Tuesday, October 13, 2015 

Never seen a tinderbox I didn't want to light.

(This was written yesterday, but I unfortunately arrived home to find my desktop no longer so much as wants to power on.  Updates are likely to be sporadic until it's fixed, as while writing posts on a phone is fine, formatting and adding links in the usual way is an utter chore.)

Let me get this straight.

Israel looks to be in the first stages of the third intifada, the Palestinians having lost hope in either Hamas or Fatah being able to deliver their own state.  The world looks on as the Israelis themselves become ever more hardline, as ever more territory is stolen and as ever more settlements are built.  Resistance now is to throw stones, stab ordinary Israelis.  Both are responded to with bullets.

In Turkey, for the second time, a march by Kurds and socialists is attacked by suicide bombers.  As on the first occasion in Suruc, the Kurdish HDP accuses President Erodgan's AKP party of being involved, either turning a blind eye to Islamic State plotting, or actively collaborating with the jihadists.  For it to happen once can be dismissed.  For it do so again, with the AKP having embarked on a new conflict with the PKK as part of a cynical manoeuvre to try and gain a majority in the second general election in the year, the charge is all the more difficult to dismiss.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudi coalition continues under the authorisation of a UN Security Council resolution to bomb whatever it feels like, the aim supposedly being to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  Thousands are dead, and there is practically no media coverage as it is all but impossible for reporters to gain access, not to forget the potential danger of being in what may as well be a free fire zone.

And then we have Syria and Iraq, where currently pretty much everyone and their mother is either bombing one or the other, or if not bombing then funding or funnelling arms to one side in what are both civil conflicts, but also proxy wars and grand theatres for leaders to show just how serious and tough they are by chucking high explosives at people who might be bad men but might equally be secular and moderate or civilians.

Somehow, quite incredibly, despite politicians knowing all of this, not least because some of them have been authorising the vapourising of British citizens who otherwise would have been coming right for us, one of the few people saying hang on, perhaps we shouldn't add to this chaos by getting even further involved is the one getting criticised.  According to John Woodcock MP, Diane Abbott is trolling her own party by continuing to argue that what's being proposed currently will not help Syrian civilians one iota.

The very best case currently being made for our own little intervention in Syria was set out jointly by Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox.  According to them, Syria is our generation's test, our Rwanda, our Bosnia, our Kosovo, our responsibility.  They say we must get back to basics, that primarily Syria and the Syrians themselves are the issue.  Their first two recommendations are that both the humanitarian effort to help refugees and the diplomatic effort to try to reach a political solution must be intensified.  No one could disagree.

Then we have the proposed military component.  The word how is not used once.  It is "not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs", they write, without explaining how they can be stopped.  "We need a military component that protects civilians", they say.  They do not propose how.  Any safe havens will need to be protected by forces on the ground, and a no fly zone, which would also be needed, would have to be enforced.  They do not suggest which or whose ground forces would be used, whether it would be the Kurdish militias (now also being accused of razing villages), "moderate" rebels, Turkish troops or Western forces.  They do not explain how a no fly zone could possibly work when the skies are full of planes and drones from numerous nations, nor how the Russians would react when just this weekend they have been in talks with the Americans on how to avoid any potential misunderstandings or clashes between the two sides.

"Preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted," they argue.  This is about as absurd a reading of the conflict as it's possible to imagine.  They seem to imagine that if only the Syrian government was prevented from killing more civilians it would throw in the towel, when the Russian intervention makes it pretty clear it was the gains being made by the non-Islamic State rebels that were causing real concern. The Russian involvement has changed everything, and yet still they seem to think there's room for yet more slinging around of missiles, as the safe zones idea is now even more of a non-starter than it was previously.  

When those making the best possible case still can't answer the most basic questions of how and who, it makes clear just how removed from reality our discourse has become that it's the critics who get the articles written about them.  We simply cannot get used to the idea of not getting off when everyone else has already shot their bolt.  Not even the potential of an incident with the Russians and all that would involve dissuades them.  We see chaos, and the only response is to want to create more.

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Friday, October 02, 2015 


I'm not here next week. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015 

Can you direct me to the nearest designated mass grave?

"In the long run," Keynes said, "we are all dead."  When it comes to any exchange of nuclear weapons, you can reverse his maxim.  Verily, in the very short term we will all be dead.  Or, if extraordinarily unlucky, still alive in a world where the living will envy the dead.

In what has already been a remarkably stupid last few weeks, the whole why-won't-that-bastard-Corbyn-incinerate-everyone-out-of-spite-if-we're-all-going-to-die-anyway debate has truly taken the cake.  Last night's Newsnight was utterly surreal: Evan Davis and Lord Falconer considering hypothetical after hypothetical, Falconer making clear that he would indeed if prime minister keep the option open of taking part in unprecedented slaughter, as that is clearly what the British people would expect.  The reaction of members of the shadow cabinet team to Jeremy Corbyn replying to a straight question with a straight answer they must have known he would give, that he cannot conceive of any circumstances in which he would ever launch nukes, has been bizarre and disloyal.  Andy Burnham, Maria Eagle and all the others are apparently perfectly happy to join in with the end of the world, so long as someone else starts it first.

As Dan Davies pointed out, Corbyn was asked entirely the wrong question.  The question should not be would you break out the nukes, as it is almost inconceivable we would ever use them without the support of the people who help to make our "independent" deterrent.  The question rather should be whether a prime minister would use them without US approval, and secondly what they think would happen if they did.  It's all but impossible to think of any scenario where potential nuclear war was imminent that would not involve a square off between the US and either Russia/China, the only other nuclear armed states that have the potential to destroy each other and much of the rest of the planet if they so wished.

In such circumstances, the NATO doctrine of an attack on one is an attack on all would come into play; there would be little effective choice in the matter unless the PM decided the whole Threads look wasn't a good one.  If nuclear holocaust happens, we're going to die.  Simple as.  If the prime minister of the day then is such an utter shitbag that his letter to the commander of the Vanguard sub says yes, please spray more nuclear megadeath around for the sheer sake of it, it's not going to make a blind bit of difference to us.  It might well to other countries without insane defence/war policies, but to a nation where Radio 4 has stopped broadcasting?  Nope.  Of course, the commander himself might in such circumstances decline to follow those orders, as who's going to know or rebuke him.  You wouldn't however put your mortgage on such a hope.

The oh, you can't say definitively you would never use nukes because you always have to make the potential enemy think you might argument is therefore bunk.  It's not about making the Russians/Chinese think twice, it's wholly about the ridiculous, yes I'm so dedicated to the security of my country that I will happily see it annihilated in a nuclear fire, my bollocks are bigger than yours political game.  It wouldn't matter as much if there was on the horizon the merest suggestion that we might be returning to a Cold War frame of mind, but there isn't.  On the contrary, the Russian intervention in Syria and the relative lack of reaction to it makes clear that the wear your mushroom with pride days are not about to make a comeback.  The Russian intervention in Afghanistan in the 80s seemed of a piece with the rise in belligerence by both sides.  Today, there is no such desire to restart the waving of ICBMs.

This doesn't mean it can't happen.  It could, not least if leaders more volatile than Obama or Putin come to power, or if China decides to further step up its militarisation of the South China Sea.  The smart money though remains on either a continued terrorist threat, as far as there is one, against which anything other than conventional forces are useless, or small scale actions like the ones in Ukraine, where irregular forces and militias are used, and so ditto.  As Diane Abbott rightly points out, some of the most respected retired generals previously made clear their opposition to Trident replacement, wanting the money to be spent instead on conventional weaponry.

The biggest obstacles to getting rid of Trident if we so wished are not so much those considerations, as politicians know full well nukes are useless militarily, but rather the "loss of standing" disarming would have. Allied with how the military-industrial complex must go on being fed, a view supported by the unions, with GMB leader Sir Paul Kenny (knighted by Cameron, natch) saying Corbyn would have to resign if he became prime minister and didn't change his stance, it's far easier to just accept that our weapons are both "independent" and a "deterrent", must be replaced, and be on the brink of being launched at all times.  Anything less is to give in to the "nirvana fallacy", to be unrealistic, to go against the accepted rules of politics.  Whether such thinking stands up in a world that moves ever further away from 1989, where the public mood is one of wanting to stop meddling as a direct result of the foreign policy failures of recent times, remains to be seen.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015 

Syria: hell on earth, and made worse by each successive intervention.

When it comes to the great worst place in the world to live debate, there are many favourites that immediately come to mind.  Your North Koreas, Saudi Arabias, Eritreas, Irans, etc.  All with highly oppressive authoritarian governments, all set on either outright killing their own people, or just making life as miserable as possible.  Then you have the places where plain old insecurity and crime are the main problem: countries like Honduras and El Salvador, currently battling over which has the highest murder rate per capita of population, while one of the BRICS, South Africa, is also averaging 49 murders a day.

Few though are likely to disagree (Islamic State supporting cretins excepted) that right now Syria is the closest equivalent to hell on earth.  Beyond argument is the root cause of the civil war was the reaction of the Assad regime to the protests that broke out as part of the wider Arab spring; less widely accepted is that the regime's almost immediate resort to violence was not wholly surprising considering events in Egypt.  There the Mubarak government pretty much surrendered without a fight.  It has since resurfaced in the form of the Sisi government, but whether the Ba'ath party would have been able to come back to power in the same way had Assad also quickly left the scene is dubious.

Besides, let's not indulge the view that had the initial uprising succeeded Syria would now be rivalling Tunisia in the Arab spring stakes.  That so many extreme Islamist groupings emerged as quickly as they did to fight the regime, not including either the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State, suggests there would have soon been a battle on the hands of the secularists and liberals to maintain their revolution.

In any case, the peaceful uprising quickly became an armed one.  These groups were soon funded by the usual suspects: the Saudis, the Qataris, Kuwaitis, etc.  Whether any Arab governments directly funded the most notorious jihadist groups is uncertain, but certainly the usual benefactors in their countries did.  At the same time, the Syrian government turned to its own allies, the Iranians and the Russians, both of whom have helped it to survive through direct aid, weaponry and in the case of Iran, fighters from Hezbollah.  Also helping out have been our good selves in the West: we quickly declared that Assad must go, his government was entirely illegitimate, and that the Syrian opposition, whichever group we've decided that is this week, are the only de facto representatives of the Syrian peopleAs well as helping to equip the "moderate" armed groups, it's fairly apparent that our approach throughout was to let the Arab states get on with doing whatever they felt like, even if that meant funding and arming jihadists, at the same time ironically enough as the Saudis and Emirate nations were helping with the overthrow of the moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Confused yet?  We're only just getting started.  Ever since Islamic State took advantage of the Sunni uprising in Iraq against what they saw as the sectarian central government to take over vast swaths of the country, enabling it to also grab a massive part of western Syria, such was the collapse of government authority there, a veritable smorgasbord of nations have decided the best way to defeat them is to drop bombs from a great height on their general position.  This roll call of countries includes the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE and France.  Technically we are yet to join in ourselves, but when you remember that British servicemen have taken part in sorties over the country and we felt the only way to protect ourselves from attacks on events that had already passed was to splatter some Islamic State morons across the Syrian desert via drone, you can basically include us also.

And now the Russians have joined in, only they are quite clearly intervening directly on the side of Assad.  For a few moments it looked as though the way was clearing for the sort of precursor to a peace initiative a few of us have long called for: to recognise that however terrible the crimes Assad has committed are, the only way to deal with Islamic State is to work with him and his forces, at least in the short term.  In exchange, Assad would be required to give up power once Islamic State had been defeated in Syria, but be allowed to remain a free man.  With Assad gone, a peace deal would hopefully then be easier to broker with the other rebel groups.  Free elections would follow, and so forth.  Yes, it's a plan with myriad problems that almost certainly wouldn't work, but it's a far more realistic one than all the others offered so far.  It seemed as if the arrival of new Russian weaponry and forces was to help purely with a renewed offensive against Islamic State, as suggested by the Syrians bombing targets they previously felt unable to.  That the Americans appeared to be acquiescing to this rather than complaining about it in the usual incredibly hypocritical style looked a good sign.

That today's first attacks by Russian planes seem to have targeted rebels other than IS rather undermines any lingering hopes on that score.  It could of course have been faulty intelligence, might have been merely an opening salvo designed to minimise any potential threat to the bases where the Russians are operating from, or it may be those on the ground are lying; any statement by rebel groups has to be treated with great caution, so often have they resorted to falsehoods.  More likely however is that this is just the start of a wider Russian offensive against all opposition to Assad.  Considering very few of the remaining rebel groups are "moderate" in the true sense of the word, this isn't the greatest tragedy.  What is a tragedy is the Russians have the same sense of compunction towards civilian casualties as everyone else, i.e. none.

Putin's motives are fairly transparent, as are the arguments being deployed.  All his forces are doing is going the extra mile the Americans and the rest haven't: attacking Islamic State from the air hasn't worked, so the next step has to be to coordinate with forces on the ground.  The Americans have effectively betrayed the Kurds who were playing that role, leaving only the Syrian army.  It's been apparent ever since the US airstrikes began that there is low-level plausibly deniable cooperation between the Syrians and the Americans, hence why there have been no unfortunate incidents in over a year of missions.  Why not simply make this formal, the Russians ask.

They have a point. Of course, these motives are far from pure: as much as the Russians do have more to fear from Islamic State than the Americans do, their intervention has the exact same downsides as ours in the region have.  It will likely increase the terrorist threat rather than decrease it, while the presence of Russians in the country will provide a further rallying cry for the jihadi recruiters.  Putin hopes an intervention that brings the end of the war closer will somewhat make up for the on-going conflict in Ukraine, raising the possibility of an early lifting of sanctions.  It also re-establishes Russia's influence in the region, building on the role played in the Iran nuclear programme negotiations.

Were Russia merely stepping up in this way, there would be little to protest about.  Clearly the hope of the Americans was the Russians were going to do what they weren't prepared to.  Instead, it looks as though there is no plan beyond propping up Assad indefinitely.  If there are to be joint operations with the Syrian military, there is no indication of them starting any time soon.  For a long time the harsh reality has been that we and our allies have been happy with a murderous stalemate in Syria.  Even now, as the refugee crisis is not really directly affecting us as it is the rest of Europe, we're still not especially bothered.  The only logic behind joining in with the bombing is for the sake of appearance; there's certainly no military necessity behind it.

With the Russians deciding to join the list of nationalities determined to make Syria even less liveable, the case for our getting involved becomes ever weaker.  Rarely has there been a case of a country already going through hell being fucked over so utterly by so many others.  The argument that only more war will solve the conflict applies only if that war targets Islamic State exclusively.  Russia's intervention seems likely only to result in yet more suffering.  And sadly, our hands are just as dirty as theirs.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015 

Now comes the hard bit.

Much as it pains me to say it, Jeremy Corbyn's first conference speech as Labour leader was without doubt worse than Ed Miliband's own debut effort 5 years ago.  Looking back at it now, Miliband's speech was pretty much the template of what it was thought a mass appeal political address should be: saying not too much but just enough about the speaker himself, acknowledging the public's concerns through the device of an ordinary voter whom the speaker had met, and attempting to deal with the worries of the audience in the hall and those of viewers at home.  Despite all this or rather because of it, as Miliband was never going to be able to pull off the Blair/Cameron bullshit act with the same panache, it just didn't work.  What at least read fine on the page failed in the delivery, which was nervous and stultifying.

Corbyn's speech also reads fine.  It's disjointed, there's no real overall theme, but it's solid.  There are some great passages, which we've since learned were borrowed from Richard Heller with his permission, and there's very little in it to disagree with.  Sadly, as haltingly delivered by Corbyn, with the same tripping over of words seen at PMQs and the other speeches since he was elected leader, it came across in much the same way, one level above shambolic.  Allowances can only go so far: it was apparently the first time Corbyn has used an autocue, the not being a consummate politician is part of his appeal, it won't matter as it'll be cut up for a 3-minute report on the news, and no one really pays attention to conference speeches in any case.

This is all true up to a point.  Cameron's conference speeches as prime minister have all been godawful and it hasn't done him the slightest harm.  Ed Miliband's subsequent speeches, especially his 2012 and 2013 efforts, were massively improved, and the price cap on energy prices policy subsequently set the political agenda.  Did it make a scrap of difference, and conversely did his "forgetting" about the deficit in 2014 have any great impact?  Again, probably not.  Minds were likely already made up by that point.

With Corbyn, they are very much yet to be.  Along with his first PMQs, this speech will be the beginning of voters making up their minds.  By no means will it be all bad: the difference between Corbyn and the political leaders of the other major parties could not be more stark.  An unspun man of experience who calls not just for a more caring society, but also for a kinder politics, demanding that the personal attacks cease.  A leader who laughs and makes bad jokes about press attacks on him.  A politician who doesn't want to impose his own view on the party, instead wanting debate to flourish and for advice to be given freely.  All are highly commendable and endearing qualities, likely to appeal.

The problem is the speech as a whole was directed at the hall itself, rather than anyone outside it.  Conference itself lapped it up, as they were always likely to; Tony Blair's shtick was to pick a different fight every year with his own party, and how different this was from those days.  Even Ed Miliband in his first speech recognised however that the battle was to win support not in the hall, but out in the country.  We lost 5 million votes he said, asking how the party could win them back.  He didn't have the answers, but at least he posed the question.  To be sure, Corbyn didn't hold back in taking the fight to the Tories, denouncing their cuts to tax credits, contrasting it with their choice to all but abolish inheritance tax, and throwing straight back at them their line on Corbyn and Labour being a threat to national and economic security.  Of the few new policies on offer, the pledge to look at making the self-employed eligible for maternity and paternity pay will no doubt be popular.

For those who stayed with the Tories or went to UKIP though, there was very little here to make them think again.  The politics of the last 5 years will almost certainly end up being defined by the Tory strategy of being as nasty as they could get away with being to the unemployed, immigrants, those on benefits and the poorest in society in general.  Rather than be embarrassed by the growth in food banks or the rise in zero hours contracts, Cameron shrugged it all off.  Moreover, so too did the voters: they might not have been voting for the Tory manifesto or for the UKIP policy of being arseholes to everyone specifically when they put their cross on the ballot, but do so they did.  They preferred the hateful, envious, kicking down politics of the right enough to give UKIP 4 million votes and for the Tories to win an overall majority.  For Corbyn to appeal for a kinder politics is certainly noble and welcome, but for it to actually happen?  At this point it would be almost to go against the very nature of the country we've become.  Sporadic outbursts of humanity aside, the default is nearly always to say no when the request for help comes.

As strong as Heller's lines then were about the Tories expecting the people of Britain to accept what they're given, the sad fact is that's precisely what they did.  Given the choice between what they saw as economic competence, regardless of the reality, and a Labour party they didn't trust, they opted for Osborne's self-defeating austerity and everything that goes with it.  In this respect, yesterday's speech by John McDonnell was far more successful, especially when all it really did was reheat Ed Balls' policies and announce a host of reviews.  Despite this it came across as credible, with all the steel that Balls' pronouncements had lacked.

Perhaps Corbyn felt McDonnell had covered those bases.  He might well have felt that he still needs to consolidate his power within the parliamentary party, extending his hand before he addresses how Labour goes about winning the next election.  He could be of the mind that first he needs to unite the left, drawing back Green defectors and any SNPers having second thoughts by making clear it's time to come home to a Labour party which shares their values.  Viewed on that basis alone, the speech was a success.

To give Corbyn the benefit of the doubt, it could be he simply doesn't yet have a strategy to win over undecided voters.  There's nothing wrong with that for the moment, not least when the only alternatives offered thus far have been to emulate the Tories more.  It does however only encourage the dullards who keep on repeating that Corbyn's supporters aren't interested in winning, not that they need any encouragement (I do nonetheless fear there is more than a smidgen of truth to Janan Ganesh's view that some of Corbyn's supporters are "comfortable").  To not so much as mention the defeat though, to recognise that the party was rejected and to examine the reasons as to why was an unforced mistake.

Corbyn has done the "easy" part.  He now needs to convince he can appeal beyond his natural constituency.  Not doing the bare minimum when he has so much goodwill is a failure he may live to regret.

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Monday, September 28, 2015 

If you go down to the Fuck Parade...

Cereal Killer cafe is not the cause of gentrification, nor can it instigate the solution.  Seriously, we just sell breakfast cereal.  Not your Aldi own brand rip-offs of Frosties or Shreddies either, we're talking the real deal, imported from all over the world.  Pure 100% grade A Strawberry Smiggles, Reese's Type 2 Diabetes Puffs, Hello Kitty Bukkake from Japan, Chairman Mao's Wheat Strips from China, you name it, we can get it.  Then we'll lovingly pour it in a porcelain dish with your choice from one of over 20 different varieties of liquid, dozens of toppings, and all at the low, low price of double a whole box of the stuff.

We can't then understand why anyone could possibly object to our little cafe.  Cereal selling boutique outlet we may be, but we are also far more than that.  We offer an experience you simply can't get anywhere else: breakfast in our eyes is not just the first meal of the day, it's a way of life.  Come down to Brick Lane and be transported back to your childhood, where a bowl of heavily processed sugar and chemicals was the be all and end all of existence.  The cafe is decorated with cereal memorabilia; what others might call the detritus of marketing past we view as a social history, the story of us, as experienced through the eyes of the Honey Monster.  We are extremely serious about breakfast cereal, and we know that many of our customers are as well.  We take much influence from the grandfather of breakfast cereals, John Harvey Kellogg, who believed that Corn Flakes could help the fight against masturbation.  We credit his thinking for my brother and I's beards, as without the distraction provided by our mission to serve only the finest of the world's maize offerings we would have realised how stupid we look long ago.

Our business is in essence a love letter to the commodifcation of childhood as being a halcyon period of wonder and happiness, as well as our failure to adjust to adulthood beyond the embracing of capitalism at its most decadent.  When then a protest terms itself the "Fuck Parade", and yet we did not see any sort of love on display, let alone the promised fucking, only sneering, visceral hate and bullying, we ourselves must object.  Those on the protests may have some valid points to make, not that we heard any or would recognise them as such if put to us, but frightening our customers and vandalising our cafe is not the way to go about doing so.  Frankly, they're 10 years late in any case: the gentrification boat in Shoreditch has long since sailed.  Why don't the organisers move just a little further north and smash the glass of businesses in Hackney itself?

I mean, why us?  What is it about two hirsute blokes selling infantile food to other similarly inclined middle class individuals and urban ironists that some middle class people find so terrible?  We don't take business from anyone else, as no one before us had quite such a horrific idea, and we in fact bring tourists and rubberneckers into Brick Lane who wouldn't have come otherwise.  £4 for a bowl of cereal isn't that bad compared to the price you'll pay for a pint, and we have the same overheads as everyone else.  We can't charge someone who doesn't look like our usual clientèle less purely on that basis, on the off chance they might ordinarily get their cereal from a food bank.  Why sneer at us when plenty of our critics think nothing of paying £10.00 for a falafel sandwich from Pret a Manger swilled down with the bottled tears of a Syrian child, or £500.00 for a pair of Versace Y-fronts?  Why didn't Class War target those conglomerates rather than a small business like ours?  It's snobbery, that's what it is.

My brother and I know poverty, having been brought up in Belfast.  Our parents scrimped and scraped to buy us Lucky Charms, instilling in us the virtues of hard work and sacrifice.  That's what Cereal Killers is about: working hard, playing hard, making life better for everyone.  It saddens us that others are too immature, too selfish, too blinded by an ideology motivated by theft and envy to see us for what we really are.

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Friday, September 25, 2015 

On repeat.

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