. They too would stretch that little bit higher. Over generations some types of the antelope would develop extremely long necks and the descendants of these eventually developed into a new species called giraffes.

The basis for Lamarck’s reasoning lies in a perfectly rational misunderstanding about genetics. He assumes that the “acquired characteristics” (i.e., those characteristics developed or acquired during life) of the parents will somehow be passed through to their offspring. It turns out however that this isn’t actually the case. He might have guessed as much I suppose. One of the oft-cited criticisms against Lamarck’s theory has been the case of Jewish boys. Why, his opponents would ask, do they ever grow foreskins in the first place?

Darwin offered an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps it goes like this, he thought: there are already differences within the population of antelope; some will have shorter necks than others to start with. Or in other words, there is already a “natural variation”. In times of plenty this may not be of significance, but in times of scarcity it could be that the antelope with longer necks have a slight advantage. This idea of course applies to any antelopes with other accidentally favourable characteristics, for example those that run faster, are better camouflaged, or have more efficient digestive systems; but let’s not go there – let’s stick to necks for a moment. The longer necked adults can reach higher and so get to those few extra leaves that will help them to survive. Having a slightly higher chance of survival means (all other factors being equal) that they are more likely to pass on their characteristics. Within a few generations there will be an inevitable increase in the population of the long-necked variety until eventually, the long-necked population might plausibly have evolved into a separate species.

What had Darwin achieved in this alternative explanation? Well, he had abolished any requirement for an heredity that depended on the transmission of “acquired characteristics.” He’d not entirely proved Lamarck wrong but only shown his ideas aren’t necessary. And although in actual fact Darwin never acknowledged Lamarck’s contribution, purely in terms of theories of heredity his own version was little better than Lamarck’s (basically, by introducing the equally flawed concept of pangenes he had finally got around the issue of Jewish foreskins). But it is not what Darwin had undermined, so much as what he had set up, that preserves his legacy. That the true driving force of evolution depends on variation and competition, in dynamic relationship that he called “natural selection”.

According to Darwin’s new vision then, the evolution of species depends upon how individuals within that species interact with their environment. Those that are best adapted will survive longer and pass on their winning characteristics, and the rest will perish without reproducing. In short, it is “the survival of the fittest” that ensures evolutionary progress; though this catchy summary was not Darwin’s own, but one that Darwin slowly adopted. (It was actually first coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, whose ideas I wish to return to later.)

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Darwin still attracts a lot of criticism and much of this criticism comes from religious sections intent on promulgating the view that “it was God what done it all” –  the Creationists who refuse to acknowledge any of the overwhelming evidence whether from zoology, botany, geology, palaeontology, or embryology; rejecting reason in deference to “the word of God”. However, there are also more considered critiques.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is that Darwin’s evolutionary theory of natural selection is unscientific because it is founded on a tautology. It is after all self-evident that the fittest will survive, given that by fitness you must really be meaning “fitness for survival”. After all, it has to be admitted that sloths have survived, and in what sense can a sloth be said to “be fit” other than in its undoubted fitness to be a sloth. The assumption then is that Darwin’s idea of natural selection has added nothing that wasn’t already glaring obvious. Yet this is an unfair dismissal.

Firstly, it is unfair, because as I have said above, “the survival of the fittest” is Spenser’s contribution – one that leads rapidly into dangerous waters – but it is also unfair because it misses the way in which Darwin’s hypothesis is not only predictive, but also (as Karl Popper was so keenly aware) testable. If Darwin’s theory was a mere tautology then nothing on earth could ever disprove his claims, and yet there is room here for evidence that might truly test his theory to destruction.

How? Well, Darwin, it must be understood, had put forward a theory of gradual adaptation, so there is no accounting for any sudden leaps within his slowly branching history of life – so if, for instance, a complex new order of species suddenly arose in the fossil record without ancestry, then Darwin’s theory would need a radical rethink. Or let’s say some fossil was found with characteristics uncommon to any discovered ancestor. Here again Darwin’s theory would be seriously challenged. On the other hand, embryologists might discover discrepancies in the way eggs develop, and likewise, following the discovery of DNA and advent of modern genetics, we might find sudden abrupt shifts in the patterns of genes between species instead of gradual changes. Each of these cases would powerful evidence to challenge Darwinian theory.

But, instead of this (at least until now), these wide and varied disciplines have heaped up the supporting evidence. For example, people used to talk a lot about “the missing link”, by which they generally meant the missing link between humans and apes when scientists have in fact discovered a whole host of “missing links” in the guise of close cousins from the Neanderthals to the strange and more ancient australopithecines. For more exciting missing links, how about the fact that the jaw bone of reptiles exists in four parts and that three of those bones have slowly evolved in humans to form parts of the inner ear. How do we know? Well, there is evidence in the development of mammalian and reptilian embryos and more recently the discovery of an intermediate creature in which the bones were clearly used concomitantly for both chewing and listening. This is one of many discovered creatures that Darwin’s theory has predicted – whilst the most famous is surely the bird-lizard known as Archaeopteryx. Where, by way of comparison, are the remains of, say, Noah’s Ark?

But Darwin’s theory was not correct in all details. As I have already mentioned, his notion of pangenes was in some ways little better than Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics, and so it is perhaps still more remarkable that whilst he looked through a wonky glass, what he gleaned was broadly correct. Although, surprisingly perhaps, it took a monk (and one trained in physics more than in biology) to begin setting the glass properly straight. Enter Gregor Mendel.

Richard Dawkins shows how whales evolved from a cloven-hoofed ancestor, and reveals whales’ closest modern-day cousin:

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If we think back to what people knew about the world (scientifically speaking) prior to the turn of the twentieth century, it seems astonishing what was about to be discovered within just a few decades. For instance, back in 1900 physicists were still in dispute about the existence of atoms, and meanwhile, astronomers were as then unaware of the existence of independent galaxies beyond the Milky Way. But then, in 1905, Einstein suddenly published three extraordinary papers. In the least well known of these, he proved mathematically how the jiggling Brownian motion of pollen grains on water (observed by Robert Brown almost a hundred years earlier) was caused by collisions of water molecules, and doing this, he finally validated the concept of matter being formed out of particles, and so by extension, thereby proven the existence of atoms, which finally settled a debate regarding the nature of matter that had begun more than two thousand years earlier in Greece.

Moreover, it wasn’t until the early 1920s, when Edwin Hubble (now better known as the father of the idea of the expanding universe) had succeeded in resolving the outer parts of other galaxies (previously called nebulae), detecting within their composition the collections of billions of individual stars. At last we knew that there were other galaxies just like our own Milky Way.

So in just twenty years, our universe had simultaneously grown and shrunk by a great many orders of magnitude. Nowadays, of course, we know that atoms are themselves composed of smaller particles: electrons, protons and neutrons, which are in turn fashioned from quarks 1; while the galaxies above and beyond congregate within further clusters (the Milky Way being one of the so-called Local Group, which is surely the most understated name for any known object in the whole of science).

The universe we have discovered is structured in multiple layers – though the boundaries between these layers are only boundaries of incomprehension. Looking upwards we encounter objects inconceivably large are in turn the building blocks of objects much larger again, whilst investigating the finest details of the particle world, we’ve learnt how little fleas have ever smaller fleas…

Our first stabs at understanding the origins of the trillions of galaxies in our visible universe, and of comprehending the nature of the matter and energy that comprises them, has lead to speculations based upon solid empirical findings that allow us to construct models of how the physical universe as a whole may have begun. Thus, via a joint collaboration between physicists searching on the macro- and micro-scales, we have finished up with the study of cosmology; the rigorous scientific study of the cosmos no less! (And to most physicists working at the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of a branch of physics solely devoted to the understanding of creation would surely have seemed like pure science fiction). I hope my digression has helped to set the scene a little…

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Around the turn of the twentieth century, there also remained a mystery surrounding the science of heredity and the origin of genes. It was of course common sense that children tended to have characteristics reminiscent of their parents, but in precisely what manner those parental characteristics were hybridised had remained a matter of tremendous speculation. It was still widely believed that some kind of fluid-like mingling of genes occurred, little substantial scientific progress having been made on the older ideas about bloodlines.

But those early theories of blended inheritance, which imagined the infusing together of the two gene pools, as two liquids might mix, were mistaken. If genes really behaved this way then surely the characteristics of people would also blend together. Just as we add hot water to cold to make it warm, so a white man and a black woman would surely together procreate medium brown infants, becoming darker or lighter by generations depending on whether further black or white genes were added. Which is indeed true, up to a point, but it is not strictly true. And if it really were so simple, then the range of human characteristics might (as some racial purists had feared) gradually blend to uniformity. But the real truth about inheritance, as Mendel was quietly discovering during the middle of the 19th century, is that genes have an altogether more intriguing method of combination.

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Mendel was a monk, who aside from observing the everyday monastic duties also taught natural science, principally physics. The work that eventually made him world-renowned, however, involved studies on peas; this was Mendel’s hobby.

He spent many years cross-fertilising varieties and making detailed observations of the succeeding generations. He compared the height of plants. He compared the positioning of flowers and pods on the stem. And he noted subtle differences in shape and colour of seeds, pods and flowers. By comparing generations, Mendel found that offspring showed traits of their parents in predictable ratios. More surprisingly, he noticed that a trait lost in one generation might suddenly re-emerge in the next. So he devised a theory to explain his findings. Like a great many scientific theories, it was ingenious in its simplicity.

Within every organism, he said, genes for each inheritable trait must occur not individually, but in pairs, and in such a way that each of these “gene-pairs” is either “dominant” or “recessive” to its partner. In this way, a gene could sometimes be expressed in the individual whilst in different circumstances it might lay dormant for a generation. But please allow me a brief paragraph to explain this modern concept of inheritance more completely and coherently.

The usual way to explain Mendelian Inheritance is in terms of human eye colours. It goes like this: There is one gene for eye colour, but two gene types. These are called “alleles”, meaning “each other”. In this case, one allele produces brown eyes (let’s call this Br), and the other produces blue eyes (Bl). You inherit one of these gene types from your mother and one from your father. So let’s say you get a brown allele from each. That means you have Br-Br and will have brown eyes. Alternatively you may get a blue allele from each, and then you’ll have Bl-Bl and so have blue eyes. So far so simple. But let’s say you get a brown from one parent and a blue from the other. What happens then? Well, Mendel says, they don’t mix, and produce green eyes or something, but that one of the genes, the brown one as it happens, will be “dominant”, which means you will have brown eyes. But here’s the interesting bit, since although you have brown eyes you will nevertheless carry an allele for blue eyes – the “recessive” allele. Now let’s say you happen to meet a beautiful brown-eyed girl, who is also carrying the combined Br-Bl genes. What will your beautiful children look like? Well, all things being equal in terms of gene combination – so assuming that you are both equally likely to contribute a Bl allele as a Br allele (i.e., that this is a purely random event) then there are only four equal possibilities: Br-Br, Br-Bl, Bl-Br, or Bl-Bl. The first three of these pairs will produce dominant brown, whilst the two recessive Bl alleles in the last pair produce blue. So if you happen to have four children, then statistically speaking, you are most like to produce three with honey brown eyes, and one imbued with eyes like sapphires. And the milkman need never have been involved.

Mendel had realised that instead of the old fashioned “analogue” system, in which our genes added together in some kind of satisfactory proportions – like two voices forming a new harmony – genes actually mix in an altogether more “digital” fashion, where sometimes, the gene type is on and sometimes it is off. Inevitably, the full truth is more complicated than this, with alleles for different genes sometimes combining in other ways, which will indeed lead to blending of some kinds of inherited traits. Yet even here, it is not the genes (in the form of the alleles) that are blended, but only the “expressed characteristics” of that pair of alleles – something called the phenotype. Thus, for generation after generation these gene types are merely shuffled and passed on. Indeed the genes themselves have a kind of immortality, constantly surviving, just as the bits and bytes in computer code are unaltered in reproductions. Of course, errors in their copying do eventually occur (and we now know that it is precisely such accidental “mutations” which, by adding increased variety to the gene pool, have served to accelerate the process of evolution). 2

Mendel’s inspired work was somehow lost to science for nearly half a century, and so although he was a contemporary of Darwin and knew of Darwin’s theory – indeed, Mendel owned a German translation of “On the Origin of Species”, in which he had underlined many passages – there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Darwin knew anything at all of Mendel’s ideas.

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When Mendel’s papers were finally recovered in 1900, they helped set in motion a search for a molecular solution to the question of biological inheritance; a search that would eventually lead to Crick and Watson’s dawning realisation that the structure of DNA must take the form of an intertwined double-helix. Such an extraordinary molecule could peel apart and reform identical copies of itself. DNA, the immortal coil, the self-replicating molecule that lay behind all the reproductive processes of life, sent biologists (not least Crick and Watson) into whirls of excitement. It was 1953 and here was the biological equivalent to Rutherford’s momentous discovery of an inner structure to atoms, almost half a century earlier. Here was the founding of yet another new science. Whilst nuclear and particle physicists were finding more powerful ways to break matter apart, biologists would soon begin dissecting genes.

Aside from the direct consequences of current and future developments in biotechnology (a subject I touch on in the addendum below), the rapid developments in the field of genetics, have led to another significant outcome, for biologists have also slowly been proving Darwin’s basic hypothesis. Genes really do adapt from one species to another – and we are beginning to see just precisely how. Yet in complete disregard to the mounting evidence, evolutionary theory still comes under more ferocious attack than any other established theory in science. Why does Darwinism generate such furore amongst orthodox religious groups compared say to today’s equally challenging theories of modern geology? Why aren’t creationists so eager to find the fault with the field of Plate Tectonics? (Pardon the pun.) For here is a science in its comparative infancy – only formulated in the 1960s – that no less resolutely undermines the Biblical time-scale for creation, and yet it reaps no comparable pious fury. Rocks just aren’t that interesting apparently, whereas, anyone with the temerity to suggest that human beings quite literally evolved from apes… boy, did that take some courage! 3

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Now at last, I will get to my main point, which is this: given that the question of our true origins has now been formally settled, what are we to conclude and what are the consequences to be? Or put another way, what’s the significance of discovering that just a million years ago – a heartbeat when gauged against the estimated four billion years of the full history of life on Earth – our own ancestors branched off to form a distinct new species of ape?

Well, first and foremost, I think we ought to be clear on the fact that being such relative terrestrial latecomers gives us no grounds for special pleading. We are not in fact perched atop the highest branch of some great evolutionary tree, or put differently, all creation was not somehow waiting on our tardy arrival. After all, if evolution is blind and not goal-orientated, as Darwinism proposes, then all avenues must be equally valid, even those that were never taken. So it follows that all creatures must be evolutionarily equal. Apes, dogs, cats, ants, beetles (which Darwin during his own Christian youth had noted God’s special fondness for, if judged only by their prodigious profusion), slugs, trees, lettuces, mushrooms, and even viruses; his theory makes no preference. All life has developed in parallel, and every species that is alive today, evolved from the same evolutionary roots and over the same duration simply to reach the tips of different branches. The only hierarchy here is a hierarchy of succession – of the living over the dead.

In short then, Darwinism teaches that we are just part of the great nexus of life, and no more central or paramount than our planet is central to the universe. To claim otherwise is to be unscientific, and, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, depends entirely upon anthropocentrism and the “conceit of hindsight”.

Darwin too, quietly recognised that his theory provided no justification for any such pride in human supremacy. Likewise, he refused to draw any clear distinction between human races, correctly recognising all as a single species; an admission that says much for his intellectual courage and honesty, challenging as it did, his otherwise deeply conservative beliefs. For Darwin was a Victorian Englishman, and although not a tremendously bigoted one, it must have been hard for him to accept, that amongst many other things, his own theory of evolution meant that all races of men were of equal birth.

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But if we agree that humans are a specialised kind of ape, then we need to be fair in all respects. We have got in a habit of presuming that mankind, or homo sapiens – “the wise man” – to apply our own vainglorious scientific denomination – of all the countless species on Earth, is the special one. Unique because, as it used often to be claimed, we alone developed the skill to use tools. Or because we have a unique capacity for complex communication. Or because we are unparalleled creators of wonderful music and poetry. Or because we are just supremely great thinkers – analytical to the point of seeking a meaning in the existence of existence itself. Or more simply, because we are self-aware, whereas most animals seem childishly oblivious even to their own reflected images. Or, most currently fashionable, because as a species we are uniquely sophisticated in an entirely cultural sense – that is, we pass on complex patterns of behaviour to one-another like no other critters.

All of our uniqueness, we owe, so it goes, to the extraordinary grey matter between our ears, with everything boiling down eventually to this: we are special because we are such brainy creatures – the cleverest around. But think about it: how can we actually be sure even in this conviction? For what solid proof have we that no other creatures on Earth can match our intellectual prowess?

Well, we might think to look immediately to brain size, but there’s a catch, as it turns out that bigger animals have bigger brain-needs merely to function. Breathing, regulating blood temperature, coping with sensory input, and so on, all require more neural processing the larger a creature becomes. So we must factor this into our equations, or else, to cite a singular example, we must concede that we are much dumber than elephants.

Okay then, let’s divide the weight of a brain by the weight of the animal it belongs to. We might even give this ratio an impressive label such as “the encephalisation quotient” or whatever. Right then, having recalibrated accordingly, we can repeat the measures and get somewhat better results this time round. Here goes: river dolphins have an EQ of 1.5; gorillas 1.76; chimpanzees 2.48; bottlenose dolphins 5.6; and humans an altogether more impressive 7.4. So proof at last that we’re streets ahead of the rest of life’s grazers. But hang on a minute, can we really trust such an arbitrary calculus? Take, for example, the case of fatter humans. Obviously they must have a lower average EQ than their thinner counterparts. So this means fatter people are stupider?

No, measurements of EQ might better be regarded as an altogether rougher indication of intelligence: a method to sort the sheep from the apes. But then, can you actually imagine for a minute, that if say, EQ gave higher results for dolphins than humans, we would ever have adopted it as a yardstick in the first place? Would we not have more likely concluded that there must be something else we’d overlooked besides body-mass? The fact that dolphins live in water and so don’t need to waste so much brain energy when standing still, or some such. For if we weren’t top of the class then we’d be sure to find that our method was flawed – and this becomes a problem when you’re trying to be rigorously scientific. So either we need more refinement in our tests for animal intelligence, with emphasis placed on being fully objective, or else we must concede that intelligence is too subtle a thing even to be usefully defined, let alone accurately scored.

However, a more bullish approach to our claims of greatness goes as follows: look around, do you see any other creatures that can manipulate their environment to such astonishing effects? None has developed the means to generate heat or refrigeration, to make medicines, or to adapt to survive in the most inhospitable of realms, or any of our other monumental achievements. Dolphins have no super-aqua equipment for exploring on land, let alone rockets to carry them to the Sea of Tranquility. Chimpanzees have never written sonnets or symphonies – and never will no matter how infinite the availability of typewriters. So the final proof of our superiority then is this, whether we call it intelligence or give it any other endorsement: technological achievement, artistic awareness, and imagination of every kind.

But what then of our very early ancestors, those living even before the rise of Cro-magnon 4, and that first great renaissance which happened more than 40,000 years ago. Cro-magnon people made tools, wore clothes, lived in huts, and painted the wonderful murals at Lascaux in France and at Altamira in Spain. They did things that are strikingly similar to the kinds of things that humans still do today. Homo sapiens of earlier times than these, however, left behind no comparable human artifacts, and yet, physiologically-speaking, were little different from you or I. Given their seeming lack of cultural development then, do we have justification for believing them intellectually inferior, or could it be that they simply exercised their wondrous imaginations in more ephemeral ways?

Or let’s take whales, as another example. Whales, once feared and loathed as little more than gigantic fish, are nowadays given a special privilege. Promoted to the ranks of the highly intelligent (after humans obviously), we have mostly stopped brutalising them. Some of us have gone further again, not merely recognising them as emotionally aware and uncommonly sensitive creatures, but ‘communing with them’. Swimming with dolphins is nowadays rated as one of the must-have life experiences along with white-water rafting and bungee jumping. So somehow, and in spite of the fact that whales have never mastered the ability to control or manipulate anything much – tool-use being a tricky business, of course, if you’re stuck with flippers – nevertheless, whales have joined an elite class: the “almost human”. We have managed to see beyond their unbridgeable lack of dexterity, because whales satisfy a great many of our other supposedly defining human abilities – ones that I outlined above.

Dolphins, we learn, can recognise their own reflections. And they use sounds, equivalent to names, as a way to distinguish one another – so do they gossip? How very anthropomorphic of me to ask! Also, and in common with many other species of cetaceans, they sing, or at least communicate by means of something we hear as song. Indeed, quite recent research based on information theory has been revealing; mathematical analysis of the song of the humpbacked whale indicates that it may be astonishingly rich in informational content – so presumably then they do gossip! And not only that, but humpbacked whales (and others of the larger whale species) share a special kind of neural cell with humans, called spindle cells. So might we gradually discover that humpbacked whales are equally as smart as humans? Oh come, come – let’s not get too carried away!

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Do you remember a story about the little boy who fell into a zoo enclosure, whereupon he was rescued and nursed by one of the gorillas? It was all filmed, and not once but twice in fact – on different occasions and involving different gorillas, Jambo 5 and Binti Jua. 6 After these events, some in the scientific community sought to discount the evidence of their own eyes (even though others who’d worked closely with great apes saw nothing which surprised them at all). The gorillas in question, these experts asserted, evidently mistook the human child for a baby gorilla. Stupidity rather than empathy explained the whole thing. 7

Scientists are rightly cautious, of course, when attributing human motives and feelings to explain animal behaviour, however, strict denial of parallels which precludes all recognition of motives and feelings aside from those of humans becomes reductio ad absurdum. Such an overemphasis on the avoidance of anthropomorphism is no measure of objectivity and leads us just as assuredly to willful blindness as naïve sentimentality can. Indeed, to arrogantly presume that our closest evolutionary relatives, with whom we share the vast bulk of our DNA, are so utterly different that we must deny the most straightforward evidence of complex feelings and emotions reflects very badly upon us.

But then why stop with the apes? Dolphins are notoriously good at rescuing stranded swimmers, and if it wasn’t so terribly anthropomorphising I’d be tempted to say that they sometimes seem to go out of their way to help. Could it be that they find us intriguing, or perhaps laughable, or even pathetic (possibly in both senses)? – Adrift in the sea and barely able to flap around. “Why do humans decide to strand themselves?” they may legitimately wonder.

Dogs too display all the signs of liking us, or fearing us, and, at other times, of experiencing pleasure and pain, so here again what justification do those same scientists have to assume their expressions are mere simulacra? And do the birds really sing solely to attract potential mates and to guard their territory? Is the ecstatic trilling of the lark nothing more than a pre-programmed reflex? Here is what the eminent Dutch psychologist, primatologist and ethologist, Frans B.M. de Waal, has to say:

“I’ve argued that many of what philosophers call moral sentiments can be seen in other species. In chimpanzees and other animals, you see examples of sympathy, empathy, reciprocity, a willingness to follow social rules. Dogs are a good example of a species that have and obey social rules; that’s why we like them so much, even though they’re large carnivores.” 8

Here’s an entertaining youtube clip showing how goats too sometimes like to have a good time:

Rather than investigating the ample evidence of animal emotions, for too long the scientific view has been focused on the other end of the telescope. So we’ve had the behaviourists figuring that if dogs can be conditioned to salivate to the sound of bells then maybe children can be similarly trained, even to the extent of learning such unnecessary facts and skills (at least from a survival point of view) as history and algebra. Whilst more recently, with the behaviourists having exited the main stage (bells ringing loudly behind) a new wave of evolutionary psychologists has entered, and research is on-going; a search for genetic propensities for all traits from homosexuality and obesity, to anger and delinquency. Yes, genes for even the most evidently social problems, such as criminality, are being earnestly sought after, so desperate is the need of some to prove we too are nothing more than complex reflex machines; dumb robots governed by our gene-creators, much as Davros operates the controls of the Daleks. In these ways we have demoted our own species to the same base level as the supposedly automata beasts.

Moreover, simply to regard every non-human animal as a being without sentience is scientifically unfounded. If anything it is indeed based on a ‘religious’ prejudice; one derived either directly from orthodox faith, or as a distorted refraction via our modern faith in humanism. But it is also a prejudice that leads inexorably into a philosophical pickle, inspiring us to draw equally dopey mechanical caricatures of ourselves.

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So what is Darwin’s final legacy? Well, that of course remains unclear, and though it is established that his conjectured mechanism for the development and diversity of species is broadly correct, this is no reason to believe that the whole debate is completely done and dusted. And since Darwin’s theory of evolution has an in-built bearing on our relationship to the natural world, and by interpolation, to ourselves, we would be wise to recognise its limitations.

Darwinism offers satisfactory explanations to a great many questions. How animals became camouflaged. Why they took to mimicry. What causes peacocks to grow such fabulous tails – or at least why their fabulous tails grow so prodigiously large. It also helps us to understand a certain amount of animal behaviour. Why male fish more often look after the young than males of other phylum. Why cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. And why the creatures that produce the largest broods are most often the worst parents.

Darwinism also makes a good account of a wide range of complex and sophisticated human emotions. It copes admirably with nearly all of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony, wrath, avarice and lust present no problems at all. Sloth is a little trickier, though once we understand the benefits of conserving energy, it soon fits into place, whilst envy presumably encourages us to strive harder. Pride is perhaps the hardest to fathom, since it involves an object of affection that hardly needs inventing, at least from a Darwinian perspective. But I wish to leave aside questions of selfhood for later.

So much for the vices then, but what of the virtues. How, for example are Darwinians able to account for rise of more altruistic behaviour? And for Darwinian purists, altruism arrives as a bit of a hot potato. Not that altruism is a problem in and of itself, for this is most assuredly not the case. Acts of altruism between related individuals are to be expected. Mothers that did not carry genes to make them devoted toward their own children would be less likely to successfully pass on their genes. The same may be said for natural fathers, and this approach can be intelligently elaborated and extended to include altruism within larger, and less gene-related groups. It is a clever idea, one that can be usefully applied to understanding the organisation of various communities, including those of social insects such as bees, ants, termites and, of course, naked mole rats…! Yes, as strange as it may sound, one special species of subterranean rodents, the naked mole rats, have social structures closely related to those of the social insects, and the Darwinian approach explains this too, as Dawkins brilliantly elucidates in a chapter of his book The Selfish Gene. Yet there remains one puzzle that refuses such insightful treatment.

When I was seventeen I went off cycling with a friend. On the first day of our adventures into the wilderness that is North Wales, we hit a snag. Well, actually I hit a kerb, coming off my bike along a fast stretch of the A5 that drops steeply down into Betws-y-Coed – a route that my parents had expressly cautioned me not to take, but then as you know, boys will be boys. Anyway, as I came to a long sliding halt along the pavement (and not the road itself, as luck would have it), I noticed that a car on the opposite side had pulled up. Soon afterwards, I was being tended to by a very kindly lady. Improvising first aid using tissues from a convenient packet of wet-wipes, she gently stroked as much of the gravel from my wounds as she could. She calmed me, and she got me back on my feet, and without all her generous support we may not have got much further on our travels. I remain very grateful to this lady, a person who I am very unlikely to meet ever again. She helped me very directly, and she also helped me in another way, by teaching me one of those lessons of life that stick. For there are occasions when we all rely on the kindness of strangers, kindness that is, more often than not, as freely given as it is warmly received. Yet even such small acts of kindness pose a serious problem for Darwinian theory, at least, if it is to successfully explain all forms of animal and human behaviour. The question is simply this: when there is no reward for helping, why should anyone bother to stop?

Dawkins’ devotes an entire chapter of The Selfish Gene to precisely this subject. Taking an idea from “game theory” called “the prisoner’s dilemma”, he sets out to demonstrate that certain strategies of life that aim toward niceness are actually more likely to succeed than other more cunning and self-interested alternatives. His aim is to prove that contrary to much popular opinion “nice guys finish first”. But here is a computer game (and a relatively simple one at that), whereas life, as Dawkins knows full well, is neither simple nor a game. In consequence, Dawkins then grasps hold of another twig. Pointing out how humans are a special case – as if we needed telling…

As a species, he says, we have the unique advantage of being able to disrespect the programming of our own selfish genes. For supporting evidence he cites the use of contraception, which is certainly not the sort of thing that genes would approve of. But then why are we apparently unique in having this ability to break free of our instinctual drives? Dawkins doesn’t say. There is no explanation other than that same old recourse to just how extraordinarily clever we are – yes, we know, we know! Yet the underlying intimation is really quite staggering: that human beings have evolved to be so very, very, very clever, that we have finally surpassed even ourselves.

As for such disinterested acts of altruism, the kind of instance exemplified by the Samaritanism of my accidental friend, these, according to strict Darwinians such as Dawkins, must be accidents of design. A happy bi-product of evolution. A spillover. For this is the only explanation that evolutionary theory in its current form could ever permit.

Embedded below is one of a series of lectures given by distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in 1990. The minutely detailed case he makes against the excesses of a Darwinian approach to human behaviour, as well as the latent ideology of socio-biology, is both lucid and persuasive:

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Allow me now to drop a scientific clanger. My intention is to broaden the discussion and tackle issues about what Darwinism has to say about being human, and no less importantly, about being animal or plant. To this end then, I now wish to re-evaluate the superficially religious notion of “souls”; for more or less everything I wish to say follows from consideration of this apparently archaic concept.

So let me begin by making the seemingly preposterous and overtly contentious statement that just as Darwin’s theory in no way counters a belief in the existence of God, or gods as such, likewise, it does not entirely discredit the idea of souls. Instead, Darwin has eliminated the apparent need for belief in the existence of either souls or gods. But this is in no means the same as proving they do not exist.

Now, by taking a more Deistic view of Creation (as Darwin more or less maintained until late in his own life), one may accept the point about some kind of godly presence, for there is certainly room for God as an original creative force, and of some ultimately inscrutable kind, and yet it may still be contended that the idea of souls has altogether perished. For evolutionary theory establishes beyond all reasonable doubt that we are fundamentally no different from the other animals, or in essence from plants and bacteria. So isn’t it a bit rich then, clinging to an idea like human souls? Well, yes, if you put it that way, though we may choose to approach the same question differently.

My contention is that ordinary human relations already involves the notion of souls, only that we generally choose not to use the word soul in these contexts, presuming it to be outmoded and redundant. But perhaps given the religious weight of the word this will seem a scandalous contention, so allow me to elucidate. Everyday engagement between human beings (and no doubt other sentient animals), especially if one is suffering or in pain, automatically involves the feeling of empathy. So what then is the underlying cause of our feelings of empathy? – Only the most hard-nosed of behaviourists would dismiss it as a merely pre-programmed knee-jerk response.

Well, empathy, almost by definition, must mean that, in the other, we recognise a reflection of something found within ourselves. But then, what is it that we are seeing reflected? Do we have any name for it? And is not soul just as valid a word as any other? Or, to consider a more negative context, if someone commits an atrocity against others, then we are likely to regard this person as wicked. We might very probably wish to see this person punished. But how can anyone be wicked unless they had freedom to choose otherwise? So then, what part of this person was actually free? Was it the chemical interactions in their brain, or the electrical impulses between the neurons, or was it something altogether less tangible? And whatever the cause, we cannot punish the mass of molecular interactions that comprises their material being, because punishment involves suffering and molecules are not equipped to suffer. So ultimately we can only punish “the person within the body”, and what is “the person within the body” if not their soul?

But why is it, you may be wondering, that I want to rescue the idea of souls at all. For assuredly you may argue – and not without sound reason – that you have no want nor need for any woolly notions such as soul or spirit to encourage you to become an empathetic and loving person. You might even add that many of the cruellest people in history believed in the existence of the human soul. And I cannot counter you on either charge.

But let’s suppose that finally we have banished all notions of soul or spirit completely and forever – what have we actually achieved? And how do we give a fair account for that other quite extraordinary thing which is ordinary sentience. For quite aside from the subtle complexity of our moods and our feelings of beauty, of sympathy, of love, we must first account for our senses. Those most primary sensory impressions that form the world we experience – the redness of red objects, the warmth of fire, the saltiness of tears – the inexpressible, immediate, and ever-present streaming experience of conscious awareness that philosophers have called qualia. If there are no souls then what is actually doing the experiencing? And we should remember that here “the mind” is really nothing more or less, given our current ignorance, than a quasi-scientific synonym for soul. It is another name for the unnailable spook.

Might we have developed no less successfully as dumb automata? There is nothing in Darwin or the rest of science that calls on any requirement for self-conscious awareness to ensure our survival and reproduction. Nothing to prevent us negotiating our environment purely with sensors connected to limbs, via programmed instructions vastly more complex yet inherently no different from the ones that control this word processor, and optimised as super-machines that have no use for hesitant, stumbling, bumblingly incompetent consciousness. So what use is qualia in any case?

In purely evolutionary terms, I don’t need to experience the sensation of red to deal with red objects, any more than I need to see air in order to breathe. Given complex enough programs and a few cameras, future robots can (and presumably will) negotiate the world without need of actual sensations, let alone emotions. And how indeed could the blind mechanisms of dumb molecules have accidentally arranged into such elaborate forms to enable cognitive awareness at all? Darwin does not answer these questions – they fall beyond his remit. But then no one can answer these questions (and those who claim reasons to dismiss qualia on philosophical grounds, can in truth only dismiss the inevitably vague descriptions, rather than the ever-present phenomenon itself – or have they never experienced warmth, touched roughness nor seen red?).

And so the most ardent of today’s materialists wish to go further again. They want to rid the world of all speculation regarding the nature of mind. They say it isn’t a thing at all, but a process of the brain, which is conceivably true. (Although I’d add why stop at the brain?)

One fashionable idea goes that really we are “minding”, which is interesting enough given our accustomed error of construing the world in terms of objects rather actions; nouns coming easier than verbs to most of us. But then, whether the mind might be best represented by a noun or a verb seems for now, and given that we still know next to nothing in any neurological sense, to be purely a matter of taste.

The modern reductionism that reduces mind to brain, often throws up an additional claim. Such material processes, it claims, will one day be reproduced artificially in the form of some kind of highly advanced computer brain. Well, perhaps this will indeed happen, and perhaps one day we really will have “computers” that actually experience the world, rather than the sorts of machines today that simply respond to sensors in increasingly complex ways. I am speculating about machines with qualia: true artificial brains that are in essence just as aware as we are. But then how will we know?

Well, that’s a surprisingly tricky question and it’s one that certainly isn’t solved by the famous Turing Test, named after the father of modern computing, Alan Turing. For the Turing Test is merely a test of mimicry, claiming that if one day a computer is so cunningly programmed that it has become indistinguishable from a human intelligence then it is also equivalent. But that of course is nonsense. It is nonsense that reminds me of a very cunning mechanical duck someone once made: one that could walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and if rumours are to be believed, even to crap like a duck. A duck, however, it was not, and nor could it ever become one no matter how elaborate its clockwork innards. And as with ducks so with minds.

But let’s say we really will produce an artificial mind, and somehow we can be quite certain that we really have invented just such an incredible, epoch-changing machine. Does this mean that in the process of conceiving and manufacturing our newly conscious device, we must inevitably learn what sentience is of itself? This is not a ridiculous question. Think about it: do you need to understand the nature of light in order to manufacture a light bulb? No. The actual invention of light bulbs precedes the modern physical understanding. And do we yet have a full understanding of what light truly is, and is such a full understanding finally possible at all?

Yet there are a few scientists earnestly grappling with questions of precisely this kind, venturing dangerously near the forests and swamps of metaphysics, in search of answers that will require far better knowledge and understanding of principles of the mind. Maybe they’ll even uncover something like “the seat of the soul”, figuring out from whence consciousness springs. Though I trust that you will not misunderstand me here, for it is not that I advocate some new kind of reductionist search for the soul within, by means of dissection or the application of psychical centrifuges using high strength magnetic fields or some such. As late as the turn of the twentieth century, there was indeed a man called Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who had embarked on just such a scheme: weighing people at the point of death, in experiments to determine the mass of the human soul. 9 A futile search, of course, for soul – or mind – is unlikely to be in, at least in the usual sense, a substantial thing. And though contingent with life, we have no established evidence for its survival into death.

My own feeling is that the soul is no less mortal than our brains and nervous systems, on which it seemingly depends. But whatsoever it turns out to be, it is quite likely to be remain immeasurable – especially if we choose such rudimentary apparatus as a set of weighing scales for testing it. The truth is that we know nothing as yet, for the science of souls (or minds if you prefer) is still without its first principle. So the jury is out on whether or not science will ever explain what makes a human being a being at all, or whether is it another one of those features of existence that all philosophy is better served to “pass over in silence”.

Here is what respected cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has to say of sentience in his entertainingly presented and detailed overview of our present understanding of How the Mind Works:

“But saying that we have no scientific explanation of sentience is not the same as saying that sentience does not exist at all. I am as certain that I am sentient as I am certain of anything, and I bet you feel the same. Though I concede that my curiosity about sentience may never be satisfied, I refuse to believe that I am just confused when I think I am sentient at all! … And we cannot banish sentience from our discourse or reduce it to information access, because moral reasoning depends on it. The concept of sentience underlies our certainty that torture is wrong and that disabling a robot is the destruction of property but disabling a person is murder.” 10

*

There is a belief that is common to a camp of less fastidious professional scientists than Pinker, which, for the sake of simplicity, holds that consciousness, if it was ever attached at all, was supplied by Nature as a sort of optional add-on, in which every human experience is fully reducible to an interconnected array of sensory mechanisms and data-processing systems. Adherents to this view tend not to think too much about sentience, of course, and in rejecting their own central human experience, thereby commit a curiously deliberate act of self-mutilation that leaves only zombies fit for ever more elaborate Skinner boxes 11, even when, beyond their often clever rationalisations, we all share a profound realisation that there is far more to life than mere stimulus and response.

Orwell, wily as ever, was alert to such dangers in modern thinking, and reworking a personal anecdote into grim metaphor, he neatly presented our condition:

“… I thought of a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed œsophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period — twenty years, perhaps — during which he did not notice it.”

Whilst Orwell regards this loss as deeply regrettable, he also recognises that it was a very necessary evil. Given the circumstances, giving heed to how nineteenth century religious belief was “…in essence a lie, a semi-conscious device for keeping the rich rich and the poor poor…” he is nevertheless dismayed how all too hastily we’ve thrown out the baby with the holy bathwater. Thus he continues:

“Consequently there was a long period during which nearly every thinking man was in some sense a rebel, and usually a quite irresponsible rebel. Literature was largely the literature of revolt or of disintegration. Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau, Shelley, Byron, Dickens, Stendhal, Samuel Butler, Ibsen, Zola, Flaubert, Shaw, Joyce — in one way or another they are all of them destroyers, wreckers, saboteurs. For two hundred years we had sawed and sawed and sawed at the branch we were sitting on. And in the end, much more suddenly than anyone had foreseen, our efforts were rewarded, and down we came. But unfortunately there had been a little mistake. The thing at the bottom was not a bed of roses after all, it was a cesspool full of barbed wire.” 12

On what purely materialistic grounds can we construct any system of agreed morality? Do we settle for hedonism, living our lives on the unswerving pursuit of personal pleasure; or else insist upon the rather more palatable, though hardly more edifying alternative of eudaemonism, with its eternal pursuit of individual happiness? Our desires for pleasure and happiness are evolutionarily in-built, and it is probably fair to judge that most, if not all, find great need of both to proceed through life with any healthy kind of disposition. Pleasure and happiness are wonderful gifts, to be cherished when fortune blows them to our shore. Yet pleasure is more often short-lived, whilst happiness too is hard to maintain. So they hardly stand as rocks, providing little in the way of stability if we are to build solidly from their foundations. Moreover, they are not, as we are accustomed to imagine, objects to be sought after at all. If we chase either one then it is perfectly likely that it will recede ever further from our reach. So it is better, I believe, to look upon these true gifts as we find them, or rather, as they find us: evanescent and only ever now. Our preferred expressions of the unfolding moment of life. To measure our existence solely against them is however, to miss the far bigger picture of life, the universe and everything. 13

We might decide, of course, to raise the social above these more individualistic pursuits: settling on the Utilitarian calculus of increased happiness (or else reduced unhappiness) for the greatest number. But here’s a rough calculation, and one that, however subtly conceived, never finally escapes from its own deep moral morass. For Utilitarianism, though seeking to secure the greatest collective good, is by construction, blind to all evils as such, being concerned always and only in determining better or worse outcomes. The worst habit of Utilitarianism is to preference ends always above means. Lacking moral principle, it grants licence for “necessary evils” of every prescription: all wrongs being weighed (somehow) against perceived benefits.

We have swallowed a great deal of this kind of poison, so much that we feel uncomfortable in these secular times to speak of “acts of evil” or of “wickedness”. As if these archaic terms might soon be properly expurgated from our language. Yet still we feel the prick of our own conscience. A hard-wired sense of what is most abhorrent, combined with an innate notion of justice that once caused the child to complain “but it isn’t fair… it isn’t fair!”  Meanwhile, the “sickness” in the minds of others makes us feel sick in turn.

On what grounds can the staunchest advocates of materialism finally challenge those who might turn and say: this baby with Down’s Syndrome, this infant with polio, this old woman with Parkinson’s Disease, this schizophrenic, these otherwise healthy but unwanted babies or young children, haven’t they already suffered enough? And if they justify a little cruelty now in order to stave off greater sufferings to come, or more savagely still, claim that the greater good is served by the painless elimination of a less deserving few. What form should our prosecution take? By adopting a purely materialistic outlook then, we are collectively drawn, whether we wish it or not, toward the pit of nihilism. Even the existentialists, setting off determined to find meaning in the here and now, sooner or later recognised the need for some kind of transcendence, or else abandoned all hope.

*

Kurt Vonnegut was undoubtedly one of the most idiosyncratic of twentieth century writers. 14 During his lifetime, Vonnegut was often pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, and this was no doubt because his settings are very frequently in some way futuristic, because as science fiction goes, his stories are generally rather earth-bound. In general, Vonnegut seems more preoccupied with the unlikely interactions between his variety of freakish characters (many of whom reappear in different novels), than in using his stories as a vehicle to project his vision of the future itself. Deliberately straightforward, his writing is ungarnished and propelled by sharp, snappy sentences. He hated semi-colons, calling them grammatical hermaphrodites.

Vonnegut often used his talented imagination to tackle the gravest of subjects, clowning around with dangerous ideas, and employing the literary equivalent of slapstick comedy to puncture human vanity and to make fun of our grossest stupidities. He liked to sign off chapters with a hand-drawn asterisk, because he said it represented his own arsehole. As a satirist then, he treads a path that was pioneered by Swift and Voltaire; of saying the unsayable but disguising his contempt under the cover of phantasy. He has become a favourite author of mine.

In 1996, he was awarded the title of American Humanist of the Year. In his acceptance speech, he took the opportunity to connect together ideas that had contributed to his own understanding of what it meant to be a humanist; ideas that ranged over a characteristically shifting and diverse terrain. Here were his concluding remarks:

“When I was a little boy in Indianapolis, I used to be thankful that there were no longer torture chambers with iron maidens and racks and thumbscrews and Spanish boots and so on. But there may be more of them now than ever – not in this country but elsewhere, often in countries we call our friends. Ask the Human Rights Watch. Ask Amnesty International if this isn’t so. Don’t ask the U.S. State Department.

And the horrors of those torture chambers – their powers of persuasion – have been upgraded, like those of warfare, by applied science, by the domestication of electricity and the detailed understanding of the human nervous system, and so on. Napalm, incidentally, is a gift to civilization from the chemistry department of Harvard University.

So science is yet another human-made God to which I, unless in a satirical mood, an ironical mood, a lampooning mood, need not genuflect.” 15

*

Rene Descartes is now most famous for having declared, “cogito ergo sum”, which means of course “I think therefore I am”. It was a necessary first step, or so he felt, to escape from the paradox of absolute skepticism, which was the place he had chosen to set out at the beginning of his metaphysical meditations. What Descartes was basically saying was this: look here, I’ve been wondering whether I exist or not, but now having caught myself in the act, I can be sure that I do – for even if I still must remain unsure of everything else besides, I cannot doubt that I am doubting. It is important to realise here that Descartes’ proposition says more than perhaps first meets the eye. After all, he intends it as a stand-alone proof and thus to be logically self-consistent, and the key to understanding how is in his use of the word “therefore”. “Therefore” automatically implying his original act of thinking. If challenged then, to say how he can be certain even in that he is thinking, Descartes’ defence relies upon the very act of thinking (or doubting, as he later put it 16) described in the proposition. Thinking is undeniable, Descartes is saying, and my being depends on this. Yet this first step is already in error, and importantly, the consequences of this error are resonant still throughout modern western thought.

Rene Descartes, a Christian brought up to believe that animals had no soul (as Christians are wont to do), readily persuaded himself that they therefore felt no pain. It was a belief that permitted him to routinely perform horrific experiments in vivisection (he was a pioneer in the field). I mention this because strangely, and in spite of Darwin’s solid refutation of man’s pre-eminence over beasts, animal suffering is still regarded as entirely different in kind to human suffering, even in our post-Christian society. And I am sorry to say that scientists are hugely to blame for this double standard. Barbaric experimentation, most notoriously in the field of psychology, alongside unnecessary tests for new products and new weapons, are still performed on every species aside from ours, whilst in more terrible (and shamefully recent) times, when scientists were afforded licence to redraw the line above the species level, their subsequent demarcations made on grounds of fitness and race, the same cool-headed objectivity was applied to the handicapped, to prisoners of war, and to the Jews. It is better that we never forget how heinous atrocities have too often been committed in the name and pursuit of coldly rational science.

Rene Descartes still has a role to play in this. For by prioritising reason in order to persuade himself of his own existence, he encouraged us to follow him into error. To mix up our thinking with our being. To presume that existence is somehow predicated on reasoning, and not, at least not directly, because we feel, or because we sense, or most fundamentally, because we are.  If it is rationality that sets us apart from the beasts, then we exist in a fuller sense than the beasts ever can.

To be absolutely certain of the reality of a world beyond his mind, however, Descartes needed the help of God.  Of a living God of Truth and Love. For if were it not for the certainty of God’s existence, Descartes argued, his mind – though irrefutably extant – might yet be prey to the illusions of some kind of a “deceitful daemon”. Being nothing more than a brain in a tank, to give his idea a modern slant, and plugged into what today would most probably be called The Matrix.

Thus realising that everything he sensed and felt might conceivably be an elaborately constructed illusion, only Descartes’ profound knowledge of a God of Truth – a God who made the world as true and honest as it appeared to be – could save his philosophy from descent into pure solipsism. But this primary dualism of mind and world is itself the division of mind and body – a division of self – while to regard Reason as the primary and most perfect attribute of being, obviously established the mind above the body, and, more generally, spirit above matter. This is the lasting lesson Descartes taught and it is a lesson we have committed so deeply to our Western consciousness that we have forgotten we ever learnt it in the first place.

The significant difference in today’s world of science, with God now entirely outside of the picture, is that Descartes’ hierarchy has been totally up-ended. Matter is the new boss, and mind, its servant. 17

*

But we might also turn this whole issue on its head. We might admit the obvious. Concede that although we don’t know what it is exactly, there is some decidedly strange and immaterial part to ourselves. That it is indeed the part we most identify with – the part we refer to so lovingly as “I”. And that it is this oh-so mysterious part of us which provides all our prima facie evidence for existence itself. Though in admitting this, the question simply alters. It becomes: how to account for the presence of such a ghost inside our machines? For what outlandish contrivance would we need to reconnect the matter of our brains with any such apparently in-dwelling spirit? And whereas Rene Descartes once proposed that mind and body might be conjoined within the mysterious apparatus of our pineal gland (presumably on the grounds that the pineal gland is an oddly singular organ), we know better and so must look for less localised solutions. In short then, we may finally need to make a re-evaluation of ourselves, not merely as creatures, but as manifestations of matter itself.

Yet, in truth, all of this is really a Judeo-Christian problem; a deep bisection where other traditions never made any first incision. For what is “matter” in any case? Saying it’s all atoms and energy doesn’t give a final and complete understanding. Perhaps our original error was to force such an irreconcilable divorce between nebulous soul (or mind) and hard matter, when they are so indivisibly and gloriously codependent, for though Science draws a marked distinction between the disciplines of physics and psychology, it only stands for sake of convenience; for sake, indeed, of ignorance.

To begin then, let’s try to re-establish some sense of mystery regarding the nature of matter itself – such everyday stuff that we have long taken for granted that through careful measurements and mathematical projections its behaviour can be understood and predicted. Here indeed, Freeman Dyson brings his own expertise in quantum theory, combined with his genius for speculation, to consider the fascinating subject of mind and its relationship to matter:

“Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind.”

Dyson is drawing upon his very deep understanding of quantum physics, and yet already he has really said too much. Quantum choice is not the same as human choice. Quantum choice depends on random chance, which is the reason Einstein famously asserted, “God does not play dice”. Indeed I’m not sure how quantum theory, as it is currently understood, could ever account for the existence of free will and volition, quite aside from the overriding mystery of sentience itself. So Dyson’s more important point is perhaps his last one: that the universe is “hospitable for the growth of mind”. This is too often overlooked. And for Dyson, it offers reason enough for religious contemplation:

“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind.” 18

I share with Dyson the opinion that it is better to relish these mysteries rather than to retreat to the dry deception of material certainty. For, as Shakespeare summed up so marvelously in his final play The Tempest: “we are such stuff as dreams are made on…”19 And perhaps this is still the best description we have of ourselves, even though we have no idea whatsoever, how as dream-machines, our dreams are woven.

A toast then! Feel free to join me in raising your glass… to your own mind, your psyche, your soul, call it what you will – a rose by any other name and all that. Three cheers! And to consciousness! To sentience! To uncanny awareness! That same stuff all our dreams are made on…

So with great appreciation and warm affection, here’s to that strangest of things: that thing I so very casually call my-self! But even more than this. To the actual stuff of our lives, to the brain, the entire central nervous system and far beyond. To the eyes and ears and fingertips; to the whole apparatus of our conscious awareness; and to the sentience of all our fellows, whether taking human or other forms! To the strangeness of the material world itself, from which all sentience has miraculously sparked! To the vast and incomprehensible Universe no less, whether manifestly inward or outward, for the distinction may be a finer one than we are in the habit to presume! Here’s to wondering what we are… Drink up!

Next chapter…

*

John Searle is a philosopher who has closely studied the nature of consciousness and concludes that although unique amongst biological phenomena, mind, though mysterious, is obviously a natural function of brain activity. In this lecture he summarises the many failures of the current “scientific” approach to questions of consciousness:

In the interview below Searle discusses why he rejects both the hard-line materialist dismissal of consciousness as an illusion (which is actually nonsensical) and dualist alternatives that rely upon a false division between mind and matter:

And finally, Searle outlines the main difficulties surrounding the unresolved philosophical paradox of free will – put succinctly he says although it is impossible to prove human beings have free will and any capacity for free will also seems to defy physical causality, we are compelled to experience conscious rational decision-making on a daily basis:

*

Addendum: the return of Frankenstein!

The issues surrounding the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are many and complex, but it is perfectly clear that new developments in genetics, like those in nuclear physics more than half a century ago, have automatically opened the door to some quite extraordinary possibilities. Possibilities that will most assuredly impact our future no less dramatically than the advent of atomic reactors and the hydrogen bomb impacted our very recent past – and still continue to affect us today.

The need for a proper debate is long overdue but, hardly surprisingly, the huge bio-tech corporations prefer to keep the debate closed down. Monsanto, for instance, who claim that its perfectly safe to release their GMOs directly into our environment, were also in the habit of claiming that their herbicide Roundup is so harmless you can drink it! 20 But then why on earth would anyone (or at least anyone not in their pocket) trust such self-interested and deliberately compromised risk assessments? The short answer is that the precautionary principle has once again been overridden by money and influence.

What we really need, of course, is a proper debate about the use of genetic modification. A debate that is open and public: a forum for discussion amongst leading experts (and especially those not associated with the powerful bio-tech firms); scientists from other fields, who though ignorant on specifics, might bring a detached expertise by virtue of familiarity with scientific procedures; alongside representatives from other interested parties such as ‘consumers’ (that’s the rest of us by the way – we all consume, and though I hate the word too, it at least offers a little better perspective on our role without the current system, since this is how the system itself defines us).

This great debate needs to be fully inclusive, welcoming intelligent opinion, whether concordant or dissenting. No reasoned objections from any quarters being summarily dismissed as unscientific or anti-scientific, as is so often the case, because we must never leave it for technicians alone to decide on issues that so directly affect our common future. Relying on highly specialised experts alone – even when those experts are fully independent (as they so rarely are these days) –  would be as unwise as it is anti-democratic.

Genetic manipulation is already upon us. It is already helping in the prevention and treatment of diseases, and in the production of medicines such as insulin (although even here serious questions are arising with regards to the potentially harmful side-effects of using a genetically modified product). More controversial again is the development of pest- and drought-resistant strains of crops; developments that are claimed by their producers to have alleviated a great deal of human suffering already, but which seem to have brought misery of new kinds – I will come back to this later.

And then we come to the development of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Gurt), better known as ‘suicide’ or ‘Terminator’ (to use the industry term) seeds, which are promoted by the industry as a ‘biosafety’ solution. Engineered sterility being a clever way of preventing their own genetically modified plants from causing unwanted genetic contamination – which we might think of as a new form of pollution. The argument being that if modified genes (whether pharmaceutical, herbicide resistance or ‘Terminator’ genes) from a ‘Terminator’ crop get transferred to related plants via cross-pollination, the seed produced from such pollination will be sterile. End of problem.

But this is merely an excuse, of course, and if used in this way, the new technology will ultimately prevent over a billion of the poorest people in the world from continuing in their age-old practice of saving seeds for resowing, which will, as a consequence, make these same farmers totally dependent on a few multinational bio-tech companies. All of which serves as an excellent means for monopolising the world’s food supplies, and offers a satisfactory solution only for the owners of companies like Monsanto. 21

In any case, do we really wish to allow patents on specific genes, opening the door to the corporate ownership of the building blocks to life itself? The world renowned physicist and futurist visionary Freeman Dyson draws a direct comparison to earlier forms of slavery:

“The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God’s temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes.” 22

Nor, I would quickly add, should it extend to the ownership of genes of other higher species of animal or plant life. Moreover, I personally have no wish whatsoever for apples, tomatoes, potatoes (or even tobacco) that provides the RDA for all my nutritional needs, or any other supposed improvement on the original designs – preferring to trust to apples, tomatoes and potatoes that evolved alongside my own human digestive system. And this ought not to be treated as merely a preference, but established as a human right, since we all have the right not to eat GMO just as we have the right to be vegan (not that I’m a vegan, by the way).

Beyond this, we also need to consider the many perfectly serious and inescapable ethical issues that arise once you are tinkering with the primary source code of life itself. Take cloning as an interesting example.

Identical twins are essentially clones, having both developed from the same fertilised egg, and thus sharing the same DNA. But then nature sometimes goes one step further again:

A form of virgin birth has been found in wild vertebrates for the first time.

Researchers in the US caught pregnant females from two snake species and genetically analysed the litters.

That proved the North American pit vipers reproduced without a male, a phenomenon called facultative parthenogenesis that has previously been found only in captive species. 23

I have since learned that parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilisation or “virgin birth”) is surprisingly common throughout the plant and animal kingdoms. Birds do it, bees do it… and even mammals have been induced to do it. So cloning is not inherently unnatural, and if carried out successfully (as it frequently is in nature), it may one day be no more harmful nor fraught with latent dangers to be a cloned individual than an individual produced by other forms of artificial reproduction. Furthermore, since we already know what human twins are like, we already know what human clones will be like. Yet many ethical questions still hang.

For instance, should anyone be allowed to clone themselves? Or more generally, who chooses which of us are to be cloned? Do we just leave it to the market to decide? And why would we ever want a world populated by identical (or rather, approximately identical – since no two twins are truly identical and there are sound biological reasons for believing clones will never be perfectly reproduced either) human beings? Such ethical questions are forced by the new biotechnologies. And there are many further reasons for why ordinary, intelligent public opinion needs to be included in the debate.

Here is Freeman Dyson again, summarising his own cautious optimism as we enter the age of the new ‘green technologies’:

“I see two tremendous goods coming from biotechnology in the next century, first the alleviation of human misery through progress in medicine, and second the transformation of the global economy through green technology spreading wealth more equitably around the world. The two great evils to be avoided are the use of biological weapons and the corruption of human nature by buying and selling genes. I see no scientific reason why we should not achieve the good and avoid the evil.

The obstacles to achieving the good are political rather than technical. Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.” 24

Dyson is being too optimistic no doubt with many of the dangers of GMOs slowly coming to light more two decades after Dyson uttered these words as part of his acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize in 2000.

Meanwhile in 2012, Greenpeace issued the following press release. It contains the summary of an open letter sent by nearly a hundred Indian scientists to the Supreme Court of India:

An official report submitted by the technical Expert committee set up by the Supreme Court of India comprising of India’s leading experts in molecular biology, toxicology and biodiversity – unanimously recommends a 10-year moratorium on all field trials of GM Bt [insecticide producing due to genes from Bacillus thuringiensis] food crops, due to serious safety concerns. The committee has also recommended a moratorium on field trials of herbicide tolerant crops until independent assessment of impact and suitability, and a ban on field trials of GM crops for which India is center of origin and diversity.

The report’s recommendations are expected put a stop to all field releases of GM food crops in India, including the controversial Bt eggplant, whose commercial release was put under an indefinite moratorium there last February 2010. Contrarily, the same Bt eggplant is currently being evaluated for approval in the Philippines.

“This official unanimous declaration on the risks of GMOs, by India’s leading biotech scientists is the latest nail on the coffin for GMOs around the world,” said Daniel M. Ocampo, Sustainable Agriculture Campaigner of Greenpeace Southeast Asia. “It is yet another proof that GMOs are bad for the health, bad for the environment, bad for farmers and bad for the economy.” 25

For though it would be foolish to fail to recognise the enormous potential benefits of some of the new ‘green technologies’, any underestimate of the hazards is sheer recklessness. And this is where my own opinion differs significantly from enthusiasts like Dyson. This science is just so brilliantly new, and so staggeringly complex. The dangers are real and very difficult to over-estimate and so public concern is fully justified whether over health and safety issues, over the politico-economic repercussions, or due to anxieties of a more purely ethical kind.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

1 There is sound evidence for believing that protons and neutrons are made of quarks, whereas electrons it seems are a type of fundamental particle which has no component parts.

2 My use of the analogue/digital comparison is simplistic, of course, but then it is only intended as a loose analogy, nothing more.

3 Since writing this I have come upon a range of so-called Young Earth Theories of Geology that contradict my former opinion. Apparently there are indeed groups of Creationists intent on disproving ideas of a 4.5 billion year old planet in favour of a ten thousand year prehistory. Needless to say there is no supporting evidence for this contention.

4

“Cro-magnons are, in informal usage, a group among the late Ice Age peoples of Europe. The Cro-Magnons are identified with Homo sapiens sapiens of modern form, in the time range ca. 35,000-10,000 b.p. […] The term “Cro-Magnon” has no formal taxonomic status, since it refers neither to a species or subspecies nor to an archaeological phase or culture. The name is not commonly encountered in modern professional literature in English, since authors prefer to talk more generally of anatomically modern humans (AMH). They thus avoid a certain ambiguity in the label “Cro-Magnon”, which is sometimes used to refer to all early moderns in Europe (as opposed to the preceding Neanderthals), and sometimes to refer to a specific human group that can be distinguished from other Upper Paleolithic humans in the region. Nevertheless, the term “Cro-Magnon” is still very commonly used in popular texts because it makes an obvious distinction with the Neanderthals, and also refers directly to people rather than to the complicated succession of archaeological phases that make up the Upper Paleolithic. This evident practical value has prevented archaeologists and human paleontologists – especially in continental Europe – from dispensing entirely with the idea of Cro-Magnons.”

Taken from The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. p. 864.

5

“Jambo, Jersey Zoos world famous and much loved silverback gorilla had a truly remarkable life. He was born in Basel Zoo in Switzerland in 1961. He arrived at Jersey Zoo on the 27th April 1972. Jambo, Swahili for Hello, is perhaps better known to the public for the gentleness he displayed towards the little boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo one afternoon in 1986. The dramatic event hit the headlines and helped dispel the myth of gorillas as fearsome and ferocious. It was a busy Sunday afternoon in August 1986 when an incredulous public witnessed Levan Merritt a small boy from Luton UK fall into the Gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo. “

Extract taken from “The Hero Jambo”, a tribute to Jambo written by the founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell.

6

“LAST SUMMER, AN APE SAVED a three-year-old boy. The child, who had fallen 20 feet into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, was scooped up and carried to safety by Binti Jua, an eight-year-old western lowland female gorilla. The gorilla sat down on a log in a stream, cradling the boy in her lap and patting his back, and then carried him to one of the exhibit doorways before laying him down and continuing on her way.”

Extract taken from article by F. B. M. de Waal (1997) entitled “Are we in anthropodenial? Discover 18 (7): 50-53.”

7   

“Binti became a celebrity overnight, figuring in the speeches of leading politicians who held her up as an example of much-needed compassion. Some scientists were less lyrical, however. They cautioned that Binti’s motives might have been less noble than they appeared, pointing out that this gorilla had been raised by people and had been taught parental skills with a stuffed animal. The whole affair might have been one of a confused maternal instinct, they claimed.”

Ibid.

8 Quoted in an article entitled: “Confessions of a Lonely Atheist: At a time when religion pervades every aspect of public life, there’s something to be said for a revival of pagan peevishness”, written by Natalie Angier for The New York Times Magazine, from January 14, 2001.

9 In 1907, MacDougall weighed six patients who were in the process of dying (accounts of MacDougall’s experiments were published in the New York Times and the medical journal American Medicine). He used the results of his experiment to support the hypothesis that the soul had mass (21 grams to be precise), and that as the soul departed the body, so did its mass. He also measured fifteen dogs under similar conditions and reported the results as “uniformly negative”. He thus concluded that dogs did not have souls. MacDougall’s complaints about not being able to find dogs dying of the natural causes have led at least one author to conjecture that he was in fact poisoning dogs to conduct these experiments.

10 Extract taken from Chapter 2, “Thinking Machines” of Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works, published by Penguin Science, 1997, p 148. Italics in the original.

11 An operant conditioning chamber (sometimes known as a Skinner box) is a laboratory apparatus developed by BF Skinner, founding father of “Radical Behaviourism”, during his time as a graduate student at Harvard University. It is used to study animal behaviour and investigate the effects of psychological conditioning using programmes of punishment and reward.

12 Extract taken from Notes on the Way by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide, London, 1940.

13  I received a very long and frank objection to this paragraph from one of my friends when they read through a draft version, which I think is worth including here in the way of balance:

“I must explain that I’m a hedonist to a ridiculous degree, so much so that my “eudaemonism” (sounds dreadful –not like happiness-seeking at all!) is almost completely bound up with the pursuit of pleasure, as for me there is little difference between a life full of pleasures and a happy life.  Mind you, pleasure in my definition (as in most people’s, I guess) covers a wide array of things: from the gluttonous through to the sensuous, the aesthetic, the intellectual and even the spiritual; and I would also say that true pleasure is not a greedy piling up of things that please, but a judicious and even artistic selection of the very best, the most refined and the least likely to cause pain as a side effect  (I think this approach to pleasure is called “Epicureanism”).

Love, of course, is the biggest source of pleasure for most, and quite remarkably, it’s not only the receiving but the giving of it that makes one truly happy, even when some pain or sacrifice is involved.  This is how I explain acts of generosity like the one you describe, by the woman who helped you when you fell off your bike as a teenager: I think she must have done it because, despite the bother and the hassle of the moment, deep down it made her happy to help a fellow human being. We have all felt this way at some point or other, and as a result I believe that pleasure is not antithetical to morality, because in fact we can enjoy being kind and it makes us unhappy to see suffering around us. This doesn’t mean that we always act accordingly, and we certainly have the opposite tendency, too: there is a streak of cruelty in every human that means under some circumstances, we’ll enjoy hurting even those we love. But my point is, hedonism and a concern for others are not incompatible. The evolutionary reason for this must be that we are a social animal, so empathy is conducive to our survival as much as aggression and competitiveness may be in some environments. In our present environment, i.e. a crowded planet where survival doesn’t depend on killing lions but on getting on with each other, empathy should be promoted as the more useful of the two impulses. This isn’t going to happen, of course, but in my opinion empathy is the one more likely to make us happy in the long run.

Having attempted to clean up the name of pleasure a bit, I’ll try to address your other complaints against a life based on such principles: “Yet pleasure is more often short-lived, whilst happiness too is hard to maintain.” I agree, and this is indeed the Achilles heel of my position: I’m the most hypochondriac and anxiety-prone person I know, because as a pleasure-a-holic and happiness junkie I dread losing the things I enjoy most. The idea of ever losing [my partner], for example, is enough to give me nightmares, and I’m constantly terrified of illness as it might stop me having my fun. Death is the biggest bogie. I’m not blessed with a belief in the afterlife, or even in the cosmic harmony of all things. This is [my partner]’s belief as far as I can tell, and I’d like to share it, but I’ve always been an irrational atheist – I haven’t arrived at atheism after careful thinking, but quite the opposite, I’ve always been an atheist because I can’t feel the godliness of things, so it is more of a gut reaction with me. The closest thing to the divine for me is in beauty, the beauty of nature and art, but whether Beauty is Truth, I really don’t know, and in any case beauty, however cosmic, won’t make me immortal in any personal or individual sense. I’m horrified at the idea of ceasing to exist, and almost as much at the almost certain prospect of suffering while in the process of dying. This extreme fear is probably the consequence of my hedonist-epicurean-eudaemonism.

On the other hand, since everyone, including the most religious and ascetic people, is to some extent afraid of dying, is it really such a big disadvantage to base one’s life on the pursuit of pleasure and happiness? I guess not, although I must admit that I’d quite like to have faith in the Beyond. I suppose that I do have some of the agnostic’s openness to the mystery of the universe – as there are so many things that we don’t understand, and perhaps we aren’t even equipped to ever understand, it’s very possible that life and death have a meaning that escapes us. This is not enough to get rid of my fears, but it is a consolation at times.

Finally, I also disagree with you when you say that pleasure and happiness “are not, as we are accustomed to imagine, objects to be sought after at all. If we chase either one then it is perfectly likely that it will recede ever further from our reach.” There’s truth in this, but I think it’s also true that unless one turns these things into a priority, it is very difficult to ever achieve them. I for one find that more and more, many circumstances in my life conspire to stop me having any fun: there are painful duties to perform, ailments to cope with, bad news on a daily basis and many other kinds of difficulties, so if I didn’t insist on being happy at least a little every day, I’d soon forget how to do it. I’m rather militant about it, in fact. I’m always treating myself in some way, though to be fair to myself, a coffee and a croissant can be enough to reconcile me to a bad day at work, for example, so I’m not really very demanding. But a treat of some sort there has to be to keep me going. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.”

14  Kurt Vonnegut had originally trained to be a scientist, but says he wasn’t good enough. His older brother Bernard trained as a chemist and is credited with the discovery that sodium iodide could be used to force precipitation through “cloud seeding”. If you ask for Vonnegut in a library, you’ll probably be directed toward the Science Fiction section, since many of his books are set in strangely twisted future worlds. However, his most famous and most widely acclaimed work draws on experiences during the Second World War, and in particular on the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut had personally survived the attack by virtue of being held as prisoner of war in an underground meat locker, and the irony of this forms the title of the novel, Slaughterhouse-five.

15  Extract taken from “Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist” by Kurt Vonnegut, published in Humanist, Nov 92, Vol. 52:6.5-6.

16 “We cannot doubt existence without existing while we doubt…” So begins Descartes seventh proposition from his 76 “Principles of Human Knowledge” which forms Part 1 of Principia philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy) published in Latin in 1644 and reprinted in French in 1647 – ten years after his groundbreaking treatise Discourse on the Method in which “Je pense, donc je suis” (“I think, therefore I am”) had first appeared.

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4391/pg4391.html

17 A more poetic version of Descartes’ proof had already been constructed centuries earlier by early Islamic scholar, Avicenna, who proposed a rather beautiful thought experiment in which we imagine ourselves falling or else suspended, and thus isolated and devoid of all sensory input including any sense of our own body. The “floating man”, Avicenna says, in spite of complete absence of any perceptions of a world beyond, would nevertheless possess self-awareness. That he can still say “I am” proves that he is self-aware and that the soul exists. In consequence, Avicenna also places soul above material, although no priority is granted to reason above our other forms of cognition.

18  Further extracts from Freeman Dyson ‘s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.

19  Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1.

20 In 1996, the New York Times reported that: “Dennis C. Vacco, the Attorney General of New York, ordered the company to pull ads that said Roundup was ‘safer than table salt’ and ‘practically nontoxic’ to mammals, birds and fish. The company withdrew the spots, but also said that the phrase in question was permissible under E.P.A. guidelines.”

Extract taken from wikipedia with original reference retained. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto#False_advertising

21 For further arguments against “Terminator Technology”, I recommend the following website: http://www.banterminator.org/content/view/full/233

22 From Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington  National Cathedral.

23  From an article entitled “Virgin births discovered in wild snakes” written by Jeremy Coles, published by BBC nature on September 12, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/19555550

24  Also from Freeman Dyson’s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize.

25 http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/press/releases/GMOs-declared-unsafe-in-India-Greenpeace-calls-on-PH-to-follow-suit/

This original link has since been removed but the same article can be read here:

https://web.archive.org/web/20130607155209/http://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/press/releases/GMOs-declared-unsafe-in-India Greenpeace-calls-on-PH-to-follow-suit/

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black ops in the Black Sea: Johnson’s dangerous provocation in the ‘New Cold War’

In light of yesterday’s outlandish provocation in the Black Sea, when British Navy destroyer, HMS Defender, weapons loaded and with a BBC correspondent conveniently aboard, quite deliberately sailed into Crimean territorial waters close to the Russian base at Sevastopol, Craig Murray posted two articles which I have reprinted unabridged below – in the second, Murray explains in detail how the UK action was in clear breach of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

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Sometimes it is worth stating the obvious. The United Kingdom does not have a coast in the Black Sea. British warships are not infesting the Black Sea out of a peaceful intent, and there is no cause for them to be entering disputed waters close to anybody’s coast. This is not a question of freedom of navigation under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. There is nowhere that a British warship can be heading from the UK under the right of innocent passage that would require it to pass through coastal waters by Crimea. The Black Sea is famously a cul-de-sac.

There is certainly a right to pass to the Ukrainian port of Odessa – but that in now way requires passing close to Crimea. This is therefore not “innocent passage”. There is a right of passage through the Kerch strait, which Russia has to date respected. Russia has not just a right but a duty to enforce sea lanes for safe navigation through the strait, exactly as the UK does off Dover.

I expect we will now be in for a mad frenzy of Russophobia, yet again. I shall comment further once I have more details of why and exactly where Russia was firing warning shots. But just remember this, it was not Russian warships near the British coast, it was British warships in an area where they had no business other than ludicrous, British nationalist, sabre-rattling.

The UK needs to lose its imperial delusions. Sending gunboats to the Crimea is as mad as – well, sailing an aircraft carrier expressly to threaten the Chinese. There are those who see this activity as evidence of the UK’s continued great power status. I see it as evidence of lunacy.

Click here to read the original article entitled “Black Ops in the Black Sea” published yesterday by Craig Murray.

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The pre-positioning of the BBC correspondent on HMS Defender shatters the pretence that the BBC is something different to a state propaganda broadcaster. It also makes plain that this propaganda exercise to provoke the Russian military was calculated and deliberate. Indeed that was confirmed by that BBC correspondent’s TV news report last night when he broadcast that the Defender’s route “had been approved at the very highest levels of the British government.”

The Prime Minister does not normally look at the precise positions of British ships. This was a deliberate act of dangerous belligerence.

The presence of a BBC correspondent is more than a political point. In fact it has important legal consequences. One thing that is plain is that the Defender cannot possible claim it was engaged in “innocent passage” through territorial waters, between Odessa and Georgia. Let me for now leave aside the fact that there is absolutely no necessity to pass within 12 miles of Cape Fiolent on such passage, and the designated sea lane (originally designated by Ukraine) stays just out of the territorial sea. Look at the definition of innocent passage in Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea:

screenshot-1612

Very plainly this was not innocent passage. It was certainly 2 (d) an act of propaganda, and equally certainly 2 (c), an exercise in collecting information on military defences. I would argue it is also 2 (a), a threat of force.

So far as I can establish, the British are not claiming they were engaged in innocent passage, which is plainly nonsense, but that they were entering territorial waters off Crimea at the invitation of the government of Ukraine, and that they regard Crimea as the territory of Ukraine and Crimean territorial waters as Ukrainian territorial waters.

I want to impress on you how mad this is. The whole point of “territorial sea” is that, legally, it is an integral part of the state and that the state’s full domestic law applies within the territorial sea. That is not the case with the much larger 200 mile exclusive economic zone or sometimes even larger continental shelf, where the coastal state’s legal jurisdiction only applies to specific marine or mineral resources rights.

Let me put it this way. If somebody is murdered on a ship within twelve nautical miles of the coast, the coastal state has jurisdiction and its law applies. If somebody is murdered on a ship more than twelve miles off the coast, the jurisdiction and law of the flag state of the ship applies, not the law of any coastal state in whose exclusive economic zone the ship is.

In international law, the twelve mile territorial sea is as much part of the state as its land. So to sail a warship into Crimean territorial seas is exactly the same act as to land a regiment of paratroops in the Crimea and declare you are doing so at the invitation of the Government of Ukraine.

There is no dispute that Russia is in de facto control of the Crimea, irrespective of British support for the government of Ukraine’s claim to the region. It is also true that Russian annexation of the Crimea was not carried out in an accordance with international law. However, it is not, in practice, likely to be reversed and the situation needs to be resolved by treaty or by the International Court of Justice. In the interim, the UK government legal position can only be that Russia is an “occupying power”. It is impossible that the UK government legal position is that Ukraine is in “effective control” of the territory.

We need to see the legal advice provided by FCO legal advisers. It is simply not the practice in international law to ignore the existence of an occupying power which is a recognised state, and act with armed forces on the authority of a government not in effective control. The difference in British attitude towards Russia as an occupying power and towards Israel is tellingly different.

The legality of the British action is, at very best, moot. In realpolitik, it is an act of brinkmanship with a nuclear power and further effort to ramp up the new Cold War with Russia, to the benefit of the military, security services and armaments companies and the disbenefit of those who need more socially useful government spending. It is further an act of jingoist populism for the neo-liberal elite to distract the masses, as the billionaires’ incredible wealth continues to boom.

NATO will shortly commence a naval exercise in the Black Sea. As not all the member states of NATO are quite as unhinged as Johnson, it is to be hoped it will refrain from this kind of extra layer of provocation. There is a large part of me that says they cannot possibly be mad enough to attempt to intervene in Ukraine with military force, or at least its threat. But then I look at Johnson and Biden, and worry. This can all go horribly wrong.

Click here to read the same post entitled “Warmongering British Actions in the Black Sea” as it originally appeared today on Craig Murray’s official website.

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To mark ten year’s blogging, this is the fifth of my re-uploads from the WoC archive. Originally posted on April 22nd 2014, never let a good Ukrainian crisis go to waste… was one of a number of articles in which I reported on how the Ukrainian crisis had been deliberately provoked on behalf of western corporate interests, leading us into what the late Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics, warned was already becoming a “New Cold War”.

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On Thursday [April 17th] Democracy Now! welcomed back Stephen Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton University, to discuss the deepening crisis in Ukraine. Cohen, a specialist on Russia and the Soviet Union, is the author of numerous books on the subject including his latest Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. He was asked “Are we seeing the beginning of a new Cold War?” and “what exactly is happening right now in Ukraine?” Cohen’s response began as follows:

Those are big questions. We are not at the beginning of the Cold War, a new one; we are well into it—which alerts us to the fact, just watching what you showed up there, that hot war is imaginable now, for the first time in my lifetime, my adult lifetime, since the Cuban missile crisis, hot war with Russia. It’s unlikely, but it’s conceivable. And if it’s conceivable, something has to be done about it.

You did two things on your introduction which were very important. Almost alone among American media, you actually allowed Putin to speak for himself. He’s being filtered through the interpretation of the mass media here, allegedly, what he said, and it’s not representative. The second thing is, let us look just what’s happening at this moment, or at least yesterday. The political head of NATO just announced a major escalation of NATO forces in Europe. He did a Churchillian riff: “We will increase our power in the air, in the sea, on the land.” Meanwhile, as negotiations today begin in Geneva, we’re demanding that Russians de-escalate. And yet, we, NATO, are escalating as these negotiations begin.

So, if you were to say what is going on in Ukraine today—and, unfortunately, the focus is entirely on eastern Ukraine. We don’t have any Western media—in eastern Ukraine. We don’t have any Western—any Western media in western Ukraine, the other half of the country. We’re not clear what’s going on there. But clearly, things are getting worse and worse. Each side has a story that totally conflicts with the other side’s story. There seems to be no middle ground. And if there’s no middle ground in the public discourse, in the Russian media or the American media, it’s not clear what middle ground they can find in these negotiations, though personally, I think—and people will say, “Oh, Cohen’s a Putin apologist”—but it seemed to me that the proposals the Russians made a month ago for resolving the conflict are at least a good starting point. But it’s not clear the United States is >going to accept them.

I will come back to some of Cohen’s further points in a moment, but first I’d like to just try to understand why, as Cohen points out, there is such a lack of media coverage across Ukraine and in particular in the western half of the country.

Below is a video (I can’t find a still frame) recorded in mid-March featuring a statement by Vitali Klitschko as he warned of an impending catastrophe in Crimea should it vote to join Russia in the recent referendum. Klitschko has since been sidelined, of course, but what strikes me as odd is that he was standing in front of a board much like the kind of sponsorship boards we see behind interviews of Premier League footballers. Similar except that the ex-sportsman here was backed by just one logo. You can see that it reads “Ukraine Crisis Media Center”:

Now if you type “Ukraine Crisis Media Center” into the Google image search you will find many other Ukrainian political figures giving statements in front of that same logo board. So just who are the “Ukraine Crisis Media Center”?

Well, they have a website and you can search for details there, but in fact you will find very few and none at all about their own sponsors. Instead, what you will read is this:

Ukrainian Crisis Media Center is launched to provide the international community with objective information about events in Ukraine and threats to national security, particularly in the military, political, economic, energy and humanitarian spheres. During this crisis period, the Center on a 24/7 basis will provide support to all the media who cover events in Ukraine.

Having failed to find further information on their website, I decided to email the organisation [on Thursday April 3rd] and asked the following:

I cannot find any information on your site about where financial support for the media center comes from. Without information on who is backing the venture how can we be sure that your coverage is wholly impartial?

I have not received a reply.

In the meantime, I also searched the web for insight from other places – and came across a glowing report published in Kyiv Post which began as follows:

Much like the EuroMaidan Revolution itself, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center sprang to life with speed, spontaneity, creativity, competence – and a strong sense of mission.

Although the center has been open only since March 4, its third floor headquarters in the Hotel Ukraine on 4 Institutska St. is already a required daily stop for dozens of Ukrainian and foreign journalists.

Continuing:

The group came together at Razumkov Center in Kyiv on March 2.

Nataliya Popovych, the president of Kyiv’s PRP Group, an affiliate of the global Webber Shandwick company, is among the founders.

Popovych said that the Kremlin is fast on its feet in spreading lies about Ukraine, whose government is often slow to respond to allegations and counter untruths.

Well, here’s one of the details I was searching for – so who is Nataliya Popovych?

Nataliya started career in Leo Burnett, one of the leading advertising agencies in the world, and continued in Romyr & Associates, Canadian government and public relations firm. After getting Master degree and probation in USA, Nataliya has become a head of PRP Ukraine, a Weber Shandwick Affiliate Company in Ukraine, and in a year became the President of PRP Group, Weber Shandwick partner on CIS markets.

And PRP? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that they are a PR company:

PRP is more than an integrated solutions agency. It is a creative concept. It is a strategy. It is the management of reputations in a new era. It is the ability to communicate and create goodwill. It is integrated solutions which engage audiences into the lives of companies and brands.

That’s taken from their current LinkedIn profile and the profile of Nataliya Popovych is from PR Congress.

But back to the article in the Kyiv Post:

She [Nataliya Popovych] considers Ukrainians to be loving, peaceful and tolerant people and, while she didn’t consider herself a follower of iconic and controversial nationalist hero Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), she is now “proud to be called a Banderite.”1

And for those who don’t know who Stepan Bandera was, then here are a few extracts taken from a detailed and rather generous biography written by Professor of History at Yale University, Timothy Snyder, and published by The New York Review of Books around the time Viktor Yushchenko (President after the “Orange Revolution”) was voted out of office in 2010:

The incoming Ukrainian president will have to turn some attention to history, because the outgoing one has just made a hero of a long-dead Ukrainian fascist. By conferring the highest state honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) on January 22, Viktor Yushchenko provoked protests from the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland, and many of his own citizens. It is no wonder. Bandera aimed to make of Ukraine a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities. During World War II, his followers killed many Poles and Jews. Why would President Yushchenko, the leader of the democratic Orange Revolution, wish to rehabilitate such a figure? Bandera, who spent years in Polish and Nazi confinement, and died at the hands of the Soviet KGB, is for some Ukrainians a symbol of the struggle for independence during the twentieth century. […]

Consistent as the rehabilitation of Bandera might be with the ideological competition of the mid-twentieth century, it makes little ethical sense today. Yushchenko, who praised the recent Kiev court verdict condemning Stalin for genocide, regards as a hero a man whose political program called for ethnic purity and whose followers took part in the ethnic cleansing of Poles and, in some cases, in the Holocaust. Bandera opposed Stalin, but that does not mean that the two men were entirely different. In their struggle for Ukraine, we see the triumph of the principle, common to fascists and communists, that political transformation sanctifies violence. It was precisely this legacy that east European revolutionaries seemed to have overcome in the past thirty years, from the Solidarity movement in Poland of 1980 through the Ukrainian presidential elections of 2005. It was then, during the Orange Revolution, that peaceful demonstrations for free and fair elections brought Yushchenko the presidency. In embracing Bandera as he leaves office, Yushchenko has cast a shadow over his own political legacy.2

All of which helps to explain something else that has been puzzling me… why every other story about what’s happening in Ukraine is entitled “Ukraine Crisis: something or other” – the reason being that “Ukraine Crisis” is more or less the brand name that Nataliya Popovych and other “Ukrainian nationalists” have adopted — a list of the founders of the “Ukraine Crisis Media Center” is available at the end of the same Kyiv Post article.3

So what is this new political brand promoting?

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The “war on terror” is dead, long live the new cold war!

Returning to Stephen Cohen, here is what he had to say about the rise of this new cold war:

As a historian, I would say that this conflict began 300 years ago, but we can’t do that. As a contemporary observer, it certainly began in November 2013 when the European Union issued an ultimatum, really, to the then-president, elected president, of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, that “Sign an agreement with us, but you can’t have one with Russia, too.” In my mind, that precipitated this crisis, because why give a country that has been profoundly divided for centuries, and certainly in recent decades, an ultimatum—an elected president: “Choose, and divide your country further”? So when we say today Putin initiated this chaos, this danger of war, this confrontation, the answer is, no, that narrative is wrong from the beginning. It was triggered by the European Union’s unwise ultimatum.

Now flash forward to just one month ago, about the time I was with you before. Remember that the European foreign ministers—three of them, I think—went to Kiev and negotiated with Yanukovych, who was still the president, an agreement. Now, the Russians were present at the negotiation, but they didn’t sign it. But they signed off on it. They said, “OK.” What did that agreement call for? Yanukovych would remain president until December—not May, when elections are now scheduled, but December of this year. Then there would be a presidential election. He could run in them, or not. Meanwhile, there would be a kind of government of national accord trying to pull the government together. And, importantly, Russia would chip in, in trying to save the Ukrainian economy. But there would also be parliamentary elections. That made a lot of sense. And it lasted six hours.

The next day, the street, which was now a mob—let’s—it was no longer peaceful protesters as it had been in November. It now becomes something else, controlled by very ultra-nationalist forces; overthrew Yanukovych, who fled to Russia; burned up the agreement. So who initiated the next stage of the crisis? It wasn’t Russia. They wanted that agreement of February, a month ago, to hold. And they’re still saying, “Why don’t we go back to it?” You can’t go back to it, though there is a report this morning that Yanukovych, who is in exile in Russia, may fly to eastern Ukraine today or tomorrow, which will be a whole new dimension.

But the point of it is, is that Putin didn’t want—and this is reality, this is not pro-Putin or pro-Washington, this is just a fact—Putin did not want this crisis. He didn’t initiate it. But with Putin, once you get something like that, you get Mr. Pushback. And that’s what you’re now seeing. And the reality is, as even the Americans admit, he holds all the good options. We have none. That’s not good policymaking, is it?

Click here to read a full transcript or watch the latest interview with Stephen Cohen on the Democracy Now! website.

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The United States spent over a decade hunting down Osama Bin Laden at financial a cost running into multiple trillions and a human cost of more than a million lives, yet since his demise the jihadist cause that Bin Laden once spearheaded is stronger than ever. Forces of al-Qaeda and other near identical jihadist factions now hold control of a large region of Iraq and Syria that exceeds the area of Britain, whilst other Islamist gangs run amok throughout Libya. Thus, after a decade of dirty wars executed by means of “shock and awe” air strikes, the perpetual overhead threat of drones and the knock at the door that ends with secret rendition to faraway torture sites, the “war on terror” has been lost. “Terror” reigns supreme as the victor: terror from all sides that is.

But then, it is hard to imagine any foreign policy that could have manufactured and spread terrorism more effectively than the policies enacted during this decade-long “war on terror”. Blowback? Up to a point. But, we must not forget that all of the many al-Qaeda factions that have gained so much territory could never have done so without our help. Whether indirectly, with the establishment of the power vacuum in Iraq, or more purposefully, with Nato bombers opening the way for the Islamist insurgency in Libya. But mostly, the gains of al-Qaeda are thanks to the very generous funding of one of America and Britain’s closest allies, that bastion of freedom and democracy, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Bin Laden, and the nation known to have the closest ties to those accused of the 9/11 attacks. Attacks that provided the very springboard from which the “war on terror” was launched all those years ago. These are the facts and none can be refuted, so make of them what you will – if it was a plot for a film it would seem ludicrously far-fetched.

Of course, the “war on terror” lost a great deal of its public appeal with the bludgeoning of Iraq, and so under Obama we’ve had “humanitarian interventions”. But this new gloss has also flaked away, with the majority of people in the West absolutely sick of war. That said, the wars go on regardless – wreaking havoc but still satisfying the insatiable thirst for blood demanded by our military-industrial-financial complex.

None of these wars have had anything to do with stamping out terrorism or, surely more laughably, the West’s desire to bring “freedom and democracy”. The United States’ covert backing of al-Qaeda is nothing new and neither is the West’s more brazen support of al-Qaeda’s primary sponsor Saudi Arabia? If the wars were about either terrorism or “freedom and democracy”, then the Saudi regime would surely have topped the charts of “the axis of evil”.

In truth, the game never changed. And sadly it is a game (at least to those currently holding power) – as Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of America’s leading geopolitical strategists, makes clear not least with the title of his notorious book on Eurasian geostrategy, “The Grand Chessboard”. In it he wrote:

In brief, for the United States, Eurasian geostrategy involves the purposeful management of geostrategically dynamic states and the careful handling of geopolitically catalytic states, in keeping with the twin interests of America in the short-term: preservation of its unique global power and in the long-run transformation of it into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation. To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.4

This neo-imperialist game is much the same as the older imperialist game, in which only the strategies have been updated. It is about control of territory, of energy resources, of financial systems, and it has (and always did) amount to a series of proxy wars against the competing interests of competing powers. Traditionally Russia have been the great adversary, but now there is China too. So the Cold War that officially concluded with the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989… ended only in name. With the Ukrainian crisis (or should that be “Ukraine Crisis”) the chill that remained has become considerably icier. Treacherously so. But our military-industrial-financial complex needs perpetual war just to keep the racket going, or, when that ceases to be an option (as it now has), to maintain the illusion of an imminent threat against us. Bin Laden is dead, so a new Cold War is just the ticket. On top of which, as Brzezinski also explained in his book:

“Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”

Here’s Stephen Cohen again:

The real debate going on in NATO—the real debate, because this is a distraction—is what Rasmussen said in your earlier clip—he’s the political head of NATO—that we’re building up, as we talk, our forces in eastern Europe. Now, understand what’s going on here. When we took in—”we” meaning the United States and NATO—all these countries in eastern Europe into NATO, we did not—we agreed with the Russians we would not put forward military installations there. We built some infrastructure—air strips, there’s some barracks, stuff like that. But we didn’t station troops that could march toward Russia there. Now what NATO is saying, it is time to do that. Now, Russia already felt encircled by NATO member states on its borders. The Baltics are on its borders. If we move the forces, NATO forces, including American troops, to—toward Russia’s borders, where will we be then? I mean, it’s obviously going to militarize the situation, and therefore raise the danger of war.

And I think it’s important to emphasize, though I regret saying this, Russia will not back off. This is existential. Too much has happened. Putin—and it’s not just Putin. We seem to think Putin runs the whole of the universe. He has a political class. That political class has opinions. Public support is running overwhelmingly in favor of Russian policy. Putin will compromise at these negotiations, but he will not back off if confronted militarily. He will not.

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A trade war opens the way for new trade deals

The new cold war isn’t only a military escalation, it also potentially marks the beginning of a new trade war. But due to reliance on Russia imports (especially when it comes to energy) EU sanctions on Russia will be difficult, and so one way forward could involve loosening trade restrictions between the EU and the US.

The following passages are taken from a press release by the European Council following the recent EU-US Summit in Brussels. It begins:

Recent events in Ukraine have confirmed that strong cooperation between the European Union and the United States on peace and security is of critical importance.

Continuing under the next heading “Economy and global challenges” as follows:

Reinforcing economic growth and job creation remains central on both sides of the Atlantic. The EU and the United States have taken important steps to stabilise financial conditions and overcome the crisis. The EU remains committed to building a deep and genuine economic and monetary union, including a banking union. […]

The EU and US leaders renewed their commitment to a strong Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). this should go beyond a free trade agreement and reaffirm Europe and the United States’ shared values of democracy, individual freedom, the rule of law and human rights, and a common commitment to open societies and economies. [bold highlights maintained from original source]

And what is TTIP? Here are additional notes at the end of the same press release:

The EU and US have decided to take their economic relationship to a higher level by agreeing to launch negotiations on a comprehensive trade and investment agreement. It aims to remove trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.

In fact, I have already touched on the subject of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as well as its sister treaty the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) . Both of these “free-trade agreements” appear to have alternative and conflicting names and acronyms and in the case of TTIP it is also known as the Transatlantic Free Trade Area, abbreviated as TAFTA, which is how it appeared in that earlier post. Why trade agreements need to have multiple names becomes more apparent when you realise what this commitment to “freeing up regulations” will mean. Here are a few extracts from a detailed analysis published by Der Spiegel International and entitled “Corporation Carte Blanche: Will US-EU Trade Become Too Free?”:

Lori Wallach had but 10 minutes to speak when she stepped up to podium inside Room 405 at George Washington University, located not too far away from the White House. Her audience was made up of delegates currently negotiating the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.

They had already spent hours listening to presentations by every possible lobbying group — duty bound to hear myriad opinions. But when Wallach, a trade expert for the consumer protection group Public Citizen, took the stage, people suddenly started paying attention. The 49-year-old Harvard lawyer, after all, is a key figure in international trade debates.

“The planned deal will transfer power from elected governments and civil society to private corporations,” she said, warning that the project presents a threat of entirely new dimensions. [bold emphasis added]

How will TTIP help to transfer even more power out of democratic control and into the hands of the major corporations? Well, let us count the ways:

After the third round of negotiations, an unusually broad alliance of anti-globalization groups, NGOs, environmental and consumer protection groups, civil rights groups and organized labor is joining forces to campaign against TTIP.

These critics have numerous concerns about the treaty – including their collective fear that the convergence of standards will destroy important gains made over the years in health and nutrition policy, environmental protection and employee rights. They argue the treaty will make it easier for corporations to turn profits at the public’s expense in areas like water supply, health or education. It would also clear the path for controversial technologies like fracking or for undesired food products like growth hormone-treated meat to make their way to Europe. Broadly worded copyrights would also restrict access to culture, education and science. They also believe it could open the door to comprehensive surveillance.5

Click here to read the full article in Der Spiegel.

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Fracking for freedom (and digging for victory)

I have already highlighted at the end of an earlier and rather more extended post how energy giants Chevron and Exxon Mobil have been getting ready to move their operations to Ukraine with the intention of exploring both conventional and “unconventional” resources (otherwise known as “fracking”). On Saturday’s Keiser Report, Max Keiser spoke to freelance journalist JP Sottile of Newsvandal.com, who also occasionally writes for the Guardian, about not only how Big Oil, but also Big Agra, have their eyes fixed on Ukraine. Sottile names the people and corporations hoping to take advantage of Ukraine’s exceptional fertile lands. Here are some excerpts of what he had to say [from about 13 mins in]:

“One of the bones of contention with Russia, Europe, and its transit point Ukraine, is Russia’s domination of the natural gas market in Europe. So I thought it was very interesting when the deal was announced that Chevron was involved in developing shale gas in Ukraine. Now that would have been with the previous government of Yanukovych – and I believe that that led to a lot of the pressure coming out of Moscow for Yanukovych to reject the economic deal between Ukraine and Europe, and that then of course led to a cascading number of events, which led to the deposing of Yanukovych and the ‘crisis in Ukraine’ as it is now called.”

Beyond the oil and gas, Sottile has also looked closely into the interests of agricultural giants Cargill and Monsanto, who are keen to exploit Ukraine’s riches closer to the surface:

US-Ukraine Business Council is an investor in the US-Ukraine Foundation where Ms [Victoria] Nuland was speaking on December 13th [about how the US had already spent $5 billion helping Ukraine realise its “European aspirations”] and also on December 13th, that was the day that Cargill invested in a Black Sea port to help open the Russian market to its agriculture. Well, Cargill is also heavily invested in Ukraine in a company called Ukrlandfarming. The just bought a two hundred thousand dollar stake in Ukrlandfarming. In fact they bought that stake – or it was announced – on the very day, January 12th of this year, that fifty thousand Ukrainians flooded Kiev to protest the government of Yanukovych.

They are all connected through Freedom House – a guy there who worked with Ms Nuland, who is Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, she had a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, a guy named David Kramer. David Kramer serves on – he’s actually head of Freedom House – Freedom House is one of the organisations that the United States uses to stoke democracy movements around the world. It is actually responsible, along with the National Endowment for Democracy, for funding many of the opposition forces there in Ukraine. And David Kramer also serves on the US-Ukraine Business Council. If you go the US-Ukraine Business Council – which is a very interesting organisation – on the executive board of the US-Ukraine Business Council you’ll find Cargill, Monsanto, John Deere, CNH International (which is a farming equipment and tractor-making company), Eli Lilly and DuPont Pioneer – DuPont Pioneer being the genetically modified organisms and agricultural wing of DuPont. And they all serve together under the guidance of a guy named Morgan Williams. Morgan Williams is CEO and President of US-Ukraine Business Council, and he has been a fixer for Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, [and] other big agricultural companies in Ukraine for the last fifteen to twenty years.

There is an expression from my part of the world that goes: “where there’s muck, there’s brass”. Well, as Sottile’s investigations reveal, there’s loads of muck in Ukraine and not just in oil and gas deposits. Perhaps, as he suspects, the bigger prize is the land itself. Either way, the vultures are already circling. Except that they are more predatory than the much maligned vulture. Rather than waiting for a crisis to happen they have been directly involved in fomenting one, and now, as their “Ukraine Crisis” escalates, they won’t be planning to let it to go to waste.

Click here to read more about this in JP Sottile’s article entitled “Ukraine, Chevron, Condi Rice and Shale Gas… join the dots” published by The Ecologist magazine on March 18th.

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