Orwell's Handkerchief

"George Orwell could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry." – Cyril Connolly

Month: December, 2011

That Rattling Sound You Hear From Iran Is No Saber

At least, one can assume, not one they intend to actually draw if any modicum of sensible political leadership exists in a country so long held in hand by its clerics.

Just as in the case of North Korea, prominent yet again in the newscycle with their freshly-minted Dear Leader, Iran continues to suffer from what I can only think to call Empty-Scabbard Syndrome. You can only rattle about for so long before everyone involved learns the threat is hollow and treat you as so much white noise.

Tenuous relations between the US and Iran have continued to deteriorate as of late, triggered by a recent report from the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency that offered all necessary evidence that Iran is continuing work towards obtaining nuclear weapons, escalating once again the Great Fear of our era–that is to say, the anxiety over just what might happen when a madman of Ahmadinejad’s proportions gets hold of weaponry to match his psychopathic ambitions. Left unhindered, we’re surely not far from getting our answer.

The latest and most desperate chest pounding has come late this week as Iran has threatened to use its military to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which tankers carrying about a fifth of the world’s oil must  travel. Time Magazine’s esteemed Mark Thompson has thoroughly analyzed the credibility of this particular threat, and while it would certainly cause at least a temporary increase in the cost of oil and thus enact a kind of counter-sanction, it would seem everyone knows–including Iran–that the only real loser were things to get that far would be Iran itself. Simply put, not only is Iran incapable of militarily standing up to the United States (and others, and there would no doubt be others) for more than a few weeks by even the most generous estimates, Iran would be in no condition or position to incur their inevitable losses. As Thompson is astute to point out, without yet having a nuclear arsenal with which to bargain, this particular oil thoroughfare is the only real chip they have to play with. Unfortunately, it’s not worth all that much, even if they decide to play it.

Iran’s huffing about has come in response to a new round of sanctions backed by both the United States and Europe that would seek to hit a slightly different oil pipeline–the economic routes by which Iran profits from its oil exports. These sanctions would be nothing short of crippling to Iran’s already shambling economy, and one might even speculate on how this might further stir the youthful ire present in the country, particularly in light of how such uprisings, fueled by the young, have spread throughout the Middle East in the so-called Arab Spring. Economic conditions played central roles in nearly every country we’ve seen rebellion flourish, and it’d be foolish to expect Iran to not have noticed this as well. Their accelerated posturing goes a long way in showing how anxious they are over how these newest sanctions from the Obama administration might affect them. They must also realize that any moves to hinder oil shipping would affect many more countries than the United States, and while the US can strategically use targeted sanctions, Iran’s Hormuz chip is the equivalent of a carpet bomb, with which they’d surely burn more bridges than they’d like.

It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out here at home as we step into a presidential election year that will see every move by President Obama highly scrutinized. It would indeed seem that any moves that cause an increase in gas prices in the US would work negatively against any incumbent president, particularly once facing harsh criticism over his efficacy in economic matters.

But the US is also a country that seems increasingly uncomfortable with a global landscape involving a nuclear Iran, and against a backdrop of a GOP field full of hawkish posturing of their own, Obama’s economic warfare–especially as it produces greater results–has the benefit of striking Iran where it really hurts, while avoiding (at least for now) additional literal warfare, of which the US as a whole has grown rather tired.

Either way, Iran has no route no route to nuclear armament, at least not a one that wouldn’t cost them more than they should reasonably be willing to suffer, though wondering at how reasonable one can expect them to act under the circumstances is fair. One hopes that the American people will smartly be willing to stomach a short-term hit at the gas pump in order to not have to stomach the far scarier scenario of allowing Iran a real trump card with which to play.


A Fork in Iraq’s Vacuum

The Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, has not had long to wait to see how quickly and to what volume the inevitable statement would be made in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops from the turbulent country. Whether or not the wave of some twenty explosions that took at least 65 lives with another 200 wounded ends up being claimed by al Qaeda or insurgent forces, there is now the expected and larger question of what kind of Iraq we will see under al-Maliki moving forward.

The questions we should not entertain however are the predictable outcries–ranging now from Iraq’s own Finance minister to unimaginative talking points coming from both political parties in the US–that are quick to blame the withdrawal of troops and the larger intervention itself as the linchpins for all such violence. These are the same folks that seem strangely oblivious to the rather long history of such turmoil in Iraq, particularly involving the civilian population of whom attacks from all sides draw causalities both intended and not.

Having watched Saddam’s unchecked campaign of genocide, so many of these voices both thought and continue to think that one of the must justified humanitarian interventions the modern world has ever seen was to be lamented, and having then complained about the war they somehow find the nerve to complain that we’ve left. They claim so much of the violence is the fault of the intervention, again ignoring Iraq’s long history and then thinking we should be dissuaded from removing those like Saddam, cornerstones of totalitarian violence and oppression, because his apprentice thugs might get angry and attempt to do everything necessary to make us think twice. Well, they certainly make some of us think twice, but for shame against those who would rather passively watch the slaughter continue saying it’s none of our business. This worldview only works to justify Osama bin Laden’s oft-repeated pep-talks to his murderous crew that while the fighting of the Soviets was really hard fighting and a rigorous jihad, that taking down the Americans would be easy, afraid as he says we are of fighting for any of the things we claim to believe in, that we’re ‘queer’ and ‘feminized’ and can’t take casualties or real warfare no matter what’s at stake.

Of course we’ve incurred additional violence for our efforts, but I’d argue to anyone that we’ve merely added justification to those minds that didn’t need any more than they already had in attacking civilians to make their point. Those that say there’d be a more peaceful Iraq without the intervention are morons of a tremendous order, completely ignoring the myriad, gruesome, sickening reasons that drew us to intervene to begin with. It barely takes even a cursory review of the Hussein regime to quiet these arguments completely.

Regardless, the intervention has ended. While a handful of troops and our relatively inept statecraft and nation-building fingerprints will remain for quite a while, Iraq today is in fact a far more liberated place than it was beforehand, if not nearly as well off as it could be. And regardless of everything that has come before, this is now al-Maliki’s Iraq. He must be the leader that stands in opposition to every last ideal that his predecessor stood for. In the vacuum left behind by the US withdrawal, much more violence and general disarray will surely follow. al-Maliki must do whatever necessary to establish a clear, cohesive direction for Iraq that bears the hallmark of the future its people deserve–one of a democratic government that will stand for no more unpunished violence or oppression of its people. If al-Maliki and his broader leadership do not work quickly and formidably to fill this vacuum, it’d be an insult to any thinking person to wonder what will fill it for him. Iraq will be filled with either reason and democracy, or it will continue to be filled with many, many graves of the innocent.

Shuffling Boehner Before the Muskets

The always astute Luke Russert drew the wise and amusing comparison today between the latest obstructionist measures by Speaker John Boehner and his Just Say No faction in the House to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, a costly and foolish waste of life at the hands of General Lee that marked the sounding of a pitiful clarion note for the Confederacy.

These measures, ostensibly perpetrated because the proposed two-month payroll tax cut extention is too short in term, is clearly determined to allow a implicit tax hike on the middle class to come into being as the end of the year rounds out. The reason these moves continue to backfire is due to the fact that even the least informed of us are of a frustration, mounting exponentially, that absolute nothing is moving in Congress, and the pseudo-reasoning behind the speaker’s motives don’t hold up to even cursory scrutinity, namely that it will never make sense to anyone that Boehner genuinely wants a one-year extension, and is willing to have absolutely nothing rather than the compromised something of a two-month holiday.

Luke Russert’s metaphor seems particularly apt as we remember that it was the apex of Pickett’s Charge that has become known as the high-water mark of the Confederacy’s efforts in the entirety of the Civil War–not exactly a proud monument. Likewise, much of a mind with the lovely observation in the same Wall Street Journal piece mentioned in my last post that the GOP were more or less forming a circular firing squad these days, the always incorrigible Mitch McConnell has now even come out in favor of the two-month extension that easily cleared, with bipartisan support in the Senate, earlier this week. This is the same fellow who literally said his top political priority was making President Obama a one-term president.

Every thinking person is aware of the wisdom on picking one’s battles; Boehner and his cohorts continue to pick every battle–to charge every line–despite the mounting casualty of their political capital, and despite marking one nadir after another.

On Cutting Out

In a journal entry in 1940, George Orwell remarked not so much presciently as eternally on a stupefying tumbrel remark of the day:

Apparently, nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the population exist.

Telling, in light of recent events, no? What I love about Orwell’s statement is the same thing I love, at least to an extent, of the Occupy Wallstreet movement as a whole, as well as similar movements through history: the at times dumbing level of frustration one grapples with as one attempts to articulate a rage against an injustice that seems incapable of existing throughout increasingly modern and self-aware points in history. At least, I find myself thinking, the injustices might continue, but there should be no bafflement at the resulting outrage–how can it be anything but the epitome of what it means to be self-evident? But this disconnect–a word that seems somewhat inappropriate, implying that these folks were ever indeed connected to the lowly plebes to begin with–separating off the 1%  is the bedrock of every tumbrel comment.

Genuine revolt-inducing tumbrels are a bit hard to come by in the looming, brutal potentiality of the 24-hour news cycle and relatively media-savvy campaigns, though they still slip out now and then.

What we tend to see is a more nuanced manifestation, chiefly in the current climate of what has been boldly called class warfare. Bold as in, say, a kidnapper calling up not to declare his terms of ransom but to beg to be released from his alleged charge. The 1% sit behind their walls and moats and legions and so lamely and predictably assume their defensive stance. Not so strange, perhaps, how often the powerful and the dominant flinch at the slightest sign of resistance among the peasantry, as if sharing a playbook with the persecutors, so often theocratically based, unofficially or no, who are so quick to claim they are in fact the persecuted. I can’t help but think of this recent ad by Rick Perry, thankfully derided, that contains among a large trove of dubious moments the repeated assurance that he is an unashamed, unapologetic Christian. One must wonder who Rick Perry thinks would be shaming him, or asking him to apologize, in this country? There are of course some of us who are all too willing to do precisely that, but to say we’re the minority is to understate the arrangement and to ignore how fatuous it is for him or anyone else to claim to be evincing any kind of courage in their pious claims.

But if the cliche holds that actions are stronger than words, the current GOP hamstringing of the payroll tax cut (& etc.) legislation is the tumbrel action of our current moment. As this Wall Street Journal opinion piece puts forth, during a time when approval of Congress as a whole and the Do-Nothing GOP mentality specifically are taunting the wisdom that hitting rock bottom incurs any kind of sobriety, the Party of ‘No’ might be managing the goal of disallowing any legislative movement carrying President Obama’s fingerprint, but their political currency as a result is non-existent, and, actually, they seem good and deep into debt–a consideration drenched in its own dull irony. One would think they had learned a lesson from the debt ceiling fiasco, during which polling consistently revealed the increasingly aggravated American  people weren’t focusing on the incumbent administration but rather the GOP obstructionists.

But to truly invoke tumbrelity, we need a good and righteous moment of anger and disbelief; something, in this case that might smell a bit of 1984, or perhaps something we might expect out of Wodehouse’s imagination.

Ah, and our cup overfloweth. The GOP literally walk away from their duty, refusing their middle-class hostage even a short reprieve, and then attempt to deny any visibility of the pathetic, stilted process; who’s watching, anyway? We’re not even here. Big Brother snaps off the feed. The question of why the Speaker of the House commands any control over a strictly non-partisan bit of media coverage should be a loud one and on the mind of every thinking citizen in the coming days.

When the GOP is doing the hamstringing and we find them cutting at their own leg, we might almost be tempted to pity them. Consider that only seven Senate Republicans voted against the measure–or, to frame it in the reverse, only seven seemed willing to vote for what has been termed, appropriately enough, as a tax increase on the middle class. Even this Congress could come together, we might assume, to avoid a tax increase for at least two short months so that they might all have the luxury of even more time to bicker. In assuming this we forget too readily, perhaps at the cost of rich jokes about burning a Boehner at both ends. The same Wall Street Journal piece notes his reversal on the matter in less than a day; one almost feels they can see the strings of the marionette maddeningly tugged in one direction and then another. This is the same ‘brave’ Speaker that famously complained at being put in stark opposition to the president. He shrivels from the spotlight he claims to proudly accept while being spurred and smoked from the hole he’d love to take refuge in by Tea Party conservatives that continue to display their ignorance at playing the political chess game.

What I’m repeatedly reminded of as the months pass is that the Republican philosophy seems very seriously to comprise of ignoring the public, ignoring the president, and hoping the latter will go away by way of the former showing up on their side. Cut the feed, exit stage right, surely this’ll all be looking better for us tomorrow, right? We’re not actually assuring President Obama of a second term by our childish, brutish, artless gestures, right? Hello? Is anyone still out there?

‘Pyongyang Spring’?

The passing of North Korea’s longtime delusional despot has caused many to begin speculating about the capacity and likelihood of something among the North Korean people that would be even vaguely reminiscent of Tahrir Square. But though the son has risen, the cultural ice age entombing a country that has been justly compared, to everything from a hostage situation to a concentration camp whose guards stand watch with nuclear armaments, doesn’t look to begin thawing any time soon.

The late but always timely Christopher Hitchens points us in the introduction to his last collection of essays, Arguably, to this passage from George Orwell’s Coming up for Air:

…the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for their Leader until they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke.

One would be comforted to feel confident that this were for so many long years the case of the starved and stunted people of North Korea, but the videos leaking out rather immediately from its dystopian borders via social media and then the Western outlets show not a single person without a wail to offer. There is of course no way to know the ratio of genuine lament among those knowing their pitiful role to play at such a moment when the cameras are rolling–and in North Korea one can be assured there one is always being observed–but the rare foreign correspondence we have shows little nausea (or anything else, for that matter) in the belly of its people, much less resistance.

I don’t mean to sound entirely nihilistic about North Korea’s future. But I think more caution is warranted in the optimism seen by many in a time where rebellion sweeps many places where for decades the slightest scintilla of freedom was unimaginable. We had been seeing the embers of revolt throughout the Middle East for quite a long time until they finally caught a stiff wind and found flame. Much like the famous photographs of North Korea via satellite, we see there almost no such light of any kind. Other telling photographs are those of Kim Jong Il, jowled and pot-bellied from luxury and his all too obviously well-fed family, waving out to a malnourished and broken people that now stand on average six inches shorter than their fellows to the south, subjected to years with as little to fill their stomachs as their minds. It is a bit of despotic genius that this rule was never broken despite a decade that even conservative estimates declare saw at least a million dead of starvation. It would indeed seem rather difficult to stand up symbolically when one cannot muster the strength to stand literally.

The transition of power to Kim Jong Un might have offered the kindling of instability had his late father not laid the groundwork for a seamless continuation of oppression almost singular in its chilling absoluteness. It seems the only fires we’ll be seeing will be from the puttering, barely operational rockets that Kim Jong Il’s poofy progeny will drop a few hundred feet off shore in yet another pathetic show of force that will no doubt draw little rebuke much less retribution from an increasingly global world that seems all too happy to do what Kim Jong Il wished us all to do, which is to forget about what has been transpiring in North Korea for generations–except, at least, for when we might be guilted into supplying a little grain that is believed too readily by its people to be yet another tribute from the West to their Dear Leader.

Christopher Hitchens and Conviction

It seems a more than a little apropos the the first real post on this blog would be a reflection and celebration on Christopher Hitchens, the person who, I can say with zero exaggeration, has had more impact on me as an adult both intellectually as well is in the various facets of my broader character than any other person. Hitchens was in large part the inspiration for my wanting to begin this blog, and while created quite a while ago I have until now let it fall by the wayside as the various and utterly banal distractions of life take their small but accumulating toll. As Hitchens grew further ill, some part of me saw this day coming; with the seemingly superhuman intellect and resilient conviction he’s become so legendary for, it can be perhaps too tempting for some of us to become complacent. In what battle against tyranny or stupidity could one not be seduced towards the sidelines, not comfortable only that the thunderous and myriad Hitchslaps would reign against any foe, but be so entertaining to we lowly spectators?

It is, truly, on us, now. One of the saddest elements to me of Christopher’s passing this past Thursday was loss of his pristine memory and vicious wit as weaponry not only against the oppression of the theocratic, anti-reason hordes, but against the forces of tyranny as a whole. While his rhetoric war against religion will probably be the larger part of his legacy, it should always also be recognized as only the most recent and inflammatory. It would be an unenviable and I believe impossible task to find any bit of his career–I should say his life, actually, and without any cringe of the sentimental, knowing he prided himself, in his own words, of having had a life over having a career–that was not rooted firmly in the convictions of freedom of speech, expression, and in all ways living a life unhindered by the petty, humorless, and often ancient worldviews of would-be detractors. His presence in these debates will be felt, I think, for as long as the debates go on. But it is now on many more of us to ensure that they in fact do go on, and that no inch be given to those same detractors. Often when someone dies the inevitable cliche arrives of their shoes being filled. Christopher’s life and personality were perhaps the only things that could match the size of his intellect, and indeed the hole he has left is impossible to fill by any one person; this should be a motivation and inspiration to many, as perhaps enough of us might offer a modest attempt at the job. I say it again: it is on us, now. Christopher has shown us what can be done, and at least one bold way it might be put forth.

Just as fellow Horseman Sam Harris has brilliantly, correctly, and controversially argued that we’re better to bear the standard of skepticism and reason for their own sake rather than the specific cause or title of New Atheism, I think it’s vastly important to look to Christopher’s life and work not only for the memorable causes and attacks, but rather to really come to grasp his core conviction of accepting nothing less than destruction of the various enemies of civilization and freedom. Holding this idea close will show no end of worthy and imminent debates to have and battles to fight.

Contemplating this is also the fastest and most appropriate way perhaps to work through what has caused many to stumble, that being Christopher’s support of the intervention in Iraq. Seen as some obscene betrayal or defection to the right by those embarrassingly uncomfortable with interacting with the nuanced elements of his justifications, one quickly finds it (at least, I always have) increasingly difficult to argue his principle in the matter, and I also find that in the end Christopher was as heartbroken over the Mesopotamian mire that resulted as anyone else. Reading his essays on Iraq and Kurdistan, it is clear how genuine his hope was for what might come out of the invasion that ended a few short hours after he himself did. Most importantly, I dare anyone to argue that Christopher’s support was anything even slightly out of sync with the rest of his life or work. Reconciling it with any other moment of his various crusades is, unsurprising to me, stupendously easy. I can say honestly one of the most moving and invigorating moments of my adult life was watching Christopher passionately laying out his love and defense of the idea of free expression. When he says he could not imagine life lived in a place without such a centering virtue, I could feel the very strength of that conviction through his very voice.

The real legacy of Christopher Hitchens then, as I’ve thought on it these past few days, is that matters will always be far more complicated and uncomfortable than the towing of simplistic party lines will ever allow for. In thinking on just how bravely Christopher refused any stance but the one that was truly his despite the ramifications to his career or social sphere, I can resolve his only braver episode was his final one. Refusing once again the seduction of solipsism or complacency, Christopher faced death as himself–nothing less. He debated as long as physically possible. He wrote, it seems now literally so, on his deathbed. Not to prove a point, not to get in some last and paltry jab, but because it was all he could do, all that he was.

Considering my own inspiration of Christopher’s passing as a motivating force to begin my own battles and debates with greater discipline and vigor, it feels fitting to end this with Christopher’s parting advice in his short but priceless book, Letters to a Young Contrarian:

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

As he says, comrades, friends, brothers, sisters–keep your powder dry. The battles were already upon us yesterday. The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.