Friday, April 22, 2011

Revolt in Syria

Some years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Syria. People are friendly towards foreigners there, and mostly they assumed I was British or American. When they discovered I was Irish, they invariably embraced me as a comrade in arms. At the time, the IRA was at the height of using armed struggle, or “physical force” as they called it, to oust British rule in northern Ireland. Syrians, well fed on government propaganda, happily considered me to be a fellow anti-imperialist. When they discovered that my female companion was Dutch, they leapt for joy. The Dutch soccer team, PSV Eindhoven, had just won the European Champions Cup. A Dutch-Irish couple seemed too good to be true. Wherever we went we were feted like celebrities.
Today demonstrations continue to erupt across the dictator infested Arab world. While most of our attention is taken with what seems to be a bloody stalemate, or worse, in Libya, hundreds of protestors have been killed in Syria. President Assad’s regime is at least as repressive as that of Gaddafi’s Libya.

Now Assad suggests that he will implement reform, like ending 48 years of emergency rule. Repeat: 48 years of emergency rule! Can this guy be for real? Think about it like this: Syria was put under emergency rule when the Beatles were teenagers playing in a bar in Hamburg! This sounds like a sick joke. People have taken to the street, and the autocrat now promises reform, but thinks he can keep his job. As Jordanian commentator Hasan Abu Nimah has put it, this is "too little too late". Even as Assad announced the end to emergency rule this week, fresh reports were published of the killing of demonstrators in the city of Homs. Meanwhile, the opposition in the street has formulated nine demands:
1. A democratic constitution
2. Ending of the state of emergency
3. Release of all political prisoners
4. A new political parties law
5. A new elections law
6. Formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee
7. Full political rights for Kurds
8. Reform of media laws
9. Restructuring of the security and intelligence apparatus

It is exceeding unlikely that Reformer Assad will accede to many of these demands. And we know that this regime is capable of great violence. In 1982, when his father faced an Islamist revolt in the city of Hama, he pounded the city with artillery and then finished it off in lethal style: full death toll – 20,000 dead Syrians. Objectively, that means in one week in 1982 the Assad family business killed many more Arabs than the great evil Israel has done in over six decades of conflict.
So, should the West be sending our forces hurtling into Syria like in Libya, or even like neighbor Iraq. Not quite. Syria is a complex country. Assad belongs to the Alawite Islamic minority, which comprises 11% of the population, 74% are Sunni Muslim, 10% are Christian and 5% are Druze. Ethnically the population is a mix of Arab, Armenian and Kurds. A further complication is that Syria is an ally of Iran – a cynical partnership if there ever was one, as the two governments in effect despise what the other espouses, one being a Shia theocracy and the other a secular socialist republic.
What they share is an anti-imperialist attitude towards the West and the use of the Israel-Palestine issue as the whipping boy that drums up feverish support. The latter gives each an opportunity to involve themselves with Hezbollah, and thereby play a key role in Lebanon’s so called domestic politics.
I wish there were some way I could pay my Syrian friends back for their kindness during my visit all those years ago. Like all the people of the Middle East – Iranian, Iraqi, Libyan, Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, Saudi, Afghani and Palestinian – they deserve the right to have responsible governance and democratic freedoms.
But we cannot simply wish away tyrants like Assad. There are Republicans in the USA who have criticized President Obama’s intervention in Libya, yet who call for intervention in Syria as an opportunity to hurt Iran. These hawks disregard the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, where military intervention has worsened the lot of the civilian population.
They should bear in mind the warning of former CIA operative Robert Baer in The Financial Times that: “the potential for violence in Syria makes Libya and Yemen look mild. Moreover, chances are good that chaos in Syria risks spilling into neighbouring countries – notably Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and maybe even the Arab side of the Gulf, which is already riven by sectarian divisions. This is a worst case scenario, but the point is if it comes about, there will be no way the west could just stand by and hope for the best.”

First published in technorati

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Goodbye Twenty Eleven

Life is a long goodbye.  Every teacher knows that. It’s a series of meetings and departures – you come into contact with other lives, you meet a couple of times a week over some years, you explore the world together and share some laughs, maybe some tears, and then you separate. As the great Indian teacher, Siddhartha Guatama discovered, suffering appears when your desires attach themselves to illusions of permanence.  But that’s a hard lesson to accept.  The solution, detachment, seems so cold.

Every year, at this time, I need to detach myself from a group of students who have been with me for some time.  And for the students the time eventually dawns, when they come to school for that very final lesson.  Lessons done, only the exams remain, and then that group of young people will be blown to the four corners of the earth, in all likelihood never to meet again as a group. In my school, yesterday was that final day.  A day of celebration and pranks, happiness and joy, but a day of endings too, which, except for the masters of detachment, comes with a tinge of sadness.

I’m an early arrival in the morning, and yesterday I was greeted by an entrance-way packed with balloons:

The stairway from the underground car-park had been filled with plastic glasses of water, an impassable barrier to those faculty who insist in spouting CO2 emissions. (You’ve guessed it: I’m a non-driver):  

The assistant principal’s office had been wrapped in newspaper:

Obviously not a normal day – for the senior students, that last day has come.  And here is my happy group of ten young historians (where is Vincent?), waiting to greet me for the last time.  They don't normally look this happy when class is about to start!

One last time we will compare the ideologies of Maoism, Nazism and Stalinism. Ines, the Spanish ballerina; Michael, ready to apply his Marxist analysis; Nina, already a social worker; Kathleen of the golden voice and Jacopo, my Italian teacher, are eager to start:

Nicole and Amanda, hard working scholars both (it's true), are doing what they have always done - must be that Mexican and Brazilian blood:

Lara and Grace, happy, despite having missed the Paris trip, are looking particularly graceful in those hats (hey, don't we have a rule ...?)

And what is Ika up to with that camera?

As the day grows on, we meet again - this time its the last last time.  We have lost two members of the class already, but time for another group photo, taken to a Beatles soundtrack - "I've got a Feeling", and Vincent tries a con-Vincing smile.

And another photo.  This is not a vulgar gesture.  The two fingers stands for eleven, as in the class of 2011.  And watch out - that's pronounced "Twenty-Eleven" - remember where you heard it first:

Some are still managing to smile, including a decapitated, but still hooded Michael. He ain't stalling:

And Spanish eyes, though closed, are still smiling:

But realization that the clock is relentlessly ticking, brings us to the contemplation of the end that is drawing near. And sadness appears:

Dancing has ceased:

And as the music ends, and our time together in room 206 is about to slip into the kingdom of memory, a sepia light illuminates the room, suffucing our last moments with a sense of the historic:

No more walking barefoot in the park; no more research trips to the Andaman islands or presentations on the Napoleon Fish; no more choir room or jokes that go over people's heads; no more Czech mates or Czech marks; no more stopping in the name of love. Can I forget the class of 2011? Well, as Bonaparte nevere said - course I can't.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Revolutions and Technologies

To listen to some people, we need to thank Twitter and Facebook for the current Arab Revolutions. Do the commentators seriously think that people have never revolted before? Or that revolution has never before spread like wildfire? Such a belief is a sad indication of historical myopia.

1848 Revolution in Berlin
Throughout modern history political revolutions tend to occur in batches. Few revolutions are ever left to develop on their own, within neatly defined state borders. In 1848, “The Year of Revolution” as it is called by historians, the first uprising began in January in Sicily, which lay at the time within the Kingdom of Naples. Within a month revolution had broken out in Paris and, like Mubarak, the King fled. Within another month revolution had burst upon Vienna, forcing Europe’s most influential leader, Klaus von Metternich, to flee into exile. Within days the Austrians were facing revolutions in Milan and Prague. The revolutions in Budapest and Venice turned into full-scale wars, the former involving hundreds of thousands of troops and ending with intervention by the Russian army. In the meantime, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia attacked Austria, not once but twice, in an attempted “humanitarian intervention” on behalf of the Lombardian revolutionaries. They were beaten on both occasions. Eventually revolutions covered nearly every state in Europe, helped by the first widespread use of the telegraph, as well as steam-driven printing presses, which brought to the reading public newspapers and broadsheets that could be updated in multiple editions daily.

1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire
 By the early 20th century revolution had gone global. A failed revolution rocked the Russian Empire in 1905, and the Ottoman Empire was overthrown three years later, while the Chinese revolution in 1912 ended an empire that had lasted over two thousand years. In 1917 the Russian Romanovs were finally toppled and the successful Communist Revolution in Russia was followed within a year or two by revolutions in Bavaria, Berlin, Austria, Hungary as well as a war of independence in Ireland. The spread of these revolutions was helped by the electric printing press and the telephone, as well as a telegraph system that now could send messages around the world instantly.

1989 Revolution in Berlin
 Finally, 1989 saw the world’s first revolutions to be broadcast on television and radio. Beginning in Poland, radical change engulfed the entire Eastern half of the European continent and governments were toppled in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Albania. Only in Romania did the revolution turn violent, but by December this regime had fallen too. Within a couple of years further changes had come to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia itself, while a war had been ignited across Yugoslavia. The stirrings of change inspired people in Burma and China in 1989, but these revolutions ended in bloody victories for the reactionaries. Television and radio, like I said, brought news of these changes into living rooms, feeding a chain reaction, but the telephone too allowed the transmission of news, directly, from person to person. I remember being with an East German friend in the Netherlands as her mother gave her a blow by blow account of a massive demonstration in Dresden in November 1989.

2010 Revolution in Tunisia
The Internet has further fragmented the sources of our information. Using Twitter you can collect hundreds of bites of information from disparate sources as events unfold. But all of these revolutions -1848, 1905-1919, 1989 and 2010-11 - stem from a variety of causes, like economic stagnation, unresponsive governments that have failed to reform, foreign rule and a lack of human rights. And all of these revolutions, not just the current Arab Revolts, have been helped by forms of technological communication.

Article first published as Revolutions and Technology on Technorati.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Living in China's Age of Madness

It is now a week since Ai Weiwei, China’s preeminent avant-garde artist, was detained by security personnel as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong. To say he was arrested is too dignified, he has simply been disappeared. In December Chinese citizen Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize for Peace – but he couldn’t collect the prize, because he is a political prisoner in China. Last month Index on Censorship’s Bindman’s Law and Campaigning Prize was awarded to the Chinese citizen Gao Zhisheng, but the prize was collected by Gao’s wife. He himself is a political prisoner in China. Ai Weiwei is a courageous artist and spokesperson for freedom of speech, a man who has been detained before, who has been terrorized and severely beaten by secret police, but who has refused to do what they want, which is shut up or leave China. Instead he has disappeared into the Kafkaesque labyrinth of China’s apparatus of oppression.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s “Sun Flower Seeds” is currently being exhibited in the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in London; millions of hand-made porcelain sun flower seeds are scattered over the floor, each one is hand painted. Visitors to the exhibition can walk on the seeds, pick them up by the handfull or bury themselves in the seeds. Although they might all look the same, each seed is unique. This exhibition continues until May. That same month two exhibitions of his work are due to open in Switzerland.

Ai Weiwei: Sun Flower Seeds

Ai Weiwei has become the latest well known victim of a system of repression that has been emboldened by the successful and globally publicized bloody suppresion of Tibetan demands for autonomy. Since the Olympic Games of 2008 the repression has grown worse, and the current wave is probably a nervous backlash against the news of successful Arab revolutions. 1989 is often remembered as the year of successful revolutions in Eastern Europe – but it was also the year of the Tiananmen Massacre, a lesson not lost on the Chinese leadership.

Just days before his disappearance, Ai Weiwei met with German journalist, Henrik Bork. He told Bork: “We Chinese are living in an Age of Darkness. There is an economic boom and the living standards are improving. At the same time China has reached a new deep point, where freedom of speech is concerned, where freedom of artistic expression and freedom of education is concerned. This is a new deep point for our civil society”. He admitted that the security services were placing pressure on him to force him to leave China permanently. Already he has become a non-person in the Internet – a search for “Ai Weiwei” in China results in message “technical error”. Nevertheless, the artist had decided that he will not leave China.

Ai Weiwei told Bork: “The contemporary situation in China is absolutely crazy. If I had to give a name to this epoch, then I would say, we are living in an Age of Madness.” Shortly after speaking these words Ai Weiwei disappeared into the centre of the Chinese darkness. Nothing has been heard from him since.

This month the largest European exhibition ever to be staged in China proudly opened at the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. The German exhibition is called “The Art of the Enlightenment”, that great period of European history when freedom of expression was brought to the fore by people like Voltaire. Yet China is waging war on its own intellectuals and artists. The irony could not be more obvious. “The Art of the Enlightenment” only highlights the utter craziness of the Age of Madness.

Ai Weiwei: Sun Flower Seeds

A slightly different version of this article was first published as China's Age of Madness on Technorati.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

James Ensor

The Gemeente Museum in The Hague has just opened a new exhibtion of the works of Belgian expressionist James Ensor. Last year was an official "James Ensor Year".  In 2009 the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted a major exhibition of his, and this later travelled to Museum D'Orsay in Paris.  So interest in this intriging artist has rarely been so high. I spent some of last Christmas in Belgium and one cold afternoon faced the ice of Brussels (here in Zurich authorities clear the ice - not so in Brussels) in order to attend the "Ensor Revealed" exhibition at the ING Cultural Centre. 

At the Brussels exhibtion I found it fascinating to plot the history of this artist who thrived in stylistic and thematic variety and who first produced work best described as realist, but who gradually turned towards the imaginary and fantastic, with grotesque, masked figures and uncanny apparitions.

Photo: Danny de Vries

 Above is one of his early realist works.  But below we see one of the early examples from his wonderfully weird universe of masks.

Photo: Danny de Vries

In the above painting, "The Intrigue" (1890) we see a couple in the centre.  The bride clutches the artist (Ensor lived a long life, but never married,) while Death is entering the picture from the upper right.  The woman in the lower right corner has a Japonesque doll or baby thrown over her shoulder, like a little corpse.  In this painting, as in many of Ensor's works from the lates 1880s onward, the figures are wearing masks, or have faces that look like masks.

Here is another of his strange pictures, "The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse" (1889):

The old woman stands before a pile of costumes and masks that have been discarded on the floor.  The objects seem to have entered from a dream or nightmare. The panel on the back wall reflects a beautiful palette. Who are the strange masked figues enetering the scene from the sides? Is the grotesque woman supposed to remind me of Whistler's mother?  Is this a scene from the celebration of Carneval, or the Danse Macabre?  Ensor's art is leaves one with questions.

A lot more information about Ensor and interpretations of his work are provided by the James Ensor Online Museum.

Running out of Arms

On March 28th I published A Call to Arms, describing how President Obama agreed to sell arms to Gaddafi at the beginning of the month and decided to bomb him at before the month was out. I also outlined how the British arms company BAE has been a big supplier for Gaddafi, but BAE also built some of the jets that attacked his forces last month. In other words, BAE gets it from both sides – they are willing to sell to anyone who’ll pay, and our governments take it upon themselves to act as brokers, in order to get these corporations the best deals – even deals with grotesque tin pot dictators like Gaddafi. Of course with an arms embargo on Libya now, BAE has lost a customer in Gaddafi, but I finished my article by saying: “No doubt BAE will soon make up the difference, once the rebels are in power in Libya and the orders start flowing in. But wait a minute; will these rebels turn out in turn to be tyrants? Who cares?” I never dreamt I would be proven right so quickly!

The following day a friend sent me the link to an article in The Guardian in which they reported that Hillary Clinton was suggesting arming the rebels. Well that is definitely good news for the weapons industry. David Cameron seems to be falling into line as well. Apparently NATO has not ruled out arming the rebels, though this might take some time because the UN resolution clearly states the embargo is meant for all sides. In other words, their lawyers are looking at the matter. First you get the UN to pass a resolution placing an absolute embargo on weapons exports to Libya, and who can argue with that (except the weapons manufacturers)? Then you want to break the resolution that you have just convinced everyone to pass, but no problem - you get a team of lawyers to find a way that enables you to legally circumvent your own resolution. It’s called making it up as you stumble along. If you own the ball, you’re allowed to change the rules of the game. And who are these rebels we want to arm? Who cares? They are the good guys, whoever they are.

I heard some good news this morning. Maybe you heard it too. Both sides in this civil war are quickly running out of ammunition. Maybe it is because they wasted so much of the stuff shooting off gleeful volleys in displays of macho virility every time they saw a TV camera - too much testosterone and now not enough ammunition. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this would become the war that ground to a halt because neither side had any bullets left? Not if Hilary Clinton, David Cameron and BAE can help it.

Article first published as Running Out of Arms on Technorati.