a little moonshine in july
What a fortunate distraction the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing has been. Instead of contemplating the imminent crash-landing of Britain’s economy we could watch again the two first men walking on the moon, successfully ascending to the docking bay, and heroically returning to our wondrous blue planet.
In his first poem as poet laureate, Simon Armitage revives the spectacular festival of hubris that followed.
“But as Tricky Dicky clears his throat
to claim God’s estate
as man’s backyard
from the Oval Office,
and the gap narrows
to feet from inches,
suddenly stars recoil
to the next dimension
and heaven flinches”.
Less than five years later impeachment hearings against Richard Nixon began. The Furies had done their job.
The anniversary of the landings recalled a profound human experience that might have provided a new vision of human destiny and our place in the universe. Celebrating crowds across the world seemed to convey this hope. But, of course, the whole epic endeavor was not just a Columbus-like voyage of discovery, a moving display of human courage and technological prowess, launching humanity into the cosmos; NASA’s superhuman effort was also a bi-product of the Cold War.
President Kennedy, who committed the USA to a moon landing within a decade was spurred on by Russia’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. Immediately the US had achieved a manned moon landing the vast NASA budget was halved. There was a sense of “seen that, done that”. With the Russians eclipsed, impetus dissipated. Wernher Von Braun, NASA’s chief engineer, recruited in 1946, former member of Hitler’s Allgemeine (General) SS and designer of Nazi Germany’s V-2 Rocket, was the brains behind the Apollo launches from Cape Kennedy. In his mind the moon was to be the launching pad for future Mars missions. Nothing came of his vision for another fifty years.
Hoping that a major strand of Cold War rivalry would “bring humanity together” was inherently implausible, and that implausibility was made visible as the American flag was planted in the Sea of Tranquility. Competition between the two astronauts who would be the first men ever to put foot on the moon was no less visible. Buzz Aldrin’s father, a General, lobbied for his son to be ahead of Neil Armstrong. Aldrin himself followed up Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon’s desolate surface by attention grabbing, skipping and hopping in front of the camera in the moon’s meagre gravity.
The cost of this achievement was not negligible in either human or financial respects. Kennedy’s demand for a programme to land US astronauts on the moon within the decade had involved hundreds of thousands of people with an array of skills focused on one goal. Several lives were lost. The Soviet Union also lost lives but managed to keep their deaths quiet.
The extensive and excellent TV coverage during this July was largely new to me. In 1969 I was in Malawi reliant on the BBC World Service for news. As with Kennedy’s death, I remember exactly where I was when Neil Armstrong took his great step for mankind: in the middle of Malawi, Central Africa lying in a maize field looking up at the sky. I also remember thinking how can it be that we can put men on the moon but not manage to enable millions of Africans to feed themselves, to buy shoes, have running water and electricity, and somewhere decent to live. Better understanding the collective intellectual feat that was the successful voyage of Apollo only makes the question more insistent.
Fifty years later that thought remains pertinent. I went back to Malawi a few years ago. Just as the empty rhetoric about expanding humanity’s home to other planets has proved just that, rhetoric, so little had happened in Malawi to better the lot of the majority of its inhabitants. More people had shoes. Children possibly looked better fed but a difficult judgement call. There were more portable radios. In the middle of the capital Lilongwe there was a new, big, shiny bank, the modern equivalent of a mediaeval cathedral though more quickly built and ugly. But housing in rural areas was much the same. A roadside stall selling hub caps on one of the worst roads was still there, supply from the potholes exceeding demand. Coffin production was an expanding business thanks to the new tragedy of Malawi’s AIDS epidemic. And the country had a government whose major intention was to compete for power and enrich its leading Party’s members and clients.
By one of those mental jumps – nadir is after all an astronomical term - the timely distraction of those heart-lifting times on the moon was quickly gone. Back to our new Prime Minister and his Cabinet. No escape. “Heaven flinches” as Armitage has it. And so do half the population of these islands as we learn what the nadir of our political culture means.
Donald Trump is working away at undermining liberal democracy and its values more efficiently than his friend Vladimir Putin. You might think his telling four congresswomen of colour, three born in the USA, a pluralist, multi-racial federation created by immigration, to go back to the “crime-ridden” countries they came from, is as bad as it gets. Well, it’s not. Advocating the use of torture is worse.
In 2016 while campaigning for the Presidency Trump clearly advocated State use of torture. “Torture works, OK folks” he said. “And waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding”. He received applause from his audience.
Torture has been used in the past in, or by, the USA to extract information and as punishment: by soldiers in wars, by police, by secretive State agencies, and by criminal militias, in jails, “black sites”, barracks, and, associated with racism by lynch mobs. George W. Bush legitimated its use in his ‘war on terror’.
Like many people, I have always believed torture marks an ethical frontier. Torture is designed to dehumanize the victim, “break them”, take away every last vestige of freedom and human dignity, to inflict a spiritual death as well as physical pain and degradation through “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”. It is a fundamental denial of our shared humanity, the ultimate inhumanity, in some ways worse than capital punishment and summary execution. That is the damage to the victim. But what of the consequences for the State, and its representatives, that endorse its use against criminals and terrorists?
Extracting information from terrorists and the CIA’s failure to share critical intelligence with the FBI was the theme of BBC Two’s recent drama-doc television series The Looming Tower, which examines the antecedents of 9/11. The hero is a real-life Lebanese-American Muslim New York FBI agent, Ali Soufan. I travelled with him in Kosovo a few years ago. The real Ali was not your usual picture of an FBI agent. He suffered from car sickness, spoke fluent Arabic and resigned on moral grounds from the Federal Bureau in 2005. Because of the 1993 Al-Qaida attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, the New York FBI became the first to hold the Al-Qaida (AQ) dossier. This was how Ali came to investigate the 12 October 2000 terrorist attack on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole refueling in Aden, killing 17 US sailors and wounding 39 more, and why he interrogated possible AQ operatives after 9/11. He tells his story in his much redacted The Black Banners: Inside the Hunt for Al-Qaida. Using conventional interrogation techniques, building up a relationship with captured suspect terrorists, and drawing on his knowledge of Islam, Ali Soufan and the FBI obtained much valuable intelligence.
The FBI’s more humane approach came abruptly to an end when the CIA took over, employing “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the favoured euphemism for torture. The then Attorney-General, Steven G. Bradbury, allowed waterboarding of “high value detainees”. The White House legal counsel, Alberto Gonzales, placed AQ detainees in the category of “unlawful combatants”, so Guantanamo Bay was outside the legal provisions of the Geneva Convention. Two key AQ operatives, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were repeatedly waterboarded. They had been trained to withstand torture - but not kindness.
There was a laudable reaction in Washington. Despite repeated CIA claims to the contrary, the Senate sub-committee on Intelligence concluded that “enhanced interrogation” had yielded no critical information. Waterboarding has since been banned. Under torture the mind becomes confused, suggested events are imagined. The panic and pain produce false stories just to stop the choking and terror. The US Army Field Manual, in a quiet retreat, banned “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in 2016.
So torture is all in the past then, all down to the trauma of 9/11 and George W. Bush? Maybe. But W. Fitzhugh Brundage in Civilizing Torture: An American Tradition, Harvard University, is far less sanguine. He presents water torture as being as American as motherhood and apple pie, practiced before, during and after the Civil War, in US occupied Philippines, in Chicago jails, in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a difficult read. The excuses for torture have been remarkably consistent: a few bad apples, an urgent need to obtain life-saving information, torture defined narrowly as the infliction of extreme pain such as destruction of a major bodily organ, an inevitable retaliatory feature of warfare, and so on. Torture is, of course, inevitable, if no-one gets prosecuted because successful prosecution would be damaging to morale and would lose votes. It is never politic to tangle with the emotions aroused by American casualties in war. Obama backed off prosecuting members of the Bush government who tried to legitimate torture. Britain’s complicity in CIA rendition of suspects to “black sites” for torture means we cannot be complacent. As Montaigne wrote in the 16th century “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice”. Despite the constraint of the law, torturers will expect the consistent excuses of the past to provide them with near impunity in the future.
The one redeeming feature of this sorry story is that within liberal democracies there have always been institutions and voices to combat the slide into barbarism, seeking to outlaw the use of torture and to seek prosecutions. Trump so far is being contained by the resilience of US institutions. His deceased arch-enemy Senator John McCain should have the last word on the use of torture – which he experienced while captured in North Vietnam. We are “obliged by history, by our nation’s highest ideals and the many terrible sacrifices made to protect them, by our respect for human dignity to make clear we need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war”. Senate Intelligence Report on CIA Interrogation Methods 9 December 2014.
Sadly Donald Trump seems to have no concept of national honour in his moral compass. Would that the Republicans had the courage to field someone of McCain’s stature to fill the moral vacuum that Trump is occupying.
See TheArticle “By Advocating Torture Trump fundamentally undermines Liberal Democracy” 18 July 2019
“What the British and American working class have in common is that they both vote against their own interests”. I can’t remember who said that but the popularity ratings of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – notably with their own Parties – gives it credence. In the British case an odd coalition of the elderly, many comfortably off, and the working class and poor, those on or below the poverty line, pushed us into BREXIT by a narrow majority.
What have these two groups got in common? What motivates their voting behaviour? The startling resonance of the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control” gives the clue. Both groups feel a lack of control over their own lives. It’s easy to see why the poor may feel like this. The decline in the trades unions, the new digital economy, decades of decline and stagnation in workers’ wages, and the zero-hours economy have left manual and unskilled workers insecure. They feel forgotten and left out of the prosperity they see in advertisements and in affluent parts of the country.
Old people, well off or poor, weaken and become sick as they age, and feel a loss of control over their lives. They see the past through rose-tinted spectacles and fear the fast pace of change. They depend on their local GP and hospital consultants, and on social care, in a similar way to the unemployed and intermittently employed who have to deal with Job Centre officials and the benefits system. Remember the Leave video of the helpless old lady waiting tearfully as foreign-looking men were treated before her in a hospital A & E department? It was a brilliant but sinister piece of propaganda which incorporated the two big interlinked themes which brought together the two large groups attracted to BREXIT: immigration and loss of control.
There is also another factor: education. When I went to university with a scholarship in the 1960s, it was to join a privileged 5% of the population. The elderly, the poor, and manual workers on the whole lack higher education and the self-confidence it brings. In a transformed world where half of young people become university students, hoping for access to better jobs with better terms of employment, those with no degree, if they are still of working age, fear unemployment, temporary employment, the food banks and debt. They are not wrong. Higher education facilitates the skills of good decision-making. Britain’s urban elite did not get where they are today without figuring out how to find fulfilling jobs, how to make money and what professions to make it in.
BREXIT, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are part of a wider global phenomenon in which insecurity, anger, resentment at being ignored accompany rejection of expertise and experience, and generate votes for leaders who appear to subvert the hated, but vaguely defined, Establishment. Trickster leaders entertain and manipulate minds skillfully, with the single aim of gaining and retaining power through the politics of feeling. William Davies’ book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World makes the point that democracy is now acutely vulnerable to this kind of emotional subversion. He cites the worrying statistic from the last US presidential elections that “86% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton expressed trust in the economic data produced by the federal government, compared to just 13% of those who voted for Trump”. Translated to the UK this means that the overwhelming economic arguments against a ‘No Deal’ BREXIT will carry negligible weight with Brexiteers. The success of the politics of feeling should, and is beginning to, set alarm bells ringing about the future of democracy. Political discourse has for millennia included emotion and rhetoric. But we now seem to be witnessing a jump-shift into spectacular public irrationality. A majority of members of the Conservative and Unionist Party, if opinion polls are to be believed, consider retention of the Union less important than completing BREXIT. This cannot simply be placed at the door of social media. It indicates a deeper swing from rational choice to emotion preference.
The tricksters, with the coming appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by 160,000 or so Tory members, will have triumphed. Emotion will have defeated reason in British politics. Our antiquated political machinery will have failed to uphold democracy.
Is there a remedy? None is obvious in the short term. But we must return to a reasoned vision of what we want our society to be, to a concept of politics with social justice as its principal goal, and to creating systems which have a chance of producing governments with a respect for moral integrity. Faith and Reason sound like a Catholic formula. But retaining faith in democracy through the current turbulence and insisting that our politics temper emotion with reason are essential if we are to emerge from the current crisis. We need to retrieve the idea that there is something called truth.
This flight from expertise and fact to emotion and fantasy in democracies is happening against the background of the economic success and global ascendancy of the anti-democratic People’s Republic of China with its pervasive censorship. With autocracies such as Russia stirring the pot through cyber-interventions, we have entered the new ideological conflict of the 21st. century. Our political culture has to change if we are to win it.
See All over the world Rational Choice is being rejected. What should we do about it? TheArticle 10 July 2019
A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with Iran’s former President, Seyyed Khatami, during lunch at Lambeth Palace. I asked him through his interpreter what Shi’a Islam had to say about nuclear weapons. “They are forbidden, haram”, was the answer through the interpreter. “Banned for use ?” I queried. “Forbidden for both possession and use” came back the answer from Khatami in perfect English.
Of course, with a little casuistry, you could have the components of a nuclear bomb available and ready for assembly and still “not possess nuclear weapons”. This was probably the aim of the Iranian nuclear programme pre-JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action): the international agreement on limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear capacity, signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, USA, China, Russia, France and UK plus Germany and the EU.
Iranian national pride is widely shared inside the country. You do not have to be a fanatical Revolutionary Guard commander to believe in national sovereignty. It is after all one of the basic principles of the UN. Nor from an Iranian perspective do you necessarily think possession of a nuclear weapon is perversely irrational. A number of States with a military presence near or around Iran’s borders have nuclear weapons: Russia, USA, UK, Pakistan and Israel. JCPOA took a lot of selling to Shi’a hardliners. To give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) thorough monitoring access to Iran’s nuclear facilities was a big ask . But, according to the IAEA, Iran complied with the treaty and kept its uranium enrichment below the required 3.67%. Any preparations for a nuclear weapon were thus in abeyance, or discontinued, until the USA reneged on the JCPOA agreement enraging and humiliating President Hourani’s government and the Iranian public.
If we are to believe White House sources, we were 10 minutes away from a US attack on Iran two weeks ago with, probably, the Strait of Hormuz being blocked in retaliation. Iran had shot down a US surveillance i.e. spy drone. Remarkably the Stock Exchange barely blinked. So was it all playground bravado and will it remain only a war of words?
In the Trump era, sanctions are imposed on foreign countries as if they were a routine part of foreign policy. But oil sanctions on a country almost totally dependent on revenue from its oil exports devastate its economy and are close to being an act of war. Oil sanctions on Iran are estimated to have resulted in $50 billion in lost revenue. Iran had strong reasons to threaten retaliation by making warning attacks on shipping transporting oil through the Strait. As the cliché goes, one thing leads to another.
This dangerous state of affairs in the Gulf must primarily be laid at the door of the Trump administration and its unilateral withdrawal of the USA from JCPOA. The agreement was a triumph of diplomacy. Due to deep distrust between Iran and the rest of the signatories, detailed verification provisions were put in place. Iran has honoured these provisions and limited its stockpile of enriched uranium to the required 660 pounds. The US withdrawal was both a major blow to the ordered conduct of international relations, an insult to the co-signatories, and an economic blow to Iran; the Iranian rial lost three-quarters of its value. It undermined President Rouhani, by Iranian standards a pragmatic moderate, and illustrated that the Revolutionary Guards who opposed the treaty had been right all along. So strong are feelings about national sovereignty in Iran, there were, and are, only two ways of stopping the movement towards the possession of nuclear weapons: the JCPOA treaty or military attack.
So far the US has held back from military attack. It has followed up the oil sanctions it imposed, by bullying the rest of the world through threats to banks and trade into complying, with an almost total boycott of Iran. Further sanctions are now being piled on in the hope of bringing Iran to heel. One measure, banning the sale of enriched uranium to Russia, has resulted in Iran now being in breach of its stockpile limits.
Having told his core constituency that he will end US military intervention and “bring home our boys”, Trump is no warmonger even if his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is. But a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iran’s complex political system and public opinion makes the chance of war by mistake a growing danger. Any loss of American lives, attributable to the Revolutionary Guards, would be a trigger.
It is understandable that the US and Israel are particularly unhappy about Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree the Houthis in Yemen, along with a threatening Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, key Sunni protagonists, see Iran’s defiance of the West and Israel in a sectarian context as their rival in the struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. But the way forward is indicated by the successful negotiations over JCPOA: perseverance in diplomatic initiatives and recognition of Iran as inheritor of an ancient Persian culture and the Shi’a Safavid Empire, a legitimate claim to leadership of the Shi’a world.
This religious element in the geopolitics should not be neglected. Westerners sometimes find this difficult to grasp. Iran is absolutely serious about seeking religious recognition in the Muslim world. Hence its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis and the foul anti-Zionism of its crazed former President, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, who took over from President Khatami in 2005.
So now thanks to President Trump and his coterie we have Iran’s centrifuges spinning again and building up enriched uranium suitable for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. The routine disavowal, “the United States is not seeking war with Iran” is unconvincing. War is, and has been, the default position of both Israel and the USA. And at the moment, on the trajectory set by President Trump, the USA or Israel will eventually undertake a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities with dire consequences.