Category Archives: A–Z

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.

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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

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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 imaginations in more impermanent ways – playing cat’s cradle, skimming stones, or even that perennial favourite, talking bollocks?

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 now, don’t be so daft!

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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, many in the scientific community attempted to discount such astonishing behaviour (even though others who’d worked closely with great apes saw nothing which surprised them at all). The gorillas in question, many of the experts asserted, had evidently mistaken the human child for a baby gorilla. Stupidity rather than empathy explained the whole thing. 7

Now scientists are rightly cautious when it comes to attributing human motives and feelings to explain animal behaviour, but such an approach reduces to absurdity when it precludes all recognition of motives and feelings aside from those of humans. Obviously researchers need to be objective, taking pains to avoid sentiment, but placing too great emphasis on avoiding anthropomorphism leads just as assuredly to blindness. 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 laughable, or even pathetic (perhaps 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:

But rather than investigating the ample evidence of animal emotions, the scientific view has too long been focused at the other end of the telescope. Demoting our own species to the same base level as the supposedly automata beasts. 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 still clanking loudly behind, a new wave of evolutionary psychologists have entered, and research is on-going; a search for genetic propensities for everything 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.

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 reflection of 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 whilst it is established that his proposed 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:

*

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, are 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/

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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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Filed under al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, analysis & opinion, Britain, Craig Murray, Max Keiser, neo-liberalism, Ukraine

‘Amazon Chernobyl’ lawyer Steven Donziger who won huge damages against Chevron is now facing the ‘first corporate prosecution in America’

The disaster has been dubbed the “Amazon Chernobyl”, which is actually misleading since it implies that an accident happened, when in fact there was no accident. For almost three decades, the oil company Texaco – acquired by Chevron in 2001 – was responsible instead for deliberately dumping over 30 billion gallons of toxic waste and crude oil into the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

The system of oil extraction they had designed had, as its fundamental feature, the systematic discharge on a daily basis of millions of gallons of cancer-causing toxic waste; poison that was dumped into rivers and streams that the local communities relied on both for drinking water and for fish, a staple food. As a consequence and over a period of decades, a great many have died of cancer, and continue to die. There has also been a spike in birth defects. To this day, there are still a thousand open-air toxic waste pits that Chevron built to run their cancer-causing effluent into the Amazon’s rivers and streams.

The impact on local communities has been absolutely devastating:

From 1964 to 1992 Texaco, the company acquired by Chevron with all its liabilities, polluted a 1700 square mile swath of pristine rainforest. In its lust for profits, the company cut corners and dumped at least 19 billion gallons of toxic water into the environment. It discharged 17 million gallons of crude into unlined pits, some as deep as 30 feet, on the forest floor. There is no telling how many species succumbed to the horrors of such unbridled greed.

But this is also a story of environmental racism. For decades, Indigenous people of this region were told that the oil was no threat to them. On the contrary, many of them were told that it had medicinal value and contained “vitamins.” Thousands of people used that water. They drank it, cooked with it, bathed in it, oblivious to the danger. After seeing a spike in birth defects and cancers, that danger became increasingly clear. Unable to relocate because of crushing, imposed poverty, they are forced to live in this human-made disaster area, even though it is slowly killing them.

From an article entitled The Amazon Chernobyl is a Warning for Us All written by Kenn Orphan, published in Counterpunch on March 19th.

Here is the complete version of Abby Martin’s three-part series covering Chevron’s disaster in Ecuador, on teleSUR’s ‘The Empire Files’:

Steven Donziger was the lead US attorney in a class action for the indigenous people of Ecuador that began in 1993 shortly after the company left. Nearly two decades on, in February 2011 – almost half a century after Texaco began their criminal operations – an Ecuadorian court issued a historic ruling ordering Chevron-Texaco to pay close to 10 billion dollars compensation. Unsurprisingly, Chevron considered the ruling illegitimate and then in retaliation moved all of their assets out of Ecuador. To date the Ecuadorian plaintiffs have never received any compensation from Chevron.

Shortly after the judgement, Chevron-Texaco instead filed a civil racketeering suit in New York City against Donziger, and this is where the plot further thickens. The judge assigned to the case was US District Judge Lewis Kaplan and in 2014 he also ruled that the judgement in Ecuador was invalid, claiming Donziger had achieved the result through “fraud, bribery and corruption”:

For some, call them criminal justice ingenues, it may be hard to believe this is happening in the United States, that our famed judiciary has sunk this low. But in the U.S., a judge acts as prosecutor and jury on behalf of a giant oil company, Chevron, as it destroys the life and career of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger. His crime? Daring to win a judgment against Chevron in an Ecuadorian court. For those less enchanted with the U.S. justice system, this is no surprise. But there it is. This judicial travesty is occurring in New York state. And the Chevron friendly judges – first Lewis A. Kaplan and his hand-picked appointee judge Loretta Preska, and now the U.S. court of appeals for the second circuit in a March opinion – keep ruling for the company, as they cage Donziger with house arrest, 600 days so far and counting.

The New York federal prosecutor declined to prosecute this case which is based, Donziger says, on lies, so in an astonishing move, Kaplan appointed Chevron’s attorneys. There will be no jury. Judge Preska will doubtless find Donziger guilty – of a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days – though he’s already been under house arrest for over 600 days. The message to the legal community is clear: don’t mess with a fossil fuel company, because if you do, they will find a judge who favors the company and they will destroy you.

From an article entitled The Judicial Persecution of Steven Donziger written by Eve Ottenberg published in Counterpunch on April 9th.

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On March 1st Steven Donziger was interviewed by Ross Ashcroft for RT’s Renegade Inc. Doniziger told him:

“In a nutshell, we won the case big – there’s about a ten billion dollar judgement. Which by the way, that might sound like a lot [but] it’s a modest number compared to the magnitude of the damages. It’s a fraction for example of what British Petroleum has paid for its Deep Water Horizon disaster in the United States, but in any event it’s a sizable number.

“And then Chevron sued me back in US courts where I live here in New York. They named as defendants all the community leaders, other lawyers, scientific consultants and they ran what was essentially a show trial without a jury, presided over by a judge who was a former tobacco industry lawyer, who would not look at any of the evidence from the Ecuador case – would not look at the voluminous scientific evidence that backed the judgment in Ecuador…

“And he found based on a paid witness – Chevron paid a witness $2 million – that I orchestrated the bribery of the trial judge in Ecuador which is something that is completely false. It’s been rejected by 29 different appellate judges in Ecuador and Canada who’ve looked at it. But it was used to attack me and to try to block enforcement of the judgement against Chevron’s assets. It was part of that process.” [from 5:40 mins]

The full interview is embedded below:

In 2020, Donziger was disbarred in New York, but not in the District of Columbia where he is also a bar member. He totally denies all of the allegations and has appealed the verdict, considering the attack on his law licence to be politically motivated in retaliation for his successful human rights work in Ecuador.

As Donziger explains on his own campaign website:

Chevron recently orchestrated my criminal contempt prosecution and detention in New York by one of the company’s private law firms, Seward & Kissel. This happened after I appealed a shocking and unprecedented order from trial judge Lewis A. Kaplan — a former tobacco industry lawyer — that I turn over my computer and phone for review by Chevron lawyers. This order violated the most basic sanctity of the attorney-client privilege, potentially placing my vulnerable clients at severe risk of grave bodily harm or even death. As my appeal of this order was pending, Judge Kaplan charged me with criminal contempt. The federal prosecutor in Manhattan rejected the case, prompting Kaplan to appoint the Chevron law firm Seward & Kissel to “prosecute” me. The Seward firm failed to disclose until seven months into the case that Chevron is a private client — a flagrant conflict of interest. The Seward law firm has kept me under house arrest without trial for 19 months while the pandemic has caused numerous delays of my trial.

Donziger remains under house arrest in his apartment in New York. His trial has been postponed several times but was rescheduled for May 10th:

Steven Donziger is on trial in Manhattan federal court for failing to turn over his computer, phones and other electronic devices and refusing court orders to surrender his passport in the civil case brought by Chevron.

U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska is presiding over the case with no jury.

In an opening statement, prosecuting attorney Rita Glavin said that Donziger had consciously chosen to disobey court orders to turn over his devices and documents.

“Choices have consequences,” she said.

From a Reuters report released the same day.

On May 26th, ‘The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté invited Steven Donziger to speak on his two years of house arrest in a Kafkaesque prosecution engineered by one of the world’s top oil giants:

On Saturday [June 12th], Steven Donziger also spoke to comedian and activist Jimmy Dore about how he became the first corporate prosecution in America (and hopefully the last):

Steven Donziger is currently the only person locked up pre-trial on a misdemeanour in the whole of America. So far, he has already spent 675 days under house arrest with an ankle bracelet which far exceeds the maximum sentence of 180 days which he could receive if convicted.

As he writes:

For all intents and purposes, I am the only person in American history being prosecuted by a private oil company. This is frightening for me and my family, but it also represents a grave threat to the right of Free Speech and civil society everywhere.

Meanwhile his case receives next to no coverage in the mainstream media.

To support Steven Donziger you can visit his official “Free Donziger” website here:

https://www.donzigerdefense.com/

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Occupation is the problem | Jeremy Corbyn

The issue is that the Palestinian people have been under occupation since 1967; that was the year I left secondary school. The whole of my life since becoming an adult so to speak, the Palestinian people have been under occupation, and that is fundamentally what the issue is.

I don’t want anybody killed. I don’t want any bombs. I don’t want any rockets. I want peace. But you’re only going to get that with recognition of the Palestinian people and that means ending the occupation; ending the settlements; removing the settlements; ending the siege of Gaza; and also recommending the rights of Palestinian refugees, who’ve lived their whole lives in Jordan, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Iraq – every country all around The Gulf there are Palestinian refugees, who have lived their whole lives like that.

I went to Sabra and Shantila some years ago with the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, who was then a Labour MP. He was a Jewish man and was actually for much of his life very pro-Israel, and he was more and more disgusted at the treatment by the Israeli forces of the Palestinian people. And we went to the refugee camps in Lebanon together.

I’ve never forgotten meeting an old man whose whole life since being a very small child had been in this refugee camp since 1948: his whole life. And he had this dream that one day he would be able to return to the village he was expelled from in 1948. And so there is a big human story here and I think that has to be said.

But the events of the past week have been unbelievable and extraordinary… there are no rockets being fired from the West Bank [but] people are being killed on the West Bank. The Israeli occupation forces are destroying homes, destroying families, destroying people. The bombing of Gaza is incredible. You have first-world military planes bombing Gaza and destroying those buildings – and that building that was destroyed today which contained the Al Jazeera and Associated Press studios and offices; that was scientifically destroyed by an air raid.

The big building that was destroyed the other day contained many other organisations. I’ve been in those buildings during visits to Gaza in the past. There can be no possible justification under any rules for that.

Israel is in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel is in breach of its obligations as an occupying power. And the world has got to wake up and that means:

  • ending military cooperation with Israel – and I have questioned the British government on the degree of cooperation with Israel.
  • ending all arms supplies and arms imports from Israel. Because what we see is the destruction of the lives of Palestinian people.

Today in London, over one hundred thousand people marched. It was in fact very hard to get to the stage to deliver my speech today because the crowds were so dense, all down Kensington High Street. That was London. There were also demonstrations in Liverpool, in every major city, in Scotland and in mid-Wales, all over Britain. And so a hundred thousand is the London figure, but to that you should add many more.

Why were they there? They were there because they are human beings with sympathy and support and recognition that there has to be a political solution – and that requires the British government to act by recognising unilaterally, unconditionally, totally; recognising the state of Palestine. To do that at the United Nations as many other countries have done, and go through the points I made about settlements, end the siege, and have some regard for the needs and rights of refugees…

The decision to destroy a building containing the offices of two major media organisations – Al Jazeera and Associated Press – that is an attack on those who report was is going on in Gaza.

Now, I’ve been to Gaza on a number of occasions, I’ve met people, I’ve met young people, I’ve met children, visited schools – I’ve been to lots of places in Gaza – and it’s the most educated place in the world. I think two-thirds of the population have university degrees. Unemployment is even higher at 70%.

It’s very strange being [trapped] in this enclave under permanent fear, insufficiency of water, insufficiency of electricity, insufficiency of medical care, lack of covid vaccines, etc, etc… And then, when the power if off, the building you’re in in Gaza, you can look – if you’re in Gaza City to the North – and you see the bright lights of Ashkelon, to the East you see the lights of various villages and so on in Israel. It’s like putting a whole people under prison. It’s got to end.

I’ve done many debates, calls, meetings and so on, with a lot of people in Israel. A lot of people in left organisations, human rights groups and others in Israel, who would agree with every word I’ve said today. They are appalled. They want too to be able to live in that region in peace, with full recognition of the Palestinian people. That fundamentally is what it’s about. But the British government better wake up to what public opinion is now in this country.

You can watch the full 2hr livestream herehttps://youtu.be/85Mwwzfz4hY

Click here to add your name to a petition calling on the UK government to sanction Israel.

Corbyn on the right side of history again, here speaking out against Israel’s occupation at a recent protest in London:

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Filed under campaigns & events, Israel, Palestine

Norman Finkelstein on why HRW finally turned their back to “the lunatic state” of Israel

The title of the Human Rights Watch report is “A Threshold Crossed”. The paradox there is the threshold was not crossed by Israel – like you say, this is all old news – the threshold was crossed by Human Rights Watch. They crossed the threshold. They now were looking square in the face without any extenuations, any qualifications, any caveats; they said Israel is based on Jewish domination… I mean I can barely say that.

I have a small public career denouncing Human Rights Watch – many of the chapters in many of my books are devoted to denouncing its whitewashing of Israel… Who would have thought the day would come to pass that Human Rights Watch would make us look like milquetoast? Taking positions that frankly I’ve not taken publicly – I was of a school of let’s just resolve this: let’s end the occupation and let’s move on; but now the terms are changing. [from 44:00 mins]

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On Monday 10th, BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis interviewed Palestinian Ambassador to UK, Husom Zomlot, who eloquently called out the western media’s consistent downplaying of Israel’s settler colonial oppression as just its inevitable response to a cycle of violence sparked by Palestinians:

And here is Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd from Sheikh Jarrah responding to CNN anchor in a clip that went viral:

As the liberal media does its level best to misrepresent the ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestinians as “clashes”, feigning equivalence between Palestinian stones and ‘rockets’ to the routine brutality of Israel’s military occupation and its “mowing the grass” with renewed airstrikes and bombing of Gaza, on Tuesday night [May 11th] political commentator Katie Halper invited Jewish American scholar Norman Finkelstein to speak about the protests in East Jerusalem and more widely across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, lending his own perspective on both the current and historical context for the violence. The full interview is embedded below alongside my own transcripts with relevant links provided – all the quotes (including the one above) are Norman Finkelstein:

I’ll tell you something that is a kind of a paradox; an irony. I’m not passing judgment now; I’m just going to lay out a picture. From 1967, Israel’s occupation, and especially beginning in the early 1970s, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state ceased to be called into question. The international consensus was: Israel, for better or for worse, it exists; it’s a state; if it wants its Jewish majority, it can have its Jewish majority, and it can carry on however it wants internally. And then the issue was just [what to do about] the occupied Palestinian territories.

Had the Israelis not been so arrogant; had they not been so supremacist, so contemptuous of the Palestinians; had they just calculated their own best interest; they would have settled for the two states and said let’s move on. But their arrogance, their Jewish supremacy, that impulse for Jewish domination – the cheapness to which they reduced Palestinian life – that had a paradoxical consequence. And what was the consequence? The consequence was that now their whole legitimacy is being challenged.

When it first came up in 1975 with the “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN. When it first came up the western states, and in particular the United States, had expressed its outrage, its indignation: how dare you say Israel’s a racist state? How dare you say Israel is an apartheid state? You probably remember the American official – I won’t call him ‘a statesman’ – Daniel Patrick Moynihan [who] made his whole reputation by sitting in the United Nations… holding up his hand, giving his no vote to that resolution. And that launched his career…

Here’s the irony: what Moynihan is objecting to now that ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution at the UN. Guess what? You now open up B’Tselem’s report, you open up Human Rights Watch report, and what did they say? The Israeli state is based on Jewish Supremacy and Jewish domination. Now isn’t that an irony? That’s what the reports are now saying. Exactly what launched Daniel Moynihan’s career was denouncing that claim, as did the whole of the western states and the American media in particular. That position, ‘Zionism is racism’ – Israel as a Jewish Supremacist state based on Jewish domination – that notion has now been legitimised.

From an historical point of view it’s a real irony, because to use simple language ‘they could have gotten away with it’. The international community was willing to accept Israel as it was, even though they knew the land had been and was still being relentlessly confiscated. They knew there were Palestinian refugees who were denied the right to return to their homeland. Everybody knew that. But, the international community turned its head away, and said let’s just forget about that, let’s just resolve the conflict: two states: Palestinian state, Israeli state; and let’s move on. [But] they didn’t want to move on. They wanted to have everything. And now everything is being called into question. Everything! [from 37:00 mins]

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The text below is also a partial transcript of Norman Finkelstein’s conversation with Katie Halper.

Let me just map out broadly what I see happening. First is the headline news, which is the explosion in East Jerusalem. Which was a long time coming. There have been intimations for the last few weeks or more that Israel’s expulsions of families in East Jerusalem were at some point going to climax in a clash. And that happened this past week. You can never predict when they’re going to happen, but obviously a breaking point had been reached.

That’s the political aspect – the facts on the ground – and that’s what’s right now garnering all the headlines. But there’s another aspect to this conflict which has been getting some but not equal media attention. And that is the quite dramatic and one might say a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict at the legal, at the moral, and at the public opinion level. A collapse of all three: legal, moral, public opinion level. And for some of your listeners it’s particularly revealing of what’s happening in the American-Jewish community.

Now, let me try to just back-up and put things in context. First the major development. The major development is the past week Human Rights Watch, which as you know is the leading human rights organisation in the world. It’s the most prominent, the most influential, the most well-endowed. And I would also say – because it’s pertinent to what I’ll be saying in this evening’s conversation – it’s also the most centrist. The most mainstream of the human rights organisations.

And this past week Human Rights Watch put out a very substantial report. It ran to 214 pages, and it had a voluminous scholarly apparatus, which is the fancy way of saying that it was exhaustively and comprehensively researched. It’s an impressive piece of work. And it had many dramatic things to say. The title of the report is “A Threshold Crossed”, and before I get to that threshold crossed, I want to just back-up a moment and set it in context.

The context is that since roughly 2009, Palestinians and their supporters have been trying to bring a case against Israel before the International Criminal Court [ICC], and these were very protracted proceedings and they frankly seemed as if they were getting nowhere. There were two cases brought before the court. One was after many, many years finally dismissed by the Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda – that was the subject of [Finkelstein’s] book I accuse – it was an attack on the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda; and then there was a second case brought before the court. The second case was also dragging and dragging and dragging, and it looked as if was going to die out. However, this past year for reasons which I won’t go into now, the court finally decided it’s proceeding with an investigation into Israeli war crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Gaza.

Now one hurdle had been cleared to pursue this investigation, but there were still many other hurdles to be cleared. I myself having followed the case very closely and studied it, I was very sceptical the Palestinians would be able to clear the next hurdles. There are a lot of legal technicalities that would have enabled the court to kill the case. And I didn’t think [the Palestinians] would be able to prevail.

But then, lo and behold, about three months ago, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, which is the main Israeli human rights organisation monitoring Israeli crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, they came out with what one might call an astonishing position paper. And I’m just going to read you the title. I’m not going to belabour you with the text; just the title: “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid.”

Now there are three notable things about that title:

Number one. They use a very incendiary phrase. The phrase is “Jewish Supremacy”. Obviously for an American ear that sounds an awful lot like ‘White Supremacy’. Jewish Supremacy: there’s not even a flea’s hop separating the two. So to a public which has been – mostly because of the Black Lives Matter movement – very much sensitised to issues of White Supremacy and White domination – it was, as I said, an incendiary phrase.

Secondly, usually in discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict there’s Israel here and the Occupied Palestinian Territories there. Israel’s legitimacy is more or less accepted. The point of contention is the state and future of the occupied Palestinian territories. B’Tselem did something new. It said we’re no longer talking about Israel here, Occupied Palestinian Territories there; there’s just one state now. We have to be honest about it. There’s just one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and that one state is Israel. And that one state is a Jewish Supremacist state. As the report goes on to say: this state’s foundation is Jewish Supremacy.

And then it takes the next step and says “this is an apartheid state”. Well, that crossed several red lines. Number one: it no longer acknowledged the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The point of contention was no longer just the occupied Palestinian territories; it’s the whole thing. And number two: they compared it to apartheid, and for Israel’s supporters that’s been a bogie: you can’t compare it to apartheid.

So frankly speaking – candidly – I was shocked. I was very surprised at what they did. They have a new leadership; the fellow who heads the executive is named Hagai El-Ad – he’s a very unusual figure. I don’t know him personally. I have never had personal contact – not from a want of trying from me, but we’ve never had contact. He’s a Harvard PhD in Physics and he apparently set aside his professional attainments and he now heads up B’Tselem. And he’s a remarkably principled and forthright person. There is one quite amusing exchange between him and [former] Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon at the United Nations. It’s a real sight to behold. And frankly I personally thought – and still think – he has gone so far out on a limb that there’s probably a good chance he will be assassinated. [from 2:45 mins]

Here is Hagai El-Ad, the director of Israeli non-profit organisation B’Tselem slamming the Israeli occupation’s crimes and violations during a UN Security Council session held in October 2018:

The response of Israeli Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Danny Danon, was to say “Shame on you, collaborator:

[B’Tselem] is the main Israeli human rights organisation monitoring Israeli crimes and abuses – I don’t like the word abuses I prefer the word crimes – Israeli crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories. It’s very reputable. It’s won many awards, and I think it’s fair to say no-one has seriously disputed the quality or the accuracy of its research. So it’s a formidable organisation in terms of its persuasive power. It has a good track-record for its accuracy.

Now the Human Rights Watch report is as astonishing as the B’Tselem report but in a different way. First of all, the Human Rights Watch report says, not that Israel has established a regime of ‘Jewish Supremacy’ across the board from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean; they say something slightly different, but equally incendiary. They say Israel has established across the board from the Mediterranean to the Jordan (Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories); they have established a regime – I’ll use their words now – ‘a regime of Jewish domination over and against the Palestinian people’.

And they say, that in the occupied territories, Israel has established – or Israel engages in – the crime of apartheid and the crime of persecution, and that these two crimes constitute under international law crimes against humanity, which according to Human Rights Watch, quoting some statutes, they say these are among the most odious – ODIOUS – crimes in international law.

And they say, that the ICC should not limit itself to investigating Israeli war crimes, but should go to the next step and investigate Israeli crimes against humanity. So it’s already taken what you might call ‘out on a limb’ positions – I’ll get back to that in a moment – the other thing that it does which was a total surprise to me (and I’m not saying these things for their theatrical or emotive effect – I’m being quite sincere and candid with you – I’ve studied this conflict since 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon which eventually became the subject of my doctoral dissertation and so I’m pretty inured to events in the Israel-Palestine conflict – I kind of think I’ve seen it all) but some things are happening which are very surprising. It’s the 1960s song that I grew up with: ‘There’s Something Happening Here’. There is: something is happening – there’s no doubt about it.

Because the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t just stick to the present: what is the situation now; what has been the situation in the past ten or twenty years. The B’Tselem report is basically a description of the present. The Human Rights Watch report – I’m not exaggerating, believe me I don’t exaggerate; I’m very careful about staying true to the facts – it goes all the way back to Israel’s establishment in 1948 – it even goes back to 1947. And it says, from the beginning, Israel, in order to create this Jewish state – the Zionist movement and then the State of Israel – they tried to do two things.

Number one – I’m using their words now – they tried to engineer a Jewish majority in Israel. Because for the founders of the State of Israel, a Jewish state could not be a Jewish state unless there was a Jewish majority, and so they wanted to engineer that Jewish majority. Well there was only one way to engineer a Jewish majority; you had to expel the indigenous population. There’s no other way to do it. And so Human Rights Watch… delegitimises the notion of a Jewish majority, because it says in order to create that Jewish majority, it could only be created at the expense of the Palestinians. And so it says this creation of a Jewish majority state was intrinsically at the expense of – or discriminating against – the Palestinian population.

The second pillar of the Jewish State objective was the confiscation of the land, because the land was owned by Palestinians; they didn’t live there. When Israel was created only 6% of the land in Palestine was owned by Jews. So they describe in searing detail – even though I know that’s a kind of catchphrase – this juggernaut, this maw, which is gobbling up the Palestinian land; dispossessing the Palestinians of their land. And to the point of creating the Jewish majority, 90% of the indigenous population was expelled; about 750,000 Palestinians. Now, with their descendants, Human Rights Watch gives a figure of 5.7 million Palestinian refugees.

And then on the other end, they say that Israel controls 93% of the land – its state owned land – and that 93% is earmarked only for Jews. Palestinians constitute 19% of the population of the State of Israel (about 1.6 million people) and they are confined to about 3% of the land.

To cut to the chase and to make a long story a little bit shorter, the effect is… and I’m not quite sure if Human Rights Watch is really aware of what they are doing – honestly I’m not sure – but the long and the short of the report is that it completely delegitimises the idea of a Jewish state. [from 13:55 mins]

What’s happening now in East Jerusalem, when you read the Human Rights Watch report, you see it as part of this juggernaut that began in 1947; this relentless, heartless, confiscation of Palestinian land. They just don’t stop – you know the expression: the hunger increases with the eating. The more they consume that land, the more they want more and more and more.

And so after reading the report, you see what’s happening in East Jerusalem in Sheikh Jarrah, you just see it as one more step in this long trajectory, this relentless, heartless juggernaut – this maw – of stealing the land from those hopeless, helpless and hapless people. That’s one point.

The second point I would make is where I left off a few moments ago. Human Rights Watch is a mainstream organisation. It’s not a radical organisation… They watch NPR, they listen to the NPR, they read The New York Times, in their leisure they read The New Yorker, they probably subscribe to the New York Review of Books, probably a few subscribe to the London Review of Books – they’re very mainstream, very conventional. They’re also very Jewish. Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director – this is the mainstream of the progressive and centrist Jewish community. And they’re very dependent on Jewish donors. They received a humungous donation from George Soros – a spectacular number [precisely: $100 million].

And so they must be very sensitive to how far they can go on the Israel-Palestine conflict before they lose their donors and they lose their constituency, which tells me that having done the calculations they reached the conclusion that their donors and their constituency were ready, were prepared, could digest a human rights report issued by HRW which not only condemns Israeli policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and describes this policy as the crime of “apartheid”, the crime of “persecution”, and those two crimes – apartheid and persecution – are crimes against humanity under international law, which as they say constitute among the most “odious crimes in international law” – they went not only that far, but they described the whole regime from the Jordan to the Mediterranean as one based on “Jewish domination”, which as I’m sure you recognise is only a flea’s hop from saying ‘Jewish Supremacy’ – these are pretty much synonymous – and what’s most revelatory they said all this on the assumption (in my opinion) that they wouldn’t lose their Jewish constituency. […]

The bottom line is, henceforth the paradigm is no longer Israel here and Occupied Palestinian Territories there: Israel, for better or for worse, we accept it as it is; Occupied Palestinian Territories we don’t accept, the occupation has to end and a Palestinian state has to be created. That was the paradigm up until now. Now, the whole legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish state has been called into question. [from 24:10 mins]

As you probably know there’s been a huge amount of contention on college campuses over this annual event called “Israel Apartheid Week” which unfolds annually on many college campuses. And up until now, the Israeli organisations and their supporters have said that it’s antisemitic – it hurts the Jews and makes Jews feel scared, and all this politically correct nonsense [is used] in order to try and suppress the Israel Apartheid Week. Well, guess what happened? In the past three months, the most important human rights organisation in Israel and the most important human rights organisation in the world, they said: but it is apartheid. And they just legitimised Israel Apartheid Week. How can the Israelis answer that now and their supporters? You want to suppress a term, ‘apartheid’, that’s been appropriated now by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem?

So I think this is a major setback for Israel’s apologists. I think they’re probably now in a panic mode. And I think that events like what happening now in East Jerusalem will no longer be seen in isolation. When you read the Human Rights Watch report you see it now as a momentary flashpoint in a long trajectory. […]

The [main] flashpoint is in East Jerusalem, however, Palestinians in Haifa, Palestinians in Nazareth, they’re all joining in; Palestinians in the West Bank are joining in; Palestinians in Gaza via the so-called ‘rockets’, they’re joining in. And so you kind of see a manifestation of what the report described. Because both reports talked about from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, meaning it’s about all Palestinians and all Israelis…. and so for the moment it seems it is becoming a struggle no longer confined to the occupied Palestinian territories, or confined to Gaza, as was the Great March of Return beginning in March 2018, or confined to the West Bank; it’s now spreading among all Palestinians. I think that’s a significant development.

It’s possible that all the terms for understanding the conflict and resolving the conflict – those terms are now being called into question and they may be recast in a new form, which I think is going to be a real problem for the State of Israel. [from 32:15 mins]

I don’t want to be polyannish about this but I don’t think {Israel and its apologists] are going to be as successful anymore. We saw a video of them dancing and singing as the fire blazes on Al-Aqsa… they were all wearing Jewish yarmulkes… It was actually quite hideous.

Video shows Israelis dancing and celebrating the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the third most holy Islamic site in the world [the same footage can be viewed in the Katie Halper show at 1:07:15]:

If you were to imagine in a neighbourhood like where I live in Ocean Parkway [Brooklyn, NY] where there’s about two synagogues in every block, of Muslims gathered around the synagogue while the synagogue is on fire, and they’re cheering. [from 1:02:25]

If you go back and listen to the interviews (not that you’re obliged to of course) I’ve done in the last few years, I’ve said: “it’s a lunatic state”. And you see now the lunacy is being played out, maybe not in The New York Times and maybe not in the New Yorker and maybe not in the New York Review of Books or The Atlantic magazine, but enough people will see it. It’s a cliché but it’s true: the democratising effect of the web. They’re not going to be able to hide this…

I don’t want to be too polyannish but in my opinion Israel’s in for a rough ride now. Too much is known. Too many people are alienated. Too many people disgusted. There is a sea-change occurring. [from 1:07:55]

We should acknowledge when there have been victories and what has now been said [in these reports] constitutes a major victory. And from my point of view, what’s equally important: it’s going to give Israel a very hard time now. [from 1:13:10]

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Last night’s Novara Media also devoted its main segment to Palestinian protests in the occupied territories and the latest bombardment of Gaza by Israel. Host Michael Walker welcomed Riya Al’Sanah who is a Palestinian activist and writer based in Haifa:

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Additional: Palestinian solidarity protests across Britain

On Saturday 15th, there are events planned to take place across the country calling for an end to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, and for the right of return for all exiled Palestinians.

Protests are being organised around the country by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, Friends of al-Aqsa, Palestinian Forum in Britain and Muslim Association of Britain.

SATURDAY 15th MAY 2021 #SaveSheikhJarrah #FreePalestine #FreeGaza Protests:

Aberdeen, Marischal Square, 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/579816402984185/

Brighton, The Clocktower, 12pm

Bristol, Castle Park, 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/210502050657881/

Canterbury, HSBC Bank, Whitefriars, 9 Rose Lane, Canterbury CT1 2JP, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/307828627519700

Cambridge, Market Square, 11.15am – https://www.facebook.com/groups/cambridgepalestineforum

Cardiff, Aneurin Bevan Statue, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/4560945557267377

Edinburgh, Regent Road Park, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/372506180780931

Exeter, Bedford Square, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/306515077708621

Hastings, Near Debenhams, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/1183922488708042/

Hitchin, Windmill Hill, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/events/284046986748935/

Inverness, Town House, 12-1pm – https://www.facebook.com/HighlandPalestine

Jersey, Royal Square, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/events/580129649570440/

Leeds, Leeds Trinity Briggate (Area outside Zara/Debenhams), 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/LeedsPSC.org.uk

London, March to the Israeli Embassy, Assemble Marble Arch, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/464271897978862

Machynlleth, The Clock Tower, 11am-12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/208833754148964

Manchester, Platt’s Field Park, Rusholme, 12pm-4pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/373982893940589/

Newcastle, Grey’s Monument, 11.30am – https://www.facebook.com/events/463362151414611

Nottingham, Old Market Square, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/833822114155903/

Plymouth, New George Street, 11am-1pm  – https://www.facebook.com/events/323519439242407/

Sheffield, Sheffield Town Hall, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/sheffieldpalestine

Southampton, Bargate, 11am-12.30pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/237979378115605/

Wolverhampton, Queen Square, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/groups/167943526632859


Sun 16 May:

Glasgow, George Square + March to BBC, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/2625768251049758/

Click here to find this same event list on the Stop the War Coalition website.

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almost five years after the police killing of Dalian Atkinson, will there be justice at last?

A police officer murdered the former Aston Villa striker Dalian Atkinson, first shooting him with a Taser stun gun for 33 seconds, then kicking him in the head as though striking a football, causing his head to snap back violently, a jury heard on Tuesday.

PC Benjamin Monk denies murder and manslaughter following the incident on 15 August 2016 in Telford, Shropshire, which began at the home of Atkinson’s father.

Monk is alleged to have also fired a Taser electrical weapon at Atkinson for nearly seven times longer than the standard five-second deployment.

Then, while Atkinson was on the ground and apparently unresponsive, the officer had kicked him in the head twice with such force that the imprint of Monk’s laces was left on Atkinson’s forehead, Birmingham crown court heard.

Click here to read the full report by Vikram Dodd published in the Guardian published on Tuesday May 4th.

At the time of Dalian Atkinson’s death in 2016, his was the latest of eleven deaths attributable to the use of Tasers by British police (a rate of one per year). The number of incidents has since increased.

In December 2018, Amnesty International released a report entitled “Public should ‘resist drum-beat of calls for all police to carry a Taser’” stating:

In the UK, a total of 18 people have died after a Taser was discharged against them by police. The most recent case was in May last year when a 30-year-old father-of-two died in hospital after he was Tasered by police in Falmouth.

In July 2020, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)’s monthly magazine E&T, produced an investigative review entitled Why Tasers are being misused by British police which “spoke to experts about why British police appear to be using Taser tactics disproportionally against black people”.

The article records 26 deaths from Taser-related incidents and highlights the clear disparity in numbers of cases based on ethnicity, noting that 20% of Taser events are against black people who make up just 3.3% of the population:

Why do the police use CED [‘conducted energy device’ or Taser] tactics against black men? Few want to talk. It’s a big question, says Sarah Uncles, policy and communications officer at The Inquest, a human rights activist group. It’s not just Taser tactics that are disproportionally used against black, Asian and other members of minority groups, she says. “It’s all use of force” that stands out for these groups.

Home Offices figures show that all forms of force, from restraint up to firearms, are used more commonly against black people than would be expected by their share of the population.

Use of Tasers against different ethnic groups by British police

Use of Tasers against different ethnic groups by British police

The author of the piece, Ben Heubl, also cites three more recent incidents of Taser use that led to deaths:

The Home Office finds it difficult to connect deaths directly to Taser tactics, E&T confirms. 2017 saw at least three fatality cases where Tasers played a dominant role, but Home Office data shows no CED fatalities for that period.

In February 2017, Paul Williams was tasered twice after police officers noticed him being in possession of part of a Stanley knife blade (which he used to inflict injuries on himself). He died in hospital due to an injury to his neck during the incident.

Then there is Darren Cumberbatch, who died in July 2017 after what the coroner called “excessive” force involving CED tactics by Warwickshire police officers.

Three months earlier, Marc Cole died. The jury stated he died from excessive use of cocaine resulting in paranoid and erratic behaviour, but the use of the Taser by Devon and Cornwall Police assisted Cole into cardiac arrest, the inquest said. Among other reasons, the medical cause of death was the discharge of a Taser X26 device – a weapon Axon makes, now in the form of the X26P, a more compact version. A 2017 Reuters investigation found the X26 was being taken off the market due to posing a higher cardiac risk than other models.

The same article concludes with statistics that show an alarming 30 percent rise in the use of Tasers by British police over the period 2017–2019:

Last year’s figures show CEDs rank among the more dangerous tactics in terms of hospitalisations. In contrast, Tasers made limited progress on arrests. With a third more CED events between 2017/18 and 2018/19, the number of people that escaped following Tasers surged 56 per cent.

Click here to read the full article published by Engineering and Technology magazine in July 2020.

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To mark ten year’s blogging, this is the fourth of my re-uploads from the WoC archive. Originally posted on August 25th 2016, eleven Taser deaths in as many years – RIP Dalian Atkinson reported on the tragic death of Dalian Atkinson, which received surprisingly little media coverage at the time. I also drew attention to the eleven known Taser-related deaths that had previously happened in Britain, as well as the far more widespread and lethal use of Tasers in America.

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Well-loved ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson (aged 48) lost his life last week (in the early hours of Monday, August 15th) shortly after he was Tasered by police outside his father’s home in the Trench area of Telford, Shropshire. This is testimony of Paula Quinn, an eyewitness to the events leading up to Atkinson’s violent death:

“They were shouting and kicking so much all I could hear were the boots hitting him. And then the officer who released the Taser stepped back while the other officer still continued to kick and then I could hear him shout to the other officer that was still kicking, ‘Back off, back off, back off.’ And then the officer with the Taser asked the gentleman to put his hands behind his back and did so probably two or three times and reactivated the Taser another four or five times after that.1

[bold highlight added]

On Thursday [August 18th], following a postmortem examination determining the cause of his death as ‘inconclusive’, the Independent Police Complaints Commission released a statement that two West Mercia police officers were being served with gross misconduct notices and put under criminal investigation:

The IPCC commissioner Derrick Campbell said: “Having carefully considered the evidence gathered so far, we are undertaking a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Atkinson’s death and the level and type of force used. Two police officers will be interviewed under criminal caution by IPCC investigators.

As this is a criminal investigation, the IPCC is limited in the amount of information which can be released into the public domain. I would ask people to be patient during the progress of our investigation and not to add to speculation about the circumstances of Mr Atkinson’s death. Speculation across the media as a whole can risk prejudice to the investigation process. 2

The IPCC says there will be “a thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the death” but sadly there are historical reasons to be doubtful, and Atkinson’s death inevitably adds extra weight to already confirmed suspicions that in Britain, as in America and elsewhere, black people are still disproportionate victims of police brutality – including being Tasered. 3

Moreover, Atkinson’s tragic death highlights the often overlooked fact that Tasers, which deliver a 50,000 Volt shock, are not non-lethal weapons but classified as “less lethal” firearms. In fact, according to official statistics there has been at least one ‘Taser-related’ death in Britain every year for the last ten years – 11 in total. 4 Meanwhile, in America, where Taser use is more established, the number of fatalities may well be in the hundreds 5, although deaths are often attributed instead to ‘excited delirium’.

The introduction and, inevitably, the increasing use of the Taser is, in truth, indicative of unsettling trend in our culture – which unfortunately once again takes its lead from America. For as law enforcement does away with the blunter instruments of previous decades and centuries, the public is trained instead to tolerate the semi-detached, hi-tech violence administered by twenty-first century technology: yesterday’s more savage methods of coercion continually upgraded and superseded by less bloody, more hands-free techniques of ‘pain compliance’ – and Tasers do not simply disable the victim, they are torture devices too, as countless internet videos testify, and as the UN’s Committee against Torture declared in 2007:

“The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use,” the committee said in a statement.

“Well, it means that it’s a very serious thing,” Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox told CBS Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen. “These are people that have seen torture around the world, all kinds of torture. So they don’t use the word lightly.” 6

[bold highlight as original]

So let us take stock. Beneath the science fiction brand name, these ‘stun guns’ are more literally cattle-prods for people. Is this how we expect fellow humans to be treated in modern Britain?

At this stage the IPCC is justifiably asking the media to refrain from detailed speculation about the circumstances surrounding Dalian Atkinson’s death since it could be prejudicial to the inquiry. Obviously I respect this request. Whatever the eventual findings of the IPCC, however, it is irrefutably the case that Dalian Atkinson was just the latest victim of the creeping militarisation of the British police force. Tasers torture and kill – they should be banned.

Click here to add your support to a petition calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to hold an urgent review of Tasers and the medical implications of their use.

R.I.P. Dalian.

*

1 From a BBC news report entitled “Dalian Atkinson dies after being Tasered in Telford by police” published on August 15, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37082207

2 From an article entitled “Police officiers investigated over Dalian Atkinson Taser death”, written by Vikram Dodd, published in the Guardian on August 18, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/18/police-officers-investigated-over-dalian-atkinson-taser-death

3

Black people are three times more likely have a Taser used against them by police than white people, according to figures that have raised the alarm among race relations campaigners.

From an article entitled “Black people ‘three times more likely’ to be Tasered” written by Damien Gayle, published in the Guardian  on October 13, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/13/black-people-three-times-more-likely-to-have-taser-used-against-them

4  IPCC files show ten people have died following the police discharging a Taser. They are:

  • John Butler: Wigan, May 2006 – shot himself after Taser fired
  • Robert Haines: New Romney, Oct 2006 – Taser fired after police shot him
  • Brian Loan: County Durham, Oct 2006 – died from heart disease three days after Taser fired
  • Justin Petty: Bedford, Jan 2008 – Taser fired after he stabbed himself
  • Raoul Moat: Rothbury, July 2010 – shot himself dead after Taser fired
  • Dale Burns: Barrow, Aug 2011 – died of drug poisoning after Taser fired
  • Philip Hulmes: Bolton, Aug 2011 – a Taser was fired after he stabbed himself
  • Ernestas Anikinas: Gatwick, Feb 2012 – Taser fired after he stabbed himself
  • Andrew Pimlott: Plymouth, April 2013 – Liquid he had doused himself in caught fire after Taser fired (IPCC investigation ongoing)
  • Jordan Begley: Gorton, July 2013 – died after Taser fired (IPCC investigation ongoing)

Source: Danny Shaw, BBC Home Affairs correspondent

From an article entitled “Man dies after police use Taser in Manchester” published by BBC news on July 11, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23265905

5 Jared Feuer, who heads the U.S. southern regional office of Amnesty International, said the group has documented that 277 people in the United States have died after being shocked by a Taser since June 2001.

From an article entitled “Police use of Tasers causes few injuries: study” writteb by Will Dunham, published in Reuters October 8, 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-weapons-stun-idUSN0523646320071008

6 From an article entitled “U.N.: Tasers Are A Form Of Torture” published by CBS news on November 25, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/un-tasers-are-a-form-of-torture/

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Burning Blogger relaunches… but bigger and better than before

The Burning Blogger of Bedlam was one of a pair of WordPress sites I had followed before they abruptly fell victim to the censorship purge of 2018/9; the other being Scott Creighton’s American Everyman which Scott soon after relaunched as Nomadic Everyman.  After a short spell running his Youtube channel and thanks to the technical assistance of a friend who managed to recover his deleted articles, two years on creator Saj Awan has now relaunched the Burning Blogger fully intact and on a new platform.

Saj has also kindly allowed me to reprint an abridged version of his excellent return post BURNING BLOGGER is Back: Now Let’s Talk Censorship & Free Speech…

I got de-platformed. Deleted. Taken down. Censored. Given the middle finger by the Internet Police. A site – a vast archive – that had been running for about seven years was very suddenly no more.

And that was that.

That was almost two years ago.

Like Thanos clicking his finger and erasing certain people from existence, the Thought Police had clicked their own god-like fingers… and hundreds of pages of research, articles and content were gone.

Without warning. And without any real right of reply… or means for appeal.

That was kind of shitty.

But, as you can see, I’m back. It’s taken over a year-and-a-half And a lot of work. And an ENORMOUS amount of help from a certain friend and supporter, who made it his mission to ensure that I not only came back online, but with a far better platform than I had before.

I don’t think I’m meant to mention him by name here: so let’s just call him ‘Mr Stark’, and let’s just say that without all the work he put into finding and establishing the right platform and the right set-up, as well as all the security issues, technical knowledge and design knowledge that he exercised on my behalf, as well as all the guidance he has given me, this would not have been possible.

He really went above and beyond what I would’ve even asked of him.

Also, thanks to him, I am not only back here now with this shiny new website, but we were also able to salvage and restore the entirety of the old archive from the previous site – despite the fact that WordPress had deleted my old site without giving me any warning or opportunity to do a proper final back-up of my content.

Meaning that nothing has been lost… except time.

So yeah, Thought Police – you got me. But it wasn’t a K.O. And, to quote a certain someone: “You should’ve gone for the head…” […]

I’m a big sci-fi kind of guy, so that whole waking-up-in-a-different-reality-or-timeline trope is pretty familiar to me. And that’s kind of what it’s felt like. Everything has changed so abruptly in so short a space of time – it’s pretty surreal.

Which just shows how quickly – the relative blinking of an eye – vast change can occur on a mass level. It’s kind of scary.

But it happens. And here we all are now: living in a bad screenplay.

But I don’t want to talk about the pandemic or the lockdowns here. I want to use this first new post to talk about the take-down of the old site, about the censorship purges in general, and about where we are right now in regard to censorship, free speech and society; especially in light of the events of the last few months.

Firstly, concerning my own takedown: WordPress had the right to terminate my site. It was in the small print all along.

Ironically, I had already published an article several months earlier (now that the entire archive has been restored, see it here), predicting that my site would be shut down – as part of a censorship purge.

As I highlighted then, WordPress’s censorship purge seemed to have originated with an article in the New York Times in which it specifically condemned WordPress and Automattic for allowing ‘conspiracy theorists’ to keep their content on its platform. In this instance, they were specifically focusing on the Sandy Hook business; but of course there was always going to be a broader implication beyond just that specific subject.

The piece, titled ‘This Company Keeps Lies About Sandy Hook on the Web’, went out of its way to demonise WordPress/Automattic for its lack of censorship.

As I wrote back then: ‘That’s Sandy Hook today. Tomorrow it could be something else – 9/11 perhaps. Because it seems odd to me that Sandy Hook would be the only issue – and that other conspiracy claims about other events will go unpenalised…’

For the record, I’ve never written about Sandy Hook – so that couldn’t have been the reason for my site being taken down.

I requested to know what my violation had been: and was told by the ‘community guardians’ that they were under no obligation to specify.

‘Community Guardians’ – how Orwellian does that sound?

The takedown of my site didn’t occur in isolation. WP had been removing sites for some months: the first I was aware of being the American Everyman blog – a site that covered many of the same subjects as mine. I was a subscriber to and reader of that site – and when it was simply gone one day, I in fact published an article on my site about the censorship escalation and the likelihood of The Burning Blogger of Bedlam also being taken down.

So I knew it was probably coming: or I was at least alive to the danger of it.

Scott Creighton – author of the American Everyman site – was understandably furious at the time. He suggested that his site had been on a ‘list’ of sites that WP had been directed to remove from their platform.

I suspect he was right: and that the Burning Blogger of Bedlam was on that list too. Another WP blogger – and friend of mine – informed me that another popular WP blog (that would fall loosely into the ‘alternative’ media category) – Jon Rappaport’s blog – had also disappeared from the web at the same time as my site disappeared. Jon Rappaport here says the same thing happened to him as happened to me. “On May 11, 2019, WordPress suddenly took down my blog after 10 years of continuous operation. There was no warning or advance notice of any kind…

I’ve checked again: and if Rappaport’s site was taken down on May 11th, then this would’ve been about three days after mine.

So, clearly, this was a coordinated action targeting more than one site/author. […]

There was nothing on my website that would qualify as ‘hate speech’. Nothing that would qualify as racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice, for example. There wouldn’t be – because I don’t really have any of those sorts of views: and, in fact, much of my content over the years has been specifically about countering or debunking some of those who do perpetuate those views.

So I’m pretty sure the reason the ‘community guardians’ told me they were under no obligation to specify my violations is because there was nothing they could easily flag me up on… at least nothing that wouldn’t simply sound like censorship. If they could’ve flagged me up on something more concrete – say, some kind of hate speech, anti-Semitism, racism or some kind of incitement – they would’ve specified it. […]

It isn’t a left or right thing: of the sites I’ve seen taken down, they’re a mixture of right and left leaning.

And again, WP has the right to remove things from its platform, as do You Tube and other platforms: but it is worth noting what they were removing and asking why.

It’s difficult to see it as anything other than shutting down certain perspectives: and this is something that has been happening across the board now.

In fact, in the less-than-two-years since my old site was taken down, the censorship has escalated massively: first with the COVID pandemic and then more recently with the 2020 Presidential Election and the Storming of the Capitol – both of which were used to justify mass censorship sweeps and takedowns; in the latter case it targeted mostly extreme right-wing voices or platforms and in the former it was more generally about shutting down dissenting voices in regard to the lockdowns and the origins of the pandemic.

We appear to now be in an era of maximum censorship, as far as the Internet age goes.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have actually been upfront about this, as far as this COVID crisis goes, having said very early in the crisis that they were working with the WHO to address “misinformation”. “Misinformation” presumably includes anything that veers too much into the realm of ‘conspiracy’ insinuation or anything that overtly questions or contradicts official narratives.

Extraordinarily, in some countries – including Hungary and China – the authorities were threatening not just fines, but JAIL TIME, for anyone considered to be spreading ‘fake news’ about the pandemic. Again, ‘fake news’, I’m assuming, includes any arguments or theories that contradict the official narratives.

So, while my site was taken down long before the pandemic started or the 2020 election cycle began, it was clearly an indicator of things to come: a sign of the direction things were moving in in regards to free speech and the Internet.

You have to wonder what the Internet is going to look like in a few years time, as far as diversity of perspective or plurality information-sources is concerned.

Because one very palpable danger is that what we end up with (and what they want) is a strictly binary dynamic: whereby you have the ‘respectable’ mainstream media/news/analysis platforms on one side and the rabid, crackpot ‘conspiracy’ or ‘alternative’ media on the other side – with all of the intelligent, balanced middle-ground removed completely.

That is essentially what we’ve been reduced to already, with – to cite one current example – the binary dynamic of the Pro-Trump crowd versus the Mainstream Media: one extreme or the other, with all of the balanced, reasonable middle-ground missing entirely.

That entire election melodrama was the absolute epitome of this binary dynamic – and dumbing down of all sides – being demonstrated. Everyone – and not just individuals, but the media itself – was either on one team or the other: there was no middle ground at all, no balanced perspective or honest commentary.

And I think that’s where they want us.

In that scenario, people in general only have one extreme or the other – you’re either with the corporate-controlled mainstream or you’re with the crackpots: and there is no reasonable, balanced perspective or journalism in the center or even on the fringes.

That makes it harder for people to form reasoned, balanced views: but it also makes it easier for people to be divided into easy labels based on which of the two echo chambers they reside in. And it helps create or amplify the US versus THEM society, where no one is interested in mutual advantage or common good, only in their team.

It means too that people are more liable to be indoctrinated entirely: by either the extreme crackpot side or the mainstream media side.

And that is essentially where we are now. Hence, you have “Racist” Trumpists vs “Evil Democrats”, “Conspiracy Nuts” vs “Lamestream Media”, Maskers vs “Anti-Vaxxers”, SJWs vs Alt-Right Propagandists, and so and so forth – with everyone from ‘Antifa’, ‘Q-Anon’ and god-knows-who-else in the mix too.

And everyone’s intelligence-level goes down the toilet, while society slowly burns in the background.

And all discourse descends into rabid, raving nonsense: with people more interested in which team they’re on rather than on intelligently discussing or examining information and trying to move towards honest conclusions for mutual advantage.

That’s where we are now: and this is the very strange and difficult backdrop against which the Burning Blogger comes back online; and resumes trying to make sense of the madness (or ‘bedlam’ – let’s use that word) in some kind of honest way.

[Use of bold and italic highlights as in the original]

Click here to read the full version of this article.

Saj Awan also decided to start running a podcast and so to mark the occasion of his return he invited Australian blogger James Robertson from Crimes of Empire and “the mercurial Mark” who are both fellow contributors to Truthscoop to talk about censorship, free speech, and the state of both journalism and the ‘conspiracy’-related content realm:

Lastly, I’d like personally to welcome back Saj to the world of blogging and encourage others to check out his consistently high quality content. With the big tech firms and western governments in cahoots and their censorship drive intensifying at an alarming rate, it makes a pleasant change to have such a thoughtful and independent voice back in the fold again!

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PR rebranding of al-Qaeda in Syria – take three!

Back in February, Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) Frontline programme conducted an interview with Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the founder of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and commander-in-chief of its rebranded offshoot Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Jolani, who has been identified as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US State Department, currently has a $10 million bounty on his head:

The interview conducted by Frontline’s Martin Smith is essentially a “media show”—Smith’s own words—staged to whitewash the bloody history of the Al Nusra Front’s terrorism in Syria and provide Jolani with a forum for proclaiming the front’s current iteration, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a legitimate political force and natural ally of Washington. The terrorist designation attached to himself and his organization was “unfair” and “political,” Jolani said.

Smith asked Jolani to take a pledge: “Will you say here and now then, very clearly, that you as a former Al Qaeda leader … will not support … any attacks against the United States?” The Al Qaeda veteran readily accepted.

The HTS leader was also allowed to issue blanket denials of the widespread charges of torture, disappearances, summary executions and severe repression of any form of dissent in the territory in Idlib under control of HTS gunmen. Those who made such charges, he said, were “Russian agents” or “regime agents.”

From an article entitled “Washington brings Syria’s Al Qaeda in from the cold” published wsws.org.

In the same piece Bill Van Auken continues:

A week before the broadcast, three women and one man, accused of adultery and attempted murder, were stoned to death by HTS security forces in the Idlib city center, one of many such barbaric public executions.

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council issued a report on Syria in which it described brutal repression of Idlib’s civilian population at the hands of HTS.

“Torture and ill-treatment were widespread,” it reported. “Torture was most common in Idlib central prison and its Shahin section, in Harem central prison and Ouqab prison, with methods including severe beatings, placing detainees in a ‘coffin’ or in a dulab (tyre) or suspending them by their limbs. Victims were frequently tortured during interrogation sessions, and held incommunicado to ultimately extract confessions. Some detainees were told to write a testimony dictated to them by the interrogators, or forced to sign or thumbprint a document, with no knowledge of its content. Some detainees died as a result of injuries sustained from torture and the subsequent denial of medical care.” The report added that “former detainees described being sexually harassed, forced to strip naked, electrocuted on their genitals and raped in Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham facilities.”

And on April 5, the Syrian Network for Human Rights confirmed that “at least 2,246 Syrian citizens are still detained or forcibly disappeared in HTS’s detention centers, constituting a grave threat to the detainees’ wellbeing, given the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.”

Concluding:

The attempt to rehabilitate Jolani not only exposes the lies, hypocrisy and criminality of US imperialist policy in the Middle East, it is a warning that new atrocities are being prepared in Washington’s quest for hegemony over the region and entire globe.

Click here to read the full article by Bill Van Auken published on April 7th.

As part of this same public relations campaign to rehabilitate the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which rules Idlib, Syria’s last militant-controlled province – former top US diplomat James Jeffrey, who served as US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy to the International military intervention against ISIL, also acknowledged on the same PBS show that HTS is a US “asset”:

“They are the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East”

*

Lindsey Snell is an independent journalist who reports from across the Middle East and North Africa. In 2016, she was kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Syria – what was then called al-Nusra Front – and held captive for ten days before escaping. Recently interviewed by Aaron Maté of The Grayzone, she was asked about her response to James Jeffrey’s endorsement of HTS:

“It was shocking but not totally shocking because a year ago he made some similar comments – something along the lines of ‘they’re not like ISIS planning international attacks; they’re just in Syria’. Just softening the image of HTS already. So it’s just been a lead up to now – you know, now [he is] explicitly saying they are a US asset.” [from 4:45 mins]

She continues:

“It’s funny because their rebranding campaign actually started when I was their captive – they changed their name for the first time and they announced that they had split from al-Qaeda when I was their captive. It of course didn’t actually change anything and to this day most of them still call themselves Nusra. People in Syria referring to them call them Nusra. I mean their split from al-Qaeda was really just a cosmetic thing, it was surface level; it wasn’t real.

“They’re still the same group. They’re still the same terrorists. They’re inflicting Sharia law on everyone in their territories. While this New York Times journalist was there a few weeks ago, they executed three people for adultery. Stoned them to death.

“They’re the same group. And so all these things that they’re doing are cosmetic. I think that the only substantive thing that they’ve done is that they’re no longer capturing foreigners. I mean they’re no longer trying to take a foreign journalist and holding them for ransom. They’re working with Turkey to allow foreign journalists to basically come and propagandise for them.” [from 5:30 mins]

The full interview is embedded below:

***

To mark ten year’s blogging, this is the first of my re-uploads from the WoC archive. Originally posted on May 27th 2019, terrorists by any other name — BBC helps rebrand al-Qaeda for a second time covers the BBC’s role in an earlier rebranding exercise.

*

The Salafist jihadist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) formerly known as the Nusra Front (aka al-Qaeda in Syria) remains a proscribed terrorist organisation ever since it was listed by America in March 2017:

Canada designated HTS a terrorist organisation in May last year, and, still more recently, Turkey followed suit in August. 1

Unsurprisingly the British government has also banned HTS, adding it to the proscribed list in May 2017. 2

It is revealing therefore to read an article published by BBC news just last week that begins:

The ongoing government offensive against the last rebel-held areas in northern Syria has once again put the spotlight on the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant faction in Idlib Province.

Although HTS, formerly known as Nusra Front, continues to pursue a jihadist agenda, it formally split from al-Qaeda in 2016, prompting harsh criticism from al-Qaeda leadership and defections by al-Qaeda loyalists.

Al-Qaeda appears to have given up on HTS returning to the fold. A new group called Hurras al-Din which emerged last year is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s new branch in Syria.

Despite this, the UN and a number of countries continue to consider HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate and to frequently use its former name, Nusra Front.

The group itself appears to be trying to strike a balance between maintaining its jihadist credentials and distancing itself from global jihadist groups for the sake of survival.

HTS today is one of the strongest militant factions in northern Syria, having consolidated its power in the region through seizing territory from rival rebel groups in the past two years. 3

I have highlighted one sentence although the whole article really needs to be considered in a wider context – something I shall come to later. Written by esteemed correspondent “BBC Monitoring”, this otherwise anonymous piece is clearly of the opinion that, to paraphrase, HTS ought to be treated significantly differently from the other al-Qaeda splinter groups because it is “trying to strike a balance [how very moderate!] between maintaining its jihadist credentials [i.e., being terrorists] and distancing itself from global jihadist groups for the sake of survival.”

The tone of the piece is very telling. “Al-Qaeda appears to have given up on HTS returning to the fold” they write, backing the assertion with a further assertion about an alternative terrorist splitter group called Hurras al-Din “which emerged last year [and] is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s new branch in Syria.”

Having made a clear distinction between the white hats of HTS and the black hats of Hurras al-Din, the author/s then reinforces the view that this white hat faction is misunderstood and unfairly demonised, by adding: “Despite this, the UN and a number of countries  [including, as outlined above, America, Britain, Turkey and Canada] continue to consider HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate and to frequently use its former name, Nusra Front.”

This is not a deceptive spinning of the words of the BBC, but simply a careful reading between the lines: lines that catch up with the next subheading “More than cosmetic change” that help to reinforce the point for readers who remain in doubt of the sincerity of HTS’s “distancing” from al-Qaeda.

The piece then briefly retraces the emergence of HTS precursor Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) in an earlier rebranding of Nusra Front:

The rebranding [yes, the BBC now admit this precedent was merely a rebranding exercise] followed pressure from Syrian rebel groups who argued that Nusra Front’s link with al-Qaeda was being used as an excuse by the Syrian government and its allies to label the entire insurgency as terrorist.

In January 2017, HTS was founded as a result of a merger between JFS and other factions. The group stressed it was an independent entity, in a clear effort to indicate its separation from al-Qaeda. 4

Of course back in 2016, BBC news was reporting on what it then described as a “split”:

Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, has announced it has split from al-Qaeda.

Leader Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, in his first recorded message, said its new name would be Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant). 5

It also released an image of Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani as the then new leader of JFS (above), while last week’s article shows Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani as new HTS leader (below):

The following is taken from a Guardian report also published at the time of the rebranding of Nusra Front as JFS:

The name change was announced by al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani [alternative spelling of al-Jawlani] in a debut video appearance.

“We have stopped operating under the name of al-Nusra Front and formed a new body … This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said, giving the group’s new name as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the front for the liberation of al-Sham, the historical Arabic name for the Levantine region. […]

While committing Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to continuing the fight against the Assad regime and its backers, Jolani made no mention of a change of ideology or approach and said he remained committed to implementing Islamic law. The apparently amicable split with al-Qaida would suggest no substantive change has taken place. 6

[bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full report by the Guardian on July 28th 2016.

Although the Guardian talks of a “split” from al-Qaeda, it describes this as “amicable” and the piece makes quite clear that “no substantive change has taken place.” The BBC however took a markedly different stance.

It was on the fifteen anniversary of 9/11, some forty days after this initial rebranding of JFS, when BBC2 Newsnight [Monday 12th] featured “an exclusive interview” with Mostafa Mahamed, the so-called “Director of Foreign Media Relations” for JFS.

Embedded below is a part of that Newsnight report as it was uploaded on youtube by the BBC on Sept 15th 2016. The upload is a highly abridged version of the original BBC broadcast which I discussed at length at the time (see below). As an introduction, these are the BBC’s accompanying notes:

One of the biggest challenges facing the ceasefire in Syria is the treatment of jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al Sham — who have been excluded from the deal. Secunder Kermani reports.

Newsnight has an exclusive interview with one of Fath al Sham’s leading figures.

Quoted below is an extended section from an earlier post in which I critically analysed the 2016 Newsnight broadcast. It begins with a quote from narrative voiceover that intersperses and thus frames the interview with JFS’s Mostafa Mahamed — it is a statement in the same vein as the one discussed above from the BBC’s latest article:

“JFS have concentrated on attacking the Assad regime, but some in western security establishments say despite the official break they’re still al-Qaeda. Still a danger. Something their spokesman [Mahamed] denies.”

My post then continues (and for convenience further quotes are italised):

This self-questioning caveat, evidently inserted to maintain the pretence of impartiality, cleared the way for further seeds to be planted. Over again to JFS ‘spokesman’ Mahamed:

“We’ve been extremely clear about our split, but I’ll say it again. JFS is not an affiliate of al-Qaeda. We’re a completely independent body working to establish the common goal of the revolutionary forces in Syria.”

Not to be outdone, we also heard from Michael Stephens of RUSI who told Newsnight:

“[JFS] is seen as a Syrian movement. It’s seen as standing up for Syrians and fighting the regime… and so it makes no sense to peel away from them because actually what you’re doing is weakening your own position by doing that.”

But then, Stephens is echoing the opinion of RUSI’s Senior Vice President, General (Ret’d) David Petraeus, who last year publicly advocated the arming of members of the al-Nusra Front [A report can be found from August 31st 2015 in The Daily Beast].

As Trevor Timm writing for the Guardian asked at the time, “Could there be a more dangerous and crazy idea?”

Let’s put aside for a second that there’s not much difference between arming al-Nusra and arming “some individual fighters, and perhaps some elements, within Nusra.” How the US can possibly “peel off” fighters from a terrorist group is a complete mystery. In Iraq – Petraeus is apparently using part of the largely failed Iraq “surge” as his blueprint here – he convinced some Sunni tribes to switch sides temporarily, but that was with over 100,000 US troops on the ground to do the convincing. Does Petraeus think we should invade Syria to accomplish the same feat? […]

Petraeus is likely not the only one who thinks this plan to work with and arm members of the al-Nusra front is a good idea. There are probably many faceless officials and spooks who are pushing the same agenda in Washington, but Petraeus is the only one with enough clout to go ahead and say it out loud (since we already know he is above the law). Now you can expect a bunch of fresh hot takes explaining how Petraeus is right and we should be arming al-Qaida. 7

Click here to read an earlier post about RUSI that includes more on David Petraeus’ involvement with the organisation.

And what about 9/11? The justification for war in Afghanistan had been to hunt down and destroy the terrorists. But 9/11 also served as the original if somewhat discarded pretext for the war on Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam. In actuality, 9/11 ignited all of the wars under the expanded guise of that initial and ongoing “war on terror”.

The territory gained by the various al-Qaeda affiliates is a direct consequence of those wars. Having moved into Iraq, they spread out again into Syria. Funded by the Gulf States, many others have been covertly armed and trained by the West throughout the so-called Syrian civil war. In Libya, meantime, Nato provided air cover to affiliated factions of extremists in their bid to oust Gaddafi. Whilst the preferred route into Syria for the terrorists has mainly been across the porous border from Nato member Turkey. The West’s “war on terror” is riddled with such blatant contradictions.

In short, all of these Islamist factions, very much including ISIS and al-Nusra (now JFS), are small but grotesque outgrowths of the legacy of 9/11 and the neo-imperialist adventuring that singular atrocity had prepared the way for.

Here, however, is what the rather clean-cut spokesman for JFS had to say in reply to the BBC’s question:

“As for 9/11, that happened fifteen years ago, and is completely irrelevant to what is happening in Syria today.”

And indeed, fifteen years on, the BBC backs this entirely false claim by providing a platform for furthering the spread of terrorism in the name of ‘revolution’.

Click here to read my earlier post entitled “marking the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the BBC assists the relaunch of al-Qaeda

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Reminiscent of the sudden appearance of the last al-Qaeda franchise JFS, and again with nothing more than a “cosmetic change”, HTS now hopes to be able to jettison the terrorist label. The BBC in turn is assisting in that cause by quite intentionally blurring the picture, just as it did in 2016. The aim again is to nudge public opinion in favour of our proxies – the “moderate” terrorists – still fighting over territory in northern Syria.

Click here to read the full article published by BBC news.

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1

Turkey has designated the insurgent group Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organisation, according to a presidential decision published on Friday, as Damascus prepares for a military assault in northwest Syria where the group holds sway.

From an article entitled “Turkey designates Syria’s Tahrir al-Sham as terrorist group” written by Dominic Evans, published in Reuters on August 31, 2018. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-turkey/turkey-designates-syrias-tahrir-al-sham-as-terrorist-group-idUKKCN1LG1XU

2 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/alert-for-charities-operating-in-syria-or-turkey-about-aid-passing-through-the-bab-al-hawa-crossing

3 From an article entitled “Syria group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the al-Qaeda legacy” published by BBC news on May 22, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-48353751#

4 Ibid.

5 From an article entitled “Syrian Nusra Front announces split from al-Qaeda” published by BBC news on July 29, 2016. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36916606

6 From an article entitled “Al-Nusra Front cuts ties with al-Qaida and renames itself” written by Martin Chulov, published in the Guardian on July 28, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/28/al-qaida-syria-nusra-split-terror-network

7 From an article entitled “David Petraeus’ bright idea: give terrorists weapons to beat terrorists” written by Trevor Timm, published in the Guardian on September 2, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/02/david-petraeus-bright-idea-give-terrorists-weapons-to-beat-isis

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Filed under al-Qaeda & DAESH / ISIS / ISIL, analysis & opinion, Syria

one year of Keir Starmer and his open war on the Labour left: my exchange of letters with constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield

Keir Starmer became Labour leader one year ago today, having comfortably won the leadership race against Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, gaining an unassailable 56.2% of the vote in the first round of the election. As leader, Starmer has since failed to offer any effective opposition to what has been and continues to be an incompetent, corrupt, reactionary and increasingly authoritarian Tory government.

Moreover, rather than unifying the Labour Party as he pledged to do, under the guise of tackling antisemitism, Starmer set his sights instead on crushing the progressive wing with a series of attacks to undermine those closest to former leader Jeremy Corbyn, promptly sacking Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet. Starmer’s war on the left culminated with his full endorsement of the decision to suspend Corbyn, who is yet to have the whip re-instated and now sits as an independent backbench MP, where even in this diminished capacity he still offers more effective opposition than Sir Keir:

And here is Corbyn speaking out to protect our civil liberties and democratic right to protest at yesterday’s #KillTheBill rally:

On Wednesday 24th February inspired by a short interview featuring the editor of Tribune, Ronan Burtenshaw (embedded below), I penned a quick letter to my local MP Paul Blomfield, the former Shadow Minister for Brexit and EU Negotiations, inviting him to watch the video in question. Reproduced below is the full exchange of letters unabridged and augmented with further links and additional video:

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Dear Paul,

I think you should know how I and many other members of the Labour Party are feeling at this moment. I encourage you therefore to spend just ten minutes watching this short film:

Ronan Burtenshaw speaks for literally hundreds of thousands of us, some of whom have already torn up their membership cards and walked away from the party in disgust.

If the leadership and the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] continue to act in this way then Labour will lose many more members. Its grassroots base will very likely collapse. And if this isn’t already concerning enough, then I ask you also to consider the broader impact on our democracy once the party is divorced from the people, and the electorate again stops trusting our politicians. Look at the effects in America.

I cannot put my true feelings into words here which is why I very sincerely encourage you to watch the film.

Hope you are well in these difficult times.

Kind regards,

James

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Respectfully he did watch the video and replied to me on Friday 5th March:

Dear James,

Thanks for your email sharing your views about Keir’s leadership of the Labour Party.

I watched the video, but I don’t think it provides a very accurate picture of what’s happening in the party at the moment. I find it extraordinary that it criticises the current party leadership for serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet while disagreeing with some of his policies. It suggests that this is duplicity, where actually it’s loyalty to the Labour cause. We come together in political parties around shared values, with lots of different views; we make our arguments on specific policies but back what is agreed.

I’ve disagreed with every leader of the Labour Party on something, but we should always work positively to engage, not simply look to oppose at every turn which I fear that some in the Party are seeking to do at the moment. You’ll know that Jeremy’s suspension is due to his refusal to apologise for his comments on the EHRC report, not to do with his leadership or any other issue.

I also don’t recognise your characterisation of the huge loss of members during Keir’s tenure either. In November 2019 (the last set of NEC elections during Jeremy’s leadership) there were around 430,000 members. In January this year there were around 459,000.

You’re right that it’s a serious problem for democracy when people stop trusting politicians; and turning to populism – of the right or left – is not the answer. We obviously lost the trust of a significant section of our traditional supporters in recent years, leading us to the worst electoral defeat since 1935. It’s a long haul back, but we have picked up more than 20 points in the polls since last April and Keir is rated as the most popular Labour politician (see more here).

I’m a bit puzzled by your comments about the USA where there has been a troubling polarisation of politics, with the left losing some of its traditional base, but people put their faith in the biggest charlatan in the country’s history. Let’s take comfort from the fact  that Trump lost the Presidential election, and the Biden Administration has used its position to begin to set right some of the most divisive policies – such stopping the ‘building of the wall’, launching a government initiative on racial equality, cancelling the racist ‘Muslim ban’ and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord.

Thanks again for writing and for your good wishes. I hope you’re keeping well too.

With best wishes Paul.

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I then replied to Paul Blomfield the same day but at greater length – supporting links with URL addresses are as in the original but I have also included further links and Youtube clips including the interview with Andrew Feinstein:

Dear Paul,

Thank you for watching the video I sent and for your thoughtful and full reply.

Firstly, I would like to address the issue surrounding membership. Since I do not have access to the Labour database I am forced to rely on what I hear from fellow members and from the most recent newspaper reports. Regarding anecdotal evidence, it is very clear to me that I am not alone. Of the members I know personally or know through social media, many have resigned their membership; countless others feel betrayed and deceived by Keir Starmer’s calls for unity and reconciliation; and the vast majority are now terribly demoralised. As for reliable numbers:

LABOUR has lost over 50,000 members since Keir Starmer became leader, according to the party’s own election records.

UK Labour held its National Executive Committee (NEC) elections this week, which was won by the party’s left-wing faction.

In the NEC election, 495,961 members of the party were listed as eligible to vote.

When Starmer was elected to the leadership position after Jeremy Corbyn stood down, there were 552,835 registered Labour party members.

Those figures mean the party has lost 56,874 members since April

From an article published on November 14th by The National: https://www.thenational.scot/news/18871910.labour-nec-vote-reveals-drop-party-membership-since-keir-starmers-election/

When it comes to Labour’s electoral chances, if this decline is true then, as I wrote before, it will have a devastating effect on doorstep canvassing. The drop in revenue also means that the party will now have to become increasingly reliant on wealthy and corporate donors.

You say that “we obviously lost the trust of a significant section of our traditional supporters in recent years, leading us to the worst electoral defeat since 1935. It’s a long haul back, but we have picked up more than 20 points in the polls since last April and Keir is rated as the most popular Labour politician.”

Labour lost its traditional base once it came to be seen as untrustworthy. This happened when it flip-flopped over Brexit and moved from its successful stance of accepting the referendum vote in 2017 (losing by the tiniest margin of just 2.5%) to its slow adoption of calls for a second vote. Many on the left forecast this repercussion; as you may recall, I was one [see here]. The chief architect of Labour’s Brexit strategy was Keir Starmer, so he must take some of the responsibility for Labour’s dreadful 2019 defeat.

I don’t trust opinion polls very much and I think that constantly relying on them to guide us is a bad habit, and indeed one that smacks of populism. That said, at the time of the last election, the Tories won with short of a 12% lead over Labour whereas the latest opinion poll currently gives them a 13% lead. This evaluation comes after a truly disastrous year when abject incompetence and corruption in the government’s handling of the pandemic has resulted in more than a hundred thousand deaths and will leave millions of people unemployed or otherwise desperate. Of course, Corbyn’s popularity figures remained comparatively low throughout his leadership (for reasons I shall come to), but Starmer’s figures have recently nosedived too and now fallen below Corbyn’s peak. Perhaps the latest report from Yougov is illuminating in this regard:

“Starmer’s main cause for concern is that a quarter (24%) of those who voted Labour in 2019 have an unfavourable view of their party leader, although 60% still hold a favourable opinion. In fact, his personal approval rating is now better amongst 2019 Lib Dem voters, who have a favourable opinion of him by 68% to 19%. He also has the support of one in five (21%) 2019 Conservative voters.”

That he is most favoured today by Lib Dem voters certainly does not support the view that he will begin winning back traditional Labour supporters any time soon.

Keir Starmer’s decline in net satisfaction over first 12 months image

Click here to find the same graphic on page 15 of the Ipsos MORI report from March 2021.

You write that: “I’m a bit puzzled by your comments about the USA where there has been a troubling polarisation of politics, with the left losing some of its traditional base, but people put their faith in the biggest charlatan in the country’s history.” The point – not really my point – is that when people lose faith in democracy they often seem to turn to fascism. And I think we may agree that with the election of Trump, America has already moved to the cusp of turning fascist.

The difference here is that I put no faith in Biden at all because I see no reason to do so. Under Biden I fully anticipate a return to the kinds of policies that we had under Obama and without going into the details of what was wrong with Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, I would simply make the obvious point that Trump’s success followed immediately on the heels of Obama’s two terms in office. Clearly those eight years of “hope and change” left many Americans feeling little more than despair and desperation. After Biden, the same will very likely happen although with still more dangerous consequences because the situation gradually worsens with each cycle of neoliberal failure.

Finally, I shall address the most contentious of the points you have raised. To those on the left of the party the suspension of Corbyn is very evidently a politically-motivated act. In the statement in question, Corbyn said anti-Semitism was “absolutely abhorrent” and “one anti-Semite is one too many” in the party. These views are ones he has consistently upheld and are views that most of us share.

He then went on to say: “The scale of the problem was also dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media.” There are actually two issues here. Firstly, on what grounds is it improper for him to defend the party and himself against perceived smears by political opponents and the media?  Secondly, is his opinion false? What is the available evidence here?

I refer you to Al Jazeera’s undercover investigative series “The Lobby” broadcast in 2017. In light of Al Jazeera’s revelations, then-shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry called on the government to launch an immediate inquiry into “improper interference in our democratic politics”.

She said in parliament: “The exposure of an Israeli embassy official discussing how to bring down or discredit a government minister and other MPs because of their views on the Middle East is extremely disturbing.”

Note that: Thornberry’s statement can also be found on the Labour Party website: https://labour.org.uk/press/reports-of-israeli-embassy-official-discussing-how/

Although this story briefly hit the headlines, the main focus of Al Jazeera’s investigation and its disclosure of a dirty tricks campaign against both pro-Palestinian Labour members and also to subvert Corbyn’s leadership has been quietly buried by the media.

Moreover, in January 2017, BBC Trust felt obliged to issue a retraction and an admission that it breached its own accuracy and impartiality rules during a news report about Jeremy Corbyn’s view on shoot-to-kill policy, writing: “The breach of due accuracy on such a highly contentious political issue meant that the output had not achieved due impartiality.” Here is another indication of the media’s hostility toward Corbyn, and I will add that in response, James Harding, Director of BBC News, remained unapologetic saying (as the BBC itself reported): “While we respect the Trust and the people who work there, we disagree with this finding.”

I remind you that Keir Starmer also sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey merely for retweeting a quote with a link to respectable newspaper article on the grounds that it promoted a “conspiracy theory”.

Below is the first part of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Twitter thread apology and retraction:

Without wishing to get into the weeds, the claims made in the article in question were untrue only in the specific case of the George Floyd killing, because it irrefutably is the case that police officers in the US are being trained by Israel Defense Forces [as Amnesty International reported in 2016] and that the IDF does use a similar kind of neck restraint against Palestinians [as Jonathan Cook reports here]. As you are no doubt aware, they also routinely shoot at unarmed protesters using live ammunition.

Here is a video report also posted by Amnesty International:

And here is a video showing an IDF soldier using the same neck restraint against a Palestinian man:

Going back to Corbyn’s statement, in my view he is justifiably defending himself against an attack-dog media and those who were actively working within the party to undermine him. But my own central points are actually these: Firstly, that Corbyn is not and has never been a racist. Indeed, even his fiercest opponents have never seriously charged him with racism and that is because his antiracist position is active, long-standing and unimpeachable. Secondly, and more broadly, we must never allow criticism of Israel to be suppressed on the totally spurious charge of antisemitism. I fear that even writing this may put me somehow in breach of the party’s current position, since I fail to understand how Corbyn’s statement is more sanctionable than any of the thoughts expressed here.

Embedded below is an interview with Andrew Feinstein, former South African MP who served under Nelson Mandela and author of “The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”, discussing Keir Starmer’s ‘New’ New Labour, how the factional and weaponised use of ‘antisemitism’ is used to purge the left from the Labour party:

In this regard I stand with Jewish Voice for Labour who released the following statement:

We are appalled that Jeremy Corbyn has been suspended and had the whip withdrawn. He has a proud record of fighting all forms of racism including antisemitism. We call on Labour Party members to protest against this unjustified outrage in the strongest terms and through all channels available to us. This is an attack not just on Jeremy, but on the party membership. Do not leave, organise and fight back.

You can read their views on the EHRC report here: https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/statement/the-ehrc-report-an-interim-response/

Very glad to hear that you are well and I’d like to thank you again for taking the time and trouble to reply to my letter.

Best wishes,

James

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I received a reply from Paul Blomfield on Tuesday 16th March:

Dear James

Thanks for your further email. I just wanted to respond on a couple of your points.

Membership numbers fluctuate and, while the figures showed some decline from the highest-ever level in January 2020, they are still well above the 430,359 in November 2019. Any decline in membership is clearly disappointing, but the increase in public support is encouraging. I don’t know the potential negative affect this might have on canvassing teams. After the mass influx of new members in 2015 and 2016, there was no noticeable increase in campaigning members, so I’m not sure there’s a direct correlation.

You also make the point that Labour is in danger of losing more of its ‘traditional base’ voters, or not winning them back soon. It is a real issue; democratic socialist parties across Europe have faced a gradual loss of this support over at least the last 15 years, and in the UK this far pre-dates Brexit. In 2017, under Jeremy’s leadership, the trend continued and, while we won seats in metropolitan areas, we lost Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and other such ‘traditional Labour’ seats. Bringing together a winning electoral coalition is a complex challenge – but one that we have been considering and working on for a decade. I would also point out that our 2019 Brexit policy was not Keir’s, but one that Jeremy wanted and was secured at Conference with the support of Len McCluskey, who later wrote this piece claiming that it “should be a vote-winner”.

I agree with you that over-reliance on polls outside election periods isn’t always helpful, but as you will recognise, in the days before Keir became leader we were 20 points behind and we’re now in a much stronger position – while Johnson enjoys a current ‘bounce’ from the successful vaccination programme (which is frustrating as it’s the hard-working NHS staff that his Government has denied a fair pay settlement to who are rolling it out!)

With best wishes

Paul

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My final thoughts: Although I reject Paul Blomfield’s contention that “our 2019 Brexit policy was not Keir’s, but one that Jeremy wanted…” I have not replied to him since it seemed that our sequence of correspondence had run its course. I’d like sincerely to thank him again for taking such trouble to reply in fullness to my concerns.

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Additional:

Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani of Novara Media marked the anniversary with their own review on Friday 2nd:

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, campaigns & events, Israel, police state, Uncategorized

these materials may have been obtained through hacking…

After The Grayzone‘s Max Blumenthal reported on newly leaked documents exposing a massive UK government propaganda campaign against Russia, Twitter added an unprecedented warning label that “These materials may have been obtained through hacking.” Although Twitter may have intended to restrict the article, the warning had the opposite effect: it quickly went viral.

Here Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté discuss the suppression effort and the damning UK government leaks at the heart of it. After years of fear-mongering about Russian interference in Western democracies, these UK government files expose a sprawling propaganda effort that explicitly aims to “weaken” Russia. The documents reveal that this propaganda campaign has also enlisted major media outlets Reuters and the BBC, as well as the NATO member state-funded website Bellingcat.

Click here to full the original article entitled “Reuters, BBC, and Bellingcat participated in covert UK Foreign Office-funded programs to ‘weaken Russia,’ leaked docs reveal”.

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Additional:

In the video below, Jimmy Dore outlines Twitter’s new rules and explains how in an absolutely Orwellian twist they are now literally redefining the word ‘hack’ to make it apply to all leaked materials. He also speaks to Max Blumenthal and they discuss an attempted policy reversal when Twitter briefly decided to remove their warning label [caution: strong language]:

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