The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Trump, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and Beyond…

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

The Iran Nuclear Deal, or, to give it its proper name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has been described by President Trump as “the worst deal ever negotiated”, and likely to cause a “nuclear holocaust”. Throughout the course of his campaign, Trump made repeated references to the JCPOA, telling anyone who would listen that the deal was a “joke”, and that he intended to re-negotiate, revising key provisions, lengthening time limits and generally changing the current plan into a kind of extended penance. As always with President Trump, there is some doubt as to how much, if any, of what he’s said is meant to be taken seriously, but let’s do our best.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the JCPOA contains no provisions for checking Potential Military Applications (PMA), no safeguards to prevent Iranian weapons development now or into the future, and that it virtually guarantees a nuclear armed Iran within fifteen years, followed shortly by a nuclear holocaust. Unsurprisingly, none of these claims is true.

Let’s first look at the provisions of the plan. PMAs were a sticking point during negotiations, and it became apparent to even the casual observer that the Iranians, beyond a natural unwillingness to share their secrets, were also unclear as to the exact extent of their secret research programs. In the UNCLAS version, very little is said about PMA, but it is nevertheless apparent from various textual clues that the issue was dealt with. Similarly, the provisions with regard to intrusive inspection, the closure of various pathways to weaponisation (enrichment and plutonium), and various other strictures, all point to an agreement which is perfectly competent to achieve its stated aim: a temporary freeze of Iran’s progress towards nuclear weaponry. President Trump, however, does not see it that way. In President Trump’s view, Iran is a “bad” and “terrorist” state, needing to be kept at all times under the mailed fist of US hard power. It’s difficult to see, given this view, how any deal could have struck him as satisfactory.

Hassan Rouhani Iran Nuclear Deal

Hassan Rouhani, unique amongst Iranian presidents for being more stable than his US counterpart

Now for the safeguards designed to prevent Iranian weaponisation of its nuclear program which, according to Trump, do not exist. Firstly, there’s provisions for inspection, facilities re-purposing from high level enrichment and Plutonium manufacture to power generation, technology, replacement programs for cycling out 20% enriched uranium, the list goes on… And Iran has been pathetically eager to comply. Completion of each action plan has been tagged to the lifting of sanctions and, more importantly, the release of the associated funds. The deal, from Iran’s point of view, is easy to understand. In exchange for restored oil wealth, access to global markets, normalisation of trade and other relations, and a place at the negotiating table, they take a fifteen year halt in a nuclear weapons program which took twenty years to produce next to nothing, and which isolated them so badly that one of their key trading partners was North Korea. President Trump’s belligerent paranoia aside, it’s difficult to see a situation where Iran voluntarily breaks the deal. There’s too much to gain, and at such little cost. And while it is true that Iran could restart weaponisation post agreement, there’s little reason to expect this. A large part of the agreement is clearly designed to end Iran’s isolation – a key factor in their clandestine rush for the bomb.

Trump Iran Nuclear Deal

Trump labelled Iran a ‘terrorist state’ when addressing AIPAC

It’s axiomatic, though, that Christian conservatives cannot see any future in the Middle East without Israel, heavily force-multiplied by the US, maintaining military superiority. A rehabilitated Iran would necessarily change the dynamic. Iran is a natural hegemon – it has ample resources, an educated and numerous populace, access to the sea and a position of key strategic importance. All it really lacks is money. The deal itself, being a UN deal brokered by P5+1, is not US property. Energy hungry P5+1 members Russia and China have a strong interest in its success, as does the UK, who hopes to profit from expanding G/O exploration.

Now that Trump has finished appeasing the GOP’s Zionist donors, the time is ripe for one of his trademark backflips. It’s far from clear whether he can kill the deal (I’d say he can’t), but he is easily capable of killing relations with Iran. Given the likely interventionism of a Trump administration, this would be a critical mistake. Iran has a long (albeit covert) history of co-operation with the USA, and has been a key collaborator in US campaigns in the Middle East. Iranian support, or at least non-aggression, is vital to any operation in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Additionally, Iran has reach and effectiveness far out of proportion with its military power, thanks to decades of investment in power projection by paramilitary and covert proxies. If President Trump really intends to establish safe zones in Syria, escalate the campaign against IS, and generally re-establish US hegemony in the Middle East, all this will be much easier with Iran’s cooperation and assistance. This is a problem for the near future, of course. In the meantime, President Trump should work on gaining better control of his public utterances before the laws of consequence come into proper effect.

Waddya bloody mean, “Invasion Day”?

January 26. Australia Day. A day where we can all take a day off, have a beer, listen to a hipster music countdown, and argue about Australia Day. Oh, and celebrate just how lucky we are to reside in this great country.

For yes, we may be a small country, but we’re a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare Andrew Bolt, Churchill the Prime Minister that skolls beer at the cricket, the Beatles beetles that will probably kill you, Sean Connery every Hemsworth ever created, Harry Potter Wizard Home Loans. David Beckham’s Timmy Cahill’s right foot. David Beckham’s Timmy Cahill’s left foot, come to that. And why shouldn’t all Australians take a day off to come together and celebrate all that?

Well, of course we should. And we do. On January 26 – the day that our great nation was founded. For it was on January 26 that Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Sydney Harbour and claimed Australia for Great Britain by the time-honoured law-of-the-bags. The anniversary of our nation seems like a great choice for a day we can all celebrate being Australian, right?

Well, sorta.

January 26 is certainly the day that the British started making themselves at home… the only problem is that they apparently didn’t much care for the fact that it was already someone’s home. Initial signs suggested that this wouldn’t be a problem, since “the official policy of the British Government was to establish friendly relations with Aboriginal people, and Arthur Phillip ordered that the Aboriginal people should be well treated”. Meanwhile, the local Indigenous people looked upon a bunch of British criminals grabbing prime harbour real estate, and initially merely “seemed curious but suspicious of the newcomers”. Despite all that, I think we can all agree that things went a little pear-shaped from there. So it would seem that perhaps January 26 isn’t for everyone. Especially when you throw in the fact that apparently only about 20% of us are descended from the First Fleet.

But what other days could you choose?

Well, while January 26 is the day that Arthur planted his flag, he actually arrived about a week earlier. The first ship of the First Fleet, Supply, arrived in Botany Bay on January 18, with the rest of the ships arriving by January 20. Arthur soon realised that the landing location, now known as La Perouse, wasn’t suitable for a new colony, what with all the jet-skis and lowered Commodores. So he said “Stuff this, by Jove”, and sailed a little north, where he cruised past the cultured hills of the Eastern Suburbs and into Sydney Cove. He soon picked the site as a great location for opera, although his dream was not realised until Jørn Utzon came along many weeks later. So yeah, January 26 could more accurately be thought of as the one week anniversary of a fairly dubious real estate decision. Add that to current Sydney house prices, and maybe January 18 makes more sense.

Of course, there are other days that might be suitable that are completely unrelated to the founding of our nation. As this article notes, there are many other days that would do just as well:

  • February 13 (the apology to the Stolen Generation)
  • April 11 (White Australia Policy was scrapped)
  • May 27 (Aboriginal people granted full constitutional rights)
  • December 1 (first day of the glorious Australian Summer)

My personal favourite is a proposal by Jordan Raskopoulos, who suggests that perhaps May 8 would be good. May 8? M8? Maaaaaaate!

Now I know what some of you are thinking. Depending on your political leanings, some of you are reading this and thinking, “Yeah! Up yours you January 26!”. Others are thinking “Yeah! Up yours you bleeding heart liberals!”. But you know what the best part of all this is? It actually doesn’t bloody matter. Arguing about what date it should be is pointless. January 1, April 11, May 8, September 33… who cares? Because, whatever your political leanings, there’s only one question you need to ask yourself.

When it comes to moving Australia Day, who does it hurt more?

On the one hand, we have Indigenous Australians, for whom January 26 marks the descent into genocide, loss of land, cultural destruction, stolen generations, disproportionate incarceration and shameful life expectancy. For these Australians, January 26 doesn’t commemorate the beginning, it commemorates the beginning of the end.

On the other hand, there’s the rest of us, who pretty much just want another day off, so they can go the beach and have a barbie. I mean, let’s face it – no one really feels any affinity to the day Arthur Phillip landed in Sydney (after deciding Botany Bay was cräp), do they? We might be mildly annoyed at the change of date, but do we really, truly care? Or do we just need a day – any day – where all of us, no matter where we’ve come from, can get together and appreciate how lucky we are?

The fact is that it’s a pretty big deal to Indigenous Australians that we celebrate the day they lost their lands. It’s much less of a big deal for us to move it.

So why don’t we?

 

One Nation’s False ‘Liberalisation’

Shan Ju Lin One Nation

Shan Ju Lin, One Nation’s Asian candidate for some seat in Queensland I don’t care about and have never heard of, has been something of a propaganda double-whammy for Ms Hanson’s erratic populist juggernaut. Not only did the visible fact of her ‘non-whiteness’ seemingly put to bed the idea of the party’s racism, her subsequent sacking for making ‘anti-gay’ comments must surely be used by the pointy-headed side of politics as ‘proof’ that One Nation is also free of other forms of bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s tackle the racism first. Pauline recently embarked on a dictionary-fuelled rant on the meaning of the word ‘racist’, helpfully providing us with a disingenuously monolithic definition, possibly as an exercise in clever sophistry, but more probably as a function of her incompetence with the English language. The fact of the matter is that there are many shades of meaning involved in racism which cannot necessarily be found in a dictionary. Anyone looking for a full appreciation of the term need only perform a few more clicks in Google to discover that ‘racism’ also covers Hanson’s obvious and clearly stated positions of forced assimilation in pursuit of some mythical Australian monoculture. One Nation is racist not because it disdains skin colour or point of origin, but because of its much more insidious and dangerous bigotry directed at other ways of thinking and being – in essence, its intolerance of the existence or even influence of other cultures. In many ways, this is more purely hateful than a simple aversion to black and yellow people, in that it’s more deeply considered, and therefore more disgustingly ungenerous and narrow-minded. So really, the fact of Shan Ju Lin’s heritage is irrelevant – her deep seated and militant intolerance towards immigrants of every kind, and her insistence on dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps on grounds which are frankly insane, reaffirm rather than contradict the bigotry which lies at the heart of the party.

And then there’s the curious case for dismissal of homophobia. This should emphatically not be seen as evidence that Pauline Hanson is in favour of gay rights. Shan Ju Lin herself stated that she issued the Tweets because One Nation had “no policy” with regard to marriage equality or LGBTI rights beyond a vague declaration of support for a plebiscite on marriage equality. No, what we’re seeing here is nothing more than a beleaguered chief of staff trying desperately to hold on to control of the party’s narrative. The recent farcical goings on with Rod Culleton, the persistent insanity of Malcolm Roberts and Pauline’s own unfortunate delusional belief in her ability to speak comprehensibly have seriously eroded any capacity for positive messaging. This is clearly a party engaged in frantic damage control in order to maintain whatever vestiges of credibility which remain to them before they field another bunch of whackos, this time for the House of Reps.

And, in true One Nation style, they are going about this by weeding out crazies, oblivious to the starkly obvious fact that a One Nation shorn of lunatics will be a party without a single, solitary member.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Delusions of Adequacy

Australian Christian Lobby

This is the ACL’s idea of an ‘argument’. Note the complete absence of logic of any kind.

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is a frustrating organisation, not least because of its militant parochialism and refusal to accept that positions based on a combination of Christian revanchism and bigotry are, in fact, revanchist and bigoted. Its tendency to bleat out an utterly fabricated narrative of persecution, its insistence on blaming some amorphous ‘left wing media conspiracy’ for reverses generally caused by its own media incompetence, and its startling inability to pursue or even to form any kind of logically coherent argument are all extremely annoying. And Lyle Shelton, their managing director, is the kind of attention-seeking, self-pitying, incompetently grandiloquent noisemaker who makes the fists of all right-thinking folk become seriously itchy.

So, given just how annoying they are, it’s not hard to understand why someone blowing up a van in their carpark could immediately be put down to a targeted attack. I myself thought it highly probable, given how I feel every time Shelton opens his stupid gob or mashes ineffectually at his keyboard. And I wasn’t alone in this. There are huge sections of the voting public who apparently take ghoulish glee in attributing any and every act of non-domestic violence to Muslim terrorism or Muslim immigration or Muslims in general, possibly because a narrative as inherently irrational as Islamophobia requires quite a lot of fodder to sustain. Within twenty minutes of the first run of the the story, thousands of comments claiming that this was definitely the work of Islamic State and that the leftard libtard media was deliberately suppressing any mention of this, had engulfed certain pointy-headed and ill-spelled corners of the internet. Incontrovertible, iron-clad arguments like: “It was a quiet area, so it must have been a terrorist attack” were helpfully formulated, presumably to assist the police in their investigation, and not to muddy the waters with irrational reactionism. Quite a valuable contribution given that the poor, helpless counter-terrorism and  security experts of the world tend to be stuck with the idea that mass casualty attacks are generally conducted in busy areas at busy times of day. In order to cause mass casualties. Such narrow, blinkered thinking was obviously much enriched by the public’s insightful contributions.

In any case, during the initial phase of this story, the ACL actually had my sympathies. It doesn’t matter how mendacious, petty, bigoted or deluded one’s beliefs are – no law abiding organisation deserves to be the target of political violence. Shelton’s initial Twitterings were mostly generous and politic, though his comment, “hard to believe this could happen in Australia” sounded an ominous warning of the stupidity to come. And my word did he deliver. It appears that in the wake of the explosion, his first and admirable priority was to see to the welfare of his staff, which meant cutting short his holiday and returning to Canberra. In view of the fact that the building was empty at the time, and that none of his staff were injured or killed or, presumably, present at the time, this seemed a little odd. But then, if someone blows up the front of your building, it makes sense that you should repair immediately to the scene. It appears, however, that upon his return he did little other than stand in front of cameras and say stupid things stupidly to the media.

Australian Christian Lobby

Lyle Shelton, proclaiming his organisation’s suspect martyrdom.

By the end of the day, the ground was laid out as follows. The Canberra police had interviewed the suspect, who was unknown to police, and therefore presumably to domestic intelligence, and who said that his sole aim was to “blow myself up”. This, and the host of other factors militating against the interpretation of this event as an attempted mass casualty attack led the police to conclude that there was “no ideological or political motive” behind the explosion. Shelton, of course, wasn’t at all happy about this, and by evening he had proclaimed that the police had been too quick to jump to conclusions, jumped himself to the conclusion that the ACL was the victim of a terror attack and blamed the Greens and other parliamentarians for inciting anti-Christian terrorism by using the word ‘bigot’ to describe his bigoted views.

And then, of course, the story faded from view. This is partly because the only sources of credible information are a tight-lipped police command and a man with burns to 75% of his body, but mostly because the ACL is basically not all that important. Sure, it’s loud in its claims to represent the Christian community, but there isn’t any real evidence that it does. Its base, purportedly largely made up of Pentecostal and non-conformist churches, does not in fact support its views on marriage equality. Its measurable impact on elections is negligible to non-existent. To an informed observer, the ACL’s principle role is to be trotted out in front of the cameras whenever journalists want to provide the appearance of balance by padding out a panel with a talking head from the lunatic Christian right. And this represents, for me, the single most frustrating thing about the ACL – their persistent and unfounded delusions of adequacy. On no level do they actually contribute in any meaningful way to the debate on any issue, but their notoriety and fatuous self importance means that they have a profile which is all out of proportion to their relevance.

So, in the unlikely event that there’s anyone out there who actually is planning an attack on the ACL, I would urge you to reconsider. Not only would such an action be illegal, immoral and inhuman, it would also be of material assistance in backing their delusional narrative of persecution. They’re just not important enough to attack. In fact, I’m convinced that they’re not even important enough to respond to. Like every other screaming toddler, I firmly believe that the best tactic by far is to simply ignore them.

Turkey Nightclub Blitz Attack – Context And Meaning

Turkey Night Club Attack

For many, the news of the New Year’s Day blitz attack on a Turkish nightclub came as shocking news. I suspect that many people automatically categorised this attack as being a part of a global phenomenon, helped along by the media’s insistence on comparing ‘similar events’. Thus the inevitable false parallels being drawn between this attack, Paris, and the Orlando nightclub shootings. The only things these attacks really have in common, though, are modus operandi and nature of venue. In terms of the real DNA of an incident – context and cause – this attack is much more about Turkey than it is about global jihad.

First, a quick note on sequence of events and reporting. Our primary sources for the attack are eyewitness accounts and Turkish state media and agencies. For various reasons, none of these are exactly famous for accuracy or veracity. Eyewitnesses, especially traumatised ones, are generally confused and inaccurate, and the Turkish state does not so much disseminate information as it selects and fabricates to serve its own agenda. If media reports seem conflicting and confused, this is because the primary sources are tainted, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. For our purposes, however, just the fact of Turkish state reporting will suffice.

It is axiomatic that a principal aim of terrorism is to cause sufficient destabilisation of state structures to bring about capitulation or collapse. Thus the categorisation of terrorists as ‘enemies of the state’, amongst other things. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, and by immediate I mean in less than forty minutes, no less than three enemies of the state were posited by Turkish authorities as potential perpetrators. The two most prominent were Islamic State (not the specific organisation, but the huge amorphous radical diaspora as it exists in the popular mind), and a miscellaneous grab bag of Kurdish independence and separatist groups. Humming in the background as always, however, was Gulen – Turkey’s very own political bogeyman.

This is telling. At a stage when people on the ground were still unclear as to even the basic sequence of events, Turkish authorities were able to confidently declare multiple suspects. What this tells us is that Turkey is wealthy in credibly dangerous enemies of the state. I’ve spoken elsewhere about Turkey’s parlous internal politics, and about Erdogan’s project of Islamisation and Ottomanisation in a bid for stability through presidential power and regional hegemony. The other important fact is that Turkey is a nation tied to wild horses pulling in different directions. Its economic co-dependence with Russia, a power whose regional interests are diametrically opposed to their own, its bitterly oppositional marriages of convenience with NATO and Europe and its own internal woes are all combining to create a situation where, if Erdogan does not find a solution, Turkey will be torn apart. It would appear that a combination of the special stupidity which comes with populism and, more importantly, limited capacity for state agency, has reduced his viable options to brutal repression combined with transparent propaganda. It’s highly unlikely that in a situation as complex as this, blunt instruments like these are going to prove effective.

This is deeply worrying for any nation with interests in the region. For most of the twentieth century Turkey has been a bulwark against the systemic instability caused in large part by Israeli expansionism and the Sykes-Picot line. It is for this reason that the West has tended to tolerate its brutal suppression of ethnic minorities, strongman governments, aggression and insultingly blatant dishonesty. Turkey is important as a lynchpin for the region. Attacks like the one on New Year’s Day, however, are becoming increasingly frequent. In the last few months, attacks have been occurring on an almost weekly basis, their foci being the capital Ankara and the arguably more significant cultural and symbolic capital Istanbul. Possibly the only absolute truth to emanate from the Turkish authorities is the contention that the aim of this attack was to destabilise the unity of the Turkish state.

If Erdogan’s administration is unable to contain and prevent future attacks, the credibility of his government as an authority capable of protecting its people will evaporate entirely. This process will necessarily be accelerated by a perceived inability to protect foreign nationals, tourism being a major pillar of Turkey’s economy. It doesn’t take much of a prophet to see that when faith in a government’s ability to provide security and prosperity disappears, so too does that government. In the case of Erdogan, his vision for Turkey’s future has alienated his allies, trading partners, security services and military. Too many more of these attacks will see the state of Turkey fragment and disappear. It’s vitally important that we recognise this to be a primary goal of the plethora of internal and external enemies which Turkey has managed to accrue. As much as we may dislike Erdogan’s obtuse brutality and religious fanaticism, a coherent Turkish state is decidedly the lesser of two evils for the region, and it’s incumbent on the international community to recognise and support this, rather than allowing Turkey to crumble as a side effect of the pursuit of narrow national self interest.

 

Wargaming a Trump Doomsday Part 3 – General Stupidity

Donald Trump

It’s very difficult to get away from the fact that Donald Trump is basically a fool. In this context, I’m using the word ‘fool’ in its mediaeval sense – a clown. For reasons which appear to be a combination of pragmatism and narcissism, Trump has spent most of his public life being a buffoon, presumably to attract our attention – to ‘raise his profile’, to use the euphemistic parlance of the professional vanity vendors of public relations.

While this may be deeply distasteful, it isn’t really problematic – one can always choose to ignore a fool – until that fool becomes POTUS. The inescapable fact of presidential office is that statements emanating from it have immediate and complex agency, being capable of generating effects via not just their overt meanings, but also through their various implications and substrata of meaning. In other words, stuff the president says matters, because stuff he says makes other stuff happen.

Here, in all its glory, is the single biggest threat represented by Trump, namely, that he might almost have been purpose built to accidentally bring about the end of the world as we know it. I haven’t done the maths, but I suspect that the scope for unintended consequences grows exponentially the less clear one’s actual intentions are. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody has any real idea of what Trump actually intends to do.

There’s a few possible reasons for this. I don’t intend to argue one of the things I suspect – that Trump’s inscrutability is at least partially due to the fact the has no clear idea of his own intentions beyond the barely coherent aspirational slogans he’s been bandying, qualifying and withdrawing. I’m leaving that one alone simply because I neither know the man nor possess the gift of telepathy. But one reason above all stands out as clear cause for the world’s current mystification when it comes to the president elect’s intentions: the fact that it’s basically impossible to derive precise meaning from anything he says.

I acknowledge that much of the media has not so much failed to understand Trump as they have refused to (viz. the ‘bigly’ controversy), either through distaste, disgust or just plain snobbery. I think, however, that this has only been a small part of the problem. The biggest problem with the way Trump talks is that a life spent fulfilling the dual roles of cameo clown and snake-oil merchant means that he has spent most of his time on Earth using language to obscure rather than elucidate meaning. This is especially dangerous given that, in the Machiavellian world of statecraft, it is a truism to state that uncertainty is a catalyst for violence.

Let’s take the Middle East as a prime example. This is a complex and explosive set of situations, and the outlook for a Trump presidency is not encouraging given the zen-like, mutually contradictory positions which the president elect has proclaimed on Twitter. A careful analysis of his simultaneous wish to disengage US troops from foreign conflicts and resolve the Middle East (which he apparently views as a monolithic or unitary single situation) through overwhelming force yields exactly bupkis. Nobody has any idea what he is going to do. And given that the US is militarily capable of anything up to and including ending all civilisation as we know it, the stakes are high, and it is less than helpful to create a situation in which the players are competing blindfolded.

Trump is an uncertainty factory. In business, it’s sometimes a very good idea to obscure your motives and intentions. One of the few moments of clarity we’ve had so far is the realisation that this is very much the game he is playing with China – he wishes to keep China off-balance by obscuring his true position on ‘One China’, which is clearly a negotiating gambit. This model of proceeding may be excellent for the boardroom, but its implications for the summit table are potentially disastrous. State and non-state actors, when presented with a combination of existential threat and deep uncertainty, tend to react with spectacular force. And when statements coming out of the president’s mouth are not only mutually but internally contradictory, it’s difficult to imagine a situation imbued with greater uncertainty.

There’s also the fact that his administration picks don’t follow any discernible pattern. While it’s generally seen as a positive to build an administration with diverse viewpoints, it’s not usual to build one with individuals whose views are mutually and absolutely irreconcilable. This makes the drift and trend of the future administration impossible to predict or even satisfactorily analyse. This might be fine for the punters, who don’t necessarily value decisions produced by actual thought, but it’s potentially catastrophic at a higher level, where most decisions are made by strategic thinkers of one sort or another.

This, in my opinion, is the real threat. There’s not much irreversible harm any POTUS can intentionally do in four or eight years – such is the robustness of the US system. But the scope for accidental harm is literally apocalyptic. The single biggest danger, to my mind, is that the world won’t end with a whimper, but with an accidental bang caused by an inarticulate, incompetent buffoon tapping away at his smartphone at two in the morning.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Creation and Paradise

creation and paradise

In most creation stories the same themes tend to emerge, namely: separation, categorisation and what Levi-Strauss likes to call the ‘tension between the raw and the cooked’, or, in other words, the essential conflict between sedentary civilisation and hunter/gatherer models of life.

Genesis deals fairly curtly with the first two of these (separation and categorisation), taking care of it all within a handful of verses. It’s almost as if the authors felt that this story was already known and, looking at Sumerian/Babylonian/Egyptian myth there’s good reasons to believe that this is the case. The undeniable cross-propagation of these cultures meant that there was already a template of sorts for creation. In all of these cultures there is a sort of organiser god, one who is not necessarily tied to a single idea or aspect of nature, but who resonates with the role of administrator or scribe. Generally, this god sits around in some kind of no-space/time and, for reasons which are usually obscure, goes about separating light from dark, water from earth, and so on. Hard on the heels of this sorting endeavour comes an account of the first man. And yes, it usually is a man.

In understanding the parallels between this kind of god and the function and legitimacy of government in ancient civilisations, I think the etiological purpose of creation stories is pretty obvious. What’s less obvious, though, is whether or not the creators of these stories actually expected them to be believed as literal truth. This is another subject on which people much cleverer and more erudite than myself have spent years shouting at each other about, which makes me a little hesitant to add my own two cents. For what it’s worth, though, my own reading has nearly persuaded me that they did not. What we’re looking at for a great part of history is alien mentality. The world as we see it is necessarily very different from that perceived by ancient and proto-historical peoples. I think that looking at the way Classical Greeks and Romans talked about their own myths, as well as the relationship with magic and mysticism still existing amongst less developed cultures, should reveal to us that there are many ways in which to interpret and understand truth, and that the literal interpretation of myth and magic is a view more likely to be found amongst questionably sane modern Westerners than anywhere else.

A note about alien mentality: Anthropologist Nigel Barley tells an excellent story from his first field assignment in Africa. He became aware that the people he was studying simply had no concept of photography as a representation of self. He noticed that all of their ID cards had the same picture. The idea of individuality or a sense of self being transferrable or recordable in this way was completely alien to their existence. When testing this idea, he handed one person a photograph of a lion. He looked at the photo, turned it over, and then said, “I do not know this man.” His brain was either incapable or simply refused to understand representation in photographic form. If such variation in psychic landscape can exist synchronologically, then it surely follows that it must exist across time as well.

Anyway, we move from the suspiciously familiar creation story to the much abused tale of Adam and Eve. Frankly disgusting attempts to co-opt this story by fundamentalists, anti-equality groups, and other loonies are, I think, so far wide of the point they may as well stop talking about the story entirely. It’s the elements of the story, appreciated in context, which are important. Sure, on one level, this is an implausible fairy tale about God, a dysfunctional couple and talking animals in a garden, but this is really the least important level. What we’re talking about here is the advent of civilisation, and the deep problems this causes to the human psyche. The fruit of knowledge is such a widespread trope it deserves a post all to itself, but that’s not one I’m qualified to write. For the purposes of this article, however, suffice it to say that knowledge in the mythical sense is about self-awareness. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s generally agreed that self-awareness, or a sense of self, isn’t something we humans have always had. This means there must have been some point in time when humans somehow acquired it, and there’s a compelling argument to be made that most stories which contain the knowledge trope are attempts to interpret the dim memory of this. If you want to look into this idea further, Professors William Propp and Steve Tinney do a much better job than me of explaining it.

Leaving the megalithic topic of knowledge aside, though, understanding that this is what the Adam and Eve story is about tends to clarify the rest of it. What we’re left with, then, is a heavily symbolic account and exploration of the pros and cons of the advent of sedentary civilisation. Paradise is not so much a physical location as a state of being. Prior to the Neolithic revolution, humanity existed in what some call ‘a state of nature’. This is Levi-Strauss’ idea of ‘the raw’. Hunter gatherers may spend quite a bit of their day wandering around looking for things, but what they don’t really do is work. It’s not until farming, and all the other paraphernalia of civilisation that come with it (trade, disease, etc.) that humanity becomes familiar with the idea of work. If we look closely at the ‘punishments’ handed out to Adam and Eve, they’re mostly identifiable as the simple consequences of civilised agrarian life. Many scholars, in fact, like to deviate from the Augustinian narrative of crime and punishment and see this story as an account of humanity’s involuntary trade-off of awareness and surplus for freedom and the psychic immortality which comes with an ignorance of death. I’d also like to make a note about contextualising the symbols in a story this old. It’s very important that we don’t apply modern values to ancient symbols – the snake is a prime example. The erroneous association of the snake with Satan is very much a product of our own modern view of snakes. In the ancient world, all the way down to late antiquity, snakes are symbols of wisdom, knowledge and longevity/immortality, and are overwhelmingly not seen as evil. Which puts a completely different complexion on things, if you think about it.

Looked at in this way, and understanding the heavily symbolic nature of the story elements, this myth actually has value as a kind of mnemo-narrative of our deep, deep history. If nothing else, it tells us that ancient peoples preserved a memory, however corrupted, of a key moment in the history of human civilisation. And also that they were wont to think about it in very much the same terms we do today. Compare the anguish with which the sufferings of civilisation are recounted with our own modern fetishisation of pristine/tribal societies. In both cases we see a nostalgia for a simpler, less cultivated consciousness and mode of life, and an attempt to understand and come to terms with the bargain we made all those millennia ago.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about that favourite hobby horse of both atheists and creationists alike – The Flood.

Secular Understandings of the Bible – Genesis and Genealogy

Uruk and the Bible

INTRODUCTION

I find quite a lot of the debate surrounding the Bible a bit sterile. What it generally consists of is atheists pointing out the impossibility of literal interpretations of famous stories, or snarkily quoting passages from Leviticus or Deuteronomy while, on the other side, pie-eyed and frankly insane fundamentalists point to the handful of textual and archaeological attestations of which they’re aware, whilst simultaneously threatening the atheists with a hell in which they presumably don’t believe.

This strikes me as being about as productive as dry humping a telegraph pole. All the appearances of the thing are there, but it’s a very, very long way from the thing itself. The idea that a text can survive in oral tradition for five or six hundred years, and then roughly two and a half thousand in written form without undergoing major revisions, redactions and distortions is just laughable. Anyone capable of believing in something like this simply isn’t worth arguing with, as they’re clearly not at home to Mr Rational Thought.

What I hope to demonstrate over the next few posts is that the argument about literal truth is moot (in the American sense of the word), and that there’s quite a lot of very interesting information in the Bible, none of which has to do with God, but rather with literary truth, mnemo-narrative, and the real relationship between Christianity and the roots of Western law and culture.

I should point out at the very top that I am not a Biblical scholar, and that this is not a scholarly series of articles. This means I’m not going to bother with footnotes and references as I shamelessly steal the work of the following professors: William Propp, Richard Friedman, Aren Maeir, Eric Cline and Israel Finkelstein. To a much lesser extent I shall also be drawing on the minimalist/revisionist work of Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I’ve linked to some of their major works so that you can check them out for yourself, if you’re so inclined.

GENESIS – GENEALOGIES

There’s a general consensus that Paradise is somewhere in the vicinity of the ancient city of Uruk. Or somewhere in Ethiopia. Or possibly Greece, Israel or, most nuttily of all, England. It doesn’t really matter all that much, but for what it’s worth, Uruk makes sense to me. The mythologised patriarch Abraham is said to have come from Ur, which isn’t that far away, and Uruk is generally thought of as the first proper city (that’s a little bit controversial, but let’s just go with it). The reason this makes sense is because of the clear and overt purposes of Genesis. These are the recording of creation myth and the validation of a set of kings and priests via a genealogical line from the ‘first man’ through to the first patriarch (Abraham).

As a hard historical source, I don’t think there’s any real dispute that Genesis is garbage. The genealogies and timelines of Genesis form the basis for the laughably incorrect chronology of Baeda and, by extension, the Young Earth nutters. But it’s not what we’d call egregious. When compared to roughly contemporaneous documents and stories of a similar nature, it becomes clear that Genesis isn’t really much better or worse than anyone else’s account. Sumerian and Egyptian king lists contain a hodge podge of gods and people mixed together with wild abandon and, in comparison with the tens of thousands of years of life claimed for the first seven Sumerian kings, some of the biblical claims are actually quite modest.

For the purposes of a broad (rather than a minute and scholarly) understanding, we can go with the breathtaking over-simplification that the whole thing is an exercise in legitimacy – political, cultural, territorial and spiritual. Basically, tracing through to Abraham is a way of claiming legitimate ownership of Yahweh, Israel, the Torah and authority over the Jewish peoples, by the authors of the version which has come down to us today. There are a great many debates raging, far above my head, about the historicity of Abraham and whether or not he ever existed, but I’m not really sure how important this is for understanding what all this begetting/begatting nonsense is about. It’s basically the same thing as Princess Diana’s family tracing their lineage back to the mythical version of King Arthur, or the Romans claiming the equally mythical Trojan War survivor Aeneas as the founder of their culture. It’s a mixture of the political and the etiological – we come from a line of god-like heroes, therefore what we have and what we are both have absolute legitimacy.

In the next post, I intend to have a crack at the creation myth and the story of Adam and Eve, hopefully demonstrating that their dismissal as ‘Bronze Age fairy tales’, or their veneration as ‘literal truth’ are both somewhat wide of the point.

Wargaming A Trump Doomsday Part 2 – China

Trump and China

PLA-N Frigate Sanya in Cambodia [Reuters]

The US relationship with China has been problematic for as long as it’s existed. From colonial exploiter to the current tetchy marriage of convenience, there have been periods of freeze, thaw and warfare of most varieties – cold, hot, proxy and direct. The current relationship is fraught with difficulty and complexity. China’s fundamental social and political values are not just different to the USA’s, they’re almost entirely irreconcilable. Add to this a worrying degree of economic co-dependence,  and it’s easy to get the idea that the only thing keeping China and the US from war is the liberalist international order, of which Trump and his advisers appear to be so contemptuous. And from there is but a short step to the left wing screamsheets’ confident prediction that President Trump will inevitably propel us into catastrophic global warfare.

But this isn’t really the case. China has arguably attracted more printed falsehood than any other nation apart, perhaps, from the ancient Sumerians. This is due, in part, to the exigencies of propaganda requirements over the ages, but I think that what it mainly indicates is a Western world which has never really fully understood China, its aims or its place in the world. There is much more than the liberalist international order keeping China from war with the West. There are many, many factors, but the two which I feel to be most important are:

  1. They are not ready;
  2. They are not willing.

China does not have a modern military force, it has a rapidly (and this is a very relative adverb) modernising one. China is also not an expansionist power. The rights which they have been attempting to arrogate to themselves do not represent new aspirational boundaries, but old, revanchist ones. China’s number one priority has remained unchanged for hundreds of years – unity. China’s ruling powers have always been aware that to keep their disparate and often quite discontented empire (yes, it’s an empire) together, its peoples need to be convinced that they are under an invincibly strong government which is able to provide prosperity. Thus, China’s apparent aggression, assertiveness, or whatever you wish to call it. Some of it can be accounted for by their mission to restore themselves to pre or early Manchu boundaries, and the rest is for home consumption.

So, after that little primer on China, how exactly can President Trump push this self-obsessed, bought and sold, internally paranoid power to a state where it actually looks belligerently at something other than itself? As it turns out, there are really only a couple of apocalyptic touchpoints. Sure, Trump can severely degrade any diplomatic relationship just by being himself, but the only real doomsday scenario here is war – be it conventional, economic, or a delightful mix of the two.

Probably the most likely of these is a trade war. Trump’s declared trade and economic policies have worrying (for China) overtones of protectionism. There are a few ways in which Trump could attempt to reinvigorate the USA’s manufacturing sector (assuming he intends to pursue this, and that’s a big assumption), and the most direct and obvious one is to strangle foreign imports with tariffs and other protectionist measures. This will seriously impact a nation like China and the knock on effect is most likely to be a sort of price war in which both economies will attempt to undercut each other, both in each other’s markets and across the world. This is an extremely worrying scenario, being likely to cause great pain and suffering and, if pushed far enough, history tells us that this can lead to war. Having said that, it’s not all that likely. Not only is it unlikely that Trump will actually embark on a fully fledged and immediate program of protectionism, China will also do everything in its power to prevent a trade war. Leading Chinese academics and commentators, who generally speak for the state, are already making multiple overtures to the Trump administration on this front. Articles, think-tank pieces and a raft of other media are being co-opted to sell Trump the message: “Let’s use our combined market power to make both our nations great again.” I find it highly unlikely when given conciliatory offers of favourable trade terms in exchange for trade guarantees, that any Trump administration will ignore these and try to push on without actually working China. Especially considering that the only possible outcome of a trade war between these two is that they will both lose. Trump’s gaggle of bankers and corporate raiders know this very well indeed, no matter how tough his sinophobic administration pick likes to talk.

And then there’s Taiwan. The whole world knows, by now, the story of the infamous phone call. What I don’t think most of the world understands is what it actually meant. We have two competing narratives here: the left sells the story that incompetent Trump impulsively took the Taiwanese call, while the right says it was months in the planning. The likelihood is that neither of these stories is true, but in the end, I don’t think it really matters. Short of official recognition of Taiwan, there’s very little to suggest that the status quo is receiving anything more than a bit of a shake. It’s pretty clear that Trump is playing a game of brinksmanship here. He wishes, with largely meaningless gestures, to assert US credibility on cultural and political issues. This is apparent in his support for Taiwan and Hong Kong. The reality of his support, though, is that apart from that element which is clearly for home consumption, it’s almost certainly a gambit. There are some tough negotiations ahead on a number of issues if Trump is to make even token efforts to satisfy his base, and it’s apparent that he’s counting his chips and letting the other players know he has them.

To the extent that it’s possible to determine the actual intentions of a more or less inarticulate demagogue, I think the most sensible analysis here is that what we’re looking at is not so much the precursor to an apocalypse as it is an adjustment back to an older version of the USA. Once again, when it comes to China, Trump would have to be spectacularly unlucky to trigger doomsday in this case, as China neither wants nor needs a direct confrontation and will work feverishly to prevent one.

Turkey, Russia, Murder and Islam

Assassination of Russian Ambassador

Most of us are aware by now that the Russian Ambassador to Turkey has been shot dead by a 22 year old Turkish policeman who the Turkish regime is tentatively linking to Fethullah Gulen, the figure who was also blamed for the abortive military coup earlier in the year and who basically acts as Turkey’s ‘Goldstein’ a la 1984. The screamsheets (my new name for all media, shamelessly stolen from Cyberpunk) have done their usual best to spread despondency and panic, and the conspiracy theorists can’t be far behind. I’d like to get in before them and try to break down what this attack actually means.

Firstly, we need to understand a little bit about what’s happening in Turkey at the moment. A full situational appreciation would take thousands of words, but a brief, somewhat simplistic rendering should be sufficient for our purposes here. In very crude terms, Turkey is conflicted between secular nationhood and Islamist regional hegemony. Erdogan, authoritarian, populist and Islamist, is attempting to undo, prick by prick, the grand experiment in secular nationhood kicked off by Ataturk. His consistent tendency has been to expand the powers of the presidency, nudge state law closer to Sharia, and to position Turkey as a regional hegemon at the very least. Many suspect that he seeks imperial power, with his detractors comparing his regime to the Ottoman Empire.

These are big changes which strike at the core of Turkey’s revivified vision of itself in the wake of its humiliation at the end of WWI. This has led to a nation which is sharply divided. There are many splinters and factions, but two broad schools of thought can be identified – populist, interventionist, Islamist and expansionist on the one hand; middle class, secular, republican and non-interventionist on the other. Erdogan’s straw man opponent, one time ally Fethullah Gulen, is almost exactly analogous to Trotsky – hounded out of the USSR and subsequently blamed for every riot, production shortfall or particularly nasty winter. Gulen believes in interfaith dialogue, secular government and science – basically, Ataturk’s westernising, secularising vision. He’s also vehemently opposed to Turkey’s support of elements seeking to overthrow Bashar al Assad. It’s this last belief, loudly proclaimed from Gulen’s exile in the USA, which conveniently allows the Erdogan regime to pin this assassination on his influence. This is not to say that the Gulenists are necessarily innocent, but rather that Turkey’s attribution should be taken with a rather large grain of salt.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that this socio-political ferment could produce someone like Mevlut Mert Altintas, the police officer who shot the Russian Ambassador. This is not an isolated attack – Turkey has been wracked with violence for some time now, with car bombs, suicide bombings and shootings having become so routine that western media outlets have largely given up reporting on them. What is unique is the targeting of a Russian dignitary. The motives behind this have to be seen as fairly transparent. There are many groups who wish to see Turkey fall out with its old enemy, Russia, for a whole confusing spectrum of reasons. And groups aside, there’s also the simple fact that many Turks despise Russia, vehemently support the rebellion in Syria and are broadly sympathetic to the aims and worldview of extremist Islamist militia. It should be noted that I’ve made no attempt to attribute responsibility for this attack. The investigation, such as it is, is in a very early stage, and it’s highly probable that we may never know the truth of it as very few of the investigating bodies are of the kind whose conclusions can readily be believed at the best of times.

Taken in context, the most probable deep motivation would either be to unseat Erdogan, highlight Russia’s pro-regime actions in Syria, or both. Erdogan is tap dancing on thumb tacks when it comes to Russia. They’re one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, but their interests in the region are diametrically opposed. So long as Erdogan pursues an anti-Assad policy while maintaining his hegemonic ambitions, the possibility of an irreconcilable conflict with Russia looms large. Mismanagement of this relationship could very well see him ousted through loss of popular support, such support being the only limiting factor on the Turkish military’s capacity to remove him from power. So we can see that the focus here is largely inward when it comes to Turkey, and the measured restraint of Russia’s response is an indication that they understand this.

Implications for the end game, however, are slightly more worrying. Erdogan, secure in his popular support for now, is still somewhat beleaguered  on the international front. The price he has paid for his policies has been to devolve his role into that of ‘strongman’. What’s key, in this position, is the perception of the degree of control he has over his country. Turkey’s relationship with Russia and, somewhat more worryingly, its status as a NATO member, now rest largely on this perception. While it’s very unlikely that anything Turkey can do will lead to all out war, too much more of this nonsense will see Erdogan isolated, possibly removed from power, and Turkey on the brink of becoming yet another domino in the failed state effect which is sweeping its immediate region.