Ancient Ribs

Square

I just finished watching The Square, one of the more depressing films I’ve seen. From the viewpoints of a few protestors in Tahrir Square, it depicts the events of the Egyptian revolution from 2011 to last year. It’s well worth the subscription to Netflix; dispiritingly, it hasn’t been shown at all in Egypt.

A limitation that the The Square couldn’t really avoid is that its story is incomplete. It is, after all, about a series of events that haven’t yet finished. General Sisi, who now appears to be at the centre of a military personality cult, shows up for only a couple of seconds towards the end of the film. The Muslim Brotherhood, who (nominally, at least) controlled the country between mid-2012 and mid-2013 and seemed on the verge of establishing an absolute dictatorship, are now freshly outlawed and have been declared a terrorist organisation. The only constant, perhaps, is the heretofore faceless military.

This article shows the state of the Muslim Brotherhood now it is out of power. It’s written from the perspective of the Brotherhood’s young female activists:

“Everybody just ends up doing whatever they feel like, there is no cohesion; no vision,” she added, shaking her head before returning to her monologue and deciding to be safe rather than hungry like her brother, Hamza, who now resides in a 2×2 cell with an unspecified number of people and cockroaches that fly, unable to sit or sleep comfortably. She sees him for exactly one minute a day with an officer present. Some of his teeth are broken and so is his right wrist, she suspects. Hamza, she paused to beam, had tried to convince the police officers, who arrested him, that he was a non-religious, playboy who drinks, smokes and copulates before they did. They gave him a cigarette and asked him to prove it, he let out a telling cough and was summarily given for 15 days pending investigation. “Ah, Hamza,” she sighed.

“Many of (those arrested) have wrist fractures and things of that nature, it’s the handcuffs,” guessed another Sister, Gehad, rubbing hers instinctively. She has been recently released after being detained for nearly three weeks on the charge of “piercing a car roof,” carrying a camera and belonging to a terrorist organization trying to destabilize the country. “[Prisoner treatment] depends wholly on the officers and the jail or department you’re in,” she explained. She, for instance, was lucky enough to fall into the hands of a kind prosecutor, who gave her Nescafe. And she managed to charm the prostitutes and convicted murderers they routinely detain Sisters with, “as a scare tactic,” with her religious knowledge. “They thought that God wouldn’t forgive them, so I recited Quran to them and we prayed together,” she recalled with pride. More importantly, the pregnancy test they forced on her (virginity tests for female protesters — i.e. sluts — caused an uproar, but pregnancy tests have reportedly taken their place) didn’t break her as well because she knew it was meant to, Gehad said, speaking at a considerably higher volume intended to prove she was unaffected by the memory. Others, however, she said, had cigarettes put out in them, and if the corporal she bribed is to be believed, they were also whipped with belts, electrocuted, stripped and made to stand in a room with holes in the walls known as the Tellaga (refrigerator). Other reports of abuse include being forced to clean the police department, sexual harassment, spoiled food and denial of family visits (and harassment of family members and friends who came for them).

Dungeons

Bit of a departure for this blog, but it’s amazing how quickly iOS games have gone from representing a profitable, egalitarian avant garde, perhaps on the verge of destroying all other platforms, to this:

We were going to refer to Dungeon Keeper as a non-game, but that’s not really accurate. It’s an anti-game. It is purposefully designed not to require thought, skill, or experimentation. Instead it rewards only money and, begrudgingly, patience.

Hair-trigger

Here’s an account of the vicious madness of current online feminism1. This quote gets to the root of the problem (for ‘black women’ read any other minority):

“I want to be clear: I think there’s an actual injury,” Cooper says. The online feminist efflorescence a few years back led to book deals and writing careers for far more white women than women of color. “Black women are brought into these mainstream feminist websites to bring a little bit of color or a little bit of diversity, but that doesn’t parlay into other career advancement opportunities.” On Twitter, by contrast, women of color, trans women and other people who feel silenced can amplify one another’s voices, talking back to people with power in an unparalleled way.

That doesn’t mean, though, that social media’s climate of perpetual outrage and hair-trigger offense is constructive. “There is a problem with toxicity on Twitter and in social media,” Cooper says. “I think we have to say that. I’m not sure that black women are benefiting from the toxicity.”

There is both analytical worth and entertainment to be got from intersectional feminist ideas. Feminist discourse online is often interesting in content. Just as important, given the turgid 90s, it is very often punchy and frothy, lighthearted but still serious. Online, it is truly popular, in the best sense of the word. It is often outraged, and this is good. There is much to be outraged about.

There is, though, a trend which I don’t like. An insistence that anything, be it a piece of pop culture or a political figure, must conform to a certain strain of feminist ideas, and if it doesn’t then it is totally without worth. Worse, it is completely harmful, and must be screamed down. That’s the phenomenon detailed in the article.

I can see the reason for this obsession with total correctness: it accords to the idea that if the language of everyday culture is changed, then the underlying thought will change with it. If (for example) ephemeral jokes that fail to be perfectly, platonically inclusive are policed mercilessly, then we will see an improvement of more concrete social and material inequalities. This has a certain amount of truth; perhaps more than, as someone who insists on unalloyed free speech, I am really comfortable with2. But it cannot stand on its own, has incredibly unpleasant side-effects, and for the most part gets the problem entirely backwards.

That doesn’t stop the problem from being real, and so it’s tempting to treat this as more an argument over tactics than principles. But there’s less difference between these two things, tactics and principles, than is supposed. In this case especially they are inseparable: any space in which ideological dissent is impossible, online or otherwise, is intolerable. It doesn’t matter that I think it will also fail to meet its stated goal of equality; the totalitarian method is itself a bigger problem.

That sounds drastic. It shouldn’t be forgotten that all this is about a minority of a minority of the politically active, who really don’t do anything that can’t be (for the most part, and if we like) ignored completely. I find it depressing, though, to cede that ground. Feminism is important, and its internet presence shouldn’t be dominated by a sect that is at once manic and completely banal. Perhaps ideals of comradeship—of the denial of difference and the celebration of unity and common humanity—are illusory and unrealistic. But over the years they’ve achieved more than the alternative.


  1. Those who overstate the effect of form on content, and so take the temporary prominence of certain social media websites more seriously than they should, call it twitter-feminism
  2. I’ll do a quick Godwin analogy here in the footnotes, really only because I’m midway through reading a book on interwar Germany and that’s what’s been occupying my thoughts: the rise of the Nazis would not have happened without applied violence and an accordance with the direction German society was already moving in. It was not caused by posters, newspapers, speeches and sloganeering; but they helped. 

A Complex Task

So the Scottish Government’s plans for an 18-month gap between referendum and secession is not realistic, and its White Paper obfuscates and misrepresents the legal and practical problems that a newly independent Scotland would face:

The apportionment of the UK’s assets and liabilities would constitute a large part of the separation negotiations that would have to follow any Yes vote in the referendum. Whilst the details would be a matter primarily of political negotiation, those negotiations would take place within a broad framework of international law. International law provides a number of presumptions that are likely to shape such negotiations. Among these presumptions are the following:

  • The UK’s fixed property in Scotland (e.g. Government buildings) would become the property of the new Scottish State; conversely Scotland would have no claim on the UK’s fixed property in the rest of the UK or overseas

  • The UK’s movable property in Scotland would become the property of the new Scottish State where it is specifically for local use

  • Other assets and liabilities would fall to be apportioned equitably. This may be calculated by such means as share of population or, possibly with regard to the national debt, for example, by share of GDP. Historical contribution appears to be of no relevance: thus UK fixed property in Scotland would become the property of the new Scottish State even if its construction had been paid for UK taxpayers as a whole, and no compensation would be due to the rUK

Working out how these principles and presumptions would apply in the context of unpicking a 307-year-old Union is inevitably going to be a complex task.

My own unionism is mostly emotional. I was born in Scotland but have lived in England for most of my life, and my need for a British identity couldn’t be met by an independent Scotland, a rump UK, or some awkward straddling (dual citizenship?) between the two. It saddens me to think of English people in Scotland as foreigners, and vice versa. I’m also ideologically opposed to the idea of splintering and secession from healthy, democratic states1. Although these are, in the end, fairly mild emotional responses, they’re enough to put me implacably on the No side of the independence debate. This is all helped along by a healthy loathing for the SNP, on tribal, anti-nationalist and anti-mendacity grounds.

I don’t think that independence is impossible, or that once the settling-down period were finished it would be particularly bad for Scotland2 or the rest of the UK. In fact, I’m usually of the opinion it would make no practical difference whatsoever.

That settling-down period, though, increasingly seems like it’ll be far more of a pain in the arse than it’s worth.


  1. I have much more distaste for Catalonian nationalism, which at this point is little more than snobbery and a cover for dumping the poorer regions of Spain. But I also have far less of a stake in Spain than in the UK. 
  2. Not that I live in Scotland. 

Memorial

A longer break than I really intended, but never mind.

A Holocaust memorial service, held in the upper house of Spain’s parliament, refused to acknowledge the Spanish victims of Nazi concentration camps1:

It did not allow representatives of the Campaign for the Truth about the Crimes of Francoism Commission to enter, despite their being invited by Izquierda Unida2, nor has it condemned the crimes of Hitler in Spain, nor were any words spoken in memory of the close to 7,000 spaniards who died in Nazi concentration camps. This is the measure of the ceremony held this Monday in the Senate, in commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day and the prevention of crimes against humanity. A ceremony, organised by La Casa Sefarad en España, which has completely ignored the victims of Nazism and its allies in Spain.

It’s a confused case: despite being held in Parliament, the ceremony was organised by a Sephardic cultural organisation (La Casa Sefarad en España). But it’s an example of a common attitude, in and out of Spain, towards the violence of Nationalists between 1936 and 1945. Where the slaughter by the extreme right on the rest of the continent is to be condemned unequivocally, the Francoist crimes are to be put carefully in context. An assault on a civilian population—facilitated in the first place by Axis pilots, sailors and tank commanders, and motivated by an insane ideology based on scientific racism and antisemitism—should be swept under the carpet because General Franco was for twenty years one of the Good dictators. After all, he stopped Communism; never mind that Communism was not prevalent in Spain until after his failed putsch in 1936. Another thing not to be mentioned in a certain sort of polite company is that, in the event of Axis victory in the Second World War, the Holocaust-proper was to be imported into Spain.

What makes this case particularly galling is that these 7,000 dead were not only the victims of a terror analogous to, aligned with and simultaneous with that perpetrated by the Nazis, but are an example of the direct interaction which took place between the two.


  1. The original article is in Spanish, and the quote is my translation. 
  2. United Left, a left-wing electoral coalition dominated by the Communist Party of Spain. 

Oligarchs and beggars, power and ruin

Three articles on Russia, of varying ages. First, Peter Pomerantsev on the postmodern mode of liberal life in what used to be the USSR:

The late Soviet condition was marked not by idealistic fervour but a pervasive sense of irony and non-belief, or rather the ability to imitate belief in several things simultaneously: swearing allegiance to the Komsomol while reading Solzhenitsyn, quoting Lenin while listening to Deep Purple.

The situation is much the same in Russia today. State TV can one moment be showing Putin and his attack dogs calling for a new, religiously inspired ‘traditional’ Russia, and the next be screening the latest episode of The Thaw, Russia’s answer to Mad Men, set in the Soviet 1960s but revealing 21st-century attitudes. The protagonist believes in almost nothing, all the characters try to ignore the state and get on with their private lives, and the security services are portrayed as villains and despised toadies.

But (as Vaclav Havel used to argue) the irony is what makes the system strong: as long as you don’t believe in anything and are always playing identity masquerades, you will never do anything real and committed.

Next is a long profile from 2011 by Julia Ioffe of oligarch-turned-dissident Mikhail Khordokovsky, who was recently released on a whim after ten years in prison. Again, a degree of postmodern thought is required:

But prison has merely proved to be another in a series of tactical challenges for Khodorkovsky, and from his cell he has managed to parry his torturer. By coupling his political writings with a high-octane PR operation, Khodorkovsky has managed to completely obscure the life he led before 2003. He is now a prisoner of conscience, a victim of a rapacious Kremlin, a martyr. Any naysayers who bring up his past as a robber baron are shouted down as Kremlin apologists. The fact that they often are and that Khodorkovsky’s arrest and internment are clearly motivated by politics only helps Khodorkovsky’s case.

And finally a short piece by Paul Gable on the northward spread of Russian state terrorism, out of the Caucasus and into the Middle Volga region:

Kidnappings and tortures by Russian force structures, two Kavpolit.com researchers say, which “earlier had been considered a sad ‘distinctive feature’ of the North Caucasus … to all appearances is spreading to other parts of the Russian Federation,” in the first instance Tatarstan and the Middle Volga.
            And the way that “spreading” has occurred, first with largely unsubstantiated charges that there are Wahhabis about and then with an apparent grant of carte blanche to the police and security forces to do whatever they need to to destroy them means that any claims elsewhere that there are Wahhabis about could presage a violent crackdown against them.

M&M World

An admirable, but failed, attempt to come to terms with the big M&M shop in London:

We’d stumbled down to Chinatown to get some food, and then I think it was after we’d eaten, about ten thirty at night maybe, when we found ourselves walking, with no particular aim or direction in mind, into Leicester Square, when we saw it, and really it is impossible to emphasise how strange and delirious a sight this is when you’re not expecting to see it there: this giant shop, this really baffling huge store, which is just M&Ms. Why does it exist? Who would make this? Who would go to this? What could it possibly, really, contain?

In September, I came upon the M&M shop under basically exactly the same circumstances, and we found the whole thing just as inexplicable. The place was heaving, it stank of pumped-in synthetic chocolate, its employees seemed forced to grin at everything, chat with everyone. Perhaps because we were there in the evening, nobody seemed to be buying anything. They came in, took photos of themselves next to the life-size M&M statues or even just in front of a pile of M&M-branded t-shirts, and then left. The strangest thing was that nobody there seemed to think it was strange. It was an experience that I will not even try to understand. We entered, gawped, got slightly lost and then escaped back to the real world.