The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Fighting fire with fire

The former Indian ambassador to Turkey recalls a time when the Turkish state and Islamic fundamentalists were on the same side. (Via Alister Black).

Some of Iraq's communists are willing to contemplate a slightly more, let's say, direct action against the fundamentalists:

While Iraq's other secular parties cosy up to the clerics, the Workers' Communist Party of Iraq (WCP) is struggling to halt Iraq's slide into an Islamic state. It holds coming-out parties for Baghdad girls who shed the veil, and, with reports of women being mugged, it has opened a refuge on the top floor of a Tigris-side bank repossessed by the proletariat. "Congratulations," says Yanar Muhammad, a self-professed "ex-Muslim" and founder of the WCP's Women's Freedom in Iraq Organisation, as she hugs her latest recruit to the barehead brigade.

In the charred shell of the bank below, party cadres plot their return to Al-Thoura, Baghdad's sprawling Shia shantytown, once their heartland but now the bridgehead of an Islamic state. A comrade with a huge bush of facial hair proposes Molotov-cocktailing a mosque for each liquor store or cinema torched.

Meanwhile, on a lighter note: New Purported Bush Tape Raises Fear of New Attacks. (Via Left I).
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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Once and Future Republic

On Monday 24 Dec BBC1 showed an hour-long docu-drama, Oliver Cromwell: Warts and All. It's the first time I've seen anything on television that portrayed England's greatest son with sympathy, let alone with warmth, as this programme did. The costume drama mini-series it was released to sidelight, Charles II: The Power and the Passion is in a different way just as remarkable. While shown largely from the viewpoint of the king and his court, it leaves entirely open to the viewer the opportunity of seeing them in a less than wholly admiring light. In Charles's disgraceful secret treaties with Louis, in his mother's vindictive bigotry and his brother's petulance, and in the dismayed reponses of some of the King's friends, you can see the Glorious Revolution coming.

All this is in striking contrast to a drama series on the English Civil War that went out in the 1980s, By the Sword Divided, which flaunted its cavalier sympathies like a lace collar.

For a long time in England Cromwell's name was blacker, in establishment and to some extent in popular opinion, than those today of Lenin in Russia or Lincoln in the South. Not for years or decades, but for centuries, you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone but a few ranting sectaries who had a good word to say for him. One who did was the anonymous nineteenth-century scribbler who wrote:

The old Plantagenets brought us chains; the Tudors frowns and scars,
The Stuarts brought us lives of shame; the Hanoverians wars;
But this brave man, with his strong arm, brought freedom to our Lives -
The best of Princes England had, was the Farmer of St. Ives.

Even today, there are as far as I know only two popular and admiring biographies: Christopher Hill's God's Englishman and Antonia Fraser's Cromwell Our Chief of Men.

So it's something that the Lord Protector and the republic are being treated on television with a bit of respect. It's a little thing, a shaking of leaves, but there may be a faint, fresh breeze of republicanism rising.
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War and Intelligence

In The Vanishing Case for War Thomas Powers, who certainly seems to know what he's talking about says:

The invasion and conquest of Iraq by the United States last spring was the result of what is probably the least ambiguous case of the misreading of secret intelligence information in American history. Whether it is even possible that a misreading so profound could yet be in some sense "a mistake" is a question to which I shall return.

Return he does, in the course of a quiet-spoken but thorough demolition of the case that was made in the build-up to the war.
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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Another Good Man Gone

I was sorry to learn at the weekend of the death of Al Richardson. I never knew him, and as far as I know I met him only once, as he bounced around behind a stall selling the journal Revolutionary History. A veteran and historian of British Trotskyism, an activist, writer, editor and publisher, Al Richardson was a man who grew more radical as he grew older. At an age when he could have been excused for slipping into mental rigidity and reminiscent nostalgia, he tirelessly questioned and re-examined the ideas and positions he, like so many others, had so staunchly defended. Some of his sharply iconoclastic, always stimulating, always provisional, articles can be found here and here.
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Thursday, November 20, 2003

A word of thanks to George Bush

Yesterday evening's demonstration in Edinburgh wasn't huge - a couple of thousand [correction: about 4 500, according to the Edinburgh Evening News] - but it was as broad as the demonstrations in Edinburgh before and during the 'major combat operations'. Far more than the hard core and the usual suspects - the left and the peace movement - were present, and the typical face on the demo was young. Two young people for whom I have a particular regard were there on their first demonstration as adults, and they saw quite a lot of their friends and acquaintances there too. I guess we have George Bush to thank for reviving the movement.

As well as, of course, the hard-working activists of the hard core, who have kept it going through the months when many people have dropped away temporarily. I saw one almost cracking up with exhaustion, after having organised three buses - departing last night - for today's demonstration in London, and discovering as she set up the stall for the Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition that the stall's wares (200 'Stop Bush' buttons, specially ordered) weren't there. The left-wing comedian Mark Steel has often had amusing things to say about how badly organised our lot often are, but it isn't so funny when you see a good strong woman looking as if she could cry.


Scottish writers present included me, Charlie Stross, Iain Banks, and Ron Butlin. Some stalwarts of Scottish fandom helped with stewarding.

Rosie Kane MSP has definitely recovered her voice. A staunch supporter of the rights of asylum-seekers, she suggested that Bush should be dished out the kind of treatment asylum-seekers typically get.

The award for best placard goes to 'FUCK B*SH'.

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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Conspiracy in the shadow of hierarchy

Despite some recent indulgences, I'm not much of a one for conspiracy theories. In general they hinge on misapplications of the principle of cui bono. Who shot JFK? Lee Harvey Oswald must surely top the list of suspects. Who benefitted from the shooting of JFK? The list is as long as your arm, but the beneficiaries may have been as surprised as anyone else. The term 'conspiracy theory' is sometimes used as a dismissal, but this usage is odd.

For instance, to say that the 9/11 attacks were the work of a small team whose members were part of a vast clandestine network of terrorists led or inspired by Osama Bin Laden is not usually called a 'conspiracy theory', although that is exactly what it is: it attributes the events to a conspiracy. It is also almost certainly true. Nobody doubts that conspiracies, sometimes on a large scale, exist. What is loosely called a 'conspiracy theory' is any theory that purports to explain an event or events by some kind of covert action, or a motivation other than those admitted publicly.

The respectability of conspiracy theories in that sense (leaving aside sheer insanities) is surprisingly relative. In the 1920s Nesta Webster's theory that the Bolshevik Revolution was the work of the Illuminati was quite respectable, but is now taken seriously only by cranks. In the 1930s the theory that Trotsky, Bukharin, and other Bolsheviks conspired with certain Red Army officers, themselves in contact with the Germans, to overthrow Stalin was considered quite respectable. It was believed by, among others, the US ambassador to Moscow (Joseph Davies) and the New York Times. Today the respectable conspiracy theory is that Stalin contrived the murder of Kirov, and invented out of whole cloth the previously mentioned conspiracy, to get rid of his Bolshevik rivals, who were innocent of anything but peaceful (though clandestine and illegal) opposition. Some recent historians dispute both conspiracy theories, and suggest instead that the whole ghastly bloodbath may have been the unintended outcome of an intelligence snafu.

The theory that Roosevelt allowed Pearl Harbour to happen in order to bring the US into the war is unrespectable, but not beyond the pale of respectable discussion. Likewise the theory that the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities had more to do with warning off the Soviet Union than defeating Japan. The theory that Stalin held back the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw to allow the Germans to destroy the anti-Communist Polish Home Army (and with it much of Warsaw) is highly respectable. Soviet historians always denied it, claiming (e.g.) that the Red Army was too exhausted of men and materiel to help the Polish insurgents. The theory that the same Home Army, for highly discreditable reasons, had previously stood by and done nothing much to help the heroic Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto was respectable when Leon Uris wrote Exodus, but may no longer be.

Likewise, the theory that Clinton tried to kill Osama Bin Laden to distract attention from his own domestic woes is now less respectable than it was.

In short, the respectability of a conspiracy or hidden-hand theory - sheer insanities always excepted - is variable, and largely a matter of political prejudice. That Mossad agents in the US spied on Islamic extremists who happened to include the 9/11 hijackers is plausible enough, whether or not it's true (and, as I've said, it's quite possibly not). That some consequences of the attacks - e.g. the invasion and occupation of Iraq - were to the perceived advantage of Israel is hard to dispute. That they also advanced the agendas of people in and around the US government who had long sought to settle accounts with Iraq and had wider plans for the region is likewise true. The idea that elements within the US or Israeli state apparatuses had some foreknowledge of the attacks (if not necessarily their exact nature) but allowed them to proceed is a highly unrespectable conspiracy theory, and one that goes beyond any evidence I've seen, but not, I think, a sheer insanity. To attempt to refute it by lumping it in with crackpot and/or malevolent theories (of which, of course, there are plenty) only muddies the waters. The real problems with it are deeper.

One problem with it is that from the point of view of opponents of the Reptilian Party and critics of the War on Terra, it's too good to be true. Smoking Gun Found. We Name the Guilty Men. Dream on. Another problem is that conspiratorial explanations may seriously over-estimate the abilities of the best and the brightest. Gabriel Kolko, in a review of some recent memoirs on intelligence and the Vietnam War, persuasively depicts a situation where time after time, the intelligence apparatuses simply get it wrong, and those within them who get it right are ignored when they aren't crushed underfoot like bugs. Policy decisions shape intelligence, not the other way round. It reads like something straight out of the works of Robert Anton Wilson. Not his conspiracy theory spoofs, but his account of the effect of hierarchical structures on information. Far from concentrating raw data into usable intelligence, they degrade the data. The farther up you are, the less you know. According to Kolko, towards the end of the war in Vietnam this applied as much to the Communists as to the US and the Saigon regime. The NVA left as much heavy equipment behind them in their unexpectedly rapid advance as the ARVN dropped in their retreat. Luckily for Hanoi, they had a general who knew how to wing it.

It's possible, then, that even if some people in the security agencies did have some idea that something like 9/11 was in the pipeline, their information was ignored or passed over for entirely bureaucratic reasons rather than a Machiavellian plan. The same line of argument works on the other side of the war. I've sometimes speculated that Osama Bin Laden set up the attacks precisely to draw the US empire into a quagmire. Create two, three, many Afghanistans! This would attribute to him a better understanding of the US than he seems to display. He clearly believes that a culture that permits women and homosexuals to run around freely, just like normal people, is on the verge of collapse from sheer moral degeneracy. Being bombed out of Tora Bora was probably not part of his cunning plan. He may not be a bureaucrat, but like anyone at the top of a hierarchy he has the problem of being told what people who defer to him think he wants to hear.

Hierarchy was invented to regulate human relations with imaginary beings, and it still performs that function quite admirably. In the shadow of that pyramid, conspiracy theories are little grassy knolls.
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Tuesday, November 11, 2003

A Right Royal Train-Wreck

When the Queen indicated that she had remembered a conversation with Paul Burrell, the effect of which recollection was to halt his trial, I was startled enough by this bizarre turn of events to cast aspersions on Her Majesty's character. It now appears that a reason for her suddenly recovered memory may have been a desire to prevent the emergence in court of an allegation about Prince Charles, to repeat which here would be as unnecessary as it is illegal. Instead I take the opportunity to withdraw unreservedly my previous uncalled-for remarks, and acknowledge the sound sense of the Queen's actions in doing what she could to forestall the present unhappy situation.

I still hope and expect to see the Second British Republic.

Smoke Without Fire?

Two correspondents have courteously pointed out that the whole WTC filming/Urban Moving Systems/Israeli art students affair looks a lot less curious than it may at first seem when the following facts are taken into consideration:

There are many thousands of young Israelis in the US. Many of them are there in violation of their visas. It is not unheard of for some of them to make a living by peddling bad art, while claiming to be students or graduates of prestigious art schools. It is not straining probability that some of them should live in the same districts as other temporary residents of Middle Eastern origin. It is not at all inconceivable that a small number of them are capable of acting like idiots. It is entirely predictable that after 9/11 some of them should be rounded up on suspicion, found to be innocent of anything serious but in violation of their visas, and deported. Nor is it unlikely that after an initial flurry of interest the major media concluded that the whole thing was a mare's nest.

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Thursday, November 06, 2003

The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

Why the restoration of capitalism in Russia matters to you:

Many of us who spent the 90s in Russia became aware over time that the aim of the United States was to create a rump state that would allow economic interests to strip assets at will. The population in this scheme was to be good for consuming foreign goods produced abroad with Russia’s own cheaply sold raw materials. The aim was a castrated state, anarchy, a vast, confused territory of captive consumers, cheap labor and unguarded oil and aluminum.

Some of us who came home after seeing this began to realize that the same process is underway in the United States: the erosion of the tax base, the gradual appropriation of the tools of government by economic interests, a massive, disorganized population useless to everybody except as shoppers. That is their revolution: smashing states everywhere and creating a scattered global nation of villas and tax shelters, as inaccessible as Olympus, forbidding entry even to mighty dictators.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Rumours of warplanes

On this morning I spotted a link to a report of increased US military aviation activity over Scotland in the past few days. The way the story is framed is confusing because it's attributed to USAF base watchers in England, whose website I found by Googling, but has a mail-to and website link to Scottish CND.

Neither website includes any such story.

(Don't get me started on the comments thread.)

So I decided to check it out. First, I rang a relative in the North-east of Scotland, who immediately confirmed that over the past few days there has been a very intense level of low-flying fighter aircraft activity, involving RAF and allied forces' aircraft. Low-flying fighter and fighter-bomber training goes on all the time over the Highlands. What's going on now is a big spike, but no more so than in the sort of major exercises that happen once or twice a year. I was told of other, less direct but usually reliable, indications that such an exercise is going on.

Then I rang Scottish CND. The person I spoke to confirmed that the report cited had indeed been circulated by them, and that it originated with a CND supporter in the Highlands. The story is that a large and unusual number of military transport planes - not combat aircraft - have been seen flying across the north of Scotland in the past few days. (This is quite separate from the large-scale low-altitude military aviation exercise that is definitely going on at the moment.)

[Update - large military transport aircraft have been seen flying low over a town near the east coast, presumably coming in to land at one of the two bases there, so it's likely that in fact they are all part of the same exercise.]

Scottish CND are still investigating, and are anxious not to jump the gun or cry wolf. Further hard information would be appreciated.

The speculation in the report that a major airstrike somewhere is being prepared is just that - speculation.

Here's some speculation of my own.

Earlier this summer, I've heard, a major military exercise took place on the west coast of the Highlands. It included troops who were mistaken for Russians, much to the alarm of some locals. Possibly they were soldiers from one of our new NATO allies to the east.

A small, mountainous, industrial country with a ragged coastline ... a country where ex-commie troops might be particularly useful ... I wonder where that could be?
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Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Friendly Filming

The strange story of the Israeli agents [correction: possible Israeli agents] arrested as they filmed (with apparent jubilation) the WTC burning, and the even stranger tale that unfolded of Urban Moving Systems and Israeli 'art students', has gone from being noticed almost exclusively by to the mainstream press over here in the Free World.

A lot of people have confused this story with various absurd anti-Semitic canards of the kind that give conspiracy theories a bad name, but Neil Mackay carefully does not, and is circumspect in his conclusions:

Certainly, it seems, Israel was spying within the borders of the United States and it is equally certain that the targets were Islamic extremists probably linked to September 11. But did Israel know in advance that the Twin Towers would be hit and the world plunged into a war without end; a war which would give Israel the power to strike its enemies almost without limit? That’s a conspiracy theory too far, perhaps.

Indeed, but the strangeness of the whole story, and its dramatic quality, might lead one to expect that the US media would be all over it. Needless to say, it isn't.

More than human, me

Some time ago I was asked to be an Honorary Vice-Chair of the World Transhumanist Association. This is an organization for people who are enthusiastic about the emerging possibilities of radically improving the human condition, but who don't necessarily share the full-bore Extropian disdain for democracy, socialism, social democracy, the welfare state, etc.

Left-wingers who are interested in extropian ideas without buying into anarcho-capitalism (etc) can point to H. G. Wells, J. D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane as examples of proto-extropian socialists. If life-extension is ever offered on the NHS, we'll take it. (Some of us might even demand that it be on the NHS.) An amusing fictional treatment of 'extropian socialism' can be found in Eugene Byrne's novel ThiGMOO.

The WTA isn't, I hasten to add, a liberal or leftwing rival to the Extropy Institute. The whole point of it is that you can discuss nanotech and life-extension and the Singularity and so on without getting into arguments about anarcho-capitalism, or whatever. It's one thing to persuade people to take seriously the possibility that they, or their children, could live forever, or that computers might start thinking for themselves. It's quite another to ask them to rethink their entire political outlook as well. 'You were doing all right with that stuff about us all being dead and in Sim City already, but you really lost me when you started talking about privatising the pavements.'

Needless to say, since I accepted the honour I've done absolutely nothing to justify it, or my use of 'we' above (apart from writing SF novels with transhumanist themes, which is what I do anyway), but this is about to change. I've just been invited to join the Cyborg Democracy blog:

A collaborative blog for democratic transhumanists, nanosocialists, revolutionary singularitarians, non-anthropocentric personhood theorists, radical futurists, leftist extropians, bioutopians and biopunks, socialist-feminist cyborgs, transgenders, body modifiers, basic income advocates, agents of the Culture and the Cassini Division, Viridians and TechnoGaians - transmitting a sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future
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Sunday, November 02, 2003

Private nukes

A gentleman with the oddly resonant name of Jonathan Wilde considers whether the private ownership of nuclear weapons is protected by the individual right of self-defence. Rather reassuringly, he concludes that it isn't.
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The Postmodern Condition

We all know the wise saws about the role of intended and unintended consequences in human affairs. 'Cock-up, not conspiracy'. 'Never attribute to malice what can be accounted for by stupidity'. On the other hand, 'Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action'.

If you assume (as many, including opponents and critics of the war, have done) that the intended consequence of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is a reasonably stable country, not perhaps a light unto the nations but at peace with itself and I/s/r/a/e/l its neighbours, or even that it's a puppet state made safe for Haliburton, Bechtel and other warm friends of the Reptilian Party, you have a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to overcome. You have to repeatedly ask yourself 'What were they thinking?'

What were they thinking when:

They at best condoned and at worst encouraged looting, including of sites highly relevant to the supposed search for WMD?

They disbanded the entire Iraqi army?

They froze Iraqi contractors, workers and engineers out of the reconstruction?

They announced the intention of dismantling the state rationing system?

They asked the Turkish state to send in troops?

And, the latest, they announced the intention of giving the Iraqi economy a jolt of Russia-style shock therapy?

None of these seem calculated to advance any kind of stability in Iraq. It's always possible that some combination of ideological intransigience, intelligence failures, and bureaucratic infighting could be the explanation.

But what if a stable Iraq (under any circumstances) is not the goal? What if, instead, the goal is the reduction of Iraq to a similar condition of postmodernity to that of sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan, and much of the former Soviet Union?

In that case, every one of the above actions makes perfect sense.

Admittedly, the goal itself seems a tad irrational. On the other hand, from the Reptilian point of view much of the human population may be surplus to requirements, so perhaps not.

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