Monday, August 25, 2014

The enemies of reason

I have just finished reading the late James Webb's The Occult Underground. For a book first published in 1971, it has worn quite well. It was originally published as The Flight from Reason and that is a far better description of its theme, but a much less marketable title. In an area that I do know about, late 19th century radical thought, he made loads of mistakes – for example, Geddes was not a mystical thinker, Gandhi was already a vegetarian when he came to London, Kropotkin did not flee Russia after a murder, etc. - and his topic, the revival of esoteric thought, has been the subject of earlier and later study. For example, both Orwell and Adorno wrote about the links between mystical thought and the far right, whilst the occult nature of Nazism has spawned a library of books. But there is something quite fun about reading a book that kicked off a sceptical look at mysticism and its broader place in the history of ideas, not just the far right, especially one that has such a promising line at the beginning:
The neglected genius is a familiar figure of mythology; but there are those neglected lunatics who are worthy of study. 
And my, were they lunatics. According to Webb, they blended a half understood Eastern philosophy into a "sort of spiritual porridge." Political utopians and romantic nationalists fed from the same trough. Fake spiritualists, believers in mesmerism, frauds and charlatans pulled in believers by the score. Sects proliferated - schismatic Protestants, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, followers of a reinvented neo-paganism, deluded ghost-hunters and psychical researchers, mainstream religious revivalists, and many others. And if you want an example of the intellectual contortions they went through, look at this tragi-comic example of how Annie Besant reconciled her conversion to Theosophy and belief in reincarnation with the theory of evolution, in this case using "clairvoyant investigations" to discover her own personal evolution into becoming human.
The evolutionary leap was taken when Mrs. Besant was incarnated in a large, monkey-like body, in which form she was particularly attached to an entity already human, who was to become the Buddha. One night the Buddha and his family were attacked by savages. During the ensuing fight, the Besant-monkey saved the Buddha at the cost of its own life. The aspirations of this relatively humble creature provoked a stream of cosmic reactions so that "in the very moment of dying the monkey individualizes, and thus he dies – a man." 
Blimey! Have you noticed that most believers' imagined past lives are usually those of significant or interesting people? They rarely see themselves as humdrum. What I find sad about Besant is that she had been a formidable campaigner for women's' rights and contraception, a socialist and trade unionist, organising the female workers of the Bryant and May match company in their celebrated 1888 strike, active in working class education and secretary of the National Secular Society for seventeen years. Then she fell for Blavatsky's facile, perennialist nonsense.

And this is why the book still has an appeal today. I groan when I see supposed leftists come out with pseudo-scientific rubbish about GM crops, form alliances with Islamists, flirt with anti-Semitism, indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories, and talk in hushed, reverential tones about ancient wisdoms and authentic, 'natural' cures. How on earth did this happen? Mainstream studies see this as down to the influence of Romanticism and the idea of nature. Paul Berman has fingered what he called irrational death cults as one of the inspirations behind Islamist terrorism, but Webb did more, giving us a speculative structural explanation of why the occult should explode into life at the end of the nineteenth century, seeing the growth of irrational thought as the product of an intellectual sea change.
The occult is rejected knowledge. It may be knowledge that is actively rejected by an Establishment culture, or knowledge which voluntarily exiles itself from the courts of favor (sic) because of its recognized incompatibility with the prevailing wisdom. The word "occult" means "hidden", and in this idea lies the key to the occult's forbidding appearance. Something may be hidden because of its immense value, or reverently concealed from the prying eyes of the profane. But this hidden thing may also have achieved its sequestered position because the Powers That Be have found it wanting. Either it is a threat and must be buried, or simply useless and so is forgotten. 
For centuries, reason and science were an insurgent force against establishment religion and the power of the nobility. But then, in an intellectual revolution, they became orthodoxy. The victory was not clear-cut, there were fudges and compromises, but Darwin had overthrown god. Science as a method of enquiry, as opposed to a body of knowledge, had prevailed. The long struggle between Plato's idealism and Aristotle's materialism for pre-eminence was over. Aristotle had won.

Esoteric mysticism, The Tradition as Webb called it, became the opposition; rejected knowledge. And so it flourished as an act of rebellion, by both conservatives and radicals, as anti-establishment thought. Freed from the constraints of orthodoxy, it fragmented into many weird and wonderful ideologies. And so religious reaction, conspiracy thought, political utopianism, and the like all share a common root, fear and revulsion of the new age of reason.

Take Pseudo-science, for example. Webb wrote:
The pseudo-sciences, in fact, are not sciences at all, but offshoots of an approach which is similar to the Tradition, even if there is no direct connection. It is, therefore, not merely rejection from the Establishment which pushes homeopaths into the arms of the occultists, but a fundamental kinship.
And Webb gave a key role in this transformation into radical respectability to Theosophy.
In the last analysis the achievement of H.P.B. (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky) was to make what seems today a markedly eccentric society part of the "progressive" thought of the late 19th century. 
Later writers have tried to be break away from what they saw as Webb's manichean view of the opposition of esotericism and reason. For example, Marco Pasi wrote:
 … these occult organizations offered a social space where new conceptions of culture and society could be formulated and experimented with. This would be in itself a good reason – if there were no other – to argue that occultism, as part of the larger historical body of esotericism, has contributed significantly to the shaping of modernity, verging, in this case, rather towards the progressive, liberal pole of the cultural and political spectrum. 
I don't think Webb would have demurred, but he might also have pointed out that belief in bollocks is not a necessary precondition for social and cultural experimentation.

Webb's occult net was spread wide, perhaps too wide, but in looking at mystical underpinnings of even secular ideas, he was echoing the nineteenth century freethought movement, which sought to secularise ways of thinking, not just reject religious ideas. And when one looks at New Age ramblings, deep green primitivism, neo-feudal traditionalism and the deep distrust of science that comes out of climate change deniers, anti-vaccination campaigners and the opponents of GMOs, you can see that they share a common theological and eschatological mind-set. Rather than the hard task of using reason and science to further human emancipation, they chose to challenge and bury them under a pile of mystical 'woo' - reaction posing as radicalism. Some of this is harmless enough, but we are also seeing its malign, totalitarian side in murderous action in Iraq and elsewhere at the moment. Reason may no longer be an insurgent against the establishment, but it now has a counter-insurgency to fight.

Monday, August 11, 2014

On and on

And still they keep coming, the photos, videos and speeches. All contain certainties about what has happened, about who did what and who knew what, none of which can be definitively known until long after the conflict is over or even until the archives are opened. The obsession with minutiae at the expense of the obvious, which is the foundation of conspiracy thought, is drafted in to support one side or the other. Politically pre-determined and historically illiterate, they make dismal reading. So the three well-written pieces were sent to me in the last few days that cut through the fog have been a welcome respite. There are things to debate and disagree with in all three, but not their main themes. And all of them call for the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution. Though, in this sense, they are pro-Palestinian, they challenge the anti-Israeli activists' consensus.

The first is Hopi Sen's exercise in agonised sanity.
Today, Stop the War have organised a great demonstration calling for an end to the attack on Gaza. 
This is not merely a call for peace; for the end of bloodshed. It cannot be. After all, the cautious truce agreed last week ended not with an attack on Gaza, but an attack on Israel. 
Instead, the demonstration is something more than just a call to an end to violence. It is a call for a particular solution… 
If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the entire Israeli state, then to propose an unconditional end to restrictions on Gaza … and at the same time demand a boycott of Israel; then you effectively demand, not unconditional peace, but a tilt in the battle to Hamas. To Hamas, note, not to the Palestinian Legislature, or Fatah, or the people of Gaza, all of whom want an immediate ceasefire, then talks and negotiations and a permanent peace with Israel, but to Hamas, who want no such thing.
He generously appreciates that the main motivation of demonstrators was compassion at the death and suffering, but he goes on to ask,
Is being a progressive in foreign policy merely to will peace and loathe destruction, but to shrink from any proposed action for achieving this, fearing it will breach peace and promote destruction?
Yep, and it can be even worse. You could actively oppose action. From the gruesome Stop The War Coalition: "Defeating ISIS and the other terrorist groups is vital, but it is also vital that we oppose US intervention, which will make matters worse." I suppose the US intervention they mean is the very limited air strikes that allowed half the 40,000 people awaiting a real genocide to escape and the plans being made to rescue the rest. Stop the War are more than stupid, they are sick.

Then we have had the cancellation of the Jewish Film Festival – note, not the Israeli Film Festival – by The Tricycle Theatre in London over a row about a piffling £1,400 grant from the Israeli embassy. An Irish poet, Kevin Higgins, came up with a flawed, but witty and wry response.
… but even if it was a possibility Israel's destruction would involve the deaths of, at the very least, hundreds of thousands of people, both Jewish and Arab. 
Try telling that to the group of demonstrators whom I observed marching along University Road on Friday, chanting: "Palestine! From the River to the Sea!" The river being the Jordan, the sea the Mediterranean. Palestine can only ever stretch "from the River to the Sea" if the state of Israel is destroyed. It's a mad thing to be chanting. It is not the position of the P.L.O. leadership, who have long since recognised Israel. It might be an understandable slogan to go down the road shouting if your house has just been blown up by the Israeli Defence Forces. But when you are seperated from such dusty unpleasantness by a couple of thousand miles and the worst thing you're facing is, perhaps, your landlord calling by to enquire why the direct debit set up to pay your rent didn't work last week, it is altogether less understandable. Of course, people often chant things on demos, which they don't really believe will come to pass... 
And his artist's disdain for the administrative class is put to good effect too:
Can't you just see the sweating arse cheeks of the Tricyle Theatre's board members as they sat around on those cheap chairs on which we have all in the arts at some stage placed our buttocks. It's an unedifying picture but an unavoidable one for anyone familiar with the high principles that guide most such boards of directors.
What happened there is that a bunch of arts administrators - a socioeconomic group not generally known for their personal heroism - demanded that the Jewish Film Festival take a political stand, as a festival, one way or the other for or against the state of Israel. It wasn't enough that the festival included films highly critical of the Israeli government.
But both of them underplay something else, the hatred - raw, nasty, violent hatred. It is taking us deeper into a dark place. Howard Jacobson fears it and knows the smell. He gave full vent to his alarm in this piece. Here are some extracts:
I was once in Melbourne when bush fires were raging 20 or 30 miles north of the city. Even from that distance you could smell the burning. Fine fragments of ash, like slivers of charcoal confetti, covered the pavements. The very air was charred. It has been the same here these past couple of months with the fighting in Gaza. Only the air has been charred not with devastation but with hatred. And I don’t mean the hatred of the warring parties for each other. I mean the hatred of Israel expressed in our streets, on our campuses, in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and now in our theatres.
A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here – the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue...
But my argument is not with the Palestinians or even with Hamas. People in the thick of it pursue their own agenda as best they can. But what’s our agenda? What do we, in the cosy safety of tolerant old England, think we are doing when we call the Israelis Nazis and liken Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto? Do those who blithely make these comparisons know anything whereof they speak? 
In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed – even in the most grossly mis-reported deed – between Gaza and Warsaw. 
Given the number of besieged and battered cities there have been in however many thousands of years of pitiless warfare there is only one explanation for this invocation of Warsaw before any of those – it is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday...
And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it... 
Not here, though. Not in cosy old lazy old easy-come easy-go England.
And he wrote those words in 2009. It is an old article, five years old. See how fresh they are. I didn't notice at first when someone shared it with me. You see, we have become used to it. Casual and unthinking, the language of loathing is here all around us.

And if you want to see what genocide really looks like, turn your eyes towards Iraq.

Friday, August 08, 2014


An evening on the patio in Greece is like an innocent childhood, living in a Beatrix Potter book.

Here is Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

And along comes Tommy Brock the badger, keeping his distance, eyes shining from the flash.

And here is a very young Tom Kitten sheltering behind the wall with his mum.

Awwww. Sweet.

Then the badger ate the kitten. Potter never wrote about that bit, did she?

Friday, August 01, 2014

Internet bollocks

Sometimes you start by wishing you hadn't. I got involved in an online discussion with someone that posted the following quotation:
"Our race is the Master Race. We Jews are divine gods on this planet. We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects. In fact, compared to our race, other races are beasts and animals, cattle at best. Other races are considered as human excrement. Our destiny is to rule over the inferior races. Our earthly kingdom will be ruled by our leader with a rod of iron. The masses will lick our feet and serve us as our slaves." - Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a speech to the Knesset quoted in Begin and the Beasts," New Statesman, June 25, 1982 by Amnon Kapeliouk
The quotation is obviously absurd. It is a crude and stupid assertion of brutal racial superiority. Begin was many things during a long life, starting as a refugee from war-time Poland, through being head of the Irgun, to founding the right-wing Likud, to eventually becoming Prime Minister. He was a forthright, right-wing nationalist. He was not a racial supremacist. And Prime Ministers are not prone to make statements of incriminating, rancid garbage to national parliaments. Curious too how there are no Parliamentary records of such an inflammatory remark nor any contemporaneous press reporting. It is an obvious fabrication. Yet there was a proper citation, Amnon Kapeliouk, the leftist Israeli journalist and writer.

So I started checking. The quotation is all over the internet and heads up articles on Kapeliouk, but only the right-wing seemed to question it. In 2009, the Begin Centre, not a natural home for me, had traced what they saw as the earliest use of the quotation on the web and it appears to have been fabricated by one Texe Marrs. It is on his site without any attribution. I refuse to link to his stunningly vile web site. It links end-times Christian fundamentalism, homophobia and loopy conspiracy theories with an all pervasive, drooling anti-Semitism. Preserve your mental health, don't even Google it.

There was no way that someone like Kapeliouk would have used an obvious fake like that, but my discussant was adamant. Even more suspicious was the article it had come from. It was a report from the early days of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And it had been under attack previously for Kapeliouk's use of Begin's real words, describing Palestinian terrorists as "beasts walking on two legs", as if they had been directed against all Palestinians and not just terrorists. The fact that the article was known made it easy for someone to use it to construct an internet meme by adding a bogus quote to it.

The only way to resolve the argument was to find the article. It wasn't easy, but someone had uploaded it to Scribd. You can read it here. The 'master race' quote is nowhere to be seen.

There are three lessons to draw from this. The first is do not trust those endless photographs with slogans and quotations next to them without checking the proper attribution, especially if they seem as outlandish as this one. Seeing them reposted on like-minded web sites is not checking, you need to match them to authoritative sources with proper citations. Internet memes reproduce and multiply. Don't encourage them or draw quick and easy opinions from them.

Secondly, and this is more worrying, it shows that Israel/Palestine tends to make even the most reasonable of people lose their marbles. Wild enthusiasms for whichever cause win out over any reasoned argument. How else would anyone believe something that was such obvious bollocks? Passionate belief makes us credible dupes. And we all fall for things.

Finally, there is the fact that in the end I am glad I did have this argument. After I sent the link to the full article, I was thanked and the post was taken down. The people you disagree with are not necessarily bad people and there are plenty of times I get it wrong. It was a small crack in a profound ideological disagreement, but in these febrile times the smallest of victories for knowledge over propaganda are welcome. 

Football latest

Two short pieces. First a Silicon Valley Russian contemplates his home nation:
To understand Russia’s lighting fast descend into the abyss one has to understand a simple truth that many (myself included) suspect all along: Russia was and is a failed state. What is seen from the outside is just a facade imitating a functional country and government. High oil prices, residual infrastructure of USSR and internal mass propaganda machine maintained the illusion for more than a decade.  ... 
In simple terms, Russia is a mafia state. All the way from Moscow to regions and to small towns, everything is controlled by various mafia gangs. Police and judiciary are parts of most powerful gangs. They usually assist in extortion or theft of property earned by local small and medium size businessmen. Big business is subject to federal mafia clan wars.
Second, one of a series of Guardian investigations into what is effectively slave labour in Qatar.
Migrant workers building the first stadium for Qatar's 2022 World Cup have been earning as little as 45p an hour, the Guardian can reveal. ...
The problems for the World Cup workers come after the Guardian revealed on Tuesday that migrant labourers who fitted out luxury offices used by Qatar's World Cup organising committee have not been paid for up to a year and are now living in squalor. 
There has been an international outcry over the deaths of hundreds of migrant builders in Qatar in construction accidents and traffic collisions, and from suicides and heart failure. Low pay, late pay and even no pay are now an increasing concern.
And where are the next two football World Cups due to be held? In a mafia state followed by a slave state - both awarded in free and open competition without a hint of corruption eh?

It's horrible, but it points to a broader problem. Sport is wonderful, on one level it is escapism, but on another it has much broader political implications, especially where prestige events are concerned and there sports administrators show a lack of engagement with everyday morality. The next two tournaments stink.