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aimless weather

The following article is Chapter One of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race.

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 table of contents and a preface on why I started writing it.

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

— Inscription over the door on Max Planck’s Laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next chapter…

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Addendum: mind over matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

— Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.11

6

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

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

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

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

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

11  Ibid.

12  Ibid.

13  Ibid. Italics maintained from the original source.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under « finishing the rat race »

the stuff of dreams

The following article is Chapter Two of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race.

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 table of contents and a preface on 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 wondrous imaginations in more ephemeral ways?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next chapter…

*

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

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

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

*

Addendum: the return of Frankenstein!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

5

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

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

6

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

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

7   

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

Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the toppling of statues has let in some air but it won’t bring a wind of change

Four people have been charged with criminal damage after the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June this year.

Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 32, and Sage Willoughby, 21, will appear before Bristol magistrates court on 25 January for the first hearing, the Crown Prosecution Service said. 1

As reported in today’s Guardian. In response I have decided to publish an article that was composed last summer but never posted. It is accompanied by extracts drawn from four other perspectives that were published around the same time.

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A painting entitled “The Slave Ship” by J. M. W. Turner. In the background, the sun shines through a storm while large waves hit the sides of a sailing ship. In the foreground, slaves are drowning in the water, while others are being eaten by large fish

It perhaps says something of the make-up of the Anglo-Saxon mindset that the very word ‘violence’ in the English language draws no distinction between acts of grievous harm committed against people and the lesser evil of vandalising property (and yet we have no better synonym). For this reason talk of the violence in the case of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and the other slavers is semantically correct; that said, to speak of the toppling of an effigy of a man that owes its erection as a civic monument entirely to the transportation and forced resettlement of nearly a hundred thousand African slaves, nearly a quarter of whom died unknown but horrific deaths during the genocidal ‘Middle Passage’, is also crass hyperbole. The statue of Colston wasn’t lynched, unlike many of those he had happily sold into slavery, but straightforwardly pulled down and then, in a moment of supreme poetic justice, tossed into the harbour whence his slave ships set sail three centuries ago.

Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. (From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.)

One of the most oft-repeated dictums from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” On ‘Airstrip One’ in Oceania (aka Britain), such brutal reductionism has become a central feature of state control: past mistakes are expunged; Party misdeeds rendered impossible by constant reediting; the names of enemies of the state purged unless they are useful foils; and the sole purpose of historical remembrance is the maintenance of the status quo. Revisionism is thus non-stop and never-ending.

Today Orwell is routinely wheeled out by people he would have detested to justify causes that would have sickened him. So let’s understand that he had no time for preservation simply for the sake of preservation – just read what he says about Gaudi’s now celebrated cathedral the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and how “the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.” Orwell couldn’t have cared less about tearing down the odd statue, but devil can cite scripture for his purpose.

What Orwell did care about and understood better than most is the extraordinary power of symbols; most especially the ugly symbols of colonialism, a rapacious system he had experienced first-hand in Burma and despised no less than the crowd of defenestrators on the quayside in Bristol. Few have spoken more forcefully than Orwell on the abuses of Empire, and so there is little reason to suppose he would have been anything less than delighted to see Colston and the other slavers ripped from their pedestals.

Violence, in all senses of the word, is the underpainting to History’s canvass; new layers added once older ones are scraped away: for History is a study not of mere incidents, but of collective and prolonged exertions of force strewn with wilful acts of destruction. Therefore, to draw any line before the toppling of statues like Colston’s, first you must ask what else besides the sheer scale of its enterprise makes Britain’s acts of savage imperialism different at all from the savagery you do deplore, remembering of course that the offending statue of Colston had only been erected little more than a century ago; a fillip to late Victorian pride as the sun was about to set permanently on the Empire.

And when on that crisp October night three decades ago, the East Germans clambered atop the Berlin Wall and smashed it to the ground with sledgehammers, their impromptu act of vandalism opened the way for greater freedoms. We cheered them on. Likewise we cheered the toppling of statues of Stalin all across the old Soviet bloc. Should these too have been preserved as historical monuments instead? If so, then how about all of these…?

There is a tendency to think of statues as mere illustrations of famous past lives, like the solid pages from a pop-up history book. But they have plinths for good reason: to look down from. Statues – indeed all memorials – are virtue signallers. They are fundamentally didactic, presenting role models that are rather hard to repudiate: do as I have done and you shall become an immortal too. Thus Colston’s statue pays tribute to all who put greed and self-interest above human life: it glorifies profiteering and elevates the cruellest of merchants into a demigod. Be thankful that his days of lording it over the rest of us have gone.

As the words on the broken plinth set amongst the desolate ruins in Shelley’s famous sonnet declare:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 2

Foretold is the fate of all monuments, although some monuments deserve to suffer their fate more swiftly than others; and when they do, it is right that we celebrate.

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Reprinted below are extended extracts and abridged versions of four excellent articles published or republished by ‘Counterpunch’. The first two, by Jonathan Cook and Patrick Cockburn respectively, address the issue of the toppling of statues. The latter two, by Nick Turse and Rob Urie, put the recent Black Lives Matter protests into broader context; the first historically and second socio-economically. I very much encourage readers to follow the links to read the articles in full.

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Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

I did not expect to be returning to this issue so soon but I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that my last post on anti-racists toppling a statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proved to be the most polarising article I have ever written. Given the many controversial topics I have addressed over the years, that seems noteworthy in itself.

It may not be surprising that those on the right are troubled by ordinary people challenging authority, demanding change rather than conserving what we already have, and “taking the law into their own hands”. None of this sits too easily with the conservative political worldview. But some on the left seem equally disturbed by this act of popular protest. That needs to be analysed and challenged.

I have been able to identify three main types of criticism from the left.

Cities on the back foot

The first suggests that tearing down statues is ineffective. It does not change anything, and actually conceals society’s continuing racism. These actions may make activists feel good but they fail to bring about any tangible progress.

Such arguments are obviously undermined by the fact that Bristol’s mayor and its council, which had been ignoring demands to remove Colston’s statue for decades, are finally proposing action. For the first time, the mayor has called for a “citywide conversation” about all of Bristol’s public memorials. He has promised to discuss their future with historians, presumably to identify which ones venerate people like Colston so obscenely horrible that they have no place in public squares looking down on us. Instead they should be in museums so their crimes can be contextualised and properly understood. […]

I’ve been truly staggered to find leftists who follow me on social media decrying this simply as “mob rule”. Probing their reasoning a little has tended to reveal some pretty ugly premises and a tendency to dismiss everything as hollow identity politics. That is lazy political thinking, and a position that is held easily only if one is white.

“Golliwog” racism, as I explained in my original post, was the jam generations of white children spread on their morning toast. We live with those unquestioned associations and assumptions still. It’s about time we confronted them rather than indulged them.

Overthrowing symbols

The second criticism is that toppling statues is a distraction from proper political activism, that statues are meaningless symbols, that there are much more important things to be getting on with, and that the establishment wants us to target statues to sow division or direct our energies into irrelevancies. It is claimed that tearing down Colston’s statue has detracted from the inspiration for the protests: challenging police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

There are lots of reasons why this approach is a wrong-headed.

Symbols are important. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear. Like images in the picture books our parents read to us before we could make out the letters of the text, these symbols often have more impact than the stories themselves. When we challenge symbols we begin to deconstruct the stories that they illustrate. Overthrow a symbol, and you are taking the first step on the path to overthrowing the system behind it.

After all, if these symbols weren’t so important in entrenching a sense of “national life” and “national values”, the establishment would not have bothered to erect them. That’s why the rightwing will make a battleground of protecting statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Because it is vitally important to them that we don’t tear off the mask to see for ourselves – or to show them – what really lies beneath. […]

Isn’t having the establishment fearful exactly where the left should want them? Because when the establishment is not frightened, all they do is line their pockets more deeply. They make concessions only when we raise the stakes.

If that is not obvious, recall the mass marches against the Iraq war. They failed not because they were not popular – they were some of the largest protests ever in Britain. They failed because the public could not make Tony Blair and his cabinet more frightened of us – the British people – than they were of the White House and the Pentagon. The cynical, dispiriting lesson we took away from the Iraq war was that we could never have an effect on the political class. The real lesson was that we needed to bare our teeth.

Last week the crowds in Bristol bared their teeth, and the politicians and police decided the fight – this time – wasn’t worth it. Defending a racist statue is much less of a priority for the establishment than placating the US, of course. But it doesn’t mean it is no priority at all.

The lessons of revolts through the ages are that small victories inspire crowds to larger battles. That is why the establishment usually tries to crush or co-opt the first signs of popular dissent and defiance. They fear our empowerment. It is also why it is important for those who want fairer societies to support, not diminish, the actions of those who take on initial confrontations with the establishment. They build the launchpad for bigger things.

Progress through protest

The third and seemingly most common criticism is that it is dangerous to allow the mob to win, and that once “mob rule” scores a success it will lead to anarchy and violence.

As I explained in my last post, none of the things we value today in Britain – from the vote to the National Health Service – happened without either direct protest in defiance of the establishment or the threat of such protest. It was only ever fear about the breakdown of order or of the eruption of violence that pushed the establishment to give up any of its wealth and power. […]

Those who worry about “mob rule” assume that we now live in democracies that are responsive to the popular will. I will not waste my breath again demolishing that fallacy – it has been the sole reason for my writing this blog for the past six years. We live in sophisticated oligarchies, where corporations control the narratives of our lives through their control of the mass media to make us compliant and believe in fairytales. The biggest is that we, the people, are in charge through our vote, in a political system that offers only two choices, both of them political parties that were long ago captured by the corporations. The one countervailing force – organised labour – now plays almost no role. It has been either destroyed or its leaders co-opted themselves.

Wrong about democracy

All that aside, those anxious about “the mob” have failed to understand what liberal democracy means – the model of democracy we are all supposed to subscribe to. It does not give carte blanche to the white majority to smother symbols all over the public space of people who abused, murdered and oppressed our black neighbours’ ancestors. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

If this is not blindingly obvious, let me propose a hypothetical analogy. How would we judge Britain’s Jewish community if after years of failed protests they and non-Jewish supporters “took the law into their own hands” and tore down a statue in Hamstead to Adolf Eichmann? Would we call them a mob? Would we characterise what they did as vigilantism? And perhaps more to the point, can we conceive of an Eichmann statue being erected in Hamstead – or anywhere? Of course, not. So why is it even conceivable that a man like Colston who profited from the destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of Africans should still be presiding over a multicultural city like Bristol, where some of the descendants of those Africans live today?

The fact that we cannot imagine being so insensitive to the Jewish community should underscore how unbelievably insensitive we have been to Britain’s black community for many decades.  3

Click here to read the full unabridged article by Jonathan Cook entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue”.

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British leaders have no idea how bad slavery was

Conservative leaders snigger at protesters seeking the removal of statues memorialising those whose fortunes came from the exploitation of slaves.

The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, implied facetiously this week that such demands are on a par with seeking to knock down Stonehenge on the grounds that it once could have been the site of human sacrifice. He was speaking in response to a puerile question from the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne – who got into trouble last year for blacking his face – suggesting that a measure be introduced to remove “all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation in this island”.

The flippancy of the exchange shows that both men feel that slavery happened a long time ago and does not stand out in history as a particularly horrendous crime, and that the demonstrations against those who benefited from it amount to a passing fad that need not be taken seriously. […]

Appreciation of the savage reality of slavery is clouded among white populations by films like Gone with the Wind which emphasise sentimental attachments between master and slave. One way to understand what it was really like is to recall how Isis enslaved the Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, murdering men, women and children and selling thousands of women into sexual slavery.

Terrified women held in Isis jails waited to be raped and sold to the highest bidder. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror,” says a UN report on what happened in one jail. “The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by [Isis] fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” The reference comes from With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten.

Isis did not behave very differently from the slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies and the US in the 18th century. The best-informed guide to what life was like on a slave plantation in the Caribbean at that time are the books written by James Ramsay, an Anglican clergymen and former navy surgeon who worked as a doctor for 19 years in the plantations on the British-ruled islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Finally forced to leave by the plantation owners because of his evident sympathy for the slaves – he let them worship in his church – he retired to Kent to describe his experiences.

Ramsay records the endless round of punishments inflicted on the slave to force them to work cutting sugar cane for 16 hours or more a day. He says that an experienced slave driver could use a cart whip “to cut out flakes of skin and flesh with every stroke”. When a surgeon refused to amputate the limb of a slave as a punishment, a cooper’s adze was used to sever it “and the wretch then left to bleed to death, without any attention or dressing”.

As in Isis-held Iraq and Syria, sexual slavery was a common feature of plantation life. Ramsay says that slave women were “sacrificed to the lust of white men; in some instances, their own fathers”. He adds that white women on the plantations, presumably members of the family of the owner, would hire out their maid servants as prostitutes. Contrary to the romantic cinematic image, the real life Scarlett O’Hara might have been paying for her ball dress with money gained from the rape of her maids. 4

Click here to read Patrick Cockburn’s full article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was”

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A Latter Day Lynching

[I]f you had told me that, in the span of a few months, a novel coronavirus that dates back only to last year and systemic American racism that dates back to 1619 would somehow intersect, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you had told me that a man named George Floyd would survive Covid-19 only to be murdered by the police and that his brutal death would spark a worldwide movement, leading the council members of a major American city to announce their intent to defund the police and Europeans halfway across the planet to deface monuments to a murderous nineteenth-century monarch who slaughtered Africans, I would have dismissed you. But history works in mysterious ways.

Four hundred years of racism, systemic abuse of authority, unpunished police misconduct, white skin privilege, and a host of other evils at the dark core of America gave a white Minneapolis police officer the license to press a black man’s face to the pavement and jam a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. For allegedly attempting to buy a pack of cigarettes with a phony $20 bill, George Floyd was killed at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by police officer Derek Chauvin.

At the beginning of the last century, whites could murder a black man, woman, or child in this country as part of a public celebration, memorialize it on postcards, and mail them to friends. Between 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South, more than a death a week for 73 years. But the murders of blacks, whether at the hands of their owners in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries or of unaccountable fellow Americans in the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries never ended despite changes in some attitudes, significant federal legislation, and the notable successes of the protests, marches, and activism of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

From 2006 to 2012, in fact, a white police officer killed a black person in America almost twice a week, according to FBI statistics. And less than a month before we watched the last moments of George Floyd’s life, we witnessed a modern-day version of a lynching when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down while jogging on a suburban street in Glynn County, Georgia. Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old white retired district attorney, investigator, and police detective, and his son Travis, 34, were eventually arrested and charged with his murder.

Without the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s botched response to it, without black Americans dying of the disease at three times the rate of whites, without the suddenly spotlighted health disparities that have always consigned people of color to die at elevated rates, without a confluence of so many horrors that the black community in America has suffered for so long coupled with those of a new virus, would we be in the place we’re in today?

If President Trump hadn’t cheered on the efforts of mostly older white protesters to end pandemic shutdowns and “liberate” their states and then echoed a racist Miami police chief of the 1960s who promised “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” essentially calling for young black protesters to be gunned down, would the present movement have taken off in such a way? And would these protests have been as powerful if people who had avoided outside contact for weeks hadn’t suddenly decided to risk their own lives and those of others around them because this murder was too brazen, too likely to end in injustice for private handwringing and public hashtags? 5

Click here to read Nick Turse’s full article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America”.

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Police killings are a political tactic

As the spark that lit a fire, the murder of George Floyd was horrifyingly, sickeningly ordinary. According to the scant data on police killing of citizens that is available, about three people are killed by the police in the U.S. every day. And despite the protest movements Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, this number has remained about constant in recent years through Democratic and Republican administrations. This persistence stands in contrast to the political ‘branding’ of the mainstream political parties where difference is claimed, but little is evident.

The place of Mr. Floyd’s murder in the ordinary working of American governance makes it the catalyst, not the cause, of current protests. The background circumstances of economic calamity suggest that political tensions will continue to rise as unemployment and economic desperation exert a toll on social stability. The horror of Mr. Floyd’s murder should get outraged citizens into the streets regardless of broader circumstances. But with history as a guide, it is these broader factors that are creating the political moment. This highlights the urgency of acting while there is an opening.

The disproportionate targeting of blacks by the police is given needed context when the data is organized by economic class. Poor and working-class whites are arrested and incarcerated at about the same rate as poor and working-class blacks. By its nature, this data says nothing about history. But it does offer structural and political insights. To the prior, history informs the present, it doesn’t define it. To the latter, 1) the frame of race divides people who otherwise have shared class interests and 2) poor and working class ‘allies’ are struggling for their own freedom from police violence, whatever their intentions.

What this arithmetic of disparity implies is that a larger proportion of blacks than whites are poor and working class. One interpretation is that race defines economic opportunity, which is overly generous to how capitalism works. Whatever people’s sentiments, slavery, convict leasing and Jim Crow had economic explanations. Some people, call them capitalists, make themselves rich by making and keeping other people poor. Here is a dry, academic and partial explanation of how poor people are kept poor in the present. […]

With regard to the current alliance of convenience between protesters, the establishment press and national Democrats, it was only a few weeks ago that the latter were lauding the American political police — the FBI, as the saviors of freedom and democracy in the Russiagate fraud. That the FBI was behind the scenes in the murders of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, suggests that protecting freedom and democracy isn’t precisely its mandate. Through its Cointelpro program, the FBI worked with Richard Nixon— and subsequent administrations, to disrupt, thwart and otherwise destroy organized opposition to state policy.

Closer to home, the FBI was ‘deeply involved’ in the vicious police repression that was used to shut Occupy Wall Street down in an organized multi-state operation. To bring this back to Mr. Nixon’s service to capital in creating the modern carceral-police state, the FBI coordinated with the large Wall Street banks that the Obama administration was still in the process of bailing out when its assault on the peaceful protesters of OWS took place. For those who may have forgotten, Wall Street bank J.P. Morgan made a $4.6 billion contribution to the NYPD pension fund as OWS gained political strength.

Events have moved past the murder of George Floyd as establishment hacks try to extinguish the flames with ham-fisted theatrics. I had a hard time not vomiting at the sight of craven Democrats dressed in kante garb kneeling in Kaepernick fashion to show solidarity with the people they have dedicated their careers to selling out to the highest bidder. Given that ‘we’ were in a similar place in 2015, with near daily high-profile murders of unarmed youth at the hands of the police that they had empowered, and they did nothing. To save the suspense, they engage in theatrics in place of taking meaningful action, not in addition to it.

With capitalism in its deepest crisis since 2009, and possibly since the 1930s, the current political moment is fraught. As was demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the existing powers are incapable of governing. What they are capable of is massive transfers of social wealth to the already rich and political repression. If capital is perceived to be threatened, look for self-preservation to come in the form of political violence no matter which party holds the White House. One might ask what happened to Bernie Sander’s ‘coalition,’ which I supported for tactical reasons (to head off environmental calamity). Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. That is what happened. 6

Click here  to read the full article by Rob Urie entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic”

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1 From a report entitled “Four charged over damage to Colston statue in Bristol”  written by Jessica Murray, published in the Guardian on December 9, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/09/four-charged-over-damage-to-colston-statue-in-bristol

2 The name “Ozymandias” is a rendering in Greek of a part of Ramesses II’s throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The poems paraphrase the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as:

King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.

From the current Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias

3 From an article entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue” written by Jonathan Cook published on June 12, 2020.  https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2020-06-12/statue-colston-bristol-power/

4 From an article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was” written by Patrick Cockburn, published in Counterpunch on June 16, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/16/british-leaders-have-no-idea-how-bad-slavery-was/ 

5 From an article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America” written by Nick Turse, published in TomDispatch on June 14, 2020. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176714/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_a_breathless_moment_in_america/#more

6 From an article entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic” written by Rob Urie published in Counterpunch on June 15, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/15/police-killings-are-a-political-tactic/

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‘fake news’ is the new blackwhite

“The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

— George Orwell from ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ 1

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Update: WMDs Revisited

Please note that the original post began after the purple asterisk.

Before reading on I encourage readers to follow this link to an article published by wsws.org also on February 20th. An extended extract is reposted below:

Fifteen years ago, on February 5, 2003, against the backdrop of worldwide mass demonstrations in opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq, then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell argued before the United Nations that the government of Saddam Hussein was rapidly stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction,” which Iraq, together with Al Qaeda, was planning to use against the United States.

In what was the climax of the Bush administration’s campaign to justify war, Powell held up a model vial of anthrax, showed aerial photographs and presented detailed slides purporting to show the layout of Iraq’s “mobile production facilities.”

There was only one problem with Powell’s presentation: it was a lie from beginning to end.

The World Socialist Web Site, in an editorial board statement published the next day, declared the brief for war “the latest act in a diplomatic charade laced with cynicism and deceit.” War against Iraq, the WSWS wrote, was not about “weapons of mass destruction.” Rather, “it is a war of colonial conquest, driven by a series of economic and geo-political aims that center on the seizure of Iraq’s oil resources and the assertion of US global hegemony.”

The response of the American media, and particularly its liberal wing, was very different. Powell’s litany of lies was presented as the gospel truth, an unanswerable indictment of the Iraqi government.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who rushed off a column before he could have examined Powell’s allegations, declared, “The evidence he presented to the United Nations—some of it circumstantial, some of it absolutely bone-chilling in its detail—had to prove to anyone that Iraq not only hasn’t accounted for its weapons of mass destruction but without a doubt still retains them. Only a fool—or possibly a Frenchman—could conclude otherwise.”

The editorial board of the New York Times—whose reporter Judith Miller was at the center of the Bush administration’s campaign of lies—declared one week later that there “is ample evidence that Iraq has produced highly toxic VX nerve gas and anthrax and has the capacity to produce a lot more. It has concealed these materials, lied about them, and more recently failed to account for them to the current inspectors.”

Subsequent developments would prove who was lying. The Bush administration and its media accomplices conspired to drag the US into a war that led to the deaths of more than one million people—a colossal crime for which no one has yet been held accountable.

Fifteen years later, the script has been pulled from the closet and dusted off. This time, instead of “weapons of mass destruction,” it is “Russian meddling in the US elections.” Once again, assertions by US intelligence agencies and operatives are treated as fact. Once again, the media is braying for war. Once again, the cynicism and hypocrisy of the American government—which intervenes in the domestic politics of every state on the planet and has been relentlessly expanding its operations in Eastern Europe—are ignored.

The argument presented by the American media is that the alleged existence of a fly-by-night operation, employing a few hundred people, with a budget amounting to a minuscule fraction of total election spending in the US, constitutes a “a virtual war against the United States through 21st-century tools of disinformation and propaganda” (New York Times).

In the countless articles and media commentary along this vein, nowhere can one find a serious analysis of the Mueller indictment of the Russians itself, let alone an examination of the real motivations behind the US campaign against Russia. The fact that the indictment does not even involve the Russian government or state officials is treated as a nonissue.

While the present campaign over Russian “meddling” has much in common with the claims about “weapons of mass destruction,” the implications are far more ominous. The “war on terror” is exhausted, in part because the US is allied in Syria and elsewhere with the Islamic fundamentalist organizations it was purportedly fighting.

More fundamentally, the quarter-century of invasions and occupations that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union is rapidly developing into a conflict between major nuclear-armed powers. The effort of the American ruling class to offset its economic decline using military force is leading mankind to the brink of another world war. As the National Defense Strategy, published less than a month before the release of the indictments, declared, “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”

Click here to read the full article entitled “The Russian meddling fraud: Weapons of mass destruction revisited”.

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In Doha last week I watched on TV an utterly contemptible speech by Theresa May in which she grasped for ideas to shore up the increasingly eroded Establishment control of the political zeitgeist. Yet more pressure would be put on the social media companies to curtail the circulation of unauthorised truths as “fake news”. Disrespectful questioning of the political class will be a new crime of “intimidation of candidates”. The government would look for new ways to boost the unwanted and failing purveyors of the official line by some potential aid to newspapers and their paid liars.

In short I did not merely disagree with what she was saying, I found it an extraordinary example of Orwellian doublespeak in which she even referenced John Stuart Mill and her commitment to freedom of speech as she outlined plans to restrict it further. I found myself viewing this dull, plodding agent of repression as representing a political philosophy which is completely alien to me.

The words of former UK ambassador Craig Murray published in a blog post entitled “Scared of my Own Thoughts”.

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‘Corbyn was a Soviet spy’

When two million protesters assembled in London in the bitter cold on the February 15th 2003 to call on Blair not to go to war against Iraq, Jeremy Corbyn marched at the head of the largest protest this country has ever seen. Speaking afterwards from the platform at Hyde Park, Corbyn forewarned us:

“Thousands more deaths in Iraq will not make things right. It will set off a spiral of conflict, of hate, of misery, of desperation, that will fuel the wars, the conflict, the terrorism, the depression and the misery of future generations.” [from 4:15 mins]

Fifteen years on, a war sold entirely on the basis of lies that were in turn rubber-stamped by our already sold-out mainstream media (the honourable exception was the Daily Mirror) grinds on indefinitely. Corbyn meantime has been elected not once but twice to lead the Labour Party, and his party continues to run neck and neck in the polls with the Tories.

In response, the purveyors of those lies which carried us into the perpetual darkness of an endless “war on terror” have found new ones to spin. Yesterday’s fake news warned us of the threat of Saddam’s WMDs. Today the same press tells us, and again with no credible proof, that Corbyn and other backbench Labour MPs were once on the payroll of Czech secret service.

I hesitate to engage with such arrant nonsense, but the plain fact that these absurd allegations that Corbyn was once a Soviet agent refuse to die quietly demands a response – even while every response automatically puts defenders of Corbyn on the back foot; proving a negative being impossibly hard to do. Of course, these extraordinary claims ought to demand extraordinary evidence, but instead we see the rumour mill being given extra impetus by so-called respectable and nominally impartial broadcasters. For instance, here is what the BBC reported on Monday 19th:

Jeremy Corbyn should be “open and transparent” about his alleged contacts with a Communist spy during the 1980s, Theresa May has suggested.

Asked about claims a Czech intelligence officer met and tried to recruit Mr Corbyn during the Cold War, she said MPs must “account” for past actions.

The Labour Party has said claims he was an agent were a “ridiculous smear”. 2

Thus, snide innuendo dreamed up by our gutter press (in this case The Sun) is reported on without any attempt at all to drill down into the facts. And this coming from the BBC which laughably portrays itself as some kind of a last bastion against the spread of ‘fake news’. So allow me to set the record straight. The source of this particular canard is a man called Jan Sarkocy, who, as former editor of Tribune (1986– 93) and deputy editor of the New Statesman (1993–96), Paul Anderson, reminded us in his article “Corbyn’s spy connection and me”, was “anything but a spymaster”:

Quite a lot of the serious media have steered clear of the Sun’s story of Jeremy Corbyn’s meetings with a Czechoslovak spook in the 1980s, and it’s not hard to see why. The Sun never knowingly under-eggs any pudding, but this one was really over-stirred. Its splash – “CORBYN AND THE COMMIE ”, as the headline put it on 15 February – promised something it simply did not deliver.

The paper had discovered from east European archives that a member of the communist Czechoslovak secret police, the StB (Státní Bezpečnost, State Security), acting under diplomatic cover in London, had met Corbyn on several occasions between 1986 and 1989, including at the House of Commons.

And, er, that was it. No suggestion that Corbyn, then the rookie backbench Labour MP for Islington North, had handed over state secrets for money. Nothing at all incriminating, in fact. Corbyn responded that he had met a Czechoslovak diplomat in the late 1980s but not one called Dymic, the name on the documents obtained by the Sun.

End of story? Not quite. The Mail and Telegraph picked it up with enthusiasm. It turned out that the StB man who had met Corbyn was only codenamed Dymic and was really Jan Sarkocy (as I’d guessed), now 64 and living in obscurity in Slovakia – and Sarkocy has given interviews to all and sundry, saying that Corbyn was paid for information and that other Labour left wingers, including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were on his contact list. Cue outraged Tories saying that Corbyn was a traitor and furious denials from the Corbyn camp with accusations of red-scare tactics by the right-wing press.

Corbyn (like many others on the Labour left, myself included) was a contact of Jan Sarkocy in the 1980s, and Sarkocy was StB – but that’s about it. Sarkocy was anything but a spymaster. He was a low-level intelligence-gatherer for a state that had long ago lost all authority with its citizens and was now losing the support of its geopolitical master, the Soviet Union.

He was employed to take people out to lunch who knew something of what was going on in British politics, drink beers with them in the evening, and write reports on what they told him. And what he got from his efforts was probably little better than any half-compos-mentis reader of the UK press would have gleaned. 3

Click here to read the full article at Little Atoms.

Of course, the real reason behind the latest smear campaign against Corbyn is no less blatant than those more despicable lies which soon led to the deaths of a million innocent Iraqis. The very same blood-soaked special interests that have reaped such staggering profits from the West’s otherwise nonsensical policy of war without limit instigated by Bush and Blair and pursued by respective successors now need Corbyn removed. It hardly requires a genius to join the dots up on this ludicrous story. Obviously this is fake news, just don’t expect the corporate media to tell you so.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn issued this statement today:

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‘Russia hacked the election’

Whenever Donald Trump barks “fake news” in avoidance of some nagging news reporter’s questions it comes across as a tacit admission of guilt. Subsequently the brush off is indeed reported upon as a tacit admission of guilt. And doubtless, more than half the time, it was a tacit admission of guilt: Trump has a great deal to be guilty about. However, it does not automatically follow that even the vile and corrupt Trump is guilty in every case.

‘Russiagate’ has dominated the US news cycle for well over eighteen months in spite of the fact that after several investigations there has been an embarrassing failure to uncover substantiating evidence pointing to an actual Russian plot to “hack the election” as was so vigorously claimed. But the latest twist in the saga is arguably the lamest to date. It involves Robert Mueller’s indictment of thirteen Russian nationals for purportedly creating sockpuppet accounts on behalf of Trump (or else disparaging him – presumably for added confusion!), as well as (still more bafflingly) bolstering the campaigns of progressives Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in the 2016 election. Missing altogether are any claims that Trump knew anything at all about the alleged Russian meddling, or that in fact “Russia hacked the election” – the very pivot about which Russiagate started spinning. As even the Guardian admits in its wholly uncritical account of Mueller’s findings which is excitedly titled “Putin’s chef, a troll farm and Russia’s plot to hijack US democracy”:

The indictment does not allege that any American knowingly participated in Russian meddling, or that Trump campaign associates had more than “unwitting” contact with some who posed as Americans. Trump quickly claimed vindication, noting in a tweet that the interference efforts began in 2014 “long before I announced that I would run for president”. He added: “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

Nor does it have anything to say regarding the origins of ‘Russiagate’:

The indictment does not mention the hacking of Democratic emails, which then turned up on WikiLeaks. It does not mention the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. It does not mention the four Trump associates who are facing charges that range from money laundering to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador. America, and the world, is waiting for Mueller to join the dots. 4

Real News today spoke with independent journalist Max Blumenthal about the indictment and the overblown reaction which has prompted comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11:

I shall come back to Trump in a moment. But first please note how Mueller has been given a free pass by the media. This is the same Robert Mueller who was appointed FBI head by George W Bush literally one week prior to the September 11th attacks and who thereafter, as former FBI special agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley points out at length, alongside then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, “presided over post-9/11 cover-ups and secret abuses of the Constitution, enabled Bush-Cheney fabrications used to launch wrongful wars, and exhibited plain vanilla incompetence”:

I wanted to believe Director Mueller when he expressed some regret in our personal meeting the night before we both testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He told me he was seeking improvements and that I should not hesitate to contact him if I ever witnessed a similar situation to what was behind the FBI’s pre 9/11 failures.

A few months later, when it appeared he was acceding to Bush-Cheney’s ginning up intelligence to launch the unjustified, counterproductive and illegal war on Iraq, I took Mueller up on his offer, emailing him my concerns in late February 2003. Mueller knew, for instance, that Vice President Dick Cheney’s claims connecting 9/11 to Iraq were bogus yet he remained quiet. He also never responded to my email. 5

Click here to read Coleen Rowley’s full article entitled “Russia-gate’s Mythical ‘Heroes’”

What is not in dispute, however, is that Trump has undeniably dirty ties with Russia as elsewhere. Seldom discussed are his related dirty ties to Israel. Indeed, if you take a cursory look online you’ll quickly discover that during the time of the US election “Trump: Make Israel great again!” posters were trending in Tel Aviv:

 

Please note: the original image was removed so I have embedded a similar one published by abc news.

The image above was published by New Europe and is captioned:

An Israeli cyclist passes placards proclaiming ‘Trump Make Israel Great Again’ in Tel Aviv, Israel, 12 November 2016. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first foreign leaders to call and congratulate Donald Trump November 9 after he won the US presidential election. In a Wall Street Journal interview Trump called the Israeli – Palestinian conflict ‘the war that never ends’ and added that ‘as a deal maker, I’d like to do…the deal that can’t be made. And do it for humanity’s sake.’

While the same article further reminds us:

During the campaign, Trump committed to [move the US embassy to Jerusalem] in more than one occasions. He first made the promise during the primaries in an AIPAC event in March. AIPAC is the US-Israeli lobby. 6

Click here to read the full article.

In fact, both presidential candidates bent over backwards to secure the backing of AIPAC, the most formidable foreign lobby group in America, but that doesn’t count as meddling apparently.

Meanwhile, the bizarre claim that a handful of Russians threw the election process into confusion via social media platforms is an already laughably pathetic allegation, made worse for the simple fact that it is next to impossible to validate, since, as Mueller knows perfectly well, those named will never be extradited to face trial. And for what crime are they to be indicted exactly? For not being American citizens but writing about an US election without registering as a foreign agent. That’s certainly the precedent Muller is setting here. Moreover, the contention is not that this alleged ‘troll farm’ has been spreading falsehoods as such, but that they cunningly redeployed truth in order to deceive the ignorant masses.

The following extract is the opening to a recent article [Thurs 15th] published by the Washington Post entitled “Russia used mainstream media to manipulate America voters”:

Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election relied heavily on stories produced by major American news sources to shape the online political debate, according to an analysis published Thursday.

The analysis by Columbia University social-media researcher Jonathan Albright of more than 36,000 tweets sent by Russian accounts showed that obscure or foreign news sources played a comparatively minor role, suggesting that the discussion of “fake news” during the campaign has been somewhat miscast.

Albright’s research, which he said is the most extensive to date on the news links that Russians used to manipulate the American political conversation on Twitter, bolsters observations by other analysts. Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who is now a disinformation expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said that by linking to popular news sources, the Russians enhanced the credibility of their Twitter accounts, making it easier to manipulate audiences.

“The Kremlin, they don’t need to create a false narrative. It’s already there,” he said. “You’re just taking a narrative and elevating it.”

As the article confesses, it’s not about truth or falsehood anymore but who controls the agenda:

“These trolls didn’t need to retweet RT and Sputnik,” Albright said. “All they needed to do was pick out certain themes and push them.” 7

This is what the corporate news media does day in, day out of course. It tells the public what to believe in and what to dismiss. If Trump says “fake news” then we are to presume that he lying. If the media use it then we are to presume they are protecting us from the liars.

As historian Jackson Lears wrote in an excellent and detailed piece entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” published by the London Review of Books in January:

Epistemological nihilism looms, but some people and institutions have more power than others to define what constitutes an agreed-on reality. To say this is to risk dismissal as the ultimate wing-nut in the lexicon of contemporary Washington: the conspiracy theorist. Still, the fact remains: sometimes powerful people arrange to promote ideas that benefit their common interests. Whether we call this hegemony, conspiracy or merely special privilege hardly matters. What does matter is the power to create what Gramsci called the ‘common sense’ of an entire society. Even if much of that society is indifferent to or suspicious of the official common sense, it still becomes embedded among the tacit assumptions that set the boundaries of ‘responsible opinion’. So the Democratic establishment (along with a few Republicans) and the major media outlets have made ‘Russian meddling’ the common sense of the current moment. What kind of cultural work does this common sense do? What are the consequences of the spectacle the media call (with characteristic originality) ‘Russiagate’?

[…]

The Democratic Party has now developed a new outlook on the world, a more ambitious partnership between liberal humanitarian interventionists and neoconservative militarists than existed under the cautious Obama. This may be the most disastrous consequence for the Democratic Party of the new anti-Russian orthodoxy: the loss of the opportunity to formulate a more humane and coherent foreign policy. The obsession with Putin has erased any possibility of complexity from the Democratic world picture, creating a void quickly filled by the monochrome fantasies of Hillary Clinton and her exceptionalist allies. 8

*

‘Russian Influence’ is actually a commercial marketing scheme

Click here to read a detailed breakdown on Mueller’s published indictments by Moon of Alabama. Here are a few excerpts pointing to significant facts the corporate media is entirely failing to cover, and beginning with an overview of why “The indictment is fodder for the public to prove that the Mueller investigation is ‘doing something’”:

Yesterday the U.S. Justice Department indicted the Russian Internet Research Agency on some dubious legal grounds. It covers thirteen Russian people and three Russian legal entities. The main count of the indictment is an alleged “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States”.

The published indictment gives support to our long held belief that there was no “Russian influence” campaign during the U.S. election. What is described and denounced as such was instead a commercial marketing scheme, which ran click-bait websites to generate advertisement revenue and created online crowds around virtual persona to promote whatever its commercial customers wanted to promote. The size of the operation was tiny when compared to the hundreds of millions in campaign expenditures. It had no influence on the election outcome.

[…]

The Justice Department indictment is quite long and detailed. It must have been expensive. If you read it do so with the above in mind. Skip over the assumptions and claims of political interference and digest only the facts. All that is left is, as explained, a commercial marketing scheme.

[…]

The indictment then goes on and on describing the “political activities” of the sock-puppet personas. Some posted pro-Hillary slogans, some anti-Hillary stuff, some were pro-Trump, some anti-everyone, some urged not to vote, others to vote for third party candidates. The sock-puppets did not create or post fake news. They posted mainstream media stories.

Some of the persona called for going to anti-Islam rallies while others promoted pro-Islam rallies. The Mueller indictment lists a total of eight rallies. Most of these did not take place at all. No one joined the “Miners For Trump” rallies in Philly and Pittsburgh. A “Charlotte against Trump” march on November 19 – after the election – was attended by one hundred people. Eight people came for a pro-Trump rally in Fort Myers.

The sock-puppets called for rallies to establish themselves as ‘activist’ and ‘leadership’ persona, to generate more online traffic and additional followers. There was in fact no overall political trend in what the sock-puppets did. The sole point of all such activities was to create a large total following by having multiple personas which together covered all potential social-political strata.

[…]

There was no political point to what the Russian company did. Whatever political slogans one of the company’s sock-puppets posted had only one aim: to increase the number of followers for that sock-puppet. The sole point of creating a diverse army of sock-puppets with large following crowds was to sell the ‘eyeballs’ of the followers to the paying customers of the marketing company.

[Highlighted as in original]

And the conclusion:

The Mueller investigation found no “collusion” between anything Russian and the Trump campaign. The indictment does not mention any. The whole “Russian influence” storm is based on a misunderstanding of commercial activities of a Russian marketing company in U.S. social networks.

There is a danger in this. The indictment sets up a new theory of nefarious foreign influence that could be applied to even this blog. As U.S. lawyer Robert Barns explains:

“The only thing frightening about this indictment is the dangerous and dumb precedent it could set: foreign nationals criminally prohibited from public expression in the US during elections unless registered as foreign agents and reporting their expenditures to the FEC.”

[…]

“Mueller’s new crime only requires 3 elements: 1) a foreign national; 2) outspoken on US social media during US election; and 3) failed to register as a foreign agent or failed to report receipts/expenditures of speech activity. Could indict millions under that theory.”

[…]

“The legal theory of the indictment for most of the defendants and most of the charges alleges that the “fraud” was simply not registering as a foreign agent or not reporting expenses to the FEC because they were a foreign national expressing views in a US election.”

Author Leonid Bershidsky, who prominently writes for Bloombergremarks:

“I’m actually surprised I haven’t been indicted. I’m Russian, I was in the U.S. in 2016 and I published columns critical of both Clinton and Trump w/o registering as a foreign agent.”

As most of you will know your author writing this is German. I write pseudo-anonymously for a mostly U.S. audience. My postings are political and during the U.S. election campaign expressed an anti-Hillary view. The blog is hosted on U.S, infrastructure paid for by me. I am not registered as Foreign Agent or with the Federal Election Commission.

Under the theory on which the indictment is based I could also be indicted for a similar “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States”.

(Are those of you who kindly donate for this blog co-conspiractors?)

When Yevgeni Prigozhin, the hot dog caterer who allegedly owns the internet promotion business, was asked about the indictment he responded:

“The Americans are really impressionable people, they see what they want to see. […] If they want to see the devil, let them see him.” 9

Click here to read the full and carefully documented analysis by Moon of Alabama.

*

Drilling down into ‘Russiagate’ to find the origins of ‘fake news’

‘Fake news’ as a meme has befuddled millions. To paraphrase Orwell: like so many Newspeak words, this phrase has two mutually contradictory meanings. Used by the mainstream it represents a shield against deception. Used by an opponent, however, and it merely confirms the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts.

Presumably for this reason, an oddly prevalent misapprehension has grown, especially amongst liberal-minded Trump opponents, that the term ‘fake news’ was coined by Donald Trump himself as a vain attempt to defend himself against regular attacks from the press corps. However, as soon as we retrace the breadcrumbs that lead back to ‘Russiagate’ reality becomes clearer.

‘Fake news’ was manufactured not by Trump, but by opponents. It arose from the ashes of the original ‘Russiagate’ scandal that had been concocted to divert attention from electoral rival Clinton in light of the leaks of campaign director John Podesta’s emails.  After her defeat, however, ‘Russiagate’ quickly resurfaced to spare Democrat blushes and with it came this new meme ‘fake news’.

As a reminder therefore, I return to historian Jackson Lears and his piece “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” published by the London Review of Books in January:

For the DNC, the great value of the Russian hack story is that it focuses attention away from what was actually in their emails. The documents revealed a deeply corrupt organisation, whose pose of impartiality was a sham. Even the reliably pro-Clinton Washington Post has admitted that ‘many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.’

And Lears takes pains to show in considerable detail why the Russian hacking charge (now widely forgotten) has always been unfounded:

[T]he hacking charges are unproved and may well remain so. Edward Snowden and others familiar with the NSA say that if long-distance hacking had taken place the agency would have monitored it and could detail its existence without compromising their secret sources and methods. In September, Snowden told Der Spiegel that the NSA ‘probably knows quite well who the invaders were’. And yet ‘it has not presented any evidence, although I suspect it exists. The question is: why not? … I suspect it discovered other attackers in the systems, maybe there were six or seven groups at work.’ He also said in July 2016 that ‘even if the attackers try to obfuscate origin, ‪#XKEYSCORE makes following exfiltrated data easy. I did this personally against Chinese ops.’ The NSA’s capacity to follow hacking to its source is a matter of public record. When the agency investigated pervasive and successful Chinese hacking into US military and defence industry installations, it was able to trace the hacks to the building where they originated, a People’s Liberation Army facility in Shanghai. That information was published in the New York Times, but, this time, the NSA’s failure to provide evidence has gone curiously unremarked. When The Intercept published a story about the NSA’s alleged discovery that Russian military intelligence had attempted to hack into US state and local election systems, the agency’s undocumented assertions about the Russian origins of the hack were allowed to stand as unchallenged fact and quickly became treated as such in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, there has been a blizzard of ancillary accusations, including much broader and vaguer charges of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. It remains possible that Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who has been appointed to investigate these allegations, may turn up some compelling evidence of contacts between Trump’s people and various Russians. It would be surprising if an experienced prosecutor empowered to cast a dragnet came up empty-handed, and the arrests have already begun. But what is striking about them is that the charges have nothing to do with Russian interference in the election.

In the same piece, Lears continues:

So far, after months of ‘bombshells’ that turn out to be duds, there is still no actual evidence for the claim that the Kremlin ordered interference in the American election. Meanwhile serious doubts have surfaced about the technical basis for the hacking claims. Independent observers have argued it is more likely that the emails were leaked from inside, not hacked from outside. On this front, the most persuasive case was made by a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, former employees of the US intelligence agencies who distinguished themselves in 2003 by debunking Colin Powell’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, hours after Powell had presented his pseudo-evidence at the UN. (There are members of VIPS who dissent from the VIPS report’s conclusions, but their arguments are in turn contested by the authors of the report.) The VIPS findings received no attention in major media outlets, except Fox News – which from the centre-left perspective is worse than no attention at all. Mainstream media have dismissed the VIPS report as a conspiracy theory (apparently the Russian hacking story does not count as one). The crucial issue here and elsewhere is the exclusion from public discussion of any critical perspectives on the orthodox narrative, even the perspectives of people with professional credentials and a solid track record.

Both the DNC hacking story and the one involving the emails of John Podesta, a Clinton campaign operative, involve a shadowy bunch of putatively Russian hackers called Fancy Bear – also known among the technically inclined as APT28. The name Fancy Bear was introduced by Dimitri Alperovitch, the chief technology officer of Crowdstrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the DNC to investigate the theft of their emails. Alperovitch is also a fellow at the Atlantic Council, an anti-Russian Washington think tank. In its report Crowdstrike puts forward close to zero evidence for its claim that those responsible were Russian, let alone for its assertion that they were affiliated with Russian military intelligence. And yet, from this point on, the assumption that this was a Russian cyber operation was unquestioned. When the FBI arrived on the scene, the Bureau either did not request or was refused access to the DNC servers; instead it depended entirely on the Crowdstrike analysis. Crowdstrike, meanwhile, was being forced to retract another claim, that the Russians had successfully hacked the guidance systems of the Ukrainian artillery. The Ukrainian military and the British International Institute for Strategic Studies both contradicted this claim, and Crowdstrike backed down. But its DNC analysis was allowed to stand and even become the basis for the January Intelligence Community Assessment. 10

Click here to read the full article at the London Review of Books.

*

One of the leaked emails from Clinton stated:

“We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.” 11

As a report published Yahoo! News explained at the time:

In her email to Podesta, she goes beyond this [accusing individuals], saying the Saudi and Qatari governments themselves are funding ISIS — a far more serious allegation with potentially more dramatic diplomatic implications. And one that has riled up critics of Saudi Arabia here in the U.S.

Still more embarrassingly:

Clinton sent the email to Podesta when he still worked for Obama as counselor. He became Clinton’s campaign chair in January of 2015. Adding to the potential awkwardness for her campaign, Podesta’s brother, Tony Podesta, runs one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms, which in September 2015 signed a contract to lobby for the Saudi government.

A few weeks later, Tony Podesta held a Clinton campaign fundraiser, attended by John Podesta, and has since been listed as one of the campaign’s chief “bundlers” or premier fundraisers. The Clinton campaign did not return a request for comment about whether the candidate believes it is appropriate to accept campaign donations from someone who has lobbied for a government she believes is sponsoring terrorism.

However, in the same report we then hear from Glen Caplin, senior Clinton campaign spokesman, who tells us:

“These are hacked, stolen documents by the Russian government, which has weaponized WikiLeaks to help elect Donald Trump”

And the article adds that:

Some former top U.S. national security experts last week warned that the Russians may seek to “doctor” leaked material, but the Clinton campaign has yet to offer evidence that any of the WikiLeaks emails were forged or tampered with. 12

Click here to read the full Yahoo! News report entitled “In leaked email, Clinton claims Saudi and Qatari governments fund ISIS”

The link above embedded in the article is still more instructive. It takes us to a previous Yahoo! News story where we learn that:

The Obama administration today publicly accused the Russian government of cyberattacks against U.S. political organizations and prominent figures that are “intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

The extraordinary move comes after months of disclosures stemming from the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and other groups — cyberattacks that the U.S. intelligence community is now “confident” were directed by the Russian government.

In other words, we find the origins to what would soon become ‘Russiagate’: a story transparently devoid of any substantiated facts at all and based solely on allegations in turn determined baseless by a range of independent experts (read earlier post) and then widely forgotten.

This had followed from a joint statement made by the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security claiming:

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations…

“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process…

“Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

This clumsy yet effective scapegoating of Russia quite deliberately switched the attention of our gullible and obedient press away prying any further into Clinton’s emails, and there was more…

Earlier Friday, a group of former top national security officials and experts warned that Russian intelligence agents may “doctor” emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other political groups as part of a sophisticated “disinformation” campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 election.

The group, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, urged the news media to be “cautious” about publishing such material lest they play into Russian hands.

“What is taking place in the United States follows a well-known Russian playbook: First leak compelling and truthful information to gain credibility. The next step: Release fake documents that look the same,” the group said in a joint public statement.

Much more…

“The Russians aren’t coming. They’re already here,” said Tara Sonenshine, a former undersecretary for public diplomacy under Clinton and one of the organizers of the joint statement.

The fear that more embarrassing emails may be coming is especially acute among Democratic operatives and loyalists, who have become convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin is more favorably disposed to Trump and doing what he can to assist his candidacy. And perhaps not surprisingly, most, if not all, of the 16 former officials and national security experts who signed the statement — including Chertoff, who served during the Bush administration — have endorsed Clinton.

Sonenshine insisted that the purpose of the letter was not to pressure the news media to refuse to publish any leaked emails. Instead, she said, it is only to inject a cautionary note into the review of such material given the Russian propensity to fabricate documents.

“You can’t put out a red stop sign to journalism,” she said. “But you can put up a yellow flag.”

Sonenshine and another organizer of the letter, Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress, said there is evidence that the Russian intelligence service has fabricated or altered documents to further its political aims in Ukraine and elsewhere. And the joint statement warns that such actions appear to fit into a larger strategy of using “cyber tools” targeting Western democracies. Similar concerns about Russian “information warfare” were raised in a recent U.S. intelligence report, disclosed last week by Yahoo News, that cited the activities of Russian Internet trolls and the broadcasts of RT and Sputnik, two state-sponsored media outlets. 13

Click here to read the full Yahoo! News story entitled “U.S. accuses Russia of cyberattacks ‘intended to interfere’ with election”.

Follow the link and still the list of allegations goes on…

Another tactic of the [Russian] trolls is to inject blatantly false stories into the media, forcing public officials in Europe and the U.S. to respond, according to Weiss and other experts. A New York Times Sunday Magazine piece last year documented how Russian trolls based in the St. Petersburg office had swamped Twitter with hundreds of messages about an explosion at a Louisiana chemical plant that never took place, setting up dozens of fake accounts and doctoring screenshots from CNN and Louisiana TV stations to make the pseudo-event seem real. (The trolls even created a fake Wikipedia page about the supposed explosion, which in turn linked to a phony YouTube video.) 14

From another Yahoo! News story by Michael Isikoff.

But still, September 2016 is prior to the full launch of the meme ‘fake news’ and so this story (like the ones quoted before) describes the ‘injection’ of “blatantly false stories” in an increasingly aggressive “information warfare” campaign with the ‘spread’ of “pro-Kremlin messages”. The Cold War overtones are unmistakeable. We are faced with the deliberate corruption of our free and democratic society that is as insidious as any viral infection: a corruption that needs naming and shaming. Finally, then we come to the manufacturing of the buzzword ‘fake news’ and to the appearance of PropOrNot.

This shadowy ‘group of experts’ which insists on complete public anonymity first made the headlines with the release of ‘a report’ in November 2016. Dramatically, it claimed to have identified more than 200 websites that were agents of Russian propaganda. ‘Fake news’ was about to become a fully-fledged trope.

So here is the Washington Post providing an uncritical platform (the editor’s note was added later) for the PropOrNot’s neo-McCarthyite blacklist:

The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.

It continues:

PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times. 15

Listed amongst these ‘Russian agents’ were WikiLeaks, Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Truthdig, Naked Capitalism, Antiwar.com, the Ron Paul Institute, Zerohedge, Corbett Report, Global Research and Counterpunch. In other words, pretty much anyone who’s anyone in alternative news.

As Glen Greenwald and Ben Norton wrote in The Intercept:

This Post report was one of the most widely circulated political news articles on social media over the last 48 hours, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. journalists and pundits with large platforms hailing it as an earth-shattering exposé. It was the most-read piece on the entire Post website on Friday after it was published.

Yet the article is rife with obviously reckless and unproven allegations, and fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics. It was not surprising to learn that, as BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel noted, “a lot of reporters passed on this story.” Its huge flaws are self-evident. But the Post gleefully ran with it and then promoted it aggressively, led by its Executive Editor Marty Baron:

Greenwald and Norton continue:

In his article, the Post’s Timberg did not include a link to PropOrNot’s website. If readers had the opportunity to visit the site, it would have become instantly apparent that this group of ostensible experts far more resembles amateur peddlers of primitive, shallow propagandistic clichés than serious, substantive analysis and expertise; that it has a blatant, demonstrable bias in promoting NATO’s narrative about the world; and that it is engaging in extremely dubious McCarthyite tactics about a wide range of critics and dissenters.16

I will not link here to the Washington Post article because I am disinclined to direct others to waste their time on execrable clickbait. However, for anyone who wishes to check the above quotes, the link is available as always in the footnotes.

Click here to read Greenwald’s article in The Intercept.

*

Additional: What everyone is missing about ‘Russiagate’

Embedded below is an incisive overview by James Corbett entitled “What EVERYONE is missing about ‘Russiagate’”. As he says:

Yes, America interferes in elections all the time. And yes, the Russian ad buys happened after the election. And yes, the DNC really did rig the primaries for Hillary. But if you believe the truth then you’re a dirty Russian!

*

1 From Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part II, Chapter 9 by George Orwell in which he quotes passages from “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism” written by enemy of the state Emmanuel Goldstein.

2 From an article entitled “Jeremy Corbyn should be ‘open’ over spy’s claims, says Theresa May” published by BBC news on February 19, 2018. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43111794

3 From an article entitled “Corbyn’s spy connection and me” written by Paul Anderson published by Little Atoms on February 19, 2018. http://littleatoms.com/corbyns-spy-connection-and-me

4 From an article entitled “Putin’s chef, a troll farm and Russia’s plot to hijack US democracy” written by David Smith, published in the Guardian on February 17, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/17/putins-chef-a-troll-farm-and-russias-plot-to-hijack-us-democracy

5 From an article entitled “Russia-gate’s Mythical ‘Heroes’” written by Coleen Rowley, published in Consortium News on June 6, 2017. https://consortiumnews.com/2017/06/06/russia-gates-mythical-heroes/

6 From an article entitled “The President-elect intends to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel” published by New Europe Online on December 13, 2016. https://www.neweurope.eu/article/trump-move-us-embassy-jerusalem/

7 From an article entitled “Russia used mainstream media to manipulate American voters” written by Craig Timberg, published in the Washington Post on February 15, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/technology/russia-used-mainstream-media-to-manipulate-american-voters/2018/02/15/85f7914e-11a7-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.f1c18d3c326e

8 From an article entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” written by Jackson Lears, published in the London Review of Books on January 4, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n01/jackson-lears/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-russian-hacking

9 From an article entitled “Mueller Indictment: ‘Russian Influence’ is commercial marketing scheme” published by Moon of Alabama on February 18, 2018. https://popularresistance.org/mueller-indictment-russian-influence-is-commercial-marketing-scheme/

10 From an article entitled “What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Russian Hacking” written by Jackson Lears, published in the London Review of Books on January 4, 2018. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n01/jackson-lears/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-russian-hacking

11 https://wikileaks.org/podesta-emails/emailid/3774

12 From an article entitled “In leaked  email, Clinton claims Saudi and Qatari governments fund ISIS” written by Liz Goodwin and Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on October 11, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/in-leaked-email-clinton-claims-saudi-and-qatari-governments-fund-isis-221758254.html

13 From an article entitled “U.S. accuses Russia of cyberattacks ‘intended to interfere’ with election” written by Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on October 7, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/u-s-accuses-russia-of-cyberattacks-intended-to-interfere-with-election-214628799.html

14 From an article entitled “Russia steps up trolling attacks on the West, U.S. intel report finds” written by Michael Isikoff, published in Yahoo! News on September 28, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/russia-steps-up-trolling-attacks-on-the-west-u-s-intel-report-finds-203421008.html?soc_src=mail&soc_trk=ma

15 From an article entitled “Russian propaganda effort helped to spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say” written by Craig Timberg, published in the Washington Post on November 24, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/russian-propaganda-effort-helped-spread-fake-news-during-election-experts-say/2016/11/24/793903b6-8a40-4ca9-b712-716af66098fe_story.html?utm_term=.a1008a7fedcf

16 From an article entitled “Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group” written by Glen Greenwald and Ben Norton, published in The Intercept on November 26, 2016. https://theintercept.com/2016/11/26/washington-post-disgracefully-promotes-a-mccarthyite-blacklist-from-a-new-hidden-and-very-shady-group/

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Corbyn v. Smith is a bigger than Labour and bigger than Britain

There’s always a new way
A better way that’s not been tried before

Ben Okri 1

This leadership contest is a battle for the soul of the Labour Party, we hear – repeatedly. Often enough that it has become something of a cliché. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It simply means we tend to stop thinking about the deep and inherent truth of it.

Here’s another cliché: it’s about a movement, not a man (a slogan better associated with Bernie Sanders’ campaign although more fitting in Corbyn’s case). Corbyn, after all, is actively committed to the building of a movement, fully aware that without massive popular support, the core policies he advocates would be both too radical to institute and could not possibly endure.

But then Corbyn is an instinctive democrat. So he recognises something others on the left habitually forget. That socialism and democracy must travel hand in hand as equal partners (for without democracy, socialism is rapidly debased and sinks to be as oppressive as any system it challenges). Fortunately – and here is the crux – social justice and genuine equality are what the majority would unfailingly choose if clearly presented with such an option, and if only because social justice and greater equality serve the self-interest of the majority.

Orwell put this perfectly:

“Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.”

Since, as he goes on to point out:

“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.” 2

So here’s a third and final thought – perhaps it can become a cliché too (certainly it is not original). That those who today stop at nothing to stop Corbyn are ultimately intent on stopping us all. Denying the vast majority of us basic rights, a modicum of social justice, a functioning NHS, pensions for all, and set solidly against any levelling up of what is now grotesque inequality. Okay, that’s too long to be a cliché – so reduce it; sloganise its kernel of blazingly obvious truth.

*

Corbyn, like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, is part of the new popular resistance that is rising up from the ruins of neoliberalism and globalization to fight the international banking system and American imperialism.

wrote American journalist and political commentator Chris Hedges in an article entitled “where is our Jeremy Corbyn?” published shortly after his leadership victory last Summer.

Hedge’s subtext is that Bernie Sanders is no Corbyn – and Hedges is correct, of course. Sanders capitulation to Clinton was the final proof, if proof was needed. However, Syriza and Podemos are no Corbyn either. Sadly, and in different ways, the wheels have now come off both these alternatives. Of the serious contenders then, Corbyn is the last man (currently) standing – and the only one who has a tested record.

Hedges also astutely foresaw today’s lamentable situation almost precisely a year ago – this is what he wrote then:

Corbyn’s ascent to the head of the Labour Party has already triggered a backlash against him by the forces of the neoliberal political order. These forces are determined to prevent him from becoming prime minister. The entrenched elites within his own party—a number of whom have already resigned from party leadership positions in protest of Corbyn’s election—will seek to do to him what the Democratic establishment did in 1972 to George McGovern after he won the party’s nomination. The rhetoric of fear has already begun. Prime Minister David Cameron on Sunday tweeted: “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.” This battle will be ugly. 3

Ugly is the word!

Here is Corbyn delivering a recent speech [August 21st] to a 4,000-strong crowd packed inside Ruach City Church, Kilburn in London – his central theme is real democracy: giving power back to the people…

*

Style over substance

“Politics is showbusiness for ugly people” Jay Leno 4

Owen Smith isn’t Superman, but he’s borrowing his poses.

The Labour leadership contender almost certainly can’t fly, and can’t boast of X-ray vision.

But he’s been snapped adjusting his glasses in the same fashion as the Man Of Steel’s alter ego, Clark Kent.

And this being the age of the internet, the iconic pose has not been overlooked. 5

So oozes a puff piece written by Mikey Smith (presumably no relation) and published by the shamelessly sycophantic Mirror at the beginning of Smith’s already faltering campaign for Labour leadership back in mid July.

For the record, here is another superhero lookalike with the same iconic pose…

Groovy baby, yeah!!!

Which is the trouble with politics that obsesses over synthetic charisma and spin. Not only that these are extremely shallow attributes, but that the public has grown weary of them. We see through the sophistry and are turned off by the plastic presentation. Like Austin Powers, Smith’s act is dated and outmoded, but worse still, it lacks any modicum of charm.

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Normality v. Reality

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” — Martin Luther King 6

Owen Smith’s ineffective charm offensive is one side of former Pfizer-mans latest rebranding exercise. The other side is more revealing: that Owen Smith is ‘normal’!

We know this because he said so, over and over again, during a Sky News interview. The offhanded inference being, of course, that Corbyn is not as ‘normal’ as he is. But what does Smith even mean with his claims to be ‘normal’ (besides presumably not being “a lunatic”)?

Here is a closer analysis of Smith’s Sky News performance: a study of the dormant ratiocination betrayed line by line in his overwrought protestation of normalcy:

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In this post-ideological age, Corbyn stands out as exceptional on many counts. Although the quality that singularly distinguishes him from political rivals is simply his sincerity. That he holds principles and values we do not need to test him on. In fact no-one ever seriously challenges his good faith – his voting record alone attests to honest dependability.

We know, for instance, that Corbyn opposes the wars. He opposed the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the war in Libya, opposes airstrikes in Syria and Yemen, and served as chair of the Stop the War Coalition (2011—15). He is against Trident too.

Likewise, we know that he actively supports refugees including the two million living in Palestinian camps on the West Bank and inside the Gaza Strip and three million other displaced Palestinians living in camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. 7 He is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Equally we know that Corbyn is fiercely anti-austerity. That he is pro-workers’ rights, union rights, women’s right, LGBT rights, and human rights in general. That he is a staunch advocate of a fairer and more caring society with well-funded public sector services, universal welfare (though he says he prefers the less loaded term “social security”) and free healthcare provision for all. And we know that Corbyn is a committed environmentalist. Indeed, it is a delightful revelation to hear any modern politician who speaks so freely and so frankly on all these issues. But then, sincerity comes easily when you have integrity, as does remaining truthful for those who live in accordance with their own stated beliefs.

Tony Benn once explained how he divided politicians into one of two camps: weathercocks and signposts:

 “The signposts say this is the way you should go. You don’t have to follow them but if you come back in ten years’ time the signpost is still there. The weathercock hasn’t got an opinion until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, and discussed it with the spin doctors. I have no time for weathercocks, I’m a signpost man”

Benn was certainly a signpost. Corbyn is too. So how about Owen Smith and the PLP ‘rebels’ who back him…?

Smith says he is as passionate as Corbyn when it comes to all the important matters: housing, education, welfare, NHS. He’s a progressive, and always was anti-austerity and the rest. The main difference, he says, is that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’. That’s right – as any PR man will tell you – if you just repeat something often enough, it becomes true.

Smith hopes we will overlook how under Corbyn’s leadership Labour now enjoys the largest membership of any political party in Europe. And that at Corbyn’s rallies thousands regularly turn out to cheer. Smith does well if he manages to corral a few dozen onlookers (even with an ice-cream van parked nearby). No-one is excited by Smith: not even his supporters.

But then Smith’s copycat routine lacks the very thing that actually counts: authenticity. He is not the real deal. Corbyn is. And Corbyn’s authenticity is the fundamental reason why the focus of political debate in Britain is steadily swinging back again. Why anti-austerity, pro-public services rhetoric is becoming de rigueur. After less than a year as leader, constantly hobbled by those inside the party (very much including shadow cabinet colleagues like Smith), Corbyn has dragged the debate around regardless, and Owen Smith’s campaign inadvertently serves as further proof that Corbyn is winning. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Meanwhile, the PLP’s Blairite inner circle knows that as the desire for real change grows and with it distrust in the established political class, their unstinting efforts to undermine Corbyn are failing, because he is indeed electable. This keeps them awake at night.

For as hopeless as Smith is, he was the best challenger they could muster. The rest of the 170+ ‘rebels’ have mostly preferred to keep their heads down for obvious reasons. Smith is more reckless and, even as politicians go, morbidly ambitious: a character flaw that totally clouds his judgment. He believes his own spin. Meanwhile, the only other challenger to step forward was sillier even than Smith. Angela Eagle was evidently advised to step aside again asap. Both have very likely ruined their political careers for good.

Here is an audio clip from BBC Radio Stoke covering Jeremy Corbyn’s 1000-strong rally in Stoke-on-Trent on Thursday [September 1st] which includes an interview comprised of typically inane questions:

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Ultimately, this fight – possibly to the death given how the embedded Blairite entryists are so willing to sacrifice the party they hijacked two decades ago – pits the prevailing politics of style and spin against the long abandoned politics of content and real change. Hence the relentless mudslinging. Having nothing alternative to say, but with the might of the media behind them, slurs and innuendo is all Corbyn’s opponents can offer. Negative campaigning is all they’ve got.

This works up to a point (and sadly always will) but their stocks of ammunition are gradually being exhausted. Which is one reason the attacks have suddenly intensified – this challenge from Smith, though utterly inept (more in a moment), is certainly a blitzkrieg operation. They want to win quickly, not necessarily in this ballot, but in the hope of spoiling Corbyn’s long-term chances, especially as, following the grand slam in the party’s recent NEC vote, his supporters now look set to dig in. So the stage is set for act 2, scene 1. As for how many acts will follow? This we can only guess.

Smith says that he will heal the party, but again literally nobody believes him. Likewise, when he parrots the refrain that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’, he trusts that few will be able to spot the irony. Yet even while the media keeps its hounds at bay, he still manages to make gaffe after gaffe. For a man with such a relatively low-level of public exposure (basically unknown to most people just two months ago), his track record is mind-bogglingly incompetent. His latest one so cringeworthy that it might have been gabbled forth as the lewd punch-line to the crassest of David Brent’s unguarded ejaculations:

Not that uncontrolled outbursts of casual sexism are anything new to Smith’s repertoire. In May 2010, literally days after first entering parliament after a narrow victory in the Labour safe seat of Pontypridd, he found himself apologising for publishing the following remark:

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

Feeling the heat after making such a thoughtless and insensitive comparison between the relations within the newly-formed coalition government and domestic abuse, Smith afterwards ‘apologised’ with a big wavering ‘if’, writing:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing.” 8

So does anyone seriously imagine Smith would survive long once the press have stopped comparing him to Clark Kent and marked him down rather more perceptively as just another “Welsh windbag” (with the majority of Labour party members nodding sorrowfully in accord)?

Surely, no matter how rigged – and this vote is enormously rigged, as we know – Smith will be defeated by the end of this bitter and ridiculous leadership challenge.

As Aaron Bastani of ‘Novara Media’ sums up in the video below “Smith’s candidacy is a farce…”:

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A new dream of politics

“Politics is the art of the possible” Otto von Bismarck 9

If politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck once said, then what does this mean? Well, it all depends on where you decide to place the emphasis. Bismarck, who was famed for his realpolitik, would have placed the emphasis on ‘possible’. What is possible becomes, according to this idea, the prime constraint. And Bismarck’s conviction is today’s orthodoxy.

Others, however, may prefer to place the emphasis earlier, on the word ‘art’ instead. The constraint then falls not solely on practicability, but on the collective imagining of how a better future can be made possible. A politics grounded no longer in mere expediency – although there is a great deal to be said for pragmatism, of course – but held in check by values and moral principles, whilst elevated by human creativity.

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On the day Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he shunned the journalists and ignored the cameras and headed off instead to speak about some of the people who had inspired him. He said “The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love.” These words were in fact stolen from Nigerian novelist and poet Ben Okri. Afterwards, Okri repaid the compliment with a poem dedicated to Corbyn, entitled “A New Dream of Politics”.

Then in July, Corbyn and Okri – who met sometime later – decided to stage a joint event at the Royal Festival Hall. United by a desire to make our world a kinder, fairer place, they spent a leisurely hour exploring a range of subjects encompassing history, world affairs and literature along with the personal journeys that made them who they are. A curious mix of readings, conversations and word games: they let politics take a backseat to the art of the possible – as it should:

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Additional: worst example of BBC bias yet?

On Friday night [Sept 2nd] BBC’s flagship political show Newsnight closed as follows:

Emily Maitlis: In the week that JK Rowling went to war with the Corbynistas on Twitter over who should lead the Labour Party. Getting into a scrap with one of the country’s most influential authors probably isn’t a good idea though, as we discovered when Warner Brothers gave us a sneak peak of the next Harry Potter movie.

Given that the party is in the midst of a leadership campaign, I raise two points.

Firstly, is “Corbynistas” acceptable language for a publicly funded organisation with a commitment to maintain impartiality? Has the BBC ever used the term “Blairite” in an equivalent manner during this leadership campaign or on any earlier occasion?

Secondly, although the BBC will defend itself on the grounds that this is a joke, it has already been harshly criticised by former chair of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, who said there had been “some quite extraordinary attacks on the elected leader of the Labour party”.

Click here to read a Guardian article published on May 12th entitled “BBC may have shown bias against Corbyn, says former trust chair.”

More recently, the BBC was declared guilty of “marked and persistent imbalance” in a report released by the researchers from the Media Reform Coalition and Birkbeck, University of London, which found that “almost twice as much unchallenged airtime was given to people criticising Mr Corbyn than his allies on the BBC”.

Click here to read an Independent article published on July 30th entitled “Media ‘persistently’ biased against Jeremy Corbyn, academic study finds”

Given that the BBC is already under suspicion of bias, how does it now see fit to portray Corbyn as, in effect (and regardless of context), the Prince of Darkness?

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Update:

On September 1st, Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke at Cardiff City Hall, and offered a candid and entertaining blow-by-blow account of the PLP coup against Corbyn. (Unfortunately the audio is quite poor throughout and so I advise turning the treble down and the bass up):

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1 

Final couplet from Ben Okri’s poem “A New Dream of Politics” which he dedicated to Jeremy Corbyn. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/12/ben-okri-politics-poem-jeremy-corbyn

2 Extract taken from The Road to Wigan Pier, Part 2, Chapter 11, written by George Orwell, published in 1937.

3 From an article entitled “Where Is Our Jeremy Corbyn?” written by Chris Hedges, published in Truthdig on September 13, 2015. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/where_is_our_jeremy_corbyn_20150913

4 Quote often attributed to American comedian and TV host, Jay Leno, although perhaps first used by Clinton-Gore strategist Paul Begala. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/reliable-source/2010/12/who_says_washington_is_hollywo.html

5 From an article entitled “Owen Smith posed for this picture and now the internet is convinced he’s Superman” written by Mikey Smith published in The Mirror on July 27, 2016. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/owen-smith-posed-picture-now-8508455

6 From Strength to Love, Ch. 2 “Transformed nonconformist”, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., published in 1963. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_strength_to_love_1963/

7

Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

UNRWA services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of Palestine refugee males, including adopted children, are also eligible for registration. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.

Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

From the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) official website. http://www.unrwa.org/palestine-refugees

8 From an article entitled “MP Owen Smith sorry for domestic violence comment” published by BBC news on May 25, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10156864

9 Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen. (Politics is the art of the possible) Otto von Bismarck

From an interview (August 11, 1867) with Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck of the St. Petersburgische Zeitung: Aus den Erinnerungen eines russischen Publicisten. 2. Ein Stündchen beim Kanzler des norddeutschen Bundes. In: Die Gartenlaube (1876). Reprinted in Fürst Bismarck: neue Tischgespräche und Interviews, Vol. 1, p. 248.

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Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen is “straight from the American playbook”

In his essay entitled, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says, “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Orwell, whose writings are more prescient with each passing year, would wince at the words of Saudi Arabia’s Brigadier General Asiri, who, in a recent press conference, defended Saudi Arabia’s unprovoked war in Yemen by saying, “all we are trying to do is to make sure that there is security in Yemen.” Bombing an already desperately poor country’s infrastructure, destroying its armed forces (the same armed forces that were equipped and trained to fight al-Qaeda by the US), air dropping weapons (now being sold in Yemen’s arms markets), blockading Yemen’s ports (Yemen imports 90% of its food), and hobbling an already struggling economy are hardly ways of ensuring security.

So begins an article by Middle East analyst Michael Horton published in Counterpunch a fortnight ago. Horton writes:

To sum it up: an autocracy with a deplorable human rights record (Saudi Arabia’s Sharia courts routinely behead criminals and flog victims of gang rape as well as recalcitrant bloggers) and its partners—which includes the US—are endeavoring to reinstall an ineffectual exiled government of questionable legitimacy and ensure security in Yemen by bombing and starving it into submission.

[President Abdu Rabbu Mansour] Hadi and his exiled government are supporting the bombardment of their own country and calling on the Saudis and their allies to intensify air strikes and launch what will likely be a disastrous ground invasion. Of course, these calls for more bombs, more weapons, and more war are being made by men who fled Yemen aboard private jets and are comfortably ensconced in villas in Riyadh. They do not have to worry about being incinerated in their homes, finding food or water, or burying their dead. It is worth citing another quote from Orwell who wrote in Homage to Catalonia, “all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.” 1

Click here to read Michael Horton’s complete article.

On Thursday [April 23rd], Democracy Now! invited Toby Jones, Associate Professor of History and Director of Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, to discuss the Saudi bombing campaign and the resulting humanitarian crisis, which the International Committee of the Red Cross has already described as “catastrophic”.

Asked about “Operation Decisive Storm” and the obvious parallel in its naming to “Operation Desert Storm” (of the Gulf War), Jones replied:

Well, Adel al-Jubeir [Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US] said it very well, right? The Saudis are interested in destroying and degrading Yemen’s military capacity, particularly those of the Houthis. But they have a series of mixed objectives that we shouldn’t be persuaded by. One is the stated claim that they want to protect their borders in any threat to Saudi Arabia. The reality is, the Houthis have never represented a threat to Saudi Arabia, and they still don’t, even though they enjoy control over much of Yemen. And the other is to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi. In reality, Hadi was—his position in power was orchestrated by the Saudi and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] after the Arab uprisings.

I mean, the bottom line is this: Yemen has long been the backyard of Saudi Arabia. It’s a deeply impoverished place that the Saudis believe they should assert political authority in, that they should influence outcomes.

Reality on the ground is they’ve accomplished very little. The Houthis have retained political authority. They’re even operating in Aden, which the Saudis said they hoped to preempt. It’s not clear what they’ve accomplished. They’ve declared victory, but they’ve done little more than actually kill almost a thousand Yemenis and degrade what was already, you know, a troubled infrastructure and environment.

Regarding claims of Iranian involvement in the conflict, Jones says:

Well, there’s no clear coordination between Iran and the Houthis. Let’s be clear: There’s absolutely no evidence that Iran is operating on the ground in Yemen or that it’s directing orders to the Houthi rebels.

And Washington’s role?

As far as the American role goes, the Americans view Yemen as a Saudi backyard, and they’re going to defer to the Saudis here. I mean, there’s lots of geopolitical sort of moving parts here, as well. While the Americans are chipping away on a nuclear arrangement with Iran, they understand and they’re very clear that the Saudis are uncomfortable with all of that. So they’re making concessions on Yemen, because it’s easy for the Americans to do so, providing small-scale cover and other kinds of material support, including putting warships close by the Port of Aden and elsewhere. I mean, this is simply a matter of the Americans making choices about where they can support the Saudis and where they can oppose them elsewhere, or at least where they can work at odds with them.

Yemen is and has for a long time been the most deeply impoverished place in the Middle East. But it has also been a political football in the region that the Saudis and the Americans have kicked around. This is a place where we talk about catastrophe and the environmental and humanitarian consequences of the recent campaign. This is not new in Yemen. Very little has been done to address it. And in spite of all of that, the U.S. has almost always pursued Yemen as a place to drop bombs and to target what they call militants. And with that in mind, it’s easy for them to support the Saudis, who are claiming to do the same thing.

After a fortnight’s bombardment and close to a thousand deaths, Michael Horton published a follow-up article (also in Counterpunch) reporting on what he describes as perhaps the most ill-advised of all the “three decades of ill-advised wars in the Middle East.” And the ghost of Orwell is there in the background once again, to furrow his brow and shake his head in disbelief:

“Operation Decisive Storm,” the ironic name for Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign in Yemen, has led to nothing decisive in Yemen beyond ensuring that the country remains a failed state and fertile ground for organizations like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Long before the commencement of “Operation Decisive Storm,” Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, was grappling with a host of problems ranging from severe water shortages, food insecurity, and a moribund economy, to a long running multi-front insurgency. Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has exacerbated all of these problems and could well be the coup de grace for a unified and relatively stable Yemen.

On Tuesday April 21st, the government of Saudi Arabia abruptly announced that it was ending “Operation Decisive Storm” and that it would be scaling back its aerial campaign in Yemen. “Operation Decisive Storm” will be replaced with “Operation Restore Hope,” an unfortunate name for a military operation given that it was also the name for the US’ ill-fated 1992-3 intervention in Somalia. It is unclear what “Operation Restore Hope” aims to achieve; however, the first phase of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has been disastrous.

From all the carnage of “Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war”, Horton says, there is just one victor, al-Qaeda:

AQAP has, so far, been the only beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. In south east Yemen, in the governorate of the Hadramawt, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken over Yemen’s fifth largest city, Mukalla, and has also taken control of the city’s airport and port. “Operation Decisive Storm” targeted the Houthis, a Zaidi militia that is the sworn enemy of al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia’s aerial bombardment also focused on those elements of the Yemeni Armed Forces that are allied with the Houthis and former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. These same military units, including the Yemeni Air Force which has been largely destroyed, were also critical to fighting AQAP and its allies. “Operation Decisive Storm” has effectively neutralized the two forces that were responsible for impeding AQAP’s advance across large sections of southern and eastern Yemen. 2

Click here to read Michael Horton’s complete article.

As Toby Jones summed up:

The Houthis didn’t call for war, and they coordinated closely with actors on the ground. They’re the ones who were being attacked, even though they’re the ones who have been calling for a political settlement to a deeply broken system all along. The fact that the Saudis have recast this in a language that the Houthis are the villains and the ones acting dangerously is remarkable, as is the fact that the Saudis can drop bombs while calling it a humanitarian mission. In reality—I mean, in many ways, it’s a play straight from the American playbook.

Click here to read the full transcript or to watch the interview on the Democracy Now! website.

1 From an article entitled “War is Peace in Yemen” written by Michael Horton, published in Counterpunch on April 10–12, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/10/war-is-peace-in-yemen/ 

2 From an article entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Disastrous War in Yemen” written by Michael Horton, published in Counterpunch on April 22, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/22/saudi-arabias-disastrous-war-in-yemen/  

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the unreal thing

The following article is Chapter Eight 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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Advertising is the rattling stick inside a swill bucket”

George Orwell

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“Take a card, any card, it’s your choice… but don’t let me see what it is.” The magician fans the cards flamboyantly. We know it’s a trick of course. “Three of Clubs,” he tells us. We shake our heads dismissively – after all, we’re part of the act. The magician seems momentarily perplexed. “Do you have anything in your jacket pocket?” he asks as if desperately trying to turn our attention away from his apparent failure. We feel inside and find a sealed envelope. It’s the one we’d signed earlier in the performance. “Is the seal broken?” he asks, knowingly. “Open it – what’s inside?” We scratch our heads and quietly applaud. Somehow the magician has diverted our attention just long enough to construct the illusion of an altered reality. In truth his method was to “force” the card, and so his illusion relied on the simple fact that we really hadn’t a free choice at any stage. But we applaud because we admire his harmless deception. It amuses us to be deceived once in a while.

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I saw an advert the other day. It read “Say No to No” which is the kind of quasi-Zen mumbo-jumbo that advertising executives get paid a small fortune to write. What was the effect of that advertisement? Well, it had suddenly interrupted my original train of thought. I’d probably been looking for the cigarette lighter or wondering how the living room table was so heaped up in junk again, but now I was reading on about how negativity gets in the way of progress. And which company, I kept wondering as I’d read down, would attach themselves to such a manifestly new age positive-thinking banner? I read on and came to examples of human achievements that left to the nay-sayers could never have happened:

“Yes, continents have been found…”, it read.

Found? By Columbus in 1492, presumably, and then Australia by James Cook. And no human had set eyes on them before? Obviously this is a rhetorical question. I read on…

“Yes, men have played golf on the moon…”

American men to be more precise. And it was indeed an incredible and truly awesome achievement – not the golf, but the travelling to the moon. When it comes to golf, there are obviously far superior facilities a lot closer to home. I read on…

“Yes, straw is being turned into biofuel to power cars…”

Well, hardly in the same league as exploration to such distant lands, but finally some inkling to where they were leading me…

I studied the picture more carefully. The words “Say no to no” are in thick capitals near the top of a blackboard already filled with images of progress and science – molecular structures, conical sections, a diagram showing a spherical co-ordinate system, graphs, line drawings of electron orbits and DNA, of animals and a ship and of course the ubiquitous pie-chart. A girl, her long straw-blond hair tied back into a pony-tail, and wearing a bright red tank top, has her back turned toward to us. She is reaching high, almost on tip-toe, into the black and white and adding the upward flourish of a spiral. Perhaps I was looking at one of those recruitment adverts for teaching, yet something told me otherwise…

And there it was – I’d found it at last – deliberately placed outside the main frame of the picture; a small, emblematic containment for all that progress: a remote, red and yellow scollop shell. The message was far from loud, but that was the point. And once spotted it was very clear, yet it had been intentionally delivered at a subliminal level – out of picture, unobtrusive, easily missed. Its instruction surreptitious and beyond the margins. Why? Because they wanted me to attach the ideas of positivity and progress to the symbol of a multinational oil corporation just as surely as Pavlov’s dogs associated lunch with the ringing of their owner’s bell. They wanted me to feel good things the next time I saw the scollop and to never even think about why.1

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Advertising is simply another act of illusion and as with the performing stage magician, the audience is well aware that they are being tricked. But in advertising the illusion runs deeper, so that aside from the obvious aim of persuading us to buy Coke instead of Pepsi or whatever, it very often constructs a host of other frauds. Take again the advert mentioned above as an example, with the girl reaching up on tip-toe. Here nothing is accidental, with all parts and relationships operating together to reinforce our idea of progress as a constant striving toward a better world, whilst in the background, it only quietly dismisses any “nay-sayers” who disagree. Like many predators, advertisers work by stealth, often, as here, offering glimpses of Utopia, or of wonderful and perpetual advancement, to draw us on and in. The carrot on a stick swinging endlessly before the eyes of the befuddled donkey.

But then, on other occasions, they will take a different tack, and get out a proper stick. They’ll make us uneasy about our looks, or our lack of social status, before offering a quick fix for these problems so frequently of their own devising. There are many ways to ring our bells: both carrots and sticks are equally effective.

And then everyone says this: “Adverts don’t work on me.” So these companies spend literally billions of pounds and dollars on refining their illusions, posting them up all across our cities and towns, filling our airwaves with their jingles and sound-bites, not to mention the ever-widening device of corporate sponsorship, and yet still this remains as our self-deluding armour against such unending and ever more sophisticated assaults. I’ll bet you could find more people who’d say David Copperfield can really fly than would actually admit to being significantly influenced by advertising.

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There probably never was a time when advertising was just that: a way to make products and services more widely or publicly known about. In such a time, adverts would have just showed pictures of the product and a simple description of its uses and/or advantages. “This is the night mail crossing the border…” – that sort of thing.

Though, of course, here immediately is a bad example, because the famous post office film is not only reminding us of what a jolly useful and efficient service our mail delivery is, but how wonderfully hard the GPO work whilst the rest of us are asleep. So on this different level Auden’s famous homage is a feel good thing, encouraging us to connect our good feelings to the postal service; it is an early example of public relations although still harmless enough in its quiet way.

But audiences get wise, or so we like to imagine, and so today’s advertisers have had to up the ante too. Gone are the days of telling you how to have “whiter whites” or advising everyone (with only a hint of surrealism) to “go to work on an egg”. Nowadays you’re far more likely to choose to eat a certain chewy stick because “it’s a bit of an animal” (without even noticing the entirely subliminal reference to your feelings about being carnivorous) or drink a can of soft drink because “image is nothing” (which presumes a ridiculous double-think on the part of the targeted purchaser). And where once a famous Irish beverage was just “good for you”, now it’s better because it comes “to those who wait”. Here you’re asked to make an investment in the form of time; an investment that is intended to add personal value to the brand.

Adverts are loaded with these and other sorts of psychological devices – cunningly latent messages or else entertaining ways of forging brand loyalty. They prey on the fact that we are emotional beings. They use tricks to bypass our rational centres, intending to hard-wire the image of their products to our feelings of well-being, happiness, contentment, success, or more simply, the image we have of ourselves. They use special words. LOVE for instance. Just see how many adverts say “you’ll love it”, “kids love it”, “dogs love it”, “we love it”, and so on and so on…. one I saw recently for condoms said simply “love sex” – talk about a double whammy!

Advertisers also like to scare us. When they are not showing us washing lines drying over the Fields of Elysium, or happy pals sharing time with packets of corn snacks, or elegant cars effortlessly gliding down open highways; they are constructing worlds of sinister dangers. Germs on every surface, and even in “those hard to reach places”. Threats from every direction, from falling trees to falling interest rates. I once saw an TV advert that showed a man desperately running from a massive and menacing fracture. It was a crack that seemed to be ripping through the very fabric of space and time, an existential terror relentlessly chasing after him through some post-apocalyptic nightmare. After a minute or so the threat abated and a solution was offered. Get your windscreen checked, it calmly advised.

And the government get in on this too. Watch out, watch out, there a thief about! Just say no to drugs! Sex is fun, but take precautions and don’t die of ignorance! In these ways, they ramp up fears of the real dangers we face, whilst also inculcating a sense of trust in the powers that be. The world is a perilous and unjust place, they say (which is true); fortunately, we are here to help you. Trust us to guide you. Obey our instructions. To protect you and your loved ones. To help you to realise your dreams. Together, we will make the world a fairer place. The constant PR refrains: “Believe”, “Belong”, “Trust”, and more recently, “Hope and Change”. O, ring out those bells!

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Right now, there’s something refreshingly honest about smoking. Those of us who refuse or are unable to quit are left under absolutely no illusions about our little cancer sticks. We know perfectly well that each drag is bringing the grave that little bit closer. And it’s certainly not cool to smoke. Our clothes stink, our breath stinks, and stinking, we huddle outdoors, rain or shine, cluttering up the office doorways with our toxic fumes and heaps of fag-ends. But it wasn’t always so. Smoking had its golden age. A time when cigarettes were an accoutrement to style and when sharing a fag with a dame was nearly as great as sex.2 During this period, the tobacco industry invested a small fortune in maintaining their myth. They paid to lobby politicians, they made funds available for favourable medical research, and perhaps most significantly of all, they hired the best PR man in the business.

It can be fun to speculate on who were the most influential figures in history. Who would we wish to include? Great statesmen, formidable warriors, innovators, engineers, scientists and artists, when lists are polled for, the public generally take their pick from these, chucking in the odd saint or celebrity just for good measure. They choose between Churchill, Washington, Alexander the Great, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, and if the criteria are widened to include villains as well as heroes, plump for Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tong, and Joseph Stalin. A selection, if you like, of the stars of the show. But what about people whose work involves them behind the scenes? What of those whose greater skill was to remain invisible or simply unnoticed? Edward Bernays was just such a man.

*

To say that Bernays was a great PR man is to do him a considerable disservice, for Bernays, who happened to also be a nephew of no lesser light than Sigmund Freud, is nowadays regarded as the father of modern PR. He wrote the book. Rather candidly he entitled it simply Propaganda – the word deriving from the Latin for “propagation” was less sullied back in 1928. In the opening chapter Bernays lays out the situation as he sees it:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

But Bernays is not warning us here, far from it. This is merely the way the world works, spinning along in a fashion that Bernays regards are both inevitable and to a great extent desirable. Better an orderly world of unseen manipulation than a world of ungovernable chaos. And it’s this point which he makes perfectly explicit in the very next paragraph:

“We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”3

We should perhaps not be surprised to learn then that Bernays’ book was one that didn’t make it onto the bonfires of the Third Reich. Instead, Joseph Goebbels publicly praised Bernays’ work as especially influential, saying that it had formed the blueprint for his own Nazi propaganda machine. Certainly, it is a very practical guide. It delves into a great many areas and asks important questions. One of the most significant questions it asks goes as follows:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?”4

And the answer, as Bernays went on to prove with his amazing success in promoting everything from bacon and eggs to soap powder and political candidates, was HELL YES!

Working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays had even piggy-backed a ride on the women’s rights movement. Offering encouragement to the fairer sex, for whom smoking in public was still very much a taboo, to keep on lighting their “Torches of Freedom.” Not that any similar strategy could work today obviously… well, not unless those torches were organically-grown by fair-trade tobacco farmers and rolled in chlorine-free paper supplied by sustainable forests, or whatever.

Bernays was the great promoter, perhaps the greatest, and he was keen to promote his own product, modern advertising, or as he called it propaganda, above all else. For Bernays, just as for his acolyte Joseph Goebbels, the future was propaganda:

“Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.”5

*

Following Bernays, advertising no longer stops at breakfast cereals, toothpaste and petrochemical companies, having extended its parasitic tendrils throughout all areas of life, so that image becomes everything. Newspapers and magazines are glossier than ever. They radiate forth into the empty void of secular consumerist existence, visions of earthly fulfilment that can be bought (at preferential interest rates) – holidays, home improvements, house moves (especially abroad), fast cars, and millionaire lifestyles.

They tell us what is right to think about: beauty, health, fashion and that oh-so elusive of attributes, style. They tell us “how to get on”. They tell us what’s worth worrying about. DO worry about your wrinkles. DO worry about your waistline. DO worry about your split-ends. DO WORRY – because you’re worth it! Just as importantly we get to learn what is worth thinking about: success, fame and glamour, which when multiplied together make celebrity. Celebrity: from the Latin celebrare meaning to celebrate, or to honour. So whereas the ancients believed that the fixed and eternal heavenly stars were gods, we instead are sold a parallel myth revolving around “the stars of today”.

But newspapers and magazines are nothing, for their influence pales into insignificance when set in comparison to that flickering blue screen in the corner of the living room. It is our gateway to another world, a parallel dimension, where we are welcomed back each day by our virtual friends. It is a fire to warm us. A shadow-play of mesmerising potency. And here, the ever-tantalising jam of tomorrow has finally slopped over from its earlier containment within commercial breaks, to become what is now a mainstay for entire broadcasting schedules. Carrots and sticks for us to nod along to, 24/7, and three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.

It’s not even that all television is bad. Some is excellent. I would cite as an exemplar the consistently superior content of BBC wildlife documentaries, which far exceed any comparable alternative whether offered by books, radio, or at the cinema. Here is television at the very pinnacle of its achievement.

A great deal on television is produced just to amuse us, or amaze us, and occasionally, actually to inform us, and much of this merits credit too, but I do not feel it necessary to waste time pushing an open door. We all know that television can sometimes be marvellous. But we also know that most of it is junk. Junk that, with the influx of multiple digital channels, is spread ever more thinly and widely. In a modern world television certainly has its place, but we will do well never to forget its unprecedented powers:

“Right now there is an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation. This tube can make or break president’s hopes… This tube is the most awesome God-damn force in the whole godless world, and woe is us if ever it falls in the hands of the wrong people…

And when the twelfth largest company in the world controls the most awesome God-damned propaganda force in the whole godless world, who knows what shit will be peddled for truth on this network. So you listen to me – Listen to me – Television is not the truth. Television’s a god-damned amusement park…

We’re in the boredom killing business… But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colours, creeds – We’re all you know – You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You’ll do whatever the tube tells you. You’ll dress like the tube, you’ll eat like the tube, you’ll raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing – we are the illusion.”

Of course, if you’ve seen the film Network, from which this extraordinary rant is taken, then you’ll also be aware that these are the words of a madman!6

At the top of the chapter I quoted Orwell’s no-nonsense assessment of advertising, and advertising is indeed as he describes it: the rattling stick eliciting the same Pavlovian response in the pigs, as advertising executives wish to implant in our human minds. Their main intent to push their client’s products by making us salivate with desire. This was no different in Orwell’s time. Whilst advertising’s still more ugly parent, propaganda, has always aimed to change minds more fundamentally. It treats ideas as products and sells them to us. But the techniques in both advertising and propaganda have come a long way since Orwell’s time.

This power to propagandise has grown in large part because of television. The blue screen softly flickering away in the corner of every living room having opened up a possibility for thousands of ‘messages’ each day to be implanted and reinforced over and over. Unconsciously absorbed instructions to think in preformed patterns being precisely what Aldous Huxley thought would be needed if ever the seething and disorderly masses of any ordinary human population might be replaced by the zombie castes of his futuristic vision Brave New World. “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth”, he wrote.7

Which is a joke, but like so much in Huxley’s work, a joke with very serious intent. Huxley’s vision of a future dystopia being subtler in ways to Orwell’s own masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, not least because the mechanisms of mind control are wholly insidious. Huxley showing how you don’t have to beat people into submission in order to make them submit. Yet even Huxley never envisaged a propaganda system as pervasive and powerful as television has eventually turned out to be.

*

Advertising involves “the art of deception” and it has never been more artful than it is today… sly, crafty, cunning, scheming, devious, sneaky, and totally calculating. However, it is increasingly artful in that other sense too: being achieved with ever greater creative skill. Indeed, the top commercials now cost more than many feature films, and, aside from paying small fortunes for celebrity endorsement, the makers of our grandest and most epic commercials take extraordinary pains to get the details right.

Engineered to push the buttons of a meticulously studied segment of the population, niche marketing techniques ensure precise targeting with optimum impact. Every image, sound and edit honed, because time is money when you’re condensing your ‘message’ into thirty seconds. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that these commercial ‘haikus’ as regarded by some as the works of art of our own times. A view Andy Warhol (himself a former ‘commercial artist’) espoused and helped promote – though mostly he made his fortune espousing and promoting his own brand: a brand called Andy Warhol.

Warhol wrote that:

“The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet.”8

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky is credited with a far better joke, having once remarked that “lesser artists borrow, but great artists steal”. As with Warhol’s quip, it fits its author well. Stravinsky here downplaying his unrivalled talent for pastiche, whereas Warhol could never resist hiding his gift for nihilism in plain sight.

But actually, advertising isn’t art at all, of course. Do I need to continue? It is a bloodless imitation that neither borrows nor steals, to go back to Stravinsky’s aphorism, but directly counterfeits. Feigning beauty and faking truth is all it knows, with a passing interest in the first in so far as it is saleable, and a pathological aversion to the second, since truth is its mortal enemy.

For if selling us what we least require and never thought we desired is advertising’s everyday achievement (and it is), then pushing products and ideas that will in reality make our lives more miserable or do us harm is its finest accomplishment. And the real thing? Like the stage magician, this is what the admen assiduously divert your attention away from.

Which brings me a story. A real story. Something that happened as I was driving to work one dark, dank February morning. A small thing but one that briefly thrilled and delighted me.

It was at the end of Corporation Street, fittingly enough I thought, where someone had summoned the courage to take direct action. Across the glowing portrait of a diligently air-brushed model were the words: “She’s not real. You are beautiful.”

That some anonymous stranger had dared to write such a defiant and generous disclaimer touched me. But it didn’t end there. This person, or persons unknown, had systematically defaced all three of the facing billboards, saving the best for last. It was for one of those ‘messages’ that is determined to scare some back into line, whilst making others feel smug with a glow of compliant superiority. It read: “14 households on Primrose Street do not have a TV licence” (or words to that effect).

The threat, though implicit, was hardly veiled. In Britain, more than a hundred thousand people ever year are tried and convicted for not having a TV licence. Some are actually jailed.9 But now this message had a graffiti-ed punchline which again brought home the hidden ‘message’ perpetuated by all of advertising. The spray-canned response read simply: “perhaps they’ve got a life instead.” A genuine choice the admen wouldn’t want you to consider. Not buying into things isn’t an option they can ever promote.

To add my own disclaimer, I in no way wish to encourage and nor do I endorse further acts of criminal damage – that said, here is a different piece of graffiti (or street art – you decide) that I happen to walk past on my way into work. In a less confrontational way, it too has taken advantage of an old billboard space:

the best things in life

Next chapter…

*

Addendum: a modest proposal

We are all living under a persistent and dense smog of propaganda (to give advertising and PR its unadorned and original name). Not only our product preferences and brand loyalties, but our entire Weltanschauung10 fashioned and refashioned thanks to a perpetual barrage of lies. Fun-sized lies. Lies that amuse and entertain. Lies that ingratiate themselves with fake smiles and seductive whispers. And lies that hector and pester us, re-enforcing our old neuroses and generating brand new ones. These lies play over and over ad nauseam.

Ad nauseam, the sickness of advertising, is a man-made pandemic, with modern commercials selling not simply products per se, but “lifestyles”. And think about that for a moment. Off-the-shelf ideals and coffee table opinions that are likewise custom-made. Beliefs to complement your colour-coordinated upholstery, your sensible life insurance policy, your zesty soap and fresh-tasting, stripy toothpaste.

Thanks to television, we inhale this new opium of the people all day long and few (if any) are immune to its intoxication, but then advertising operates at a societal level too – since by disorientating individuals, society as a whole becomes more vulnerable to the predatory needs of corporations. So cuddling up to the box and laughing along to the latest blockbuster commercial on the grounds that “adverts don’t affect me” just makes our own delusion complete.

I might have ended on a lighter note, but instead I’ll hand over to the late Bill Hicks at his acrimonious best (and apologises for his foul and abusive language, but unfortunately here it is fully warranted):

“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising kill yourselves…”

Bill pauses to absorb any cautious laughter, then quietly continues: “Just a thought… I’m just trying to plant some seeds. Maybe, maybe one day they’ll take root… I don’t know, you try, you do what you can…”

Still scattering handfuls of imaginary seeds, but now sotto voce for suggestive effect: “Kill yourselves…”

Another pause and then completely matter of fact. “Seriously though – if you are – do!”

And now Bill gets properly down to business: “Ahhh – No really – There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers okay… Kill yourselves. Seriously. You are the ruiners of all things good. Seriously. No, No, this is not a joke… Ha,ha, there’s going to be a joke coming… There’s no fucking joke coming! You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us – Kill yourselves – It’s the only way to save your fucking soul – kill yourself…”

Then he comes to the crux of the matter: “I know what all you marketing people are thinking right now too: ‘Oh, you know what Bill’s doing. He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s smart…’ – Oh Man! I’m not doing that! You fucking evil scumbags! – ‘You know what Bill’s doing now. He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar. That’s a big dollar. Lot of people are feeling that indignation. We’ve done research – huge market! He’s doing a good thing.’ – God damn it! I’m not doing that you scumbags…! Quit putting the dollar sign on every fucking thing on this planet!”

If we are ever to break free from the mind-forged manacles of the advertising industry then we might consider the option of broadcasting Bill Hicks’ rant unabridged during every commercial break on every TV channel on earth for at least a year – the obscenities bleeped out in broadcasts before the watershed!

While we’re about it, we will need a screening prior to every movie (during the commercial slots obviously) as well as key phrases rehashed into jingles and those same sound bites written up in boldface and plastered across every available billboard. Now, if you think this would be altogether too much of an assault on our delicate senses then please remember that is precisely what the dear old advertising industry does day-in and day-out. So wouldn’t it would fun to turn the tables on those in the business of deceit? And not simply to give them a dose of their own snake oil, but to shock us all with repeated jolts of truth instead.

*

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 Incidentally, my young nephew had added a few scribbles of his own to this advertisement and it is interesting to note where he directed his pen marks, five places in all: one over each of the girls hands, one on the back of her head and another on her ponytail. And his only scribble that was not on the girl was on top of the scollop. Bullseye!

2 Of course in Hollywood films of a bygone age when censorship was strict, sharing a fag was also used as a metaphor for sex itself.

3 Taken from the opening to Chapter 1 entitled “Organising Chaos” of Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1928).

4 Ibid. Chapter 4, “The psychology of Public Relations”

5 Ibid. Chapter 11, “The mechanics of propaganda”

6 “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” These are the words of anti-corporate evangelist Howard Beale, taken from the film Network (1976). A satire about a fictional television network called Union Broadcasting System (UBS), with its unscrupulous approach to raising the ratings, Network was written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet. Most memorably, it features an Oscar-winning performance by actor the Peter Finch, playing the part of disaffected news anchor Howard Beale. Beale, having threatened to commit suicide live on air, is given his own show. Billed as “the mad prophet”, he steals the opportunity to angrily preach against what he sees as the corporate takeover of the world, and steadily his show gathers the largest audience on television. The consequences are, of course, inevitable.

7 “One hundred repetitions three nights a week for four years, thought Bernard Marx, who was a specialist on hypnopædia. Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” From Chapter 3 of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932. 

8 Quote taken from Chapter 4 “Beauty” of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: (From A to B and Back Again), published in 1975. 

9 “According to the most recent figures, about 70 people a year are jailed for TV licence fee offences. But the scale of prosecutions for licence fee evasion is far higher and now accounts for one in nine of all Magistrates Court cases. More than 180,000 people – almost 3,500 a week – appeared before the Magistrates Courts in 2012, accused of watching television without a valid licence in, with 155,000 being convicted and fined.”

From an article entitled ‘Dodging TV licence will not be a crime’ written by Tim Ross, published in The Telegraph on March 7, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/bbc/10684639/Dodging-TV-licence-will-not-be-a-crime.html

10 Weltanschauung: a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, « finishing the rat race »

the clouds of not knowing

The following article is Chapter Ten of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting, beginning today, 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.

*

According to the postmodernists there is no such thing as absolute truth, so why should we believe them?”

question submitted to the regular Notes & Queries column in The Guardian.

*

Postmodernism is a slippery subject and one I’ve long endeavoured to get to grips with.

For a while I just tried asking dumb questions (applying a method of inquiry recommended by physicist Richard Feynman). “What exactly is postmodernism?” seemed like a good starter, although as I soon realised such a front-on assault wouldn’t get me very far. Quasi-mathematical answers floated back about ‘signs’ and ‘signifiers’ from the arcane sub-discipline of ‘semiotics’, or else esoteric reference to the foreign fields of ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘deconstructionism’. I also had to understand such important issues as ‘false consciousness’, ‘the death of the author’ and ‘the end of the grand narrative’. Slowly then, I learnt about this complex spaghetti of postmodernist theory, a theory more beloved by English Literature professors than readers of philosophy, yet a theory pushed by its outspoken advocates who regard it as the only rightful context for all other intellectual inquiry.

*

After years of discussion with defenders and proponents of postmodernist theory I have come to an understanding that there are basically two main strands often twisted into one. Here, however, I must confess that I find the majority of writings on postmodernist thinking to be dense, jargonistic and for the most part unintelligible, so I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But, in this regard I was very happy to discover that I was sat in the dunce’s corner with, amongst other dullards, that otherwise academically esteemed professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. Here’s what Chomsky has to say:

“Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand – say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. – even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest – write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.

“I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of “theory” and “philosophy” to justify their claims – to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn’t already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can’t be met, then I’d suggest recourse to Hume’s advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.”1

*

With this in mind, please allow me to unravel the two strands of postmodernism (as I find them).

i) postmodernism as a contemporary aesthetic.

On the one hand postmodernism promotes the idea of a new aesthetic. An aesthetic born from the ashes of modernism that it usurped. The fall of religion, of classical physics, as well as of other established and seemingly apodictic systems, had sparked a fin de siècle revolution around the turn of the twentieth century, and in consequence, artists looked for new modes of expression. The aftermath of two world wars heightened this need for a new awakening. One artistic response has been to recognise that the loss of a grounding on the basis of some kind of universal referent is intractable, and thus to turn inwards. To search for inspiration in the exploration of relationships between the artist and the subjective unreliability of their own account. To elevate context above meaning, subtext above text, and to make style and form themselves, the primary subjects of the artist.

Now I think that this is a perfectly reasonable place for artists to go. Artists after all are free to go as and where they choose (as are all citizens in any healthy political climate). Within the bounds of legality and, aside from the important issue of earning a living wage, artists are bounded only by the development of their creative and imaginative faculties. Choosing to explore the world as they find it (in realism), or of their own emotions (Romanticism), or what is discovered in the unconscious (surrealism), or even ideas in and of themselves (conceptualism) is therefore a matter wholly at the discretion of the artist. Whether they take on board styles from the past or other cultures, manipulate and meld them into a new eclecticism, or else, like Duchamps, point with irony at the question of what is art itself, then good for them. And if this is the current fashion, then so be it. Whether or not these pursuits are deemed in any way successful will be judged both here and in the future, as always. Fashions in every field coming and going as they do. All of this I accept.

Now if this is all postmodernism ever had to say, then let it be said, but let it also be said that there is nothing particularly ‘modern’ about it, let alone ‘post’…

Shakespeare made many allusions to the theatre itself, and liked to include plays within his plays. Shifting the audience’s perspective with reminders that we are another part of a performance and long before Berthold Brecht had snapped his fingers to wake us to our own participation. Lawrence Stern’s Tristam Shandy, one of the earliest novels in the English language, is a work more famous and celebrated for being so self-referential. More recently, Rene Magritte’s paintings challenge relationships between images, words and the world; whilst in early cartoons we can also find such ‘postmodern’ devices, as, for example, when Bugs Bunny becomes Daffy’s animator in the splendid Duck Amuck. Such is the success of these games of form and reference within purely comedic settings that even that most hackneyed of old jokes “why did the chicken cross the road?” relies on an audience who understands its cultural reference to jokes more generally – that jokes have a punchline, and so the joke here is that there isn’t one. Context has become everything, and what could be more ‘postmodern’ than that?

ii) postmodernism as a theory against absolutes

My first brush with postmodernism happened almost two decades ago when, as a postgraduate student, I’d suddenly begun to mix within altogether more literary circles. During my three years of studying physics in London I’d never once encountered any reference to the ideas of Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault or Baudrillard, but suddenly I had a few English post-grads telling me that physics, and indeed science in general, was just another theory, and one holding no special claims to finding an understanding of nature than any other. At first this seemed hilarious. How, I wondered, could those who knew next to nothing with regards to, say, Newton’s laws of motion, be so smug in their opinions about the truth or otherwise of quantum mechanics and relativity. Studying science had at least taught me not to be so presumptuous. So just what had gotten into them?

Jacques Derrida2 famously wrote that “there is nothing outside the text”, which is an extraordinary thing to write when you think about it. I mean is Derrida quite literally saying that nothing exists beyond the text? Why of course not, you dingo! For if nothing existed beyond the text, then there couldn’t be any text, since there’d be no one to write it in the first instance. Surely that’s obvious enough! So what does he mean?

In my handy guide Postmodernism for Beginners3, which at least has the good grace to include plenty of nice pictures, there is a section entitled ‘Deconstruction’, which was (according to the book) Derrida’s method for waging “a one-man ‘deconstructionist’ war against the entire Western tradition of rationalist thought.” His new approach of deconstruction, the book goes on to say, being an attempt “to peel away like an onion the layers of constructed meaning.” But of course if you peel away the layers of a real onion you’re eventually left with nothing… which is something the book’s analogy fails to mention.

And just what is Derrida’s method of deconstruction? An attempt to look for meanings in the text that were “suppressed or assumed in order for it to take its actual form”. I’m quoting from my book again. But then how is anyone supposed to do this? Well, here again I confess that I really don’t know – and the book is only a beginners’ guide so unfortunately it doesn’t say. I can however recall the story told by a friend who was studying for a degree in English Literature. He told me that his tutor had once asked a seminar group to read a selected text with the express intention of misunderstanding the author. So I guess that’s one approach.4

Now I concede that all critical readers must have due entitlement to read between the author’s lines. Anyone with a modicum of sense must recognise that an artist will at times disguise their true intentions (especially if they involve dangerous political or religious dissent); dressing their concealed truths in fitting uniforms. Of course the author may also wish to veil themselves for altogether more personal or private reasons. But then why precedent the latent above the blatant anyway? As if what an author tries to hide is more important than what they are, more directly, seeming to say. To address this question, postmodernists broaden their case, saying that ‘meaning’ itself is wholly dependent upon ‘authority’ or ‘power’. This is to say that the artist is nothing more than a product of the cultural context of his or her time. According to such reasoning, whatever it was they’d meant to say becomes irrelevant. A depressing claim, and one that lacks any obvious foundation. And where is the broader point to all of this? What does it have to do with science for instance?

Well, Derrida contends that the word ‘text’ must be understood in “the semiological sense of extended discourses.” Any clearer? No – try this: “all practices of interpretation which include, but are not limited to, language.” Got it yet? I’ll put it more picturequesly. Away from the leafy seclusion of literature departments, Derrida is declaring that this same approach (his approach) must be applied to all avenues of thinking. Any special privilege for methods of reason and objectivity is to be absolutely refused on grounds that once we are agreed that all discourse (in the semiological sense) is necessarily a cultural, historical or linguistic construct, then all ideas must be seen to hold the same indeterminate value. Therefore, to raise science above other disciplines of enquiry is merely “a value judgement” borne of European prejudice and vanity.

So what finally does this all amount to? Does Derrida really claim that astronomy can be judged to be no better measure of our universe than astrology? Or that when Galileo proposed the idea that the earth moved around the Sun, the pope was no less right for saying that it did not? Or if we proclaim that the world is round, are we no closer to any kind of truth than the legendary flat-earthers? And when we build rockets that fly to the moon and beyond, that this does not prove Newton’s ideas over those of Aristotle? The same Aristotle who thought that the moon was made not of rock, since rock would inevitably crash to earth, but from a fabulous unearthly material called quintessence! And what if Jacques Derrida were to have taken some leap of faith from his window, might he have hovered in the air like Road Runner, or would he more surely have accelerated toward the ground at 9.81 metres per second per second? I certainly know where my money’s riding.

*

Now in case you think my objections are unfounded, and based on either my lack of knowledge of the subject or else a deliberate and calculated misinterpretation of postmodernist thinking (whatever that means given the postmodernists’ own refusal to privilege an author’s intentions on the grounds that these are unrecoverable and irrelevant), I feel that I must draw attention to an incident now referred to as The Sokal Affair.

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, feeling frustrated by the nihilistic claims being made by the postmodernists, decided (as any good scientist would) to perform an experiment. His hypothesis (if you like) being that he could convince a reputable journal in the field to: “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” On this basis he submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to the journal Social Text. To give you a flavour of Sokal’s admirable hoax, here is an extract from that paper:

“Derrida’s perceptive reply went to the heart of classical general relativity: The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game… “

Outlandish nonsense, of course, but (and no doubt to Sokal’s great delight) the journal mistook his fun for a work worthy of publication5. Then, on the same day of its publication, Sokal announced his hoax in a different journal, Lingua Franca, calling his published paper “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations I could find about mathematics and physics”6. Here is what Sokal himself had to say about his reasons for perpetrating the hoax and his underlying concerns regarding the influence of the Social Text editors. He has a great deal to say and so I feel it is fitting to give over the remainder of this section to Sokal’s own justification and conclusions (after all, why have a dog and bark yourself):

“Of course, I’m not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust. But it is important to understand exactly what I did. My article is a theoretical essay based entirely on publicly available sources, all of which I have meticulously footnoted. All works cited are real, and all quotations are rigorously accurate; none are invented. Now, it’s true that the author doesn’t believe his own argument. But why should that matter? … If the Social Text editors find my arguments convincing, then why should they be disconcerted simply because I don’t? Or are they more deferent to the so-called “cultural authority of technoscience” than they would care to admit? […]

“The fundamental silliness of my article lies, however, not in its numerous solecisms but in the dubiousness of its central thesis and of the “reasoning” adduced to support it. Basically, I claim that quantum gravity — the still-speculative theory of space and time on scales of a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter – has profound political implications (which, of course, are “progressive”). In support of this improbable proposition, I proceed as follows: First, I quote some controversial philosophical pronouncements of Heisenberg and Bohr, and assert (without argument) that quantum physics is profoundly consonant with “postmodernist epistemology.” Next, I assemble a pastiche – Derrida and general relativity, Lacan and topology, Irigaray and quantum gravity – held together by vague rhetoric about “nonlinearity”, “flux” and “interconnectedness.” Finally, I jump (again without argument) to the assertion that “postmodern science” has abolished the concept of objective reality. Nowhere in all of this is there anything resembling a logical sequence of thought; one finds only citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions.7

Why did I do it? While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. …

“In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? …

“Social Text’s acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory – meaning postmodernist literary theory – carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn’t bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and “text,” then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and “language games,” then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre. …

“Politically, I’m angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful – not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage…

“I say this not in glee but in sadness. After all, I’m a leftist too (under the Sandinista government I taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua)… But I’m a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it.”8

*

It has long puzzled me too, why many once dyed-in-the-wool Marxists have increasingly drifted over to Derrida. I mean these two systems are supposedly in direct contradiction. Marxism is a ‘grand metanarrative’ par excellence, and so postmodernism is presumably its willing nemesis. So why would those who had invested so heavily in Marx suddenly jump into bed with Derrida et al? Well, it might be supposed that the fall of the Berlin Wall was of key importance here.

With the end of the Soviet experiment, it wasn’t simply a political regime that had given way. In its wake the whole Marxist ideology was rocked, since, and whatever its adherents may have then believed, this rapid and extraordinary sequence of events signified the catastrophic end to that particular alternative world vision.9

It’s not even that Marxists were still looking longingly toward Russia for their answers – most had already long accepted that the Soviet dream died with Stalin if not before – but just as with the death of a friend, it’s not until the funeral that we can finally say farewell. For those who’d searched for answers under the lens of Marxism, a time was rapidly approaching when most would be forced to admit defeat. That finally there was nothing left to halt the rising tide of global capitalism. Unless…

But lo! Could some new theory, of revolutionary hue, if significantly altered, replace the discarded doctrines of Marxism? Perhaps there was still something yet that might save the world from the savagery of unchallenged global capitalism. Soon these were the hard questions facing not only the Marxists but all those with Socialist leanings. And as a Leftist too, I shared in the same concerns.

Not that Marxism is dead of course. Not quite. Though Marx appears to be a spent political force, his spell, if diminished, is still potent inside the faculties of academia, living on in the alcoves of English departments for instance (and often side by side with Derrida and the others). But my question is how did Derrida step into Marx’s boots so comfortably? Is there any deeper reason why Marx and Derrida have made such good bedfellows? Is there anything that these adversaries might actually share?

*

I recently came across a review of philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell – his inquiry into the origins of religion (a popular subject these days) – and have since been considering whether or not to include any mention of it (perhaps with reference to my thoughts in Chapter One). Well, as you will know already, presuming you’ve read everything thus far, I have so far avoided making any direct reference to Dennett’s book as such. Instead, and by way of a brief and hopefully interesting digression, I have decided to present a review of the review itself. Quite aside from being in-keeping to offer such a meta-narrative, the review itself, which happened to feature on a website otherwise dedicated to “world socialism”, helped to shed light on the current theme of the odd convergence between postmodernist theory and Marxism. But before I can progress, I first need to briefly outline the main thrust in Dennett’s book itself, which, when stated most succinctly, is that religion is a natural phenomenon.

There is an evolutionary advantage, Dennett says in Breaking the Spell, conferred to those who adopt “the intentional stance”: our very reasonable presumption that the other creatures one encounters are also “agents”. It is easy to understand then, by extension, Dennett continues, why natural forces in general might also be presumed to act rationally and with specific desires in mind.

Combined with this, as Dennett also points out, the offspring of many species, including humans, are innately trusting toward their parents, because, happily, this also confers a survival advantage. These factors taken together then, it is easy to understand how a worship of ancestors might have arisen as a useful bi-product of human evolution. Whilst, on the cultural level, as the earlier hunter and gatherer communities gave way to agricultural settlement, this opened the way to more formalised and stratified forms of religion that must have slowly arisen – religion then, according to Dennett, is a piece, if you like, of mankind’s extended phenotype (yet another natural/cultural artefact, and, as such, somewhat akin to the motor car or Aswan Dam, none of which are any less “natural” than say a bird’s nest or a beaver’s lodge). And thus, being natural in origin, religion itself becomes a proper subject for scientific investigation, just as all other natural phenomena lie the within the province of scientific analysis.

The spell that Dennett finally wishes us to break from being that religion is fundamentally no different from any other kind of human behaviour or enterprise. That much is all Dennett – at least according to our reviewer.

Dennett’s approach is not really to my taste. It leans too heavily on the speculative theories of evolutionary psychology, whilst in doing so, stretching the concept of “natural” to such a degree as to render the word close to meaningless. But worse than that, he leaves little or no room for the insoluble cosmic riddle itself, when this is surely a vital component in any proper understanding of what drives the religious impulse. So this is my review, second hand of course (since I am not intrigued enough to read Dennett’s original words).

Firstly, our reviewer acknowledges that much of the book is admirable, in so far as it goes, but then he insists that Dennett misses the main point. And the main point? Well, from the reviewer’s perspective Dennett simply isn’t being Marxist enough. Remember, this is a Marxist review!

In order to grasp the infernal bull of religion properly by the horns you need to understand Marx, the reviewer goes on. Why? Because Marx recognised how religion retards “class consciousness” amongst the proletariat, famously calling it “the opium of the masses” and “the sigh of the oppressed”. Religion then, according to Marx, is a comforting but ultimately false light: its promises of heavenly paradise, a necessary distraction from the injustices of the real world. At root, it is a necessary means of mollifying the proletariat masses. And who can doubt how often religion has and does serve precisely such ends – although we didn’t we actually needed Marx to tell us so. Thinkers back to Voltaire (and long before him) have repeated proffered that same opinion.10 Which is where I’ll finally come back to postmodernism, deconstruction and Derrida.

Here’s the actual sentence in the review that snagged my attention, causing me to make a connection that had perhaps been obvious all along:

“[But] Marxism does recognize that material factors are ultimately to be found at the root of all ideology, of which religion is a part.”11 (Emphasis added.)

Soon afterwards the reviewer backs this same assertion with a quote taken directly from Engels:

“Still higher ideologies, that is, such as are still further removed from the material, economic basis, take the form of philosophy and religion. Here the interconnection between conceptions and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated, more and more obscured by intermediate links. But the interconnection exists.”12

Suddenly, it can all be fitted together. Since for the Marxists too, not just religion, but all “higher ideologies”, might be whittled back to their cultural and historical constructs. A deconstruction almost worthy of Derrida, with the difference being in the placement of emphasis: for Engels the cultural and historic conditions being “material”, whereas for Derrida they are “semiotic” – whatever that exactly means.

Marxism is an entirely Capitalist heresy, said the late political satirist Gore Vidal, adding, just as Capitalism was itself a Christian heresy. Not that these ideologies are by essence one and the same, no more than it automatically follows that since a frog develops from a tadpole, both creatures are inherently identical and indistinguishable. Vidal’s point is simply that these three mutually antagonistic doctrines, Christianity, Capitalism and Marxism, are closely related by origins.

Following on then, postmodernism ought to be understood as a Marxist heresy, and thus, by extension, just another in a line of Christian heresies. It is, to extend Gore Vidal’s insightful analysis, a cousin of Christianity twice-removed. Or look at it this way: when Derrida says, “there is nothing outside the text”, is he saying anything so radically different from “The Word is God”? The circle, it seems, is complete.

*

But I cannot finish the chapter here. For though it is certainly fair to draw comparisons between the “social constructs” of postmodernism and the “false consciousness” of Marx, it is unfair to judge them as equals. Marx never denied the possibility of “true consciousness”, since this is, broadly speaking, his goal. Derrida’s approach is altogether foggier, whilst rejoicing in the rejection of all “logocentric” reason. So determined to escape from every possible kind of absolutism, the dangers of which are evident enough, he finally leads himself and his followers into the shifting sands of relativism. Once there, and afraid to face up to truth in any shape, this nihilism is thinly veiled by obscurantism and sophistry.

In 1966, when Jacques Derrida met Paul De Man they quickly became friends and colleagues. Independently and together, they continued to develop their theories of deconstruction. However, you won’t find any reference to Paul De Man in my Postmodernism for Beginners guide, because in recent years De Man has slipped a little off the pages. Why is this? Perhaps because after his death, evidence came to light that during the war he had been an active promoter of Nazism.

Some articles penned for the Belgian collaborationist newspaper, Le Soir, during the first years of the war, had indeed been explicitly antisemitic, referring to the “Jewish problem” and how it was “polluting” the contemporary culture. More shockingly, De Man had continued producing his albeit modest contribution to the Nazi propaganda machine, when he must surely have known that a genocide was taking place on his doorstep. In the wake of the first expulsion of Belgian Jews, as thousands were crushed into the cattle wagons, and driven from homes in Brussels to the horrors of Auschwitz, De Man had continued to peddle such poisonous nonsense. When news of De Man’s Nazi sympathies first came out, this story actually made the front page of the New York Times, generating a furore that seems a little surprising today. It provides a measure of how much De Man’s star has faded.

But then, in the aftermath of such shocking revelations, Derrida defended his old friend – as well as the reputation of their shared child: deconstruction. Aside from the appeals to justice and fairness, Derrida made use of his own deconstructive methods in articles such as the poetically titled “Like the sound of the sea deep within a shell: Paul De Man’s war” and then (in response to further criticism) “Biodegradables: Six Literary Fragments”. De Man must be understood within his cultural context, Derrida insisted throughout13.

In later years, Derrida quietly admitted that some texts (and ideologies) were more equal than others, even attesting to a Marxist element within his own branch of deconstruction (at least if Postmodernism for Beginners is to be believed). Whatever the case, in his defence of De Man, Derrida clearly understood how his slippery theory might profitably be used to paint black as grey and grey as white.14

It was precisely this same lurking danger that George Orwell had understood so well, and which he laid out so clearly within the covers of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His [Winston Smith’s] heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yes he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien [an Inner Party official], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote [in his secret diary]:

‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’”15

*

So much for the murk of postmodern unknowing. There are other ways to challenge logocentrism – that pursuit of certainty through reason that Derrida so detested. So I’d like to finish this chapter by dispelling the Occidental mists a little with thoughts from abroad.

The teachers of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism from centuries past also impressed upon their students that proper understanding cannot be grasped by the indelicate gloves of verbal or logical reasoning. However, in contrast to Derrida and the others, they did not confuse reason with objectivity.

One such teacher, Dofuku said: “In my opinion, truth is beyond affirmation or negation, for this is the way it moves.” Here then, to finish, a few alternative words on the complex relationship between language and the world. The first of these are lines taken from the Chinese tradition of Ch’an, from a collection written down in the thirteenth century16:

Words cannot describe everything.

The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

If one receives words literally, he will be lost.

If he tries to explain with words, he will not awaken to the world.

And here, a later Japanese Zen story called “Nothing exists”17 that cautions the student against the ever-fatal error of “mistaking the pointing finger for the Moon” by confusing any description of reality with reality itself:

Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.

Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realisation, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon, who had been smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?”

*

1 BEYOND NATIONS & NATIONALISMS: One World, Noam Chomsky on Post Modernism and Activism

From a discussion that took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine‘s Left On-Line Bulletin Board, 1997.

2 “So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.” Ibid.

3 All quotations without footnotes in this section are drawn from “Postmodernism for Beginners” by Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt, Icon Books Ltd. Whether or not these are the words of Jacques Derrida is not always made clear, but then why should we worry about authorship when as Bartes pointed out: “readers create their own meanings, regardless of the author’s intentions: the texts they use to do so are thus ever-shifting, unstable and open to question.” (p.74)

4 “As for the “deconstruction” that is carried out… I can’t comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies – of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren’t, a possibility to which I’ll return.” Noam Chomsky, source as above.

5 Published in Social Text #46/47 (spring/summer 1996) pp. 217-252. Duke University Press.

6 Sokal, Alan (May 1996). A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies. Lingua Franca.

7 He adds here that: “It’s understandable that the editors of Social Text were unable to evaluate critically the technical aspects of my article (which is exactly why they should have consulted a scientist). What’s more surprising is how readily they accepted my implication that the search for truth in science must be subordinated to a political agenda, and how oblivious they were to the article’s overall illogic.” Ibid.

8 For publishing Sokal’s original paper, the journal Social Text received Ig Nobel prize for literature (1996).

9 “The fall of the Berlin Wall did more than any of the books that I, or anybody else, has written, to persuade people that that was not the way to run an economy.” quote from free-market economist, Milton Friedman.

10 Voltaire, who was an outspoken critic of religious and, in particular, Catholic fanaticism, clearly understood and bravely acknowledged the relationship between church authority and political power more generally. In his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), the main target of which is the Christian church, and its doctrinal belief in the supernatural, he wrote dryly: “As you know, the Inquisition is an admirable and wholly Christian invention to make the pope and the monks more powerful and turn a whole kingdom into hypocrites.”

11 “Dennett’s dangerous idea”: a review written by James Brookfield (6 November 2006) of Breaking the Spell: religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett, Viking Adult, 2006. Review taken from World Socialist Web Site published by the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).

12 Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Part 4: Marx, by Friedrich Engels, First Published: 1886, in Die Neue Zeit, and translated by Progress Publishers in 1946.

13 “First, Derrida argues, de Man is not responsible for all of the many evils of Nazism or for the Holocaust. To compare him to Mengele, as one writer did, is unjust. Second, it is unjust to read de Man’s later writings as an admission of guilt or responsibility – or as an attempt to deny responsibility – for what he did during World War II. Third, although de Man wrote a series of articles expressing the ideology of the occupation forces and one article which is blatantly antisemitic, it is unjust to judge his whole life based on that one episode in his youth. Fourth – and this is the most controversial point in his argument – Derrida suggests that de Man’s articles are not as damning as one might be led to expect when they are read in the appropriate context. According to Derrida, the explicit antisemitism of the worst article is equivocal, and it is hardly as bad as many other articles in Le Soir. …”

“Nor can one object that these two articles do not discuss deconstruction or employ deconstructive techniques. In fact, both possess interesting and sustained discussions of deconstruction and its place in the academy, as well as many passages explicitly offering and rejecting possible connections between deconstruction and justice, or between deconstruction on the one hand and fascism or totalitarianism on the other..” passages taken from Transcendental Deconstruction, Transcendent Justice, originally published in Mich. L. Rev. 1131 (1994) by Jack M. Balkin.

14 Jack Balkin, respected academic and defender of deconstructionism, acknowledges the dangers of following its relativistic course when it leads toward nihilism. He explains how Derrida betrays his own theory to avoid this error: “[First] Derrida offers deconstructive arguments that cut both ways: Although one can use deconstructive arguments to further what Derrida believes is just, one can also deconstruct in a different way to reach conclusions he would probably find very unjust. One can also question his careful choice of targets of deconstruction: One could just as easily have chosen different targets and, by deconstructing them, reach conclusions that he would find abhorrent. Thus, in each case, what makes Derrida’s deconstructive argument an argument for justice is not its use of deconstruction, but the selection of the particular text or concept to deconstruct and the way in which the particular deconstructive argument is wielded. I shall argue that Derrida’s encounter with justice really shows that deconstructive argument is a species of rhetoric, which can be used for different purposes depending upon the moral and political commitments of the deconstructor.”

This perfidy, Balkin celebrates, suggesting that Derrida’s new form of “transcendental deconstruction” be universally adopted: “Yet, in rising to respond to these critics, just as he had previously responded to the critics of de Man, Derrida offered examples of deconstructive argument that were not wholly consistent with all of his previous deconstructive writings. They are, however, consistent with the practice of deconstruction that I have advocated. This is Derrida’s perfidy, his betrayal of deconstruction. Yet it is a betrayal that I heartily endorse. …”

15 Quote taken from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 7.

16 Ibid, p.123. Extract taken from The Gateless Gate by Ekai, called Mumon. Transcribed by Nyogen Senzaki and Paul Reps. [I have modified the final line to render a more poetic effect. The original reads: “If he tries to explain with words, he will not attain enlightenment in this life.” In making this small alteration I have tried to maintain the spirit of the original.]

17 Extract taken from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, an anthology of Zen and pre-Zen writing compiled by Paul Reps, published by Penguin Books, reprinted in 2000, p.75.

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the rise of the far-right – nothing new under a black sun

A friend recently sent me a link to the latest episode of the BBC news programme “Our World” in which correspondent Katya Adler examines the rise of far-right extremism in Germany. Adler reports on the public outrage after it came to light that a group of three neo-Nazis had been able, in spite of being well-known to the authorities, to go on a ten-year killing spree of racially-motivated murders.

The programme is available here.

Watching it has caused me to reflect again on that biggest of all historical questions, which is how so many Western democracies — including Germany of course — surrendered to the spell of Fascism during the middle part of the Twentieth Century. My own modest attempt to address this enormous issue had been intended to form the basis for one chapter of a book – a book that I’ve been trying to complete for many years. The chapter, provisionally titled “Into The Abyss”, was to have been one part of a larger section that I have since decided to abandon. Looking through the drafts again, I came to the conclusion that much that I’d already written about was perhaps more pertinent than ever. Having updated and edited those thoughts one last time, I have therefore decided to present them in the form of the following extended post.

*

1. Not all Fascists look alike

Nazism, some claim (and I have encountered this claim on a number of different occasions), should not to be properly regarded as Fascism at all, but was precisely what it claimed to be, National Socialism. A casual inspection indeed gives credence to this contention.

Aside from the superficial facts that the Nazi flag was of a vibrant red, a colour it evidently shares with the flags of both Communism and Socialism; and that the Nazi Party (known in German as NSDAP) was, albeit prior to Hitler’s takeover, the German Workers Party (DAP); there is also, and more surprisingly perhaps, support for the argument on the basis of Hitler’s original manifesto, which is well-peppered with traditional leftist rhetoric1.

Actions, however, speak much louder than words, and Hitler and the Nazi Party did not wait around too long before revealing their true intent. So rather than pursuing policies that might have brought about a fairer redistribution of wealth, as any Socialist government is supposed to, the Nazis immediately set about protecting a select group of private corporate interests against the interests of the majority, and rather than promoting the rights of workers, they instead made fervent attacks against the trade union movement.

Apart then, from the flags and banners of fake solidarity, Nazism paid absolutely no heed whatsoever to the ideologies of Socialism, but was fixated instead with a much more ancient system of politics – a fixation that it shares with all Fascist ideologies – the belief that aristocracy in the literal sense of “rule by the best”2 is the only legitimate form of government. The trick with the Nazis having been one of camouflage, of using what might nowadays be described as ‘left cover’. A ploy that is necessary whenever any self-select elitist clique wants to ingratiate itself with the plebs it secretly wishes to oppress.

So it comes as little surprise to discover that today’s more openly neo-Fascist groups are also employing the same old strategy of over-stressing their tremendous concern for the plight of the common man. I have even heard reliable accounts of how our own Fascists, the British National Party (BNP), have sometimes tried to drum up electoral support in key constituencies by lending a hand, mowing the lawn or fetching the shopping. Al Capone made comparable efforts to increase his own popularity within the Italian community of Chicago by providing soup kitchens, Christmas meals and so forth. The parallel is hardly accidental.

Orwell, who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was also quite aware of how the Fascism of Germany had ridden piggy-back on the youthful Socialist movement. He had named the central party in his book Ingsoc and this gesture was obviously intended to provoke a reaction from both left and right alike. To clarify his own position, however, he later sent two press releases to counter claims from American reviewers (especially those working for Time-Life Corporation journals) – as well as objections from certain Communists – that Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended as an explicit attack on Socialism. The warning he delivers in the second of these statements (quoted below without abridgement) I think is clear enough — and especially so in the second paragraph:

“George Orwell assumes that if such societies as he describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four come into being there will be several super-states. This is fully dealt with in the relevant chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is also discussed from a different angle by James Burnham in The Management Revolution. These super states will naturally be in opposition to each other or (a novel point) will pretend to be much more in opposition than in fact they are. Two of the principal super states will obviously be the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. If these two great blocs line up as mortal enemies it is obvious that the Anglo-Americans will not take the name of their opponents and will not dramatise themselves on the scene of history as Communists. Thus they will have to find a new name for themselves. The name suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four is of course Ingsoc, but in practice a wide range of choices is open. In the USA the phrase “Americanism” or “hundred percent Americanism” is suitable and the qualifying adjective is as totalitarian as anyone could wish.

“If there is a failure of nerve and the Labour Party breaks down in its attempt to deal with the hard problems with which it will be faced, tougher types than the present Labour leaders will inevitably take over, drawn probably from the ranks of the Left, but not sharing the liberal aspirations of those now in power. Members of the present British government, from Mr Attlee and Sir Stafford Cripps down to Aneurin Bevin, will never willingly sell the pass to the enemy, and in general the older men, nurtured in a liberal education, are safe, but the younger generation is suspect and the seeds of totalitarian thought are probably widespread among them.”3

2. You don’t have to be mad to be a Nazi but it helps

The Nazis promoted all the usual extreme right-wing dogma about nationalist supremacy, militarism, and the Triumph of the Will (‘will’ in this context meaning only ‘the Will to Power’), with these hardline ideals then baked (or perhaps that should be ‘half-baked’) together with much odder and more exotic ingredients, such as the pseudo-scientific claptrap about a pure Germanic ancestory descended from the Aryan “master race”; archeological evidence supposedly washing up from the entirely mythological land of Thule. Thule being a sort of chilly Atlantis of the Arctic.

Justifications for the Nazis obsession with racial purity were also greatly assisted by dedicated (although now very obviously) quack scientists who went around measuring and cataloguing human skulls amongst other things; going to enormous efforts in order to sort out the “great races” from the “untermensch”. With hindsight, it’s all-too easy to see how the red of Nazism never symbolised the life-blood of the ordinary people, but had actually always represented blut of altogether more Aryan hue.

At this point it is important to realise how Nazism, like all other forms of Fascism, owes a very great legacy to the wrong-headed but persistent pseudo-Darwinian belief which chews up “survival of the fittest” and spews it back as “the fittest ought to survive”. Might becomes right, more or less by Fascist definition. Advocates of this view had found convenient support in the works of ‘Social Darwinists’ like Herbert Spencer, who viewed society as a larger kind of organism with its own parallel course of evolution. Society, the Social Darwinists argued, must be run on the basis of the natural order of the world itself: thus encouraging and not ameliorating the constant battle for survival, the Hobbesian “war of all against all”, because it is this perpetual striving that ensures strength both within species and, purportedly by extension, within races and societies.

With this in mind we can see that all of the preposterous racist pseudo-science was an attempt to prove solidly what was already so abundantly apparent (at least to the Nazis): that the master race was destined to rule the world. But did the Nazi elite actually believe any of this self-glorifying codswallop? Well, it seems very certain that many did, along with other beliefs that are far stranger again.

For instance, there was a secret order known as the Thule Society (an organisation that had adopted the swastika as its own signifier long before Hitler rose to power), and which had ties to Madam Blavatsky’s Theosophists. The Thule Society included some of the highest ranking Nazis, Rudolf Hess being one such, and behind the scenes many of the Nazi in-crowd were also drawn to the mysterious black light of the esoteric. Nor is it a mere Hollywood fantasy that the Nazis were on a quest to secure the Holy Grail, since, and as bizarre as it may sound, there seems little reason to doubt that one member of Heinrich Himmler’s elite SS, a man called Otto Wilhelm Rahn, was recruited with precisely that objective in mind4.

Inside Himmler’s SS headquarters Castle Wewelsburg, Hitler’s second-in-command and the other SS commanders, also played out their other fantasies, very earnestly believing they were the new Knights of the Round Table. It remains unclear as to whether or not the Fuhrer himself regarded such arcane escapades with any degree of seriousness, but that occult and ritualistic Nazi goings-on took place is beyond all reasonable doubt. It has even been reported that Churchill, learning of this Nazi foible for dabbling in the supernatural, planned to send false astrological reports in one of the more surreal attempts to trap his enemy. One report allegedly translated as follows:

“Mars is in the ascendant, so now is an auspicious time for meglomaniacal Taurians to press full-steam ahead with their schemes for absolute dominion. The world will soon be your oyster, and there could hardly be a better time to mount an invasion of Russia…”

*

Embedded below is the excellent German documentary “Schwarze Sonne” (Black Sun) written and directed by Rüdiger Sünner (released 1998) in which he explores the importance of esotericism and occultism in Nazi ideology, ceremony and ritual:

The video above was taken down so here’s a different upload:

3. Not all Fascists goose step

Needless to say I was taught nothing of this at school. Perhaps none of it was considered relevant for some reason. What they taught me instead was that the rise of Nazism was due in a great respect to the severe reparations inflicted on the German people after their defeat in the First World War: a form of extortion that had left the hungry and huddled masses desperate for a quick fix to make their country strong again. It’s a version of history that holds more than a grain of truth.

Times were unimaginably tough during the depression years of the 1920s and 1930s, and especially so for a German people, held to ransom by the victors of the Great War and suffering from economic meltdown caused by unprecedented hyper-inflation. At the height of this crisis, prices were doubling every two days, and so, in less than two years, the Mark had been devalued by a staggering trillion to one. More than enough to bring any people to their knees.

Yet the question hangs: why the special appeal of Nazism? Why too, the steady growth of other Fascist movements all across the Western world? The simultaneous rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy, of General Franco in Spain, of the largely forgotten dictator António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, and also, we should never forget, of Oswald Moseley back home in Blighty, and the simultaneous reawakening of white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan in America. The German depression had surely opened the wound upon which Nazism could gorge itself, but it must have attracted a whole variety of competitors, Communism being an obvious rival, alongside other more benign forms of Socialism, similar in kind to Roosevelt’s New Deal in America. So why the appeal of Fascism? The history I was taught in school failed even to speculate on any alternatives.

No less importantly, my high-school history lessons failed to inform us about how Nazism had appealed to so many from the ranks of the British ruling classes. We learnt about appeasement, which was an altogether more cross-party affair, but no special emphasis was ever given to the Cliveden Set, led by Lord and Lady Astor, with Lord Brand and Lord Halifax amongst the disreputable others, guiding the hand of Nevelle Chamberland as he signed that infamous piece of paper. Nor was there any mention of the more secret and scandalous affection of Edward and Mrs Simpson, and their romancing of the Third Reich.

Moreover, the history lessons had failed even to distinguish the ill-advised pacifistic motives of many who wished only to avoid more war (which is naive but understandable given such recent shadows cast by “the war to end all wars”), from the active support of Hitler by the so-called British Fascisti and the British Union of Fascists. There was no mention of either of these organisations or of their close ties to the British Conservative Party, which was, and of course remains, very much the political arm of the ruling classes. We also learned nothing of the Anglo-German Fellowship founded in 1935 by English merchant banker Ernest Tennant, with a membership that included the Governor of the Bank of England, Norman Montague alongside Hitler’s finance minister, Hjalmar Schacht.

Indeed, lessons in history stopped well short of pointing accusing fingers anywhere toward the leading industrialists and businessmen in Britain and America. Failing to record mention that companies like Standard Oil, Du Ponts, and IBM all made enormous profits from collaborating with the Nazi regime, whilst perhaps the greatest American industrialist of all, Henry Ford, had even been awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, a medal given to foreigners sympathetic to Nazism.

Nor was any part of our syllabus devoted to Prescott Bush and the helpful part he played in Hitler’s rise to power. Prescott was the father to George Bush snr, who during the time I was learning the history of WWII had himself risen to become Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. However, and almost exactly a half-century earlier, his dad, then a managing partner of ‘the world’s largest investment bank’ Brown Brothers Harriman, was providing the American financial base that supported German industrialist, Fritz Thyssen. For his part, Thyssen was one of Hitler’s main financial backers; very probably his most important.

You can read more about how the Bush family became so fabulously wealthy in an article entitled “How Bush’s grandfather helped Hitler’s rise to power” published by the Guardian in 2004.5

Back in school we were not even taught about how the British and American news media (with a special mention here to the Daily Mail) had consistently praised Hitler in glowing terms throughout the pre-war period. The clamour for Fascism being apparently just something like a noxious gas that had bubbled up unexpectedly from the depths – this was at least the impression I’d been given. But then perhaps the bigger truth is always a little too complicated for the classroom. After all, we were also taught that the First World War was the result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajavo. Comedian Rob Newman dismissed that particular theory with his own blunt and wholly rhetorical question: “I mean, just how popular can a guy be?”6

4. Fascism is more than just a swearword

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the Fascists had spread their obscene ideology across much of the industrialised world. But what precisely is Fascism? Is it even a useful term? It may come as a surprise to discover that Orwell, who was of course staunchly anti-Fascist, considered the term itself to be unhelpful, writing in 1944 (so just a few years after fighting against Franco) that:

“The word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else… almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’.”7

This is widely quoted – and as a matter of fact I’ve lifted the above quotation deliberately unaltered from the pages of wikipedia.8 My purpose here being to illustrate how Orwell’s intended meaning is often significantly altered by abridgement. The complete passage revealing that Orwell is not in actual fact saying the word ‘Fascism’ has no meaning whatsoever, but only that different opponents of Fascism confuse the same term in different ways. Allow me then to reveal what was left clipped out by way of the ellipsis:

“…Yet underneath all this mess there does lie a kind of buried meaning. To begin with, it is clear that there are very great differences, some of them easy to point out and not easy to explain away, between the régimes called Fascist and those called democratic. Secondly, if ‘Fascist’ means ‘in sympathy with Hitler’, some of the accusations I have listed above are obviously very much more justified than others. Thirdly, even the people who recklessly fling the word ‘Fascist’ in every direction attach at any rate an emotional significance to it. By ‘Fascism’ they mean, roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class. Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

Just as importantly, Orwell’s remarks are taken entirely out of context. For he is not advocating that we abandon the label of ‘Fascism’, but merely offering his account of why its nail is so hard to hit. Though it is only in his conclusions, laid out in the subsequent paragraph, where this finally becomes apparent:

“[But] Fascism is also a political and economic system. Why, then, cannot we have a clear and generally accepted definition of it? Alas! we shall not get one — not yet, anyway. To say why would take too long, but basically it is because it is impossible to define Fascism satisfactorily without making admissions which neither the Fascists themselves, nor the Conservatives, nor Socialists of any colour, are willing to make. All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.”

5. Being Fascist means never having to think for yourself again

Whereas there are no doubt a few corners of academia in which the debate continues regarding whether or not Hitler and the Nazis were Fascist in any strict sense, there can be no argument at all when it comes to Mussolini. The blackness of Mussolini’s shirt is never seriously questioned. It was Mussolini, after all, with help from his propagandist Giovanni Gentile, who had together outlined the first formulation of the political doctrine of Fascism. It was Mussolini indeed, who coined the term ‘Fascism’, drawing it from the Latin word ‘fasces’, a symbol taken from the Roman Empire which employed a bundle of sticks tied around an axe to signify “strength in unity.” So what then, did Il Duce have to say for his bastard child?

To begin with, in his “Doctrine of Fascism”, Mussolini states that Fascism is fundamentally anti-individualistic, going on to explain that:

“The Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State, which stands for the conscience and the universal will of man as a historic entity.”9

In other words the Fascism he describes directly contends with, and flatly contradicts the Enlightenment vision of man, to the fundamental extent that it denies the individual even the basic right to be the self-possessing justification of their own existence. The state is everything, Mussolini is saying, and you are nothing unless it decrees otherwise, and he backs all this up saying later:

“The Fascist conception of the State is all embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value.”

Adding a little later again that:

“Fascism, in short, is not only a law-giver and a founder of institutions, but an educator and a promoter of spiritual life. It aims at refashioning not only the forms of life but their content – man, his character, and his faith. To achieve this purpose it enforces discipline and uses authority, entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway. Therefore it has chosen as its emblem the Lictor’s rods, the symbol of unity, strength, and justice.”

In other words then, Fascism, at least according to Mussolini’s formula, is totalitarian to the extent that it imposes a collective weltanshauung – one all-embracing philosophy for all – a worldview that claims to guarantee absolute escape from the burden of individual freedom, with all the worry and responsibility that being free entails. But the price is high, of course, at least for those of us in the common herd, for what Fascism ultimately demands is nothing less than our souls:

“The Fascist conception of life is a religious one, in which man is viewed in his immanent relation to a higher law, endowed with an objective will transcending the individual and raising him to conscious membership of a spiritual society. Those who perceive nothing beyond opportunistic considerations in the religious policy of the Fascist regime fail to realize that Fascism is not only a system of government but also and above all a system of thought.”

Above all a system of thought… Yeah, yeah!

6. Fascists hate liberals, lefties, do-gooders, peacemakers and women (obviously)

“State ownership! It leads only to absurd and monstrous conclusions; state ownership means state monopoly, concentrated in the hands of one party and its adherents, and that state brings only ruin and bankruptcy to all.”

These are the words of Mussolini too. Old Mussolini, the bringer of Fascism, and not of course, Mussolini the young Communist. By this point Mussolini despised all things socialistic. He despised leftist ideologies just as whole-hearted as he despised liberalism and democracy, and he was unabashed in saying so:

“After socialism, Fascism trains its guns on the whole block of democratic ideologies, and rejects both their premises and their practical applications and implements. Fascism denies that numbers, as such, can be the determining factor in human society; it denies the right of numbers to govern by means of periodical consultations; it asserts the irremediable and fertile and beneficent inequality of men who cannot be levelled by any such mechanical and extrinsic device as universal suffrage.”10

And yet for many trapped within the lower social echelons, Fascism promises glory in the grandest terms. Why? Because firstly it says you can forget about your own sad and pathetic lives, which will in any case amount to nothing. For so long as you remain as individuals, acting in desperate isolation, you are nothing, and just as helpless as children. Not that you are about to be given much choice in any case, because the other promise of Fascism is that any who imagine otherwise and attempt to stand in the way of progress, will, of necessity and for the greater cause, be crushed like insects. There is no choice and yet Fascism demands that you choose: to sacrifice your nothingness to the greater triumph of the nation – although, I say ‘nation’ simply because historically Fascism has always wrapped itself in national colours, but actually flags of any kind might equally serve the same ends.

The impulse here, as Mussolini rightly claims, is a religious one. Religious because it offers meaning in exchange for sacrifice. A twisted religious meaning, certainly, in which the teachings of Christ are totally up-ended, so that the weak are condemned and Caesar anointed. And whilst Mussolini wishes merely to eradicate the meek and the feeble, he prefers to cast all the peacemakers straight to hell:

“Fascism does not, generally speaking, believe in the possibility or utility of perpetual peace. It therefore discards pacifism as a cloak for cowardly supine renunciation in contradistinction to self-sacrifice. War alone keys up all human energies to their maximum tension and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it. All other tests are substitutes which never place a man face to face with himself before the alternative of life or death. Therefore all doctrines which postulate peace at all costs are incompatible with Fascism.”11

Mussolini said that he owed much to William James, and in particular James’s famous essay “The Moral Equivalent to War”. Yet he must have read it badly. Perhaps the title of his own copy had been mistranslated to read: “morality is equivalent to war”. But then war is always a splendid diversion for tyrants, whilst also a clearing of the way for the proper redistribution of wealth in the Fascist sense: from the poor to the rich obviously.

7. Fascists see Fascism as natural

“The maxim that society exists only for the well-being and freedom of the individuals composing it does not seem to be in conformity with nature’s plans, which care only for the species and seem ready to sacrifice the individual. It is much to be feared that the last word of democracy thus understood (and let me hasten to add that it is susceptible of a different interpretation) would be a form of society in which a degenerate mass would have no thought beyond that of enjoying the ignoble pleasures of the vulgar.”12

You have no doubt already guessed that these are also the charmless words of Benito Mussolini. Laying down a challenge to what he regards as the innate decadence of liberal democracy, leading to “a degenerate mass [that] would have no thought beyond that of enjoying the ignoble pleasures of the vulgar”. Had Mussolini only had the opportunity to watch “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, he would no doubt have cited both as exemplary footnotes.

In the same paragraph, Mussolini is also claiming support for his ideology on the basis of Science, or more specifically what was then the comparatively new theory of Darwinian evolution. What he says is nonetheless scientific gobbledegook, although sadly it is gobbledegook that a great many will still inevitably mistake for truth. So to redress the matter succinctly, nature does not have any plans: that’s what Darwin actually said, and what modern biologists still believe. Whether the scientists are right or wrong is beside the point, the point being only that Mussolini and the other Fascists can derive no validation or justification from Science whatsoever.

I have also selected this passage because it shows Mussolini as ‘the improver’, and it is very likely the case that Mussolini, and Hitler, and Franco, and the rest of the wrecking crews regarded themselves as true social improvers 13. This should probably be our gravest concern about Fascism: that its main advocates are also ardent believers. They have come to love the smell of their own farts so much that they genuinely mistake them for perfume.

8. Fascism offers a diseased form of escapism

“If we want to fight Fascism we must understand it. Wishful thinking will not help. And reciting optimistic formulae will prove to be as inadequate and useless as the ritual of an Indian rain dance. In addition to the problem of the social and economic conditions which have given rise to Fascism, there is a human problem which needs to be understood.”14

These are the words of the great social psychologist and humanist, Erich Fromm, writing in 1941. The problem, Fromm argues, has to do with our need for belonging. A basic human need, that if unsatisfied, bursts out as an unassailable urge to sacrifice all else in order to secure it:

“The kind of relatedness to the world may be noble or trivial, but even being related to the basest kind of pattern is immensely preferable to being alone. Religion and Nationalism, as well as any custom or belief however absurd or degrading, if it only connects the individual with others, are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.”15

Fascism actually has two faces, which is one of the reasons Orwell and others have found it such a brute to nail down. On the one hand, it is simply a highly effective way for the ruling class to maximise their control over the lower orders – Fascism being an extreme form of oligarchy, and one in which the oligarchs frequently prance around truly believing they are the new gods. Meanwhile, the ordinary Joe Fascist is given to understand that their own subservience makes them greater in a different way. In this it taps deep into unconscious desires, offering a quick fix to plug up a sometimes festering ‘God-shaped hole’:

“Brotherhood implies a common father. Therefore it is often argued that men can never develop the sense of a community unless they believe in God. The answer is that in a half-conscious way most of them have developed it already. Man is not an individual, he is only a cell in an everlasting body, and he is dimly aware of it. There is no other way of explaining why it is that men will die in battle. It is nonsense to say that they do it only because they are driven. If whole armies had to be coerced, no war could ever be fought. Men die in battle — not gladly, of course, but at any rate voluntarily — because of abstractions called ‘honour’, ‘duty’, ‘patriotism’ and so forth.

“All that this really means is that they are aware of some organism greater than themselves, stretching into the future and the past, within which they feel themselves to be immortal. ‘Who dies if England live?’ sounds like a piece of bombast, but if you alter ‘England’ to whatever you prefer, you can see that it expresses one of the main motives of human conduct. People sacrifice themselves for the sake of fragmentary communities — nation, race, creed, class — and only become aware that they are not individuals in the very moment when they are facing bullets. A very slight increase of consciousness and their sense of loyalty could be transferred to humanity itself, which is not an abstraction.”16

These are the words of Orwell again, a man who knew perfectly well what it feels like to be facing bullets. He also understood more clearly than most political thinkers, how virtues such as loyalty and courage can be coerced and corrupted to the detriment of all. So he writes in a review of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades…. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.17

9. Fascism never went away

All of which finally brings me to an article I found on the Channel 4 website entitled “What is fuelling the rise of the far right?”18 Here is a pertinent extract:

While the far right movement means different things in [different] countries, these groups share a nationalistic cultural identity. However, perhaps surprisingly, it is also characterised by traditionally left-leaning economic policy.

The Demos study found that respondents were anti-establishment, anti-capitalism and supportive of the welfare state – but only for the country’s citizens.

Dr Erik Jones, Director of the Bologna Institute for Policy Research and Professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Centre agreed.

“All of these groups have another thing in common – they are anti-traditional elites,” he told Channel 4 News.

But the main point being missed here, as in most, if not all, of the mainstream analysis, is that in Europe, America and much of the rest of the Western world, the political system has already been captured by a version of the extreme right. Not the old-style right of Hitler or Mussolini, which was built upon the foundations of bombastic nationalism, but a new brand of increasingly far-right extremism that cleverly disguises itself as non-ideological, tolerant and even moderate – I heard political commentator Tariq Ali recently refer to it as “the extreme centre”.

This new extremism chooses new methods to promote and protect its crony insiders. It says sorry but you really have no choice, these other chaps are simply too big to fail, adding, almost as an aside, that democracy wasn’t working in any case. And it finds new justifications for engaging in aggressive foreign wars that we are told have absolutely nothing to do with conquest and exploitation. War being nothing more than a matter of preemption, or if that fails to impress the populous, of humanitarianism. However, the new extremism finds old and very well-tested excuses when it comes to clampdowns on our individual freedoms, with the main one being, ironically enough, to protect us from ‘extremists’. The other, to protect us from ourselves, what else!

Bush and the rest of the neo-cons appeared to many (myself included) as a gang of Fascists, whereas Obama was supposed to bring ‘hope and change’. The sad truth is, however, that under Obama there has been an almost uninterrupted continuity of agenda.

It was Obama, not Bush, who recently passed into law the right to indefinitely detain without charge, and granted tacit but executive permission for security agencies or the military to torture and assassinate American citizens. It was Obama who expanded the wars into Pakistan, Yemen and Africa by increasing the use of mercenaries and drone strikes. Meanwhile, and as the US policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ continues unabated, Guantanamo not only remains open, but is about to be upgraded.

The British government, which is soon to flood the streets of our Capital with military personnel all in the name of security, is also getting ready to grant legal permission for warrantless surveillance and secret trials. As the clampdown accelerates, Western governments far and wide are also selling off their national assets and much else besides: the prisons, police forces and even the military. All these are being corporatised. They are being made ready for a fuller merger of corporation and State, almost exactly as Mussolini had conceived in his own Fascist system.

At the same time, our governments which, wretched as they are are, nevertheless form some kind of insulating democratic buffer from pure totalitarian rule, are deliberately surrendering their own independence, and with it, our national sovereignty. A clique of unelected, and thus untouchable, ‘technocrats’ steadily taking over the reins to better serve the special interests of that small, offshore globalist elite they actually represent. So the truth is that our creeping case of Fascism (since this is the only valid description – totalitarian is too polite) did not arise from the kinds of fringe movements identified and surveyed by the trendy lefties at Demos, but is being rammed down our throats by the powers above.

Back down at street level, the new attraction of the far-right should come as no surprise to anyone at all. When times get tough, Fascism of all kinds has an unerring habit of rearing its filthy head and trying to look respectable. And it will automatically seem like an appealing final solution for some stuck at the bottom of the current social scrapheap, whilst appealing as strongly to many in ‘the squeezed middle’ who are suddenly feeling as abandoned as those they had previously despised for being beneath them. Free to throw-off any last pretenses of liberalism, they can relish the licence granted to fully unleash their always latent bigotry.

To those who sympathise, the allure of Fascism will always appear like a new kind of freedom, although it ought to go without saying that the low-ranking Fascist cheerleaders are greatly deceived. Any appearance of new freedom being a complete illusion, and if licence is ever fully granted to release the full furies of outright Fascism, they are almost as likely to become fresh victims as the staunchest of anti-Fascists.

Fascism only actually serves the special interests of the dominant and already established minority. It elevates the rule of the old aristocracies, the mega-wealthy and the super-connected, alongside the most powerful financial and business leaders of the major corporations. Such an absolute consolidation of political power in the hands of the few depends upon the thorough trampling down of the overwhelming majority, and this is really the essence of Fascism. Traditionally, as well as economically, Fascism also relies on the maintaining of a ceaseless and expansionist war.

Obviously Fascism tries to look radical and new, and in this reincarnation the more sophisticated front has audaciously stolen the gown of multiculturalism. Even elements of street-level Fascism now pretend to be all-inclusive; the outstanding example being the English Defence League, which has stepped forward to replace worn-out whites-only clubs of the old National Front and the BNP. Fascism has gone postmodern, so beware… beneath the thinnest of disguises nothing has really altered. Fascism, whether at street level or within the highest echelons of our societies, is always the oldest and most reactionary game in town.

1 The party program of the NSDAP as proclaimed on 24th February 1920 by Adolf Hitler at the first significant party gathering was subsequently summarised as 25 points. Point 13 states that: “We demand the nationalization of all associated industries (trusts). Point 14 states that: “We demand profit-sharing in all large industries. Point 15 states that “We demand an improvement in old age welfare. Point 20 states that: “We demand the education at the expense of the State of outstanding gifted children of poor parents without consideration of station or occupation.” Point 21 states that: “The State is to care for the elevating of national health by protecting the mother and child, by prohibiting child-labour…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Socialist_Program#German_Party_program

2 Aristocracy deriving from the Greek aristokratia with aristo- meaning ‘best’.

3 The first press release read as follows:

“It has been suggested by some of the reviewers of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR that it is the author’s view that this, or something like this, is what will happen inside the next forty years in the Western World. This is not correct. I think that, allowing for the book being after all a parody, something like Nineteen Eighty-Four could happen. This is the direction in which the world is going at the present time, and the trend lies deep in the political, social and economic foundations of the contemporary world situation.

Specifically the danger lies in the structure imposed on Socialism and on Liberal capitalist communities by the necessity to prepare for total war with the USSR and the new weapons, of which of course the atomic bomb is the most powerful and most publicised. But danger lies also in the acceptance of a totalitarian outlook by individuals of all colours.

The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

Both press releases are recorded in Bernard Crick’s essay “Nineteen Eighty-Four: Context and Controversy” published in “The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell”, edited by John Rodden, p.154.

4 Rahn wrote two books: Kreuzzug gegen den Gral (Crusade Against the Grail) in 1933 and Luzifers Hofgesind (Lucifer’s Court) in 1937. Following publication of the first of these, Rahn’s work came to the attention of Hitler’s second-in-command and Head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Rahn was invited to join up as a junior non-commissioned officer and then became a full member of the SS in 1936.

5 “How Bush’s grandfather helped Hitler’s rise to power” written by Ben Aris and Duncan Campbell, published by the Guardian on September 25, 2004. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/sep/25/usa.secondworldwar

Although not attributed, the original research can actually be traced back to Webster G. Tarpley’s “George Bush: The Unauthorised Biography” which was published more than a dacade earlier in 1992 and that is available for free online at http://tarpley.net/online-books/george-bush-the-unauthorized-biography/

6 Here is a report taken from the Guardian newspaper (29th June 1914):

“The Austrian royal house has had enough tragedies in its history, and facts might well have spared it another. It was not to be. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, nephew of Emperor Francis Joseph and heir to the throne, has been most cruelly murdered at Sarajevo, and his wife, Duchess Hohenberg, has shared his fate. Two attempts were made on their lives in the course of the day, a fact that would seem to point to conspiracy. What its motives may have been we do not know, nor do they greatly matter. Had the archduke been a cruel tyrant, and had the records of Austrian rule in Bosnia been as bad as they have in fact been good, the murder would still have been an abominable crime. It is a difficult and at present an ungracious task to speculate on what influence the crime may have on Austrian politics.”

This is the original version as republished a few years ago. For some reason it has since been slightly altered but a version can now be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1914/jun/29/fromthearchive

I find the report interesting for two main reasons. Firstly, it highlights the likelihood of some kind of conspiracy – and clearly journalists of the day were unafraid of using the c-word. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, there seems to have been little concern about the wider repercussions outside of Austria.

7 “What is Fascism?” essay by George Orwell, first published in Tribune. — GB, London. — 1944. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/As_I_Please/english/efasc

8 I can no longer find any entry on wikipedia that precisely matches the quote with ellipsis as stated although I can find other truncated versions in a number of wikipedia articles in which Orwell’s full statement has been abridged to produce the same effect.

9 A translation of the Benito Mussolini “Doctrines” section of the “Fascism” entry in the 1932 edition of the Enciclopedia Italiana. From the publication “Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions”, by Benito Mussolini, 1935, ‘Ardita’ Publishers, Rome. All quotes have been taken from the only complete official translation I can find on the web. http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm

10 ibid.

11 ibid.

12 ibid.

13 “The Fascist negation of socialism, democracy, liberalism, should not, however, be interpreted as implying a desire to drive the world backwards to positions occupied prior to 1789, a year commonly referred to as that which opened the demo-liberal century. History does not travel backwards. The Fascist doctrine has not taken De Maistre as its prophet.” Also taken from Benito Mussolini “Doctrines” section of the “Fascism” entry in the 1932 edition of the Enciclopedia Italiana.

14 “The Fear of Freedom” by Erich Fromm, published by Routledge, 1960. Extract taken from Chapter 1, “Freedom – a psychological problem?”, p3.

15 ibid, p15.

16 From “Notes on the way” by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940. http://orwell.ru/library/articles/notes/english/e_notew

17 From a review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, written by George Orwell, published in New English Weekly, March 21st, 1940.

18 From an article entitled “What is fuelling the rise of the far right?” published November 14, 2011. http://www.channel4.com/news/has-the-euro-crisis-fuelled-a-rise-of-the-far-right

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