Monthly Archives: September 2013

Politics and the Transatlantic Chasm

A brief thought. If you had lamented recently that British politics were stale, broken, corrupt or whatever you could take some solace from the fact that they are not US politics. This notion hearkens back to one of the first pieces I wrote discussing news media but the theme has currently expanded. Here we are dueling things out over the matter of austerity versus… austerity lite, and it’s undoubtedly a feisty one, particularly where discussions are taking place among normal folk who either hate the Tories for being heartless bastards or still despise and distrust Labour’s legacy on the economy. The political rhetoric is comparatively meek… “Britain can do better,” for example.

Whereas the US government is quite literally on the verge of a very real and very serious meltdown. Within 24 hours it will have its funding suspended courtesy of House Republicans and their hellbent mission to bring down Obama’s flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act. The what what which now, you ask? Sorry, Obamacare, as per the toxic branding that America’s hard right wing have given it. Their current position is to suspend its implementation for a further year if the Federal government wants a single red cent come Tuesday morning to pay wages and generally allow the whole system to function at all.

Stunning brass neck if you ask me and only more so when you consider the shameless fashion in which the Republicans are going about this. You might have heard about Senator Ted Cruz’s laborious 21 hour speech the other day, the intention of which was to speak his piece in opposition to the impending healthcare start up, but was in fact a vacuous and self-infatuated bit of grandstanding that probably contained less substance than the odious little gremlin’s gleaming hair piece. The claims are just remarkably sensationalist… “people are suffering under Obamacare, it’s the greatest job killer in America, a nightmare, a disaster.”

A disaster for who exactly? People who are going to finally have a semblance of a modern and civilized healthcare system? Republicans have been bashing on about how the provision of care under the ACA means employers will seek to give workers short shrift to avoid having to pay the insurance premiums to the providers, but this is a lonely cry of vaguely realistic opposition amidst the raging gale of, “We hate Obama, and will do anything to make his administration unsuccessful in its primary ambitions.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has basically said as much in the past, why should we believe now that the Republicans are acting in the people’s interests?

Well we shouldn’t really. Or rather Americans shouldn’t, I don’t really have a dog in this fight and yet the principle of giving one’s people sufficient access to affordable healthcare is such an obvious one that I frequently slip into a defensive attitude on behalf of Americans. The ACA isn’t great, and I think most folk who backed a more universal model in America really wanted a single payer system like the NHS, but it’s better than nothing. Other than trying to wreck Obama’s legacy, one suspects Republicans were aware of the electoral issues that would arise in allowing the Democrats to implement something that would secure them more than a few votes.

The right wing of America is already losing minorities and women at a startling pace and 2016 would be looking like an entirely lost cause if they couldn’t heavily narrativize something in their favour. So now they’re playing on the extraordinarily dangerous gamble of trying to convince the public that the ACA is really something dreadful instead of a hugely positive step in the right direction, and they have to win. Losing is now so completely not an option for the Republicans that they are pushing the country to the brink of serious, serious trouble. If the government caves in and suspends the ACA, it will be a political coup unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

It’s not even a smart gamble if the Republicans should win. Polling shows that most Americans would identify a government shut down as the Republican’s fault and most seem to take the Democrat’s position that the hard right is holding the nation hostage. And if the ACA is ultimately revoked there is no question where ire should and will be directed as regular people continue to feel the pain of ever more expensive private healthcare. More proof that as far as partisan lunacy goes, the USA maintains a brand that we in the UK can praise the heavens doesn’t exist here.

The world looks on aghast at the puerile, apocalyptic antics of Boehner, Cruz, McConnell et al that make American politics look like a farce. I’ll be watching the next session of Prime Minister’s Questions with a renewed sense of respect for our legislators, even as they heckle and barrack each other with pantomimic vigour.


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UK Party Conferences 2013

My disdain for the transparency and excessive aspiration of the party conference season was close to shutting down any thought of writing much about it, beyond the last article’s brief showing of a lack of deference. I thought to wait until the whole lot was over next week, when the Tories had said their piece, but I’m going to jump the gun on that. After the Lib Dems, UKIP and Labour there is surprisingly already quite a lot to say. Less surprisingly, none of it too good.

Quickly then. The Liberal Democrats once again set the bar for pitiful desperation, with notable speeches coming from Vince Cable as he went on the attack against their coalition partners for being the “nasty” party. Presumably this makes the Lib Dems the nice party. And Nick Clegg was almost popping an aneurysm as he screeched into the microphone, “We’re not here to prop up the two party system, we’re here to bring it down!” I have many problems with both sets of approach.

First, despite the occasional bleating threat from the catamites of coalition that they might cede from the agreement and leave the Tories to a minority government, the likelihood of this happening, at least until the most expedient moment in time prior to the 2015 elections, is minimal. Clegg himself stated with wild abandon that the Lib Dems simply must stay in power as otherwise Labour or the Tories would surely take us down the road of communism or fascism respectively. So Cable’s attacks on the Tories are little more than self-flagellation as his party are inexorably tied to them for the foreseeable future.

It won’t serve the Lib Dems one bit to paint the Tories with the nasty brush, because they have largely towed the line with the same power-hungry eagerness that has utterly annihilated their support base up and down the country. In this sense, they’re a bit like the school yard bully’s pathetic underling, the one who hides behind the big lad and supports his loutish behaviour but then runs to the teacher later to discreetly rat everything out, hoping to gain supremacy via treachery.

Frankly, Clegg’s entire speech smacked of, “If we say it loud enough and often enough, then it must be true.” It’s sort of an effective political strategy except for the fact that it was barely half a wink after the Rose Garden two or so years ago that those once loyal had forever written him and the party off as crass operatives lacking any scruples. I don’t think anyone believes the Lib Dems are around for any other reason than to serve themselves, and the notion they form a critical mechanism against main party excesses will only ever again fall on deaf ears.

Moving on, UKIP… ah, UKIP. Thank you for vindicating the avalanche of criticism I levelled at you some months ago after the aberration of your success in Eastleigh. There have been various things between that by-election and last week’s conference that have steadily delegitimized them, and so my expectation of a dearth of joy for them come 2015 is on track. This is only helped when central party figures like Godfrey Bloom not only depart the reservation, but actually go stratospheric with their patent deficiencies of character and credibility.

Do I even need to detail his infringements? Never mind the fact that his name is now popularly “Bongo” after his incredibly tactless comments on foreign aid some weeks ago – throwing around the term “sluts” and bashing up CH4 journalists with party pamphlets is a new kind of crazy. Bloom already lost the whip and is now also quitting the party in Brussels, but the damage has already been done. I can’t remember a single policy point or anything from, say, Farage’s keynote speech. So thanks Bongo! Enjoy the wilderness, but I don’t think you’ll be alone for long. UKIP really is a gift to satire.

As for Labour, well, the opposition has been having a very tough time of late. As if sliding poll numbers during a prolonged government austerity drive wasn’t enough of an indictment of their own quality as a group of politicians, Damian McBride’s dagger to the soft flank of his former comrades speaks further volumes. I would say first that I do not believe for a fleeting microsecond that Balls and Miliband weren’t party to McBride’s actions during the Labour years, as they themselves were staunch Brownites. The launch of his book was callously timed to take advantage of the Labour conference and deliver maximum sensation against Labour’s front pair.

As for the conference itself, we’ve had fairly empty promises of a return to socialism in the form of repealed taxes, increased benefits, more social support, bank levies… all of which screams of a reaction against criticism for Labour being only able to promote an austerity-lite model that was received with particular derision after nearly three years of lambasting and rejecting everything the coalition was doing. It’s a feature I particularly despise about the Labour party at present, but what really miffs me here is that all of these things that Balls and Miliband have promoted are barely even socialist.

It’s just classic New Labour. Big spending promises, which have largely already been called out as unfunded and impractical, and only a short while after they came close to financially sinking the nation. They have slipped straight back into bad habits after a few years in opposition left them completely floundering for an idea that was even remotely dynamic. It is really appalling. Miliband just gave his big speech, and although I’d usually reserve some words for how laughably uncharismatic he is, being as stiff and obviously coached as any useless public speaker I’ve ever seen, I think it would only distract from the more pertinent point.

If Labour went to the elections in 2010 saying of the Tories, “You can’t trust them on the NHS,” after 13 years of Labour government and a distinct shift in Tory culture and personnel, then how on earth does Labour expect we could trust them on the economy? It will have only been five years come the election and the people at the reigns are still very much the same that were central to Labour’s abysmal failings pre-2010. They haven’t learned and they haven’t listened. The Treasury reports a funding gap in Labour’s proposals of around £27bn, and I take Labour’s denial of this with absolutely zero faith. I think they are dangerous.

The Tories will probably repeat something along these lines during their conference, which I expect will be a fairly confident affair. The more the economy grows, the more their poll deficit will decrease and this will only be helped by Miliband’s beleaguered position. They should be careful however, because one thing Labour did accurately identify is that the recovery isn’t yet being felt by the majority of voters, and the cost of living has taken a sharp upturn. If in the next couple of years they can provide more than what amounts to Labour’s rhetorical dogfarts, they stand a decent chance.

Without wanting to sound too much like a right-wing sycophant I could suggest you read past articles where I liberally criticise the Tories and coalition for their various amateur errors, and surely they will produce some further points of consternation. But I guess at the moment the strident river of tripe emanating from the other parties actually puts the government in a reasonable light. If only they ditched the moronic bedroom tax and lowered VAT a bit. The narrative is there for the taking. I guess I should actually wait and see what their conference reveals…

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Another News Crisis

I think I have to move off Syria for a brief spell, no amount of my raging against the geopolitical machine is going change a single thing. To the home front perhaps? No… party convention season is little more than high times for pure banality and political delusion, as we can currently witness in the Lib Dem conference and surely will for the other players to follow. One keen observer, who I forgot to note the name of, recognised that these affairs have moved away from grass roots energising and devolved more into political class backslapping sessions with a dash of lobbying thrown in for good measure.

Rame. I might even have talked about the terrifying shooting incident at a Washington DC naval yard yesterday, but for the implicit futility in doing so for any subsequent event to Sandy Hook last December. If that tragedy couldn’t change the tide of public or legislative opinion on having gun controls possessed of an element of sanity, what could? The NRA publicity machine was probably already preparing its diabolical sophisms before anyone even knew exactly what was happening. And I can’t even think about American right now without a sense of shame descending on my perception of Western dignity after the outrage of Obama’s deal with Russia over Syria.

Evidently I’m otherwise just floundering in the sea of middling current affairs issues, whether it be the propriety of Muslim veils in UK courtrooms and broader society, or the disconcerting clusterf@ck over the release of GTA5, including one life-imitates-art violent mugging of a proud new owner of the game. Dribs and drabs really. Wasn’t the Costa Concordia salvage quite the feat of engineering? If there’s one worthwhile reflection I had for this article it would be that the mainstream media appear to share in this occasional sense of narrative fatigue. All eyes and ears that were on Syria are now resting or looking for things of lesser import to alleviate the strain.

Oh, how I pray for an alien invasion, or some other event of such magnitude that all matters of existentialism and morality and gravity are called into play. But wait a minute… I just remembered something. I have a second blog. If I can scrape something out on an Edinburgh University’s student association decision to ban a pop tune because it struck some as a bit too “rapey” then the world is my scrutable oyster. Next on TranquilSigh, the mystery of the Nazi cat! Or maybe something slightly less ridiculous. The Huffington Post does rather continue to set the mark for confusing news with social media trollop.

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Syrian Justice

Syria, Syria, Syria… all indications suggest that so much struggle and tragedy for the past two and a half years is about to boil down to some geopolitical wrangling and a reprieve for Assad. The West’s bizarre fixation on the use of chemical weapons has actually probably saved the man from an international onslaught, their surrender deemed sufficient to compensate for those made dead or displaced by conventional arms. Assad’s intent to brutally eradicate any vestige of resistance has taken second place to what the rest of the world deems acceptable means.

A round of applause for Putin, I suppose, he has consummately bitch-slapped his western counterparts in this particular round of diplomatic manoeuvres. His op-ed piece to the New York Times yesterday was like an international victory dance, as the Russian proposal for Syria’s chemical disarmament simultaneously distracted from the core issue of the still raging war and allowed Obama to avoid an embarrassing defeat at the House of Representatives. But everyone gets to look tough and proactive, so yippee-kai-yay.

After the breakneck pace of the last couple of weeks – the clear signs of a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the regime against a Damascus suburb, followed by rabid pronouncements of imminent action, followed by the decisive gut punch to any such action that was the UK Commons defeat on the motion – it somehow feels like a resolution of sorts is near. I say “of sorts” most generously. Here’s the potential reality we face – Assad loses his chemical weapons but is able to continue prosecuting his war courtesy of Russian and Iranian support, as the fractured movement against his regime is slowly choked out.

Russia maintains its vital Mediterranean ally, replete with warm water ports, while the balance of involvement from other regional nations shifts from military support to the rebels, to sustaining what will surely continue to be a long and painful refugee crisis, bought by Assad, paid for by Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The international community will basically wash its hands of the scene, job done with regards to our arbitrary concern for chemical weapons, and not feeling too bad about the rest because of some decidedly symptom treating humanitarian support, pointless diplomatic pressure tantamount to screaming through sound-proof glass and because of the noxious proliferation of the narrative that Assad is only fighting terrorist Islamists.

What semblance of truth there is in that statement only exists because we stood back two or so years ago and watched Assad and the once more consolidated and honest rebellion open the doors to a broader sectarian nightmare. Would that the hammer had come down then. It seems to me that the catalyst for the current diplomatic route we’re travelling was the imminent threat of force, however stunningly deluded little Dougie Alexander might be, bleating as he his from within the Labour ranks about how they should take credit for all of this. No, rather Labour just managed to throw the whole process into disarray.

Intervention was justified, and only a consummate Milquetoast like Ed Miliband needed more proof… well, actually he didn’t, he just saw a window to beat Cameron for a change. There were more than enough indications that it could have been effective in crippling Assad’s regime. Putin and Assad were always sure to make the argument that intervention could only deteriorate the situation, it being in their deeply vested interests not to see the regime fail, and the general public of the UK and USA were all too willing to believe this after a decade of deeply controversial and largely unsuccessful actions in the Middle-East.

Oh but what about Hans Blix you say? That adherent to the UN, he warned against military action too. Yes well, the UN… an organisation, a vast organisation, with a mandate for self-preservation borne both out of the altruistic mission to hold the world together by the seams, and also by the self-interest of its employees. Military intervention would never have passed the Security Council and so would be necessarily in direct contravention to the UN. It’s ironic that Putin mentioned the League of Nations in his letter to America, as we could all be wondering how much more impotence and ineffectiveness the UN could actually survive at this point.

If nations like the USA, UK or France were constantly required to act without UN consent because of the permanently embedded impediment that is China and Russia on the Security Council, then what’s the point? Bravo, Putin, bravo.

What else is there to say? I guess this is about as much a measure of justice as those Syrians who wanted to be free of Assad are going to get. The justice of being shot, bombed and burned instead of gassed by a tyrant whose crimes somehow haven’t been deemed by the international community as so awful that his mere presence, let alone his continued rule, is as cruel an insult as one can imagine. How goddamned naïve of me.

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Perspectives on Syria

I should really stop visiting the comments sections of major news organisation’s websites, particularly where currently pertaining to Syria. There is a reason that I have an almost negligible respect for the anti-interventionist brigade, which happens to be in the majority, and it can pretty much all be seen under every article on the Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Huffington Post… you name it. A deluge of utter morons has descended onto these forums to fill them with the most rank and misinformed perspectives on this issue. Conspiracy theorists, racists and the plain old idiotic who haven’t tried for a second to filter through the storm of information flowing out of the embattled nation seem to be forming this bulk of public opinion.

Here’s a selection of the standard offerings that have recently caused my blood to boil.

  1. “This conflict was engineered by the USA in some sort of regional power play that would benefit Israel.”

This suggestion hardly even warrants attention, as the organic nature of the Arab Spring demonstrably fed into Syria, prompting localized protests against Assad’s regime that were brutally suppressed by Syrian security forces. Assad was already playing the “terrorists” card at this nascent stage of the civil war, causing a backlash of more protests that were also violently suppressed. Large elements of the Syrian army, not to mention the Syrian people, clearly took issue with this murderous tendency of Assad’s, causing desertion and defection to a newly established opposition front. Instead of negotiating, Assad escalated the conflict into a fully fledged civil war.

This all at the same time as US and Israeli relations being as tetchy as ever, and each country having plenty to concern themselves with. Months after the Syrian conflict began, both powers were quite content to ignore what was happening in Syria as Israel once again staged a short war in the Gaza Strip and the USA were deeply involved in Egypt, Libya and ever-so-slightly in trying to unsuccessfully mediate Israeli aggression in Gaza.

Narratively, practically, logically, empirically the first point is total bunk. It likely arises from the fact that the Golan Heights have been of significant strategic important to Israel since they took control of the region following the Six Years War, a conflict that was prompted by repeated antagonisms by Egypt, Jordan and Syria against Israel. Syria used the Golan Heights, which were supposedly demilitarized, to artillery bombard Israeli settlements.

In addition to this, Hamas and Hezbollah have both received extensive support from the Assad government over the course of their lifespans in order to engage in proxy conflict with Israel, a point of no small consternation to successive Israeli governments. There is clearly little love lost between these two nations, and the Syrian conflict is ripe for conspiracy theorists.

  1. “The opposition are terrorists and have perpetrated the majority of the crimes in this conflict. Assad is the noble bastion of secular hope for a country that will otherwise be overrun by jihadists.”

This one is particularly offensive. At this deep and intractable stage of the war, there are indeed terrorist elements operating in Syria, but they are still only a small minority of the fighting element, unless of course you count the entire Assad regime. The Al Nusra front are estimated to have less than 10,000 fighters and are the only group with a known affiliation to Al Qaeda. Other groups with Islamist agendas such as the Syrian Islamic Front and Syrian Islamic Liberation Front promote varying degrees of adherence to Sharia principles and yet are still outnumbered by the ostensibly secular Free Syrian Army, by far the largest opposition element in Syria.

The Free Syrian Army was the earliest manifestation of an organised opposition force, back in the days when this conflict was generously still being called an internal security crisis. They formed off the back of Assad’s repeated employment of despotic measures to suppress calls for more democratic controls in a country that has been led by an Assad since 1971. The FSA has largely been comprised of the Syrian people who put down their trades and businesses and were forced to pick up guns because of Assad’s irreconcilable actions. Their numbers and efficacy were swelled by numerous defections from Assad’s own forces.

Assad and his state media machine have been persistently plugging the myth that all the while he has been fighting unlawful dissidents who threaten the regional stability brought by his regime. Many Western observers probably wrote the entire opposition off as a barbaric entity after a certain YouTube video showed one freak incident involving a rebel fighter cutting flesh from a dead Syrian soldier and having a nibble. Atrocious, yes, but wildly misrepresentative. There are actually other more substantive examples of non-individual controversies being attributable to the opposition forces, such as the use of suicide bombings.

But broad culpability for this war in general, and for the greatest share of specific actions that should chill a person to their core, are the responsibility of Bashar al Assad. As mentioned, he kicked the conflict off by using heavy military apparatus in an indiscriminate fashion against his own people, and perpetuated it likewise. The recent evidence of his use of chemical weapons is almost a moot point.

If the international community had taken decisive action at an earlier stage, we might not now be talking about how difficult intervention is because of the convolution caused by the presence of the the Al Nusra Front. I still don’t believe the existing terrorist element is actually significant enough to erode the secular emphasis of the Syrian nation.

Trying to de-legitimise the entire opposition based on the presence of these minority elements is either painfully misinformed or wilfully disgusting.

  1. “Intervention is stupid. What, you want to stop Syrians dying by killing more Syrians? Warmonger.”

Shut the f@ck up. The reductive simplicity of this statement might make me want to cause you bodily harm. As if “intervention”, a term with a large variety of potential characteristics, implicitly means the West will indiscriminately carpet-bomb Damascus or that we’ll be dumping troops into another desert to slowly perish in a protracted occupation. People have been so quick to write off the effectiveness of any form of military intervention however, that I’m almost tempted to want precisely that so these types can see exactly how effective a well-executed intervention against a fatigued security force in a morale crisis can be.

Analysts and defectors have been quite clear that an array of military targets are available for Western forces to strike, which would have a devastating impact on Assad’s regime were he to lose them.

Accusations of warmongering could not be more ill-conceived. This conflict has been raging for about two and half years and the international community has more or less sat on its hands, being definitively too pathetic to act. It’s an utter tragedy that it’s taken over 100,000 dead and the blatant use of internationally outlawed chemical weapons to stop the world from dragging its feet over Syria.

As it is, the temperament of intervention is currently that the USA have given Assad a one week ultimatum to yield his chemical weapon stocks or face punitive strikes, an ultimatum actually backed by Putin who seems finally unable to ignore his nuisance regional ally. Yeh, that’s really champing at the bit for some death and mayhem.

  1. “But if we do anything at all we’ll upset the delicate regional balance and makes things worse!”

This is the closest thing yet to a respectable anti-interventionist position, as indeed there is a fairly complex network of groups and interests at this point. However, as mentioned the FSA remains the key opposition unit in a country that has largely enjoyed secularism in its recent history, and the notion of an Islamist takeover strikes me as slightly exaggerated.

The main issue I take with this is that it is the same logic that has been applied by other nations from the start. After Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the immediate aftermath of Libya, there has been huge hesitance to do anything about Syria and look where we are now.

So… ok. Let’s keep doing nothing and hope for the best? Yeh. It’ll work itself out. Because the conflict isn’t at all only getting worse under the current conditions.

This one is called a difficult decision, and I put my stock in action at this point. Two and half years of frustration and upset caused by the endless newsreel out of Syria is about as much as I can take. Thus god forbid I was actually a Syrian right now.

Russia, China and Iran, by the way, are about as likely to involve themselves in a war as Ed Miliband is likely to ever possess a shred of moral scruples, or testicles for that matter.

  1. “Iraq here we go again!”

No, and I’m not even sure where to start with this one. I’ll keep it simple. For reasons you should be able to research yourself, Iraq and Syria are completely different and must be judged by their own set of facts. Beyond this, the entire suggested character of Western involvement in Syria is SO different to Iraq that even the French are getting involved this time.

Yes, Hollande has shown a bit more international clout over Libya and Mali than his predecessors, but then add Merkel to the coalition, and Putin marginally stepping away from his unconditioned support of Assad, and you should be wondering less as to why I was so mean about Ed Miliband earlier.

  1. “Intervention is really only about making Obama and Cameron feel good about themselves. Politicians like to massage their own egos with this sort of pointless action”

Again, hideously reductive. You know how racists often say, “I’m not a racist, but…”? The people who use this argument are almost exclusively saying, “We all care deeply for the Syrian people and want their suffering to stop, but… 6.”

Frankly, given how clear this matter is to me, and despite being in the clear minority, I’m starting to suspect that people pulling these daft arguments out are genuinely apathetic to this prolonged conflict, the many tens of thousands of dead, the millions displaced and a country laid to ruin.

Intervention is about stopping this conflict, and it has been demonstrated that intervention could be effective. If you think otherwise, you’re a cynic or worse.

  1. “It’s not our problem, let the Syrians sort it out themselves.”

Well, as heartless as this perspective is, at least it’s honest. I would remind these people to think about their own words the next time they peacefully protest in this country about anything, or better yet, when they go to peacefully vote out this government, or the next, or many to come. Syria might not strictly speaking be our problem but it’s mighty hypocritical not to take into account the joys of living in a country like England.

Let’s just hope we never need any help should our government ever crack down on us Assad style, eh?

I’ve temporarily exhausted myself. But like the thronging crowds at a Victorian grotesquerie who can’t help but look in horror at the Elephant Man, I’ll likely return to these threads to encounter more of the best evidence I’ve seen to date that people can well and truly be utterly deluded.

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