Archive for March, 2008

This is no defense of China’s territorial conquest and continuing control of Tibet. If there is a clear case anywhere in the world of a nation meriting independence, after it was unjustly invaded, conquered, annexed and colonized, it is Tibet. And this is colonialism, pure and simple: moreover, China has no claim to Tibetan land save through an earlier vassalage in the 1700’s, after Tibet had became a battlefield between the Qing dynasty and the Dzungarian Khanate; the Communist Party’s assertion that Tibet is a vital part of China descends from early Chinese nationalist ideology, the Five Nation’s policy of Sun Yat-Sen, in which Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus, Muslims and Han would be united in one state (and thus, I doubt the Nationalists, had they won the civil war in the 1940’s would have hesitated to invade Tibet themselves).

The Tibetan government in exile remains committed to non-violent resistance and international diplomacy, internationally effective and certainly garners sympathy with the West vis-a-vis the brutality of the Chinese government. Will it ever be effective at liberating Tibet, especially when the majority of the population is now non-Tibetan? I somehow doubt it. Did not Nelson Mandela, after the failed Soweto Uprising in 1976, call for the ANC to “UNITE! MOBILISE! FIGHT ON! BETWEEN THE ANVIL OF UNITED MASS ACTION AND THE HAMMER OF THE ARMED STRUGGLE WE SHALL CRUSH APARTHEID!” Perhaps unrealistic to some, but I would argue struggle and mass movements would be more effective then any number of meetings with foreign heads of state and getting a Nobel Peace Prize.

Nonetheless, the current uproar over the Tibetan riots in China, the well publicised Tibetan protests of the Olympics, the support of the Western media and prominent individuals and organizations, is a tremendous boost to the Tibetan independence movement. Only a few years ago, Tibetan journalist Jamyang Norbu, on a PBS Frontline interview, could deride the West’s “fuzzy” love affair with Tibet: It does not touch on the tragedy that people are actually being wiped off the face of the earth and their culture is being wiped out. (via louis proyect). This haziness seems to have evaporated over the years; now, The National Post can carry headlines that suggest a ‘cultural genocide’ in Tibet. Over the last few weeks, it has been nearly impossible to escape the media’s attention on Tibet, on the uprising, on the crackdown on dissidents, on the protests. And condemnation emerged over it; a boycott is in the works; Steven Spielberg is all for it; athletes are getting behind it, occasionally; Free Tibet sponsors it, Sarkozy supports it, Barrack Obama has declared in favour.

Besides just The National Post’s fairly extensive coverage, we have similar coverage in its prime competitor, The Globe and Mail. The New York Times has plenty, and so do the major US and international networks. Deutsche Welle radio news featured a correspondent last Monday, the 24th, who over the radio ambushed a Chinese official outside the area for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Greece, and before being wrestled away by police, accusing angrily the Chinese of illegally and brutally occupying Tibet, eliciting a response from the Chinese official along the lines of “Tibet belongs to us” in mangled English. A search of Deutsche Welle‘s archives online reveals dozens of stories over the last few weeks. The topic won’t go away on the CBC; sports shows talk about, the radio talk shows all featured stories on it, the hourly updates carried update after update. Most spectacularly, this exchange on Thursday, March 20th, on the news show As It Happens:

CBC. You keep coming back to this notion of dialogue. But what needs to be said that hasn’t been said already? What is new that will have an effect?

Hedy Fry: I don’t know if there is anything new that we can say. What we can do is help countries like China…

CBC. But…but…help them in what way?

Hedy Fry: To help them to understand that there are better, innovative ways to deal with conflicts…that there are ways of recognizing cultural identities without sacrificing your concept of One China.

CBC. I will point out, as people know, that we did choose to boycott the Olympics in Moscow…but let me ask you this…the allegations against the Chinese government are obviously quite long…it’s not just Tibet, it’s Darfur, it’s human rights violations, its exploitation of labour, environmental degradation…it goes on and on and on…what would it take for a party like yours [the Liberal Party of Canada] to decide that, perhaps, a boycott would be in order? How bad do things have to get?

The interviewer’s tone alternated between haughty, dismissive, morally outraged, angry, hectoring, insistent and highly critical of the Canadian government not immediately calling an Olympic boycott in protest (is that CBC policy, to allow anchors and interviewers this much editorial opinion and anger? Hardly neutral but very revealing). Her opponent was a bumbling apologist, Hedy Fry, a Sports Critic clearly beyond her level here. It was preceded by an interview with a Quebecois in Lhasa at the time, describing violence, fires, army troops; another interview featured a Tibetan man with relatives in Tibet and described rumours of rampant police brutality, summary executions, fires, military columns heading into Tibet, the complete stifling of all protests, curfews and crowds being fired on reminiscent on a smaller scale of Tienanmen Square; the interviewer does even question that ‘we’ won’t boycott because of trade.  This, you may counter, is not typical of coverage on Tibet, but I dare say, if one reads and listens, it is: moralist, purist, the West as civilization, the refrain to boycott China.

And this is always what we wanted, right? As readers of Chomsky, as socialists, or leftists, or the sane, we wanted our media to stand up to power and injustice, to harass the representatives of vile regimes, to finally take a side, or a stand, against aggression, against oppression, to show their anger and give us the truth, however nebulous that concept.

It should be noted that this same CBC show had a three minute segment on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, and all they could come up with was ‘the war is controversial’. Needless to say, almost no coverage on this anniversary; Tibet is far more important, after all. I should remark that replace ‘Chinese army column’ with ‘US Marines’ or ‘Lhasa’ with ‘Fallujah’ from the CBC stories above, and you have a report on Iraq, but never will you have heard or hear a CBC interviewer hectoring a Canadian political representative for supporting the war, in Iraq or Afghanistan, or taking a stance that it is wrong so openly, or have a Deutsch Welle reporter arguing with and yelling at a US official about the occupation of Iraq. Would the outrage be palpably the same if the country was Haiti? Or East Timor? Or Moroland? Or Chechnya? Would the coverage be as extensive?


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Why I like what I like


Tonight I am going to see Control, the new biopic about Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis. Most of the people whose blogs I read have long since seen this movie, and I ‘ve read many of their reviews and impressions of the film; Simon Reynold’s review of the film in The New York Times is one of the better I’ll ever read, and his criticisms seem logical. In short, according to Reynold’s, The film dwell too much on Ian Curtis and not on the band, and makes the mistake of assuming that it was Ian Curtis, the towering but depressed genius, who was solely responsible for the sombre tone of Joy Division’s music, rather than the city of Manchester itself, and the time in which the music was made and performed (could Joy Division have existed in 1969, rather then 1979? I doubt it. It was unique to its time and place, like Godspeed You Black Emperor was during the late 1999’s).

I’m still excited to see the film, of course. I’ve been listening to Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures all day, trying in some misguided way to…what? Soak up the ambiance? I suppose so. It made me think of why I like the album so much, which quickly led to me thinking about why I like anything at all. Not in a nihilistic way, but in an ontological fashion: why have I come to find Unknown Pleasures, as a whole, so potent, so creative, and able to keep my interest day after day, month after month, for several years now, while my patience for progressive rock, for instance, has faded away to nothing, except for some early Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator?

I think it has much to do with feelings about aesthetics. I haven’t read a great deal of critical thought about the aesthetics of art, of any sort; a little Aristotle here, a smidgen of someone like Northrop Frye for a class years ago. I’ve read a great deal of Marxist criticism on literature, from Marx himself to Lukacs and Jamieson, but the same problem resurfaces. I studied English literature at University (not grammar, though that would have been nice to learn in high school!) but almost everything that the academic study of literature emphasizes has nothing to do with value judgments or aesthetic taste. I learned, nonetheless, useful skills, like parsing information, critically thinking about a book’s subject and themes, and most importantly, recognizing the biases of class, gender and everything else that work their way noiselessly and darkling into all creative works. Great, so I can analyze to death a novel, but what I like about it remains a little more indefinite, a little too slippery, like an eel on river side sod.

I’m quite certain nothing I can say about aesthetics has not been made before, better informed and more eloquently put. The nature of a blog puts it between personal journal and public editorial, so I always hesitate to talk about myself, especially when the average blogger, myself included, really isn’t that interesting! Nonetheless, why not put a good case forward for aesthetics vis-a-vi Joy Division?

I’ve come to the conclusion that unity is the single overriding element of any album, artwork or novel, or short story, or poem. Again, I’m certain many of you out there have already reached that conclusion, and it does seem self-evident, but hold with me. I tell people I like the song ‘London Calling’ but not the album, which, alongside Sandinista, is a mess. Individual songs on London Calling are great: the eponymous opener, ‘Guns of Brixton’ and ‘Spanish Bombs’ being some of my favourites. But the album as a whole? I never listen to it. Sandinista is even worse, as far as I’m concerned. The album has no unity, no greater overreaching sense of wholeness, of an artist or group consciously guiding the music in some direction. Undoubtedly, there is a single overreaching theme to Sandinista, one that is fairly obvious, but it is not enough to unite the album; the musical styles and the songs, in structure, lyrics, instrumentation, are all over the place. I once heard a friend of mine, a young whelp still, exclaim that she never needs to listen to anyone else but Pink Floyd, because they placed all sorts of different styles of music; you find the same sentiments about The Clash. Yes, I would respond, but they don’t play any of them really well: If I want free jazz, I’ll listen to Ornette Coleman, if I want reggae, then I’ll listen to reggae. I don’t have a problem with the melding of genres, not at all, and I’m fine with the kind of experimentation that leads to bands like !!! producing dub, for instance, and I eventually got use to the Gorillaz near-ruinous flirtation with rap, that though fine rap on its own, just didn’t go (that supreme spiritual rightness) with their music; what I don’t want are albums where every genre is thrown together like confetti puzzle pieces and expected to make a fully fleshed picture.


Unknown Pleasures, on the other hand, has a wide enough range of musical difference, different chord for different tracks, while still remaining with a unified parameter set by their instruments, Bernard Sumner’s guitars, Peter Hook’s bass, or Stephen Morris’ drums, Ian Curtis’ dreary, phantasmagoric lyrics, the hollowness of the production, the mood evoked. There is a world of difference between ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘I Remember Nothing’ and yet those songs feel right, they are united by a sound, by the instruments, the voice, in a way that the difference in subject or sound, between fast pace and pensiveness, and by thematic and atmospheric elements, the lyrics, the sound, that make it very clear that it is Joy Division and no one else we are listening too.

I suppose what I’m describing is voice, in the sense my English profs used to drill in: voice is that distinctive combination of syntax, theme and structure that allows us to recognize a poet, or any other artist, really, almost instantaneously.  It makes the artist unique, after all.  There is  no mistaking Joy Division for any one  else (though Section 25 veered a little  close sometimes).   Likewise, M. John Harrison, one of my favourite authors, is difficult to miss: his voice is unique, the combination of his characters, sensibilities, poetic language (about space battles and decaying mutants and strange cities) that is unlike any other author I have ever read.  It is also, by extension, what makes him good, and what makes many of the best writers stand out from the crowd; the vast majority of writers in fantasy and science fiction do not distinguish themselves in any way but through the minutiae they switch around in their scenarios; the language, the imagery, the themes remain constant, static, atrophying.


 Back to music.  Such musings may be trite, but they are surprisingly durable; perhaps I have retroactively made myself believe this fact, but every album, every book, every movie, even the few television shows I watch, have largely been works I consider to have a strong unity.  Gang of Four’s Entertainment?  Sure: incredible guitar, lyrics inspired by Marxist deconstruction of personal relationships and intimate social spaces, energy and drive, carried across song after song, united by theme, sound and a clear sense of what the band wants to say and have heard.  Van Der Graaf Generator’s H to He Who is The Only One?  Sure: Peter Hammill’s soaring vocals, the bitterness and isolation of loneliness carried across every line, every song, every word, brilliant sax work, a balance of song length to content (unlike Genesis, who I find very uneven in that regard).  I could go on: Arcade Fire’s funeral, The Knife’s Silent Shout.

This is not to say that a band can never change or move on, or that an artist should paint the same thing over and over again.  I would abhor that, but again, careening wildly between styles, genres and techniques, while experimentally satisfying, and even ultimately successful, does not always make for the best.  I consider, for instance, Closer by Joy Division and Songs of the Free by Gang of Four to be fairly successful continuations of what they started on their first albums, clearly going in new directions (a buzz word I realize) while retaining the sound and emotions that made them good in the first place.  I’m likewise glad that the Arcade Fire and The Knife both chose to push themselves and try newer, darker sounds, because their first work, whether the eponymous Arcade Fire EP or Deep Cuts were, in the former, rather uninteresting, shallow and far from unique or potent, while the latter, the same lack of unity presided, a scattered approach that I abhor.


Even in the visual arts it is unity of form and purpose I look for.  Max Ernst, for instance, though over seventy years his portfolio at a glance seems exactly what I described above as abhorent, is not.  There are definite phases or periods, more often described in light of say, Picasso, that occupy years and represent dozens or hundreds, in Ernst’s case, of paintings, collages and sculptures that represent a clear sense of style and theme, even if produced under the creative impulses of Surrealism, and its various spontaneous artistic techniques: Ernst moves from collage into his more famous ‘classical Surrealistl pieces (such as The Elephant Celebes) to decalcomania (such as Europe After the Rain) to geometric abstractions later on, but never entirely abandoning the sensibilities that had first produced his art.  Perhaps Ernst is not the best example, after all: the techniques of surrealism are in many ways opposed to that of ‘concentrated’  arts: but it hard not to look at works by Andre Masson or Urica Zurn and not see the same preoccupations thematically and stylistic turns appearing again and again, even as the artists experiment and push the boundaries of their art.


Obviously, visual arts and musical albums are slightly different in their presentation, and the demands of unity, and what precisely I mean by that, and can be meant by that, are difficult to judge and open to adjustment.  If I return briefly to music, my aesthetics of unity are violated by the culture developing of the iPod and the iTunes, the often trumpeted end of the album, in the the sense that an artist like, say, Deerhunter, produce works that are released one song and a time.  I don;t actually have the panic of many that this spells the end of albums, but it does mean trouble for the production of albums as works of unified art, tied by theme, sound and a driving idea, and the return of albums produced solely as repositories of songs, unconnected to each save by the name of the band and the instruments used.  This was, to an extent, the shape of albums before the rise of pop music like the Beatles, and it continues to be the shape of much mainstream Pop music to this day.  I suppose the fear is that albums will disintegrate, like books are doing now, even amongst the artistic types like myself most dedicated to the production of something unified, whole.  I can’t say that will happen, but I don’t fear: there is, after all, much more to worry about then if the music my children will listen to will come in a neat, little package.


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I’ve been doing research for the local museum lately, reading through months of newspapers on microfiche from 1913.

One of the more interesting and recurring items to appear in the pages of the Fort William Daily Times-Journal, is a phenomenon punningly called ‘airshipitis’ by its editors. Airshiptis, according to the editors, is a hysterical or manic mass outburst of sightings and fears of airships or zeppelins, or lights and sounds attributed to airships. This wasn’t exactly surprising to me, not at all: I’ve been interested in mysterious sightings and ‘unexplained’ flying ships and UFOs since I was 13, and I was aware of the ‘mystery airship’ phenomena from the works of Charles Fort and his successors in the Fortean Times.

I was surprised, however, that these reports made front page news, of the city’s largest paper, thrice: once, in January 1913, in reference to mystery sightings of airships and lights along the Austro-Russian border that caused panics in Lvov; sightings of airships in April 1914 in Yorkshire of what were claimed to be German zeppelins haunting the countryside, as reported by terrified farmers and local gentry; and sightings of strange lights over Fort William itself (specifically, Mount McKay on the outskirts of town). Several other minor reports reached the Daily Times-Journal; apparently, 1913 was the last year that a major ‘mystery’ or ‘phantom’ airship craze occurred, as noted in this article, The Phantom Airships of 1913 by Lucius Farish and Jerome Clark. There had been an earlier 1909 wave of sightings, as described in this substantially more scholarly article by David Clarke. What we have is largely the same: a regional pandemic of sightings, of sophisticated machines described in the technical terminology of the day as ‘airships’ or ‘zeppelins’. The British scare and the Austro-Russian scare both equated military threats with these sightings; in both cases military and diplomatic tensions were high, as Germany’s bellicose pronouncements against Britain made front page news in Canada, and Austria and Russia partly mobilized over the unfolding Balkans War.

According to the wikipedia article on mystery airships, hardly a reliable source I know, especially when dealing with an unreliable event like a mystery airship, newspapers like The Washington Times and the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, actually suggested these airships were visitors or explorers, or couched in the terms of the time, scouts, from Mars: the Post-Dispatch held that “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.” Note that this was during the height of the craze over Martian life and Martian canals in the United States in part started by Percival Lowell’s claim that he had found canals on the red planet. This was not a majority view however, as the Fort William Daily Times-Journal articles I read all explained the sightings away as some kind of hysteria, as I mentioned above.

And so we return to ‘airshipitis’. Though the Fort William Daily Times-Journal was hardly a paper of the highest repute (it’s front page also contains reports about Finns stabbing each over over rum couched in sensationalist tones and headline gems like ‘Starved by Starvation’), the editors were nonetheless cautious enough to attribute these sightings to a manic outburst, rather then genuine military or otherwordly activity. Their description of ‘airshipitis’ is unintentionally prognostic, as similar explanations of mass hysteria and mass anxiety over some social force or pressure are one of the most commonly put forward explanation for UFO sightings or other paranormal events (for instance, there are urban legends in Peru, apparently, of bloodsucking spirits and creatures that have since become foreigners, usually Americans, kidnapping the poor to drain their blood. The collective fears and traumas behind these scares aren’t hard to locate in this case). Mass hysteria often seem pejorative or insulting, and certainly the Fort William Daily Times-Journal’s editors were being dismissive in their explanations, wryly winking at their sober readers that only the old and the infirm could have seen such sights: those who saw these airships must have been delusional. But as research into trance or visions reveals, the experience may very well be internal but that doesn’t invalidate the intense emotions experienced.

In this case, ‘airshipitis’, this craze of mystery airship sightings in early 1913, was linked very clearly to invasion scares; ‘airshipitis’ was a collective social reaction to the pressures of a highly militarized society, tense with the possibility of war breaking out at any moment, and at the same time confronted by new and startling technologies, of mechanical flight and the possibility, pregnant from newspapers and fiction, of new kinds of war, of bombing from the sky, in short, of old certainties undermined. That news writers of 1913 could identify, in a hazy, condescending way, the kind of tremendous social pressure at work in villages in Yorkshire or Galicia claiming to see strange lights hovering over their villages, grim with portent, is almost more impressive then the mystery airship itself.

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As usual, my faculties pale when discussing a book like this: I both suspect and know from psychical, wordly evidence that others have written much more of more importance about this book. I enjoyed; is there anything else to say? I had read about it several times, in snippets along the lines of the Internet, before I stumbled across it at my local university library. I found out it wasn’t published until after O’Brien’s (or Brian O’Nolan, his real name, though you all know that I’m sure) death; I almost wanted to make the cliched statement that ‘genius goes unrecognised in its own time.’ True, perhaps, but again, how many people have remarked that about The Third Policeman? The narrator is an unpleasant, lazy, murderer; the plot has no clear trajectory (all the better for it!) and the laughter consists almost entirely in dialogue and a series of escalating oddness. This book would never win a Governor General’s Prize…had it been Canadian.



I read the novel, or at least the increasingly strange second half, when ill with fever. I had trouble sleeping those nights, and had a succession of potent strange dreams (are there are other sort, the subconscious is liberation: there, my friends bid on marrying themselves, I discover strange urges for women I previously did not care for, I murder my father or I mourn my mother becoming a bed of clams: that is the way it must be). When I finished The Third Policeman, my fever was at its worst, and I recall distinctly recall that the entire night was a nightmare of De Selbian philosophy. De Selby is a notorious, unconventional and erratic (and dead) philosopher; the unnamed narrator is a student dedicated to producing a codex of all critical analyses of De Selby’s odd ‘system’ of thought (night is black air, water can be diluted, the world is a sausage etc.). This leads him to murder.

Throughout the book, footnotes and the opening of most chapters explain in growing detail De Selby’s theories and the academic turmoil and assassination around his works. Structurally, as the novel progresses, De Selby’s presence becomes more and more obvious, the footnotes invade and overwhelm the text, and the action, such as it, is shaped and reflects De Selby’s philosophy and the narrator’s own belief in it. And so, my dream on that height of fever reflected and reveberated with De Selby; it became De Selbian, an endless repetition of the mirrors De Selby believes allows himself to see his younger self, or the ever shrinking, infinite sequence of wooden chests built by the policeman MacCruiskeen. The strange thing is that the idea, such as it, in my dream was not really something De Selby was propose; it was a poor example of circular logic: might makes right, so right is always mediated by might. A fairly accurate representation of the world system, true, but not De Selbian; in my dream I assume it was, and I was haunted and pursued.

The novel is odd, yes, a word totally inadequate to the languorous plot, oneiric scenes and cryptic, obscure characters full of spoonerisms, solecisms, and malapropisms. The strange revelations of atomic drift between man and object, the existence of omnium, which can be anything, the room eternity where everything can be made but nothing carried out, are presented matter-of-factly, common knowledge to everyone by the narrator. He’s upset by all this, at first, then grows to accept it, the kind of weariness one expects of humour such as this; acceptance of the absurdity of the situation, an absurdity I feel inadequate to express properly. I have nothing much else to say about this book. Indeed, this book has ‘cult literature’ or ‘every hipster must read’ pronounced loudly from its pores; everyone has an opinion on it, and obsession come easy to The Third Policeman, as it does to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Fight Club. It’s better than those novels, the opposite end of learned, nerdy literature fetishism rather then gonzo outrageousnous, but all the same…

I was going to remark on bikes and their dominance in this novel, and why it led me to re-read The Supermale by Alfred Jarry…but lo and behold, someone has beaten me to it. So read this.


“Not excepting even the credulous Kraus (see his Do Selby’s Leben), all the commentators have treated de Selby’s disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of ‘black air’, i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain ‘regrettable’ industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a).

via http://www.hellshaw.com/flann/deselby.html

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How I won the War


This is what you get when you type Pataphor into Google: John Lennon


I think Zamyatin, without realising it, was prefiguring a kind of pataphorical style. Or
more accurately, retroactively, his style fits the mold set out by Pablo Lopez, in his
definition of the pataphor. On his website, he defines a pataphor as “An extended
metaphor that creates its own context.” The pataphor is an application of Alfred
Jarry’s science of imaginary solutions, ‘pataphysics, “as far from metaphysics as
metaphysics extends from regular reality.” The pataphor is therefore two steps
beyond reality, and one step beyond the metaphor that seeks to connect reality to

A more concrete example from Pablo Lopez:

“String theory may be said to be a kind of mathematical pataphor, insofar as it is
‘supposition based on supposition’. In other words, as string theory is speculation
based on ideas that are themselves speculative (in this instance, theories of general
relativity and quantum mechanics), string theory is not in fact physics, but

This pataphorical bent is limited, as far as I can tell, to We; I’ve read the collection of
short stories in The Dragon, and his collected essays in A Soviet Heretic, though I
have not read The Islanders, for instance. In general, they lack the stylistic
innovations I find so compelling about We; they are still good, interesting, informative, but they are not We. Ginsburg’s introduction to that essay collection A Soviet
argues that Zamyatin’s flair for metaphors was solidity; they are not just
comparisons, they have reality; when he says that a cathedral looks like a beehive, it is
because, to him, in the text, it is a beehive, if only for a moment. His metaphors have
a physical reality that lasts within the text, that is not just a conscious poetic
comparison, made for the reader or in the mind of a narrator or voice. Zamyatin, for
instance, describes the haughty, brave, sexy revolutionary woman I-330 as such:

“Her dark eyebrows pulled up high toward her temples, they made a sardonic sharp
triangle, and the two deep lines running from her nose to the corners of her mouth
made another, this time with the point up. And these two triangles somehow
cancelled each other out, make an unpleasant, irritating X on her face, like a cross.”

That, at first, seems like a simple visual description, of geometric shapes; yet the
metaphor gains a tenacity of its own, so that the X becomes I-330 in the novel, and
becomes the short hand for her, just like the “dark triangle” of her cleavage,
geographic shapes that stand in for the whole. This sounds much more like
metonymy then anything, but it lives on as a comparison that ceases to be made; I-
330’s face is an x. The doctor: “he was nothing but profile, sharp and chiselled. His
nose, a flashing blade; his lips – scissors.” Potent enough imagery, and it reflects his
vocation and character, as surgeon and medical officer. But throughout the rest of
the book, those scissors start to snip, the blade flashes, the doctor becomes clipping
scissors and flashing blade, and even the reminder of him is as the sound of scissors.
An engineer: “his face like a porcelain dinner plate. And serving something
irresistibly tasty on his plate.” The metaphor moves beyond a comparison, and
becomes an actual plate serving food. These continue throughout the book; they are
clever, and impulsive; they have a vitality that always amazes me, or I wouldn’t be
able to read the novel so often and feel so impressed by this technical skill, so
intensely important to the thematic skill. We is a hot-house of a science fiction; I
think it is satire, as the language is so outlandish compared to other of his works, that
along with the glass towers, rockets, radio valkyries and ozone sputters, massive
lightning towers, it is mocking, and yet paying tribute, to that thrust of constructivist
science fantasy.

What was that about pataphors? I’d nearly forgotten. Pretty limited actually. What
an excercise. Remember, a pataphor is: That which occurs when a lizard’s tail has
grown so long it breaks off and grows a new lizard

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This is a cliche to start a review with: Tom Segev is the kind of historian more people need to read more often. Segev is the kind of historian that gives historians a good name amongst those who hate heavy footnotes and arcane theoretical frameworks. He writes narrative history, and allows the individuals of his story to speak for themselves; he writes linguistically accessible history, clear, concise, certain and free of the kind of academic jargon (a near-mythical syntax sometimes) that reduces say, Ivan the Great, to a bureaucratic progress report; he writes history that is, most importantly, honest and as even-handed as it can possibly be, adhering to the so-called historian’s art. There, the cliches are out of the way: those are the words that make up a cover blurb, but the subject of his book is why his clear voice, honesty, impartiality are important: Segev is writing about Palestine, and very little we will read, hear or say about Palestine is clear, honest, impartial.

There are flaws to Segev’s work, let me be clear. The book is a straightforward narrative history, light on economic or social analysis, and his narrative is almost exclusively made up of diaries and statements by the rich, powerful and influential within the Zionist movement and the British administration of Palestine; the narrative is livened, though, with the memoirs of a British soldier, an English school teacher, three young Jewish nationalists, and the occasional glimpses of a Jewish insurance agent and an Arab Christian educator and leader of the Arab nationalist movement. For a history that claims to be about Jews and Arabs under thirty years of British ‘trusteeship’, Arab voices are limited almost exclusively to Khahil Al-Sakakini, the aforementioned Arab Christian educator and nationalist; other nationalist leaders like the mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and George Antonius are peripheral to the narrative thrust of the book despite their importance to the Arab ‘side’ of the story. The majority of Arabs, therefore, are faceless, nameless and voiceless, which in part reflects the truth that, unlike the vast majority of Jewish immigrants to Palestine between 1918 and 1948, the Arab population was predominantly rural, peasant and illiterate. I don’t think Segev speaks or reads Arabic, an obvious problem in a book about Jews AND Arabs, and so he lacks the kind of detail and insight of the Arabic people and their political movements that a book like Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906-1948 by Zachary Lockman possesses, for instance.

If anything, One Palestine, Complete demonstrates, again and again, the excellent public relations of the Zionist movement both within and without Israel, and that this was the decisive reason for the eventual triumph of the Zionist goal of an independent Jewish state. His narrative is heavily framed by the political manueverings at the very heights of power by Chaim Weizmann, whose political erudition, skill, intelligence, charisma and friends in high places, including Lloyd George, Churchill, Ramsay Macdonald, Balfour and more, enabled him to influence the retention of Palestine after World War 1, and the declaration of support (the Balfour Declaration) for a Jewish ‘national home’ and the direction of British policy in Palestine; ironically, Weizmann would on more then one occasion manipulate the delusion of a global Jewish conspiracy, to convince British statesmen, deeply convinced of this reality, that Zionism was an ally of British imperialism. And indeed it was.

This is the central thesis of Segev’s book: the Jewish Zionist movement triumphed over the Arabs in Palestine because British policy from the very top and the very start supported immigration, land purchases, infrastructure development and foreign Jewish investment that profited Jews far more then it did Arabs. This is part of what has made his book so controversial; I don’t find it hard to believe, because Segev, an Israeli, demolishes slowly and quietly many of the central myths, still trotted out, of the Zionist success in Palestine Ersatz Israel. Still, it’s strange that Britain’s pro-Zionist stance would be questioned: the Zionists themselves, Weizmann especially, were very pro-British, and they were helped by Zionists, both Christian and Jewish, within the colonial administration and home government. Undoubtably there were British anti-semites within the colonial administration: General Sir Evelyn Barker, commander after World War 2, was not at all fond of Jews, to say the least. But Segev goes out of his way to demonstrate that it was an isolated phenomenon, and that the anti-semitism that emerged against Jews in Palestine, especially after World War 2 when one assumes guilt over the Holocaust would do the opposite, was caused by the young soldiers fighting a counter-insurgency against Jewish terrorists, or freedom fighters, in Etzel and the Haganah. Generally, the British whose voices we hear are dull functionaries and colonial bureaucrats: they leave little impression save in their dreary professionalism, commitment to mythical ideals of fair play and equal treatment and impartiality. At most, as Segev regularly quotes, they were pro- British, and anti everything else. Men like police officer Raymond Cafferata and administrators like Edward Keith-Roach and Roland Storrs, are stodgy, dedicated professionals, trying to do the job assigned, keeping order, building infrastructure, though perhaps made misty-eyed by the Christian miasma of the Holy Land. Men like this, colonists, often sympathised with the Arab fellah, who they viewed as simple, loyal and easy to control, but others were moved to train, support, intermingle and protect the Jewish community, both for personal and because of their orders. Segev is quite clear on this: individual men often had conflicting opinions, but the administration as a whole was geared towards supporting the Zionist movement. It was seen as a duty, a mission, a word to keep.


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If this combination of events, developments led to public and private
secularism and atheism in the West, then why has the ‘Muslim world’ experienced the
opposite of our trajectory, and instead has witnessed, since the Iranian Revolution at
the very least, a resurgence of religious belief and of violent fundamentalist sects,
which many atheists and conservatives alike view as the face and soul of Islam itself?
Unsurprisingly, I believe that history sheds some like on this subject. I cannot state
with absolute certainty, but there is very good evidence that it is the failure of the
Islamic world historically to experience the kind of changes in the economic and
social order that the ‘West’ has gone through. I do not, however, believe that this
was the fault of Islam alone, as historians like Bernard Lewis or Niall Ferguson or
even some atheists might very well argue. That is, Islam was an enervating force,
dominating the Islamic world and forcing a collective mindset that distrusted change,
hated ‘modernity’ and was corrupt, venal, stagnant and cowardly. I will state that
such descriptors can very well be applied to peoples within, say, the Ottoman Empire,
that the administration and clergy were corrupt, venal, stagnant, cowardly, and did
fear change and distrust ‘modernity’. It does not follow automatically, however, that
because the rulers of the Ottoman Empire were Muslims that Islam was necessarily
the primary force motivating this reaction, though like all totalising ideologies it
helped to legitimise, organise or give expression to an anti-Western reaction. I state
this again for clarity’s sake as we continue; it is a point apt to be forgotten.

Above, I outlined a model of ‘modernization’ that led, in many ways
unintentionally, to secularism, and I maintain that in order for mass secularism to
appear historically within the public and private spheres of a society, the factors I
discussed will probably occur, probably in tandem and usually intertwined like thread.
The key difference between Europe and the ‘Muslim world’ in my formulation is that
the states and regions like the Ottoman Empire, or Iran, or India, has experienced
European modernity as ‘European’, originating from outside and often taking the
form of destructive forces that challenged or fragmented the existing world view, like
capitalism and imperialism, but because of their externality failed to provide the
‘benefits’ of modernity, like wealth accumulation, labour organisation, mass
education and mass technological progression. This is not to say that other forces,
including considerable inertia and religious hostility to ‘modernity’ did not have any
influence, but that overall it was macroeconomic and social dislocation that is the root
of the ‘problem’.

Just to be clear, as well, I will not be talking about the whole Muslim world;
the whole Muslim world is not facing what I continue to call a Crisis. Indonesia and
Malaysia, with a few minor exceptions, are doing fine by the standards of liberal
capitalism; the terrorist Jihadists there are minor, and in Indonesia, it is rebels against
the central government that are the prime instigators of terrorist violence. In
Malaysia, Islam as practiced by Malays seems to have adopted well to democracy.
Even in Bangladesh and India, where communitarian violence between religious
groups and some Islamic religious persecution (and Hindu persecution too) has
occurred, there is not the same problem with Jihadis. What we are talking about is a

specific area: the Arab world, for one, and its adjacent
regions in Farsi-dominated Iran, Turkish Turkey and Central Asia, and the Afghan
borderlands of the Indian subcontinent.

As a whole, these regions were part of what used to called ‘the gunpowder
empires’ by Marshall G. S. Hodgson (an inaccurate term that relied on
categorising the empires primarily as ‘Muslim’ rather then by a number of other
signifiers and qualities they possessed): they were large empires, Muslim in religion,
that all arose in the 15th century and proceeded to conquer huge swathes of Asia: the
Ottoman Empire, ruled by the Turks, absorbed the former Byzantine Empire, Egypt,
North Africa, Mesopotamia and conquered the Balkans and Hungary up the gates of
Vienna; the Safavid Empire and its predecessors, led by warriors and administrators
who were often Turkish, Azeri as much as Farsi, ruled over Iran, the Caucasus and
parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia, while the Moghul Empire ruled most of what
we now call the Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan. At their height in the late 16th
and early to middle 17th centuries, these three empires together encompassed
something like a fourth the population of Eurasia; huge quantities of wealth derived
from agriculture and low-level manufacturing, and from mining silver and gold and
from trade in spices, silks, cottons and other luxury items gave them strength and
incredible prestige. These empires were served by a fairly efficient bureaucracy, often
recruited impartially (theoretically at least) especially in the case of the Ottomans and
Safavids; the Ottomans also had an efficient and advanced military, including a corps
of engineers capable of building quite impressive bridges, rapid entrenchment and
assembling supplies and fodder well in advance of a military campaign. This was a
height of intellectual and cultural grandeur; Persian art reached its apogee in the
seventeenth century, while in India the urban culture of the Moghuls was full of
poetry, music and surprisingly, attempts at discourse and rationality, and open
skepticism toward religion. This is too rosy a picture, I know; famines, wars, plagues
and the millstones of taxation and seasonal harvests around the necks of peasants
continued day to day, though I will admit that in the Ottoman Empire, Safavid
Empire and Mughal India, peasant communities often had a strong corporate identity
and were often not afraid of taking up arms and going bandit, or hauling off to find
better land and lords (indeed all three empires tried very hard to settle their
populations and especially their nomads); practically, this meant that the conditions of
daily life were no more unrelentingly grim and oppressive than in Europe at least.


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The goal of this essay is to rebut what I consider several fallacies of militant
atheist liberal humanist or conservative critiques of Islam. I dislike intensely
reductionism and simplification: I object to the fallacy of assuming that the problems
with the ‘Muslim world’ are to be laid at the feet of Islam, that Islam is itself
monolithic in its interpretation, and that that religious interpretation ALONE is what
is responsible for the irrationality, poverty, fear, violence and religious fanaticism of
Muslims. In order to address what I think are important modifiers, or completely
rebuttals to this view, I want to first examine why ‘the West’ is considered to be the
bastion of secular humanism, of reason, of tolerance; in short, in order to discover
why Muslims have ‘failed’ to become like us, I need to find out what made ‘us.’

Some modifiers, first. The idea of the West as rational, tolerant, liberal,
progressive, powerful, striving against the irrational, decadent, superstitious, magical,
retrograde and barbarous East is a long held Orientalist cliche; it is painful to see it
revised so thoroughly by educated scientific atheists and secular humanists who
apparently aren’t as reflective as they once thought. So, to start, the ‘West’ as
defined as Europe and North America, taking out Japan and Australasia, is not as
positive as we imagine it; there are still tremendous divides between rich and poor,
there is still much injustice, minorities and women are still not able to exercise their
fullest freedom, though we are closer now then perhaps fifty years, and there is
always the danger that we will fall back into the barbarism we have exorcised onto
the Other. Second, the ‘East’ is not so barbaric as we imagine, though as always, the
lovey dovey everyone is wonderful all cultures are beautiful cliche is NOT helpful.
Certain historical conditions have allowed ‘Western’ civilization to achieve a level of
wealth and power, and secularism, not really equalled by the rest of the world. The
Question, as always, is: why?


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Once, a few months ago, I embroiled myself in a lengthy discussion with a
compatriot of mine about the nature of Islam; this was not a learned discussion, per
se, about the nature of religion, involving detailed and obscure textual citations,
warbling on spirituality or the meaning of God. The main contention was the so-
called ‘War on Terror’, the so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ most prominently
promulgated by Samuel Huntington and given clear form to all those who agree with
him by 9/11 and Iraq, and by ‘the problem with Islam.’

1. Apologia
My ire had been drawn, like a tiny, pipping flak burst against a gargantuan
airship, the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Hirsi Ali, Michael Ignatieff and the whole
parade of folks like Oliver Kamm, Margaret Wente, or many self-named liberals in the
New York Times, Independent, The Globe and Mail and across the world. Reading
their articles and books on religion, and especially on Islam, I find a hatred, a fear, a
loathing, sometimes well articulated, at others times histrionic, one that is surprisingly
close to the conservative, militarist or sometimes even overtly racist consensus of
much of the rest of the political, economic and cultural establishment of the ‘West’.
In many cases, they have come, in most cases (Igantieff being an obvious exception),
to support those who once they showered with vitriol.
What this new consensus of liberals and other leftists fear and oppose is
summed by Christopher Hitchens, in an essay in defence of Martin Amis, in The
, November 21, 2007:

“…the world where honour killings and forced marriages happen is real, and
so is the world in which mosques are distributing cassettes and DVDs calling for the
murder of Jews and Hindus. (So much for precious multiculturalism.) The world
where one holy book is sovereign, and only to be understood as written in one
exclusive tongue. The world where djinns and devils are real, and where women are
unclean and homosexuals are unspeakable, where novelists can be sentenced to death
and where bombs can be left to slaughter the sort of “slags” who might go clubbing in
London. And the damage that those bombs were designed to inflict was …

A quick reading might find little to object to in this paragraph. Why shouldn’t
an atheist liberal, who supports rationality and logic, non-religiously devised morality
and ethics human society, be opposed to such things? Why oppose this indignant
horror that a religion could allow, sanction, endorse such retrograde behaviour
amongst a significant number of the worlds population?

My hackles were first raised when I realised that this belief in the moral,
intellectual and social inferiority of Islam, originating from people who claimed to be
atheists and liberals, led to support for human behaviour no less reprehensible.
Hitchens raves about the pleasure he finds in the killing of Muslims, as recounted by
Richard Seymour in “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens” (Monthly
Review Magazine
, Nov. 26, 2005) while Hirsi Ali states, for the record in Reason, that “I think
that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars.” Even Richard
Dawkins was belligerent after 9/11, though he has been a little more muted jingoism
of late. Many of these people, who have been described, with sneers, as ‘cruise-
missile liberals’ by the far left, support the war in Iraq, support, in Ignatieff’s case,
torture, support persecution in one form or another of Muslims for their faith alone
That these public thinkers are representative of a significant and influential body of
public opinion, middle-class, professional, educated gave me even more pause for
deep, fearful concern.

My opposition to this ‘position’ has hardened over the months, and I now
agree with Terry Eagleton, in that “the implication from Amis and McEwan – and
from Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – is that civilisation and atheist rationalism go
together, and I think that is a very dangerous argument to make. The debate over
God – Muslim or Christian – is for them increasingly becoming code for a debate on
civilisation versus barbarism.”

What I am about to write, however, will not be a textual defence of Islam or
the Qu’ran, as I lack the necessary knowledge and readings to even begin such a
project. I will not be questioning the atheist project as such: I am not religious, I am
an atheist. I don’t disagree, in specific principles, with the ‘New Atheists’, and I
support rationalism, ethics divorced from God’s authority, secularism and scientific
rigour (naturally, with some reservations). I do not, and never will, have the same
intimacy with Islam that many of the prominent female atheist critiques have of that
religion; I have read Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, and so I am well aware of how serious this
issue is from a individual and social standpoint; I agree with the need for Muslims to
be the voice of their own criticism; I just think that criticism should NOT involve cluster
bombs. This essay is not a defence of religion, per se, or a justification for God’s
existence, or for the terrorism of Al-Quaida or other groups. Indeed, I am
broadening the terms of what I am attempting to, at most refute, at least object, so
that it is not purely an assault on the ‘New Atheists.’ Their position on Islam, hardly
uniform I admit, is not confined to the New Atheists, or liberals, or any combination
of the two: it is also the stated position on Islam of conservative historians like
Bernard Lewis and Niall Ferguson, of many political conservatives and neo-
conservatives, of NATO governments, including ours in Canada.

Bear in mind the limitations I have imposed on myself. What then, do I object
to? First, I object to the simplification of a diverse belief system into a monolithic
caricature, so that despite their great regional differences, Moroccans and Javanese,
say, believe and act their belief in a very similar way. I object, therefore, to lumping
one billion Muslims into a uniform mass called the ‘Muslim world’ that has the same
characteristics across the board; so I’ll put ‘Muslim world’ in quotations from now
on, as a rough signifier but nothing else. I object to crude psychological explanations
of sexual repression and ignorant fear. I object to the assumption that Islam, and
Islam alone, is responsible for the crises facing them. I object, therefore, to the
assertion that because Islam is interpreted both by some ‘Westerners’ and some
Muslims as anti-democratic, anti-rational, anti-progress, anti-technology, anti-
Western, that it is Islam’s fault alone that the ‘Muslim world’ is not wealthy,
technologically advanced, democratic or secular like us. Many critics ignore or
dismiss any other possible explanation, and demonstrate a willful ignorance of the
very real economic, social, political and environmental pressures on their chosen
punching bag that are much more responsible, collectively, for the problems besetting
Muslims. Most importantly, I object to the denial that the ‘West’ has has had any influence in
the unfolding of a thousand small conflicts across the globe that just happen to
involve Islam and ‘the West’.

Finally, I will make this abundantly clear: what I am to write is not a work of
startling erudition, and it is not exhaustive, all encompassing or even perfectly
reasoned. I am well aware that my knowledge and experience is limited, my intellect
as well, and that what I write here may very well repeat some of the mistakes that
have led me to condemn Hitchens or Hirsi Ali or so many others. These are notes
towards an understanding, like a cautious first scholarly publication in a journal of
numetistic; if you want more, read some of the books I am about to quote.


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