Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tony Blair

For Argument’s Sake

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday December 5 2011

Critical Thinking

Recent encounters in the blogosphere led me back to my shelf of books on critical thinking. The most accessible of these is philosopher Nigel Warburton’s Thinking from A to Z.

Current usage of the term “liberalism” is an example of what rhetoricians term “lexical ambiguity”. A whole book could be written on how this applies to liberalism but I will deal with that in another article.

Lexical Ambiguity

The word “argument” itself is an example of lexical ambiguity. In common parlance, an argument can be a rowdy fracas, in which all reason is abandoned. In philosophy, an argument is a set of reasons supporting a conclusion. This is in contrast with an assertion which is an unsupported statement of belief. Asserting something loudly does not make it true.

Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments would provide a useful guide to writers and politicians or indeed anyone whose mental health, and the sanity of those around them, would be improved by clarity of thought.

Lexical ambiguity occurs when a word with more than one meaning is used in the same sentence. One often finds that people are discussing totally different topics using the same words so there is no chance of agreement. “Discrimination” can be a good thing when it comes to appreciating art, but a bad thing when practising racial injustice. When Dr Johnson saw two harridans shouting from their respective doorsteps, he said they were “arguing from different premises”. A character in a Flann O’Brien novel dismisses an argument because it was made on “licensed premises” i.e. the disputant was probably drunk.

I examined the subject of critical think on a blog some time ago using as a peg arguments about Israel. This brought out quite a variety of comments in which people allowed sloppy thinking to muddle their arguments.

Tu Quoque– the Companions in Guilt Ploy

Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it  to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.

One often hears in Sri Lanka a refusal to accept criticism of human rights failings because the critics are American or British and are guilty of worse crimes. I have argued this way myself. In my defence, I believe it is not the same as Israel’s tu quoque. Israel’s defenders say if you are going to criticise us you must also criticise the Arabs. Sri Lankans are saying look at the beam in your own eye and prove your “credible allegations”.

Straw Men

Another stale old rhetorical device is  the straw man. You set up a caricature of your opponent’s viewpoint and knock it down. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims and Arabs just love to kill innocent children.

Are Hamas bombers to be condemned because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.

Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.

Voltaire said  “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice. An adage often touted on blogsites is “Opinions are like #*!eholes. Everyone has one and they all stink”.

I have long felt a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises.

People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic  errors of fact.

The Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte wrote: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”

Confusion between explanation and approval

I had to state  quite plainly that I do not believe that historical and contemporary acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors. Nevertheless, the explanation of current terrorist actions has to take account of the terrorism and ethnic cleansing involved in the foundation of the state of Israel. The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.

When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described stated Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. When I explained the government viewpoint I was condemned as a government lackey.

Truth Matters- National Myths

In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:

“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’  history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.

How the Buggers Lie to Us

Sam Leith has a new book titled You Talkin’ to Me? Leith argues that the advertising copywriter is no less a rhetorician than the statesman, they both employ persuasive words to fulfil their own ends. Leith’s own title is an example of a trope known as erotema, a figure of speech where something is asserted by asking it as a question. It also demonstrates the use of the demotic by charlatans such as Tony Blair. “You know I’m a straight kind of guy, don’t you?”

When he was our hope for change, Obama’s signature rhetorical figure was “anaphora”, or the repetition of words or a phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence – although his monumental “Yes we can” was its opposite, or “epistrophe”.

Obama’s rhetoric all seems a bit feeble now. Fine words butter no parsnips and solve no economic crisis. Understanding rhetoric is probably the most vital tool any of us can possess that we can have some inkling of how they are shafting us.

 

 

 

Sri Lanka PR Part 2

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 10 2014

Colman's Column3

Last week I wrote in Ceylon Today about an article in the Calgary Herald by Manisha Krishnan. That article dealt with Ryan de Hoedt’s efforts to get his sister to Canada from Sri Lanka, where, according to him, she is in grave danger. I circulated the article among many Sri Lankan contacts, all of whom had difficulty in believing that de Hoedt’s sister was being persecuted in 2014 because her family helped Tamils in July 1983. I had copied a draft of my first article to Ms Krishnan using an e-mail address given at the foot of her own article. I said that I was giving her the opportunity to comment before I published and wanted to clear up some of the points in her article that had puzzled many people. She did not respond. I copied my published article to her using the same e-mail address. My e-mail bounced back as “undeliverable”. I sent her a message on Facebook, again giving her the opportunity to comment. To date she has not responded.

I have done another Google search for Ryan de Hoedt. I can see no response from the Sri Lankan government or police to the story in the Calgary Herald. The only information about Ryan de Hoedt is new print or online outlets repeating the Calgary Herald story. There is a Ryan de Hoedt on Facebook but there is no information at all on his timeline. Does Ryan de Hoedt exist? Perhaps the Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa might look into this case and make a public statement?

Perhaps we should not expect that, as it seems that the responsibility for representing Sri Lanka has been taken away from diplomats and handed over to expensive foreign PR firms who know nothing about the country.

Bridge that Gap

Perhaps GOSL could consider handing the country’s PR contract to Tony Blair.GQ Magazine recently caused great hilarity by giving its Philanthropist of the Year award to Blair. GQ justified the award thus: “Alongside his role as a Middle East peace envoy, Blair’s channelled his energy into philanthropy… His most ambitious [project] is the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Launched in 2008, the foundation operates in six African countries – Sierra Leone, Rwanda Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Senegal – where teams work alongside government bodies to bridge the gap between African leaders’ visions for a better future and their government’s ability to implement it.”

Good Governance in Kazakhstan

Blair does not seem to be very successful at fostering his own public image but his philanthropic work included some PR work for others. He had a two-year contract worth millions of pounds to advise Kazakhstan’s leadership on good governance. Human rights campaigners say Blair has produced no improvements for Kazakh people apart from Nursultan Nazarbayev, “Leader of the Nation”. Nazarbayev has ruled oppressively for over twenty years. During the time was advising him Kazakhstan’s human rights situation deteriorated. Nazarbayev won re-election in 2011 with 95.5% of the vote. Blair gave suggestions on how to improve Nazarbayev’s image after his police killed 14 unarmed protesters. Oksana Makushina, a former deputy editor of one suppressed newspaper, said: “If Mr Blair was advising Nazarbayev on something, it definitely wasn’t freedom of speech. Over the last two years the screws have only been tightened on the media.” Borat might have done a better job.

Blair’s New Clients

Blair has added Mongolia and Albania to the list of clients. Albania’s new socialist government says it wants him to help Albania to achieve EU membership. Mongolia is seeking advice on foreign investment, health and education, health.

Blair’s office dismisses reports of reaping £16m in fees from Kazakhstan, and says Blair makes no personal profit. Perhaps he could philanthropically assist Sri Lanka pro bono.

Bell Pottinger

Tim Bell, now Baron Bell, who advised Margaret Thatcher on media matters when she was UK Prime Minister, is a co-founder of Bell Pottinger. The company came under public scrutiny after managers were secretly recorded talking to fake representatives of the Uzbek government and meddling with Wikipedia by removing negative information and replacing it with positive spin. It is the largest UK-based public relations consultancy. They have had many dodgy clients, such as General Pinochet, a recent one being Rolf Harris.

According to PR Week dated January 2010, Bell Pottinger hired Qorvis Communications as a subcontractor for its work with the government of Sri Lanka. Qorvis was to provide “media relations and monitoring, crisis communications planning, and stakeholder representation in the US. The budget is approximately $483,000.”

What return did Sri Lanka get for this investment? Despite Bell Pottinger’s dark arts, Rolf Harris got a sentence of five years and nine months in prison for twelve indecent assaults on children as young as seven. He is losing weight and being spat upon in prison.

Patton Boggs

Back in January 2009, the Washington Embassy of Sri Lanka retained the firm of Patton Boggs with a fixed fee of $35,000 per month, payable quarterly in advance. Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs helped run the account, which calls on Patton Boggs to “provide guidance and counsel to the Embassy of Sri Lanka regarding its relations with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the US Government.” How did that work out? Did we get value for money?

Patton Boggs did not influence then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Sri Lanka’s benefit. She said: “I think that the Sri Lankan government knows that the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering”. Patton Boggs’s efforts did not prevent Bruce Fein filing a 1,000-page report with the U.S. Justice Department charging violations of the Genocide Accountability Act of 2007. Fein referred to “a grisly 61-year tale of Sinhalese Buddhists attempting to make Sri Lanka ‘Tamil free’”.

Patton Boggs recently merged with Squire Sanders. Will that enable them to give a better service to GOSL?

Burson-Marsteller

GOSL signed a contract with Burson-Marsteller for US$ 75,000 a month (more than US $900,000 a year). B-M’s website boasts of its sophisticated campaigns: “Clients often engage Burson-Marsteller when the stakes are high …. Most of all, clients come to us for our proven ability to communicate effectively with their most critical audiences and stakeholders.” Some critics have said that these sophisticated campaigns often include dirty tricks.

B-M is the largest PR firm in the world; it has represented some unlovely regimes. The Nigerian government engaged B-M during the Biafran war, to discredit reports of genocide.   The fascist junta in Argentina hired B-M during the 70s and early 80s, to attract foreign investment. South Korea hired them to cover up human rights abuses for the 1988 Olympics. B-M represented the communist Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu.

As well as asking if it is a good idea for Sri Lanka to be associated with these regimes, one could ask if B-M was successful in improving the public image of Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Ceausescu.

Thompson Advisory Group

GOSL paid millions of rupees to Thompson Advisory Group (TAG). A lump sum of Rs 4.5 million (as well a monthly fee of Rs. 910,000) went to a driver called Tilak Mohan Siriwardena. Apparently, there are plans to give TAG millions more. In a previous effort, more than once TAG referred to this island nation as “Sir Lanka”.

TAG produced a documentary, Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding, which Groundviews described as “rank propaganda… albeit produced very well, with compelling visuals and a well scripted storyline”. Did this film change anyone’s mind about Sri Lanka?

Macro or Micro?

Other PR firms advising the Sri Lankan government have included Vigilant Worldwide Communications of New York. Their task (for six months at a cost of $5,000 a month) is to “develop a strategic communications plan and conduct outreach to Members of the Congress and other US government officials with the purpose of raising awareness of Sri Lanka’s strategic importance to the US.”

There may be some logic in this macro strategy of trying to influence influential people. The nitty-gritty though is does it work? It does not seem to.

Should a micro approach be tried? Why are such large sums being spent at the same time that challengeable items like the Calgary Herald story are allowed to go unchallenged? Embassy staff should be challenging these stories. The huge funds paid to western PR behemoths should be diverted to the diplomatic service to equip embassies to serve their country effectively.

Perhaps Mr Lional Premasiri, Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Ottawa, could issue a press release about the Calgary Herald story.

 

 

The EU as Moral Tutor

On May 9 there was a court hearing concerning a domestic-violence case in the eastern region of Gegharkunik, one of Armenia’s most socially conservative areas. Activist Robert Aharonian condemned two women’s rights advocates operating under the auspices of Open Society Foundation, part of the Soros network, for promoting “European values”. A man in Armenia “has a right to slap his wife,” he claimed. He opposes all those diaspora Armenians who use NGO grants to operate in Armenia, and “advocate European perversion.” Allowing wives to report their husbands to the police, he asserted, ultimately breaks families apart. Armenia wants to join the EU so has to pay lip service to “European values”.

The EU presents itself as a moral model to the world. The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

One wonders how this will play given the results of the recent elections to the European Parliament (EP), where a number of far right parties scored big successes on low turnouts. Some wag answered the question:”What are European values?” thus. “Appeasement, bureaucracy, group-think, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and not having babies.”

The values that the EU claims for itself are set out in Article I-2 of the Constitution and are supposed to be common to all member states. These values are characterised by pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men. Any European state wishing to become a member of the EU must respect these. Any member state not meeting these criteria can, in theory, be kicked out.

Free Movement

The Constitution guarantees the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital within the Union (the famous “four freedoms”) and strictly prohibits any discrimination on grounds of nationality.

Nationalism raised its ugly head in the EP elections and many who do not believe in the “free movement of persons” won seats. Last week, I wrote about the problems many states will have because of declining fertility rates. If Europeans are not having enough babies, they will have to import workers to do the dirty jobs and to pay into their pension fund. Even when they admit this, right-wingers, like the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, do not like it: “Demography is the key factor. If you are not able to maintain yourself biologically, how do you expect to maintain yourself economically, politically, and militarily? It’s impossible. The answer of letting people from other countries come in…that would be an economic solution, but it’s not a solution of your real sickness, that you are not able to maintain your own civilization.”

If one looks at the treatment of Roma in Belfast as well as Bucharest, one can see that even the free movement of EU citizens within the EU is not universally welcomed. Many people in Western Europe feel little kinship with Bulgaria and Romania, which is why most west European governments limited the right to work of Bulgarians and Romanians.

One Spaniard was not too happy about the freedom of Britons to move around Europe: “I used to live on a beautiful section of coast. Now I live next to a nasty urbanization, full of English people who buy from themselves, drink English beer in English bars, visit English doctors and eat an abomination called Pukka Pies. Their refusing to learn even the most basic of Spanish is famous here, and even if I wanted to go to ‘The Queen Vic’, I won’t because they only have menus in English and German.”

Extraordinary Rendition

Many EU states helped with the movement of people when GW Bush wanted to torture them. A report published in 2013 by the Open Society entitled Globalizing Torture: CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition revealed that, of pre-2004 EU states, only three – France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands –did not cooperate with the rendition programme, in which suspects were picked off the streets and secretly flown from country to country to be tortured. Ireland, Finland and Denmark allowed US agents to transfer terror suspects secretly at their airports. Sweden arranged for suspects to be flown directly to Mubarak’s soundproof cells in Egypt. The UK government helped with every aspect of rendition, from arresting suspects to submitting questions for interrogation.

At the time the report was written, legal challenges to secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations were pending against Italy, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania before the European Court of Human Rights.

 

The Open Society report concludes: “by enlisting the participation of dozens of foreign governments in these violations, the United States further undermined longstanding human rights protections enshrined in international law—including, in particular, the norm against torture.” How does that fit with European values?

 

Corruption

Many Sri Lankans take a masochistic pride in the corruption of their politicians. Sorry chaps, but Sri Lankans are mere minnows compared to the Grand Panjandrums of Europe. The human rights of Europeans are seriously undermined by the endemic graft and thievery within the EU.

Some people blame this on enlargement – things got worse when we let those dodgy eastern Europeans in. Optimists hope that the magic wand of western European values will reduce the corruption of these shady newcomers and one day do the same for the Western Balkans and Turkey, and perhaps even Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

Unfortunately, the really big corruption is in the older member states and the culprits are senior statesmen.

Helmut Kohl was German Chancellor for sixteen years. He took two million in illegal donations. When he was exposed, he refused to reveal donors’ names for fear of revealing the favours they had bought. Gerhard Schröder guaranteed a billion-euro loan to Gazprom for the building of a Baltic pipeline. A few weeks after leaving government, he was working for Gazprom at a salary larger than the one he received as Chancellor. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen two presidents of the Republic in succession forced to resign under a cloud of corruption.

 

Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest. Nicolas Sarkozy allegedly took some $20 million from Gaddafi for the electoral campaign that won him the presidency. Christine Lagarde, who now heads the IMF, is under interrogation for her role in the award of €420 million in “compensation” to a friend of Sarkozy, Bernard Tapie, a well-known crook with a prison record. The socialist minister for the budget, Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, had €15 million in hidden deposits in Switzerland and Singapore.

In Britain, Blair lied to Parliament about £1 million paid into party coffers by racing car magnate Bernie Ecclestone, currently under indictment in Bavaria for bribes of €33 million. Currently, Blair takes cash from a South Korean oil company run by a convicted felon with interests in Iraq and the feudal dynasty of Kuwait. He also does PR for the Nazarbaev dictatorship in Kazakhstan, whose human rights record would not meet EU standards.

In Ireland, the Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, as well as allowing Shannon Airport to be used by the CIA for its torture programme, channelled into his bank account more than €400,000 in unexplained payments before becoming Taoiseach. He then voted himself the highest salary of any premier in Europe – €310,000, more even than the US president – a year before having to resign. Even after his disgrace, he wangled himself a handsome pension and generous expenses. In 2011, €8.8 million of taxpayers’ money was paid out in pensions for 109 former ministers, Ahern topping the list with €152,331.

On a public appearance at a ploughing contest, Bertie was described as adopting a demeanour of martyred vindication. Some commentators saw the public’s complaisance as evidence of the corrosive effect on the Irish nation of corruption at the top. Daniel Finn in the New Left Review, described Bertie Ahern as “A shrewd political operator with a gift for speaking at length without supplying his audience with any information”. At a corruption tribunal, Ahern’s testimony was described as “rambling and incoherent” and he changed his story so many times some of it had to be lies. Polls showed that less than one-third of voters believed him. Last November, a drunken man attacked Ahern with a crutch inside the Sean O’Casey bar just off O’Connell Street. Ahern declined to talk about the attack, which came three years after number of customers in another Dublin pub verbally abused him.

The European Value of Impunity

Bankers and leading politicians do not usually go to prison. Elites can enrich themselves without fear of retribution. Exposure ceases to matter very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes the only real value in political life. When it all goes wrong, the public has to pay by bailing out the banks and the state and by enduring austerity measures. Austerity is not thrift, which is generally seen as a morally virtuous. Austerity benefits the already very wealthy, who can profit from cheaper asset prices by picking them up now and selling them later. That is European value.

 

Democracy and Money

This article was published in The Nation on 04 February 2012 .

 

The corrupting effect of money on politics has been witnessed in many democracies. In the UK, it was cash for questions, cash for influence, cash for honours and cash for peerages followed by the unsavoury spectacle of MPs fiddling their expenses.

 

In October 1994, The Guardian alleged that lobbyist Ian Greer had bribed MPs Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith to ask parliamentary questions on behalf of Harrods owner Mohammed Al -Fayed at GBP2,000 per question. There had previously been allegations against another two Conservative MPs, Graham Riddick and David Redinnick. The Downey report on the Hamilton affair also condemned conservative MPs Michael Brown, Sir Michael Grylls, Sir Andrew Bowden and Sir Peter Hordern.

 

Peerages and party funding

 

 

In the UK, bribery and corruption is not limited to the Conservative Party. New Labour came up with the spiffing wheeze of offering peerages to those who donated to party funds. In March 2006, several nominations for life peerages by Tony Blair were rejected by the Appointments Commission. They had lent, at the suggestion of Lord Levy (Blair’s tennis partner, a former pop impresario known as “Lord Cashpoint” – manager of luminaries such as Alvin Stardust and Bad Manners), large sums of money to the Labour Party. There was a long and involved police investigation during which many MPs, including Blair (three times), were questioned. Levy was arrested. The Labour Party acknowledged that it had taken loans worth $24.5 million from individuals, more than three times what it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the $31 million Labour said it had spent on the May 2005 elections. The case was eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service but the Labour Party’s funds were disastrously hit by returning the loans and Blair’s own reputation was further undermined.

 

 

Veiled reforms

 

 

Also questioned by police was Secretary of State for Health Patricia Hewitt. Hewitt was also one of the MPs named in the 2010 sting into political lobbying by Channel 4. Hewitt appeared to claim that she was paid £3,000 a day to help a client obtain a key seat on a Government advisory group.

 

 
While in charge of the health service, Hewitt pushed ‘reforms’ to privatise it. In January 2008, it was announced that Hewitt had been appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest pharmacists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven, a private equity which owns 37 private hospitals. Her predecessor, Alan Milburn, (he once ran a small radical bookshop in Newcastle called Days of Hope – known locally as Haze of Dope), has joined Beckham, Britney and Beyonce as a well-paid advisor to Pepsi-Co. Milburn also became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and works 18 days a year advising Cinven. The revolving door between the government and civil service and such companies surely must qualify as corruption.

 

 
Not many UK citizens would vote for the privatisation of the NHS. That does not stop their elected representatives selling it off for a fast buck.

 

 

Corporate interests

 

 

In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This allows corporate interests to call the shots and to ensure ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘earmarking’. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of ‘persons’ when it comes to campaign contributions.
In 2002, investigative journalist Greg Palast published a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. The book focuses on the 2000 US presidential election and provides great detail on the methods used to prevent many black voters from voting. Chapters are available in PDF on the internet. One of the most illuminating chapters is entitled The Bushes and the Billionaires who Love Them.

 

 
(http://web.archive.org/web/20050120154301/http://www.gregpalast.com/bestdemocracymoneyc
anbuychapter2.pdf)

 

 
Palast writes: “The Fortunate Son rode right into the White House on a snorting porker stuffed with nearly half a billion dollars: My calculation of the suffocating plurality of cash from Corporate America (‘hard’ money, ‘soft’ money, ‘parallel’ spending and other forms of easy squeezy) that smothered Al Gore runs to $447 million. They called it an election but it looked more like an auction.”

 

 
Super PACs

 

 

In the 2012, US presidential election cycle alone, political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs have spent over $25 million so far. Move to Amend is a national coalition of people and organisations working to amend the US Constitution to explicitly state that a corporation is not a person with Constitutional rights and money is not equal to free speech.

 
The problem is compounded by globalisation. Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.

The Englishwoman Who Invented Iraq

 

 

This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 1, 2011

 

bell

Last week I wrote in the Sunday Island about an Englishwoman (albeit of Irish stock – Siobhain McDonagh) who supported the LTTE’s plan to redraw Sri Lanka’s borders at the same time as supporting her master Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wanted the boundaries of Sri Lanka altered along the spurious lines of the minute from “that madman Cleghorn” to please her Tamil constituents. She was happy for Britain to impose “democracy” on Iraq and to allow British soldiers to behave as they pleased. She voted against an investigation into the Iraq war, saying: ” we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

 
Look at a map of Africa and see the unnaturally straight lines that demarcate different nations, without regard to natural features or the ethnic origins of the population. Look at a map of Ireland and note how the northernmost county of the island of Ireland is not located in the artificial statelet of “Northern Ireland” but in the Republic because the Catholic majority would have undermined loyalist hegemony. Map-making is an essential tool of the colonial project. Brian Friel in his brilliant play Translations showed how the army imposed Britain’s will on Ireland by redrawing the maps and translating place names from Irish.

 
Another Englishwoman who had a malign influence on Iraq was Gertrude Bell. Many of the problems of the Middle East today can be blamed on that one woman.

 
She was commissioned in 1919 to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the basis of her analysis, the nation of Iraq was born, created in 1920 from the three Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which were conquered and occupied by the British during World War I.

 
The map was drawn in such a way because it was feared that the Shi’ite majority, with its nomadic, tribal base, was too volatile. Bell had no doubt that the final authority should rest with the Sunni minority, “otherwise you would have a theocratic state, which would be the very devil.” The British thought that by denying the Kurds an autonomous state they would be protecting their oil interests in the Kurdish homeland around Mosul.
The tensions created by these map-drawing decisions still exist today causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

 
Bell became known to the Arabs as Al Khatun, “The Lady”, from her pre-war travels in the desert lands. Who was this woman who said of her relationship with Faisal, the king of the new nation of Iraq:  “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain”?

 
Mark Sykes, the MP who negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with France to determine control of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East, described Bell as a “silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

 
While one could not condone such misogyny and while one might marvel at Bell’s achievements in such a male-chauvinist milieu, it would be a mistake to see her as a proto-feminist. She was honorary secretary of the Anti-suffrage League, firmly believing that women were not ready to be entrusted with the vote.

 
Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 in Washington, County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. Her father was one of the richest men in Britain. Her grandfather was a friend of Darwin and her stepmother wrote plays about working-class suffering. Bell herself was a devout atheist steeped in radical thought.

 
In 1899 she began serious alpine climbing in Switzerland, conquering seven summits in the Englehorner range, one of which is still named after her. She once clung to a rope in a blizzard for fifty-three hours and contracted severe   frostbite in her unsuccessful ascent of the northeast face of the Finsteraarhorn. She produced a detailed survey of the Abbasid castle of Ukhadair, in Iraq, and wrote a popular travel book.

 
She fell in love, when a virgin of 42, with a married military hero, Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie. In 1913, she toured the Arabian Peninsula, becoming one of few foreigners to survive the Nejd desert and the hostile Arabian tribes, and to enter the remote city of Hail, in north-central Saudi Arabia.

 
The British appointed her as their senior political officer in Basra during the First World War when she was 46. Apart from a few months as a Red Cross volunteer in France, she had never previously had a job. She had an impressive academic record but none of her training was in international affairs, government or management. Yet from 1916 to 1926, Gertrude Bell won the affection of Arab statesmen and the admiration of her superiors, founded a national museum, selected the leadership, and drew the borders of a new state. In her letters, she was remarkably prescient about the difficulties faced in 2003 by the Coalition of the Willing.

 
Unlike the occupying forces of 2003 she was knowledgeable about the area. She was a fluent Arabic speaker and had the experience of a decade of travels in the Middle East and four years in the British mandate administration in Iraq. Yet she never pretended in her letters to be in a position to understand or control events. She emphasised the weaknesses of the previous Ottoman administration; the persistence of the tribal system; the divisions between urban and rural areas. Bell showed how the cultural insensitivity of British soldiers exacerbated hatred.

 
She knew that the occupation could not be sustained but she could not contemplate total withdrawal. She recognised that British colonial control was unworkable and that there must somehow be an Arab government. These themes are strangely familiar in Iraq today.

 
The British did a lot of damage in the Middle East even in the 1920s and 1930s. They sowed the seeds of conflict in Sri Lanka by their divide and rule tactics. They favoured educated Tamils and gave the majority Sinhalese a minority complex for which they later over-compensated. In Iraq the British encouraged urbane, Western-educated, Jews who staffed the civil service, ran the economy and helped lay the foundations of the modern Iraqi state.

 
Iraq’s first minister of finance was a Jew. Sir Sassoon Eskell, KBE, along with Bell and TE Lawrence, was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the state of Iraq after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. He himself, founded the nascent Iraqi government’s legal and financial structure. Jews were important in developing the judicial and postal systems. Records from the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce show that 10 out of its 19 members in 1947 were Jews and the first musical band formed for Baghdad’s nascent radio in the 1930s consisted mainly of Jews.Jews were represented in the Iraqi parliament, and many Jews held significant positions in the bureaucracy which in many cases led to resentment by the Iraqi population.

 
As friends of the British, Iraq’s Jews, like Sri Lankan Tamils, were an easy scapegoat for anti-colonial fury. This was exploited by Nazi Germany which craved Iraqi oil. Iraqi Jews were portrayed in the Iraqi press and radio as a fifth column, especially after the death of King Faisal in 1933. Faisal’s son and successor, King Ghazi, who styled himself a Pan-Arabist and dabbled in Nazi doctrine, imposed a tax on Jews whenever they left the country. Ghazi befriended Hitler’s ambassador to Baghdad, Fritz Grobba.

 
The British used the ersatz Iraqi monarchy for their own purposes and forced upon it a series of humiliating ‘agreements’ in which the country’s sovereignty was signed away, and British dominance guaranteed. The British tried to keep control of the oil discovered in Kirkuk by forcing the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 on the King and ensured that foreign policy was directed by British advisers, mainly, notably Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, for whom Bell had an unrequited passion.

 
It seems that Britain does not learn lessons from its long history. By removing the tyrant who was holding the whole shaky enterprise together, they caused the disintegration of the artificial nation, Iraq, they had forged for their own purposes. Italy forged a fragile colonial nation out of fractious tribal territories in Libya. Britain contributed to future problems by removing the tyrant who was holding it together.

 
When Bell returned to Britain in 1925 she suffered from poor health and the economic depression had undermined the family wealth. She returned to Iraq and suffered from pleurisy. It is surmised that while she was in England she was diagnosed with lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker).

 
On July 12, 1926, she killed herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.
She was buried in the British cemetery at Bab al-Sharji.

 
In February 2011, eccentric German film director Werner Herzog was said to be in “serious discussions” with Australian actress Naomi Watts for his upcoming project about Bell titled Queen of the Desert. At the end of March, it was reported that Ridley Scott was planning a film about Bell and had hired screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the man responsible for The Constant Gardener, to write the script.

 
Perhaps one day there will be a movie about Siobhain McDonagh.

 

Gramsci, Dayan and New Labour

I recently had the strange experience of receiving an e-mail from Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary. I would not expect such a man to be my friend. I will not forget his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq. My new friend Alistair was writing to thank me because I had signed a petition he had organised challenging Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail to debate with him about the paper’s attack on Ralph Miliband, the late father of Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

The article by Geoffrey Levy, published on 27 September 2013, described Ralph Miliband, who arrived in Britain as Belgian Jewish fugitive from the Nazis, served in the Royal Navy, and became a distinguished Marxist academic, as a “man who hated Britain”.

Levy argued that that young Ed intended to fulfil his father’s dreams and replace Margaret Thatcher’s legacy with a new 21st century socialism. “How proud Ralph would have been to hear him responding the other day to a man in the street who asked when he was ‘going to bring back socialism’, with the words: ‘That’s what we are doing, sir’.” A number of right wing commentators conflated the Milibands’ arguments in favour of socialism with the smear that they were in favour of violent revolution and repression.

I was reminded of the wacky world of the British Labour Party (and its uneasy relationship with Marxism) when I read Dayan Jayatilleka’s article in Ceylon Today dated October 13.

Dr Jayatilleka writes:

“It is no accident that the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party during the long night of Thatcherism was intellectually spearheaded by three outstanding theoreticians of the Marxian Left, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, all of whom drew on the political science of Antonio Gramsci, to critically comprehend the success, national and cultural, of the Thatcher phenomenon of ‘authoritarian populism’ (Stuart Hall) and the ossification and obsolescence of the Labour Opposition.”

That seems to me to be problematic on several counts. I will deal with the concepts of “Marxian” and “theoreticians” later.

I vaguely knew Martin Jacques when we were contemporaries at Manchester University in the heady “revolutionary” days of the late sixties. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive! We did not move in the same circles, although I knew people who knew him. He was almost exactly a year older than I was. Our tangential crossing of orbits induced me to follow his career with some interest. He achieved some degree of media fame in the 70s and 80s when, under his editorship, Marxism Today– the theoretical magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain – became readable and even slick and fashionable. The grim old Stalinists of the CP embraced media-friendly Euro-Communism and started wearing gaudy silk ties, smart double-breasted suits with pleated trousers, abandoned their wrapover baldy men look and started talking fluently on TV.

Martin entered the world of think tankery and became quite influential. If you trawl the blogosphere patiently, you will find references (accusations?) from the left that he made New Labour possible. However, it is a bit of a stretch to imply that Gramsci had some connection with “the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party”.

I also had a tangential connection with Stuart Hall when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee. Professor Hall was a candidate to succeed Sir Arthur as Chairman. I argued Hall’s case vigorously but 1984 was not the time for an SSSAC chairman who was black and Marxist. Incidentally, one of the SSAC members was quite friendly and humorous. Henry Hodge was a human rights lawyer who later went on to become a High Court judge. His wife was Margaret Hodge, who achieved notoriety as the leader of left wing Islington Council (nicknamed “Enver Hodge”, after the Albanian despot). She later went on to become a minister in the Blair government and in 2010, she was elected Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The Hodges were neighbours and friends of the Blairs. Henry once remarked that he was married to the Labour Party. Margaret (née Oppenheimer) is a multi-millionaire. The Daily Mail alleges that her role on the PAC is compromised by the fact that her company paid just 0.25 per cent in tax on its profits last year

In 1983, I was present in the House of Commons to hear Gordon Brown give his maiden speech. It was very impressive in a dour kind of manner, but I did not detect the influence of Gramsci.

Soon after taking office in 1997, the new Blair administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This was what made the Labour Party socialist because it dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour and abandoned any pretence of socialism. Blair had never been a socialist; he was one of those careerists who decided politics was a good job option and then chose the party that suited him best, regardless of principles. On attaining power, there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects. Private companies prospered, the public paid.

The problem with theory is that it has a tendency to disappear up its own fundament. Karl Marx was a brilliant man who made many perceptive judgements about the way the world works. Like Freud, he has been a major influence on modern life. Freud was a big fraud who made up most of his theories without any scientific proof. It would be better if we regarded Freud and Marx as creative geniuses rather than trying to shoehorn the real world into their theoretical framework.

This shoehorning can be fatal when one believes that the end justifies the means. Let us look at the career of Eric Hobsbawm. When he died at the age of 95, even right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson praised Hobsbawm’s achievements as an historian.  In 1998, Blair appointed Hobsbawm to the Order of the Companions of Honour.

However, Tony Judt cautioned that Hobsbawm’s bias in favour of the USSR weakened his grasp of important aspects of the 20th century. David Pryce-Jones thought Hobsbawm “steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth”. In an interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1994, Hobsbawm said 20 million deaths might have been justified if a communist utopia had been created. The problem with utopias is that they do not happen so no loss of life is justified. Hobsbawm retained his CP membership long after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. David Pryce-Jones accuses Hobsbawm of actually supporting the invasion of Hungary. Marx biographer Francis Wheen argued: “When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to ‘temporary episodes such as 1939–41’. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over.”

Hall, Jacques and Hobsbawm’s advice may well have helped to make Labour electable. Hobsbawm’s daughter Julia was, like my new friend Alistair, a media adviser to Blair. It is very odd that these CP diehards would advise abandoning socialism and making Labour Thatcherite. Ralph Miliband described the thinking of Marxism Today under Jacques as a “very pronounced retreat from some socialist positions.’ Eric Hobsbawm’s writings in Marxism Today lent support to Neil Kinnock’s strategy of steering Labour rightwards. It is ironic that this gang of Stalinists gave Britain a new Thatcherism under Blair rather than any kind of socialism whatsoever. Hobsbawm derisively referred to Blair as “Thatcher in trousers”. This may have been some cunning Baldrickesque plan but I would ask any remaining socialist in the present-day British Labour Party – “how was it for you”? Was the outcome good for socialism or Britain?

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