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Archive for the category “USA”

Russophobia: the key to success in Anglo-American politics

It seems that the surest path to failure in politics in the US and the UK is not to be Russophobic enough for the war-mongering “mainstream” media.

Last week it was Newsweek and the London Independent trying to outdo Bell Pottinger in trying to stir up race hatred in South Africa by misrepresenting the land issue. This week it’s the Guardian  joining them on the alt-right by pronouncing doom on Jeremy Corbyn for failing to be enough of a Russophobic bigot: Theresa May transforms into cold war colossus by not being Jeremy Corbyn | UK news | The Guardian.

I can think of plenty of things one could criticise in US President Donald Trump’s policies — poisoning the air and water and killing off endangered species for a start. But it seems that the most common criticism is that he isn’t Russophobic enough for the media pundits.

Perhaps we need to put prejudice on hold, and heed this warning: Russian to Judgement – Craig Murray:

The same people who assured you that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s now assure you Russian “novochok” nerve agents are being wielded by Vladimir Putin to attack people on British soil. As with the Iraqi WMD dossier, it is essential to comb the evidence very finely. A vital missing word from Theresa May’s statement yesterday was “only”. She did not state that the nerve agent used was manufactured ONLY by Russia. She rather stated this group of nerve agents had been “developed by” Russia. Antibiotics were first developed by a Scotsman, but that is not evidence that all antibiotics are today administered by Scots.

This is not to say that Russians, and possibly the Russian government could not have done such a thing, but the British démarche makes it clear that Teresa May is playing the Queen of Hearts in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland — first the sentence, then the verdict, and the evidence must follow as best it can. Jeremy Corbyn is quite right to be cautious. It was his own party that fell for this 15 years ago. And there is still a great deal of obscurity about who developed and provided the poison gas that was used in Syria a few years ago.

As a result of the Russophobic hype of the last few years, I don’t trust anything that Anglo-American media say about Russia, its government, or its role in world affairs. As a result of an apparent tit-for-tat policy that has developed in the Russian media since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, I don’t trust anything the Russian media say about Britain and the USA either. So who can one trust? Perhaps a more neutral source like the Irish TimesUnlikely that Vladimir Putin behind Skripal poisoning:

Theresa May’s first scenario, that the Kremlin was directly involved, seems unlikely. Skripal was in the UK as part of an official spy-swap deal with Russia. The only suggestion of suspicious activities on Skripal’s part has been a report in the Daily Telegraph that he was close to an unnamed person in the organisation run by Christopher Steele, who produced the dossier claiming Russia had compromising material on Donald Trump.

For President Vladimir Putin to have launched such a vicious attack would have been counterproductive as it would jeopardise any spy swaps in the future.

There’s a lot of hatred and violence in the world, and it’s bad enough when the media report it. When they report it, however, they are just doing their job. But when they are busy stoking it up, it’s something else.

And I’ve just added Creating Russophobia to my “Want to Read” list on GoodReads. As the blurb on GoodReads puts it:

Contemporary Russophobia is manufactured through the construction of an anti-Russian discourse in the media and the diplomatic world, and the fabrication and demonization of The Bad Guy, now personified by Vladimir Putin.

That doesn’t make Putin the “good guy” either. He’s a politician like the rest of them, and he believes in Realpolitik like the rest of them. The real “bad guy” is the Orwellian rhetoric of the Anglo-American media.


The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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How US Net Neutrality affects the rest of us

Those of us outside the US may have observed their debates on net neutrality, and wondered whether it would affect us.

Even if it is something confined purely to the US, however, the loss of net neutrality there will affect people all over the world. But when people speak of the loss of net neutrality, there are many ways in which it has already been lost, or rather, it is an ideal that has never been fully realised.

This article helps to explain what it means for people in the US — Someone Finally Illustrated What The Loss Of Net Neutrality Really Looks Like, And You Won’t Like It:

Net neutrality has become a volatile, high-profile news story, and with good reason: Americans are in danger of losing it. But what is net neutrality, and why is it important? Why are some lawmakers fighting so hard to make it a thing of the past?

The answer is complex, rooted in technological progress, a changing economic landscape, and a society and culture that is seeing greater class divisions than at any other time in our history. Some in our government are determined to make the internet a profit-driven product, and while this may sound understandable in a capitalist society, the dangers are very real.

Aptly illustrated by this picture:

If you live in South Africa, say, and you post some family photos on Facebook, the loss of net neutrality in the US might mean that your cousin in the US may not be able to see them, because their ISP has decided to charge more for access to Facebook.

Of course even with net neutrality your cousin in the US might not have been able to see your photos, because Facebook’s algorithm already decides who gets to see what you post, and who doesn’t get to see it.

Think of another example. An academic researcher in South Africa posts a research query in a blog, trying to verify some fact, or get reactions to a conjecture or hypothesis. With net neutrality, anyone with a web connection can see the blog and respond to the post. But without net neutrality, an ISP can decide to make that particular blogging platform only accessible to some of its subscribers who pay extra for it.

Even without legal protection of “net neutrality”, there have been all kinds of attempts to corral users into a closed system. Facebook’s Messaging app is an example. Get people to use that, and people have to join Facebook to communicate with you. Others may have attempted the same thing, but it might have backfired on them. In an earlier post, The decline and decline of tumblr | Notes from underground, I noted that tumblr had gradually reduced the functionality of their site to make it a closed world. Perhaps they did this in the hope that they, like Facebook, might be able to lock users in to their site, though the actual effect was to remove the incentive for many people to visit their site at all. To lock people in successfully, you have to be big like Facebook, not small like tumblr.

We had something similar in South Africa. A few years ago people who used MWeb as their ISP found it difficult to access certain web sites, because MWeb was trying to lock them in and steer them towards its own offerings. I don’t know if they still do that, but there was quite an outcry at the time.

Something similar was seen back in the 1990s, when dial-up BBSs were popular. Telkom, whose phone lines were being used for it, wanted to charge more for data calls to BBSs than for voice calls, but the counter argument was that Telkom was a “common carrier” — their job was to provide the connections, for which they could charge, but the content of the calls was none of their business. The “common carrier” principle is the same principle as net neutrality — an ISP charges you for the internet connection and the band width you use, but the content of your connection is none of their business.

The “common carrier” principle provided a great deal of freedom, because anyone could set up a BBS, and so BBSs were a great enhancement to free speech. It was one of the factors that helped to topple a lot of dictatorial regimes in the annus mirabilis of 1989. It was how news of the Tianamnen Square massacre in China reached the rest of the world; pro-democracy activists used a BBS conference called ASIAN_LINK to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

So the loss of New Neutrality takes the USA another step further away from the “free world” that it once claimed to be the leader of.





What is terrorism?

Fifty years ago the National Party regime in South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which basically defined terrorism as opposition to the National Party and its policies, especially the policy of apartheid.

It made me particularly aware of the way words can be misused for political propaganda, and the entire Terrorism Act was an exercise in political propaganda — by defining their opponents as “terrorists” the National Party government hoped to frighten (intimidate, terrorise) doubters into supporting them. The Terrorism Act made nothing illegal that was not already illegal under numerous other laws, though it did increase the powers of the police to suppress opposition without interference by the courts.

So I became aware that “terrorism” and “terrorist” were weasel words, that could have the meanings sucked out of them as weasels were reputed to suck eggs. And since I was already a language pedant, I became yet more pedantic about words like “terrorist”.

I looked up “terrorist” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary:

terrorist, n. One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community.

Note that governments can be terrorist (as the National Party government was back in 1967 when they passed the Terrorism Act). And note too that it is not applied to individuals. An armed robber may inspire terror in his victims by the use of violence or the threat of it — to hand over valuables or reveal the means of access to them, eg by torturing someone to reveal the PIN of a credit card. But the robber is still a robber, not a terrorist.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, USA, has opened up this particular debate again — here’s an example in the graphic on the right, which appeared on Facebook soon after the shooting.

At the time of writing, police investigating the crime said that they had not discovered the killer’s motive, and it is his motive that would determine whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Perhaps further investigation will show that it was an act of terrorism, but for the moment it is too early to say.

For it to have been an act of terrorism, one has to know which community he was trying to coerce into doing what and why.

What his victims had in common was that they were Country Music fans attending a concert. If it can be shown that his aim was to intimidate country music fans into not holding concerts (any concerts? open-air concerts? only concerts in Las Vegas or concerts anywhere?) then yes, he was a terrorist, and his shooting was an act of terrorism.

But not every mass shooting is an act of terrorism, and not every mass murderer is a terrorist. Perhaps in this case the killer was just a misanthropist, and the concert-goers were just a convenient target for his misanthropy.

Before coming to hasty judgments about such things, read this article Six things to know about mass shootings in America | News | World | M&G:

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

And check here to see if you can pass the terrorism quiz.

A terrorist always has a clear message: this is what will happen to you if you carry on doing this, or if you don’t do that. Often the message is “support us, or else (this will happen to you)”.

If the message the perpetrator is trying to send is unclear and difficult to determine, the chances are he isn’t a terrorist.



Falling man

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a strange book. The title relates to a performance artist, David Janiak, who emulates those who jumped or fell from the World Trade Center when the two towers caught fire after planes crashed into them. Using a safety harness, he hangs himself from various structures around New York. But he gives no explanation of his behaviour.

The protagonist is Keith Neudecker, whose office was below the fire, and so he was able to escape, and instead of going home, he went to the home of his estranged wife, and is reunited with her, and their son Justin, whose age is not mentioned until much later in the book, and it turns out that he is about 7 when his father comes home.

The book follows Keith and his wife Lianne, and to some extent their son Justin over three years. It purports, in the blurb, to show how the events of 11 Septermber 2001 affected American consciousness, but I must be dim, because I didn’t see it. Several of Keith’s poker buddies are dead, so for a while he doesn’t play poker, but then resumes. Lianne continues her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and is rather distressed by their inevitable deterioration. But the fall of the towers seems to have nothing to do with this.

We are told little about their lives before the fall of the World Trade Center, so it is not really possible to see how their lives have been changed. The story is not clear, and it is often difficult to tell whose experience is being described.

In spite of this, however, I found it compelling reading. I wasn’t bored, and read to the end of the book.

If you want to read a better review, try this one Inner Diablog: Falling Man, which I largely agree with. But I didn’t feel I could say much about the book, but rather about some thoughts it provoked in me. One thing that struck me in the book was Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients. She encourages them to write down their memories while they can, and when one of them can no longer do this, they want to wrote about her. That struck me as very sad, but it would have been sad with or without the fall of the World Trade Center.

Another thing that struck me was that within a couple of days of the events, reporting on them stopped. For two days we were saturated with images of planes flying into buildings, the buildings burning and then collapsing, and then it all suddenly stopped. In other such disasters one often find that within a few months a book is published, with stories of witnesses and survivors, explaining what happened. But in this case there was a strange silence. I believe there is now a TV documentary showing, but 16 years later. Kids like Justin in the book would now be 23.

And so I wonder if this silence is why the book about it is a work of fiction, but really what is needed is for survivors to tell their own stories. Perhaps they did, in New York, so maybe I’m missing something that was there all along, but it it seems to me the kind of topic that doesn’t lend itself to fictional treatment.

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PR firms: igniting the fires of ethnic hatred

The public relations firm of Bell Pottinger have just apologised for fanning the flames of racial hatred in South Africa, for money. Bell Pottinger’s full, unequivocal, absolute apology for selling Gupta lies –

LONDON — Here’s a very big win for the good guys. The £100 000 a month London agency which promoted the Gupta agenda in South Africa – including instigating a threat to use the UK courts to close down Biznews – has suddenly seen the error of its ways. After steadfastly denying any wrongdoing by his company and claiming its clients were innocent victims, Bell Pottinger’s owner and CEO James Henderson today issued a grovelling apology: “full, unequivocal and absolute” to quote from the statement. News like this takes time to digest. Nice. But given the damage this firm’s dark media arts has created in South Africa, and the personal attacks and despicable social media deeds conducted under its instruction, I’m pretty sure this doesn’t close matter. But perhaps, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the end of the beginning. – Alec Hogg

That’s all very well. It’s fine for the arsonist to apologise for starting the fire, but the flames are still burning, and the apology does not put them out.

This is also not the first time that a PR firm has made a handsome profit from fanning the flames of ethnic hatred, and it probably won’t be the last. But to my knowledge it is the first time that a PR firm has apologised for its role in this.

Victoria Geoghegan, MD Financial and Corporate at Bell Pottinger.

The secret to PR spin is not to tell absolute lies, but to put a spin on the truth.

To put it crudely, what Bell Pottinger were paid to do was to bring about “radical economic transformation” in South Africa by promoting the replacement of White Monopoly Capital by Indian Monopoly Capital (the latter represented by the Gupta family).

Some might think that “radical economic transformation” should begin by questioning the role of monopoly capital in the economy, regardless of the race, ethnicity or nationality of the capitalists. The truth that is at the basis of the spin is that historically there has been white monopoly capital in South Africa, and part of the “white privilege” narrative is that it has had sufficient clout to fight back and wrest a public apology from Bell Pottinger.

Those who don’t have that kind of clout aren’t so lucky.

I’ve yet to see an apology from the firm of Ruder Finn for their role in fanning the flames of ethnic hatred that led to the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession, for example. Ruder Finn’s work for Croatia – SourceWatch:

On 12 August 1991, the Croatian government hired the American public relations firm Ruder Finn Global Public Affairs to “develop and carry out strategies and tactics for communication with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate as well as with officials of the U.S. government including the State Department, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies and departments of the U.S. government as well as with American and international news media”. On 12 November 1991, Ruder Finn’s contract was renewed to include lobbying in relation to diplomatic recognition, sanctions, and embargoes, as well as briefings for officials of the first Bush administration and preparation of special background material, press releases, both reactive and proactive articles and letters to the editors to appear in major newspapers, briefings for journalists, columnists, and commentators. In January and February 1992, Ruder Finn organized trips to Croatia for U.S. Congressmen. The United States recognized Croatia as an independent state on 7 April 1992.

Truth is the first casualty in PR offensive | The Independent:

The Ruder Finn strategy has been to build a congressional and Senate coalition in the US in support of Croatia. The strategy has included mobilising the 2.5 million Croats in the US to lobby their own representatives in Congress.

Central to all this activity was equating the Serbian forces with Communism and the Croats with Western freedom and democracy.

In October 1992, Ruder Finn took up the job of public relations for the ethnic Albanian separatists in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Bell Pottinger’s work in South Africa hasn’t yet led to death and destruction on that scale, but the story isn’t over yet, and the flames fanned by Bell Pottinger are still burning.



Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping

Nearly 50 years ago I had an American friend, Dave Trumbull, whose father, Howard Trumbull, a missionary, was the treasurer of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, and came to a youth meeting to represent his son, who couldn’t be there on that occasion. Before the meeting he asked me who were the black hats and who were the white hats.

Seeing my bemused expression he explained that in Western movies (in the pre-spaghetti Western days) it was a convention that all the “good guys” wore white hats, and all the “bad guys” wore black hats. Audiences apparently needed these cues as to who were the heroes and who were the villains.

He said (in a rather ironic self-deprecating way) that it was something Americans always wanted to know about every situation they were involved in.

And I said that in the particular situation we were facing, it was not an easy distinction to make. It was rather a matter of good guys making bad decisions. He made some comment to the effect that Americans didn’t like messy situations like that.

I was reminded of him and his comments last week when I posted some links to a blog post and a few newspaper articles on Facebook, and the response of American commenters on them was immediately to look for the “black hats” and put the blame on them.

One of the articles was on my other blog, on The Death of Liberalism in the West, which was mainly about the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the UK feeling compelled to resign because he thought his faith was not accepted in the UK political arena. Two American friends responded with comments on Facebook rather than on the blog post (so I don’t know if either of them actually read the blog post, much less the statement by Tim Farron, the Lib-Dem leader). One identified the Black Hats as right-wing bullies, and the other identified them as left-wing bullies.

I was rather disappointed, as I was trying to understand a phenomenon, rather than looking for scapegoats.

The other thing was that I posted links to some articles about a recent fire in a block of flats in London, in which many people had lost their homes and some had lost their lives. One thing that was clear from the articles was that there had been a lot of bad decisions by various people and organisations, including commercial firms, political parties and and local authorities. But some American commenters were specifically trying to pin the blame on particular people or firms. But not only is the jury still out — it hasn’t been summoned yet to hear the evidence. All the reports show is that there is prima facie evidence of the need for some sort of judicial enquiry. Yet Americans seem to feel an immediate need to pin the blame on someone, to identify the black hats.

I mentioned this to Val on the way to church this morning, and she said, but isn’t that typical of Americans — they love to identify the “bad guys”, and sooner or later go in and bomb them. They did it in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, where there were no good guys. The Americans appointed the bad guys, put black hats on them, and then bombed them. A few years later they did it in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and then in Libya. Now they are doing it to Syria and Russia.

This legalistic American tendency to look for scapegoats and find them before the evidence is available is probably the biggest threat to world peace, and has been for the last 60 years.

It’s more than 50 years since the publication of The Ugly American, which dealt with this phenomenon, but it was so effective that most people don’t realise that the eponymous ugly American was the good guy. He was the guy in the white hat.

A few years after my conversation with Howard Trumbull a couple of friends of mine met a US foreign policy boffin by the name of George Kennan. He had the reputation of being one of their biggest fundis on foreign affairs. They came back from lunch with him thinking that he was so naive that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. He asked them who the good guys and bad guys in Namibia in the early 1970s were, and seemed to believe that a flick of a switch in the depths of the Pentagon would eliminate the bad guys and solve all the problems.

But most of the American I’ve met have been like the ugly American in the story. I’ve met them outside America, because they don’t have this binary opposition attitude. Many of them, like Howard Trumbull, are, or have been, Christian missionaries. So not all Americans are evil scapegoaters.

So, in conclusion, I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t, and there are even some Americans in the latter category.



Where’s the outrage?

Where’s the outrage?

This is a strange rhetorical question that I’ve been seeing with increasing frequency on the Internet. A Google search showed about 259,000 results.

And it seems strange because if you read what people write about it, a lot of them seem to think that outrages are a good thing, and that they are deploring their absence.

Or people will describe an outrage, giving the details of its exact location, and then ask where it is.

“Police shoot unarmed teenager in Gotham City. Where’s the outrage?”

And the answer, of course is right there, in Gotham City. They just said so.

So it seems that people don’t really know what “outrage” means, and seem to think it means the same as “rage”, but is enhanced by adding a prefix — inrage, outrage, uprage, downrage. Just as people think one can enhance “centre” by putting “epi” in front of it, or “record” by putting “track” in front of it, and some even seem to think that “ultimate” can be enhanced by putting “pen” in front of it.

“Outrage” actually means “the forcible denial of others’ rights, sentiments, etc” or “an act of violence”. When police shoot an unarmed person who is not breaking any law, it is the shooting itself that is the outrage, not the emotional reactions of people hearing or reading about it. An outrage is never a good thing.

But even if it is a malapropism, and if people actually mean “rage” when they say “outrage”, is it a good thing? It is something I’ve seen asked on Christian websites and blogs and social media, and there’s quite a good answer here Where’s the Outrage? | ifaqtheology.

Rage is often the cause of outrages; we often read of incidents of “road rage” where an enraged motorist assaults or sometimes murders another. Is that a good thing?

Time magazine cover, May 29, 2017

Recently Time magazine had a cover showing an Orthodox Church descending on the US White House and assimilating it. Some Orthodox Christians were asking “Where’s the outrage?” about that. Well, quite clearly the outrage was on the cover of Time, but I think what they meant was “Why aren’t more people enraged by this outrage?” And the implication was that they thought more people ought to be enraged by it.

But one of the things we are taught as Orthodox Christians is that we should subdue the passions and control them, and anger, rage, is one of the passions. The way to godliness (theosis) is through bringing the passions under control, and the aim is dispassion (apatheia). So why try to provoke passions in others by asking “Where’s the outrage?”

There are many things in the world that tempt us to let our passions rage unrestrained — Facebook, for example, has recently added an “anger” button which you can click if something enrages you. I try to avoid using it, because it is a temptation to indulge in the passion of unrestrained anger.

If you find the Time cover outrageous, by all means say so, but try not to get enraged by it. One can point out that it displays ignorance and is irresponsible journalism, and hope the errors might be corrected. But indulging in emotional outbursts of anger doesn’t achieve anything. I think that Donald Trump is far more influenced by Pseudo-Evangelical Moneytheism than he is by Orthodox Christianity, so the Time cover is misleading, to say the least. But don’t get all worked up about it, and demand that other people get worked up about it too — to do that is simply to indulge the passions.

And do try to use words like “outrage” accurately (yes, I’m an Orthodox language pedant).




Do something. Kill someone.

Over the last few days I have seen floods of emotional demands on social media that somebody should do something about reported gas attacks in Syria. These appeals are sometimes accompanied by gruesome pictures of unknown provenance.

I haven’t seen any actual media reports of these gas attacks. Perhaps that it because the South African media have been so preoccupied with reactions to Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet changes that demands for regime change in South Africa have taken precedence over demands for regime change in Syria and the United States.

The demands on social media that someone should “do something” do, however, appear to be media driven, and there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland quality of unreality about them. As the Queen of Hearts proclaimed, it seems to be sentence first, then the verdict, then the evidence.

I think this article is worth reading Disharmony: The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused | The Economist:

Generally, the local Catholic and Orthodox churches remain reluctant to condemn Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as their protector against the furies of Islamism. That in turn influences the hierarchs and adherents of those churches in other places. Meanwhile, some luminaries of America’s religious right (though not of the isolationist far-right) saw their country’s missile attack as a noble act by Donald Trump: a sign of his virtuousness compared with the wicked sloppiness of his predecessor.

I see media reports of a “US-led coalition”, but I seem to have missed the formation of this coalition, and its purpose. I know there was a “coalition of the willing” to bring about regime change in Iraq in 2003, and plenty of scorn from people in the US for the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the French) who didn’t join it. Someone pointed out that there seems to have been a coalition against ISIS, but the main aim of the current coalition seems to be to put ISIS, or some group very like them, in power in Syria.

The only constant and consistent factor in US intervention in the Middle East has been to establish more anti-Christian regimes, and has led to Christians being killed or driven from their homes in increasing numbers in a form of “religious cleansing” that parallels the ethnic cleansing seen elsewhere. It should therefore not be surprising that Christians in Syria generally take the attitude of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Which of the groups seeking to overthrow Assad will treat them better?

But the “Do something” response shows that people outside Syria, including Christians, would behave no better than the people in Syria if they had the chance. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on 9 September 2001. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” that bombed a Metro train in Moscow last week. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the offices of a publication in Paris a couple of years ago.

In most of the social media calls to “Do something” about gas attacks in Syria the “something” was unspecified, but I’m pretty sure that in most of them the “something” that the posters had in mind was something violent.

We sometimes read about psychologists and profilers trying to understand the minds of terrorists. But they really don’t have to look far. We are all terrorists at heart, especially when we call on someone to “do something” when that something is violent.

Until we tame that “do something” in ourselves, there is little hope of it being tamed in anyone else.

Lent is over, but we still need to pray, Grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.



Steinbeck & Coetzee as chroniclers of their times

The Wayward BusThe Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What do you think of your fellow passengers on a bus, or a plane, or a suburban train?

Usually they are anonymous.

You might sometimes idly wonder about their lives outside the conveyance that briefly brings you into the same moving space, but rarely does it go beyond that.

But in this book it does go beyond that. A group of people, with their own lives and thoughts and histories are drawn together as passengers (and a driver) on a bus, and by the end of the book they have all interacted with each other, and their lives have all been changed in some way.

Some knew each other before they got on the bus: there is a family travelling on vacation, and two of the passengers were employees of the driver, but none knew all the others before they gathered for the bus trip, and before the journey ended they knew things about the others, and about themselves, that they had not known before.

There is little action, and no real plot. The book is a study of character and human interaction between people whose paths briefly, and apparently randomly crossed.

One of the other reviewers, Kim, writes (Goodreads | The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck — Reviews, Discussion):

The narrative is in the third person, with shifting points of view and an uncomplicated linear progression. The point of the work is not so much the plot – because not a lot happens – but more the characters’ internal conflicts and Steinbeck’s critique of post WWII American society. Steinbeck sets the work in a fictionalised Salinas valley and starts it with a quote from Everyman, the 15th century English morality play. This is a clue to the fact that the characters represent more than themselves and are to an extent allegorical figures.

And that invites a comparison with another book I have just read, Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, because Coetzee seems to be trying to do for South Africa what Steinbeck was doing for America. Disgrace could be said to be about the characters’ internal conflicts and Coetzee’s critique of post-apartheid South African society The difference is that Coetzee writes from the viewpoint of one character, and all the other characters are seen through his eyes.

I disagree about the extent to which the characters are allegorical figures, though. They are stereotypical rather than allegorical. They don’t really represent abstract qualities or concrete historical personages, as those in allegories do. But they do represent types of people — the war profiteering businessman, the manipulative wife, the celebrity-obsessed shop assistant, the lecherous mechanic, the ex-serviceman salesman. And in Disgrace the disgraced professor, the hippie-going-on-earth mother daughter, the uptight puritanical school teacher, and the peasant, who calls to mind Roy Campbell’s poem The serf

I see in the slow progress of his strides
Over the toppled clods and falling flowers,
The timeless, surly patience of the serf
That moves the nearest to the naked earth
And ploughs down palaces, and thrones and towers.

And there is a similar abstracted “feel” to Steinbeck’s Of mice and men and Coetzee’s The life and times of Michael K. This quality is hard to put a finger on, but I find it in both Steinbeck’s and Coetzee’s writing. It’s more noticeable in Coetzee, because I have been to the places he describes his characters as visiting, and they feel like the same places in an alternative universe, where there are points of resemblance, but history has taken a slightly different turn. But in both the buildings feel like stage sets, and not places where real people live and work.

I compare The Waward Bus with Kerouac’s almost contemporary On the road. It’s not my favourite Kerouac book, but that characters are alive and the places real. And I had a similar feeling when reading Coetzee’s Youth. It feels as though a lot of important in-between bits were left out.


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