Friday 23 November 2012

The voice of the academic left? Not in my name.

This open letter, condemning ‘the Israeli assault on the defenceless people of the Gaza strip', angered and saddened me so much that it has finally lured me out of my extended blogging hibernation. The letter, sent to the Irish Left Review but no doubt also published in other earnest left-wing journals, is signed by no fewer than 136 academics. Some of them are the usual suspects – the far-left anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, the Hamas spokesman and suicide bombing apologist Azzam Tamimi – but among the others are one or two people I vaguely know, others whose academic work I admire, and at least one (Judith Butler) whose writing I used to like but whose naïve interventions on this particular issue have caused me to re-evaluate everything she’s written.

The letter made me angry because I believe it is wrong on almost every level: every sentence is stuffed with lies and half-truths. And it made me sad because this collection of intellectual worthies seemed to be presenting themselves as the combined voice of the ‘academic left’. I'm an academic – have been for the better part of a quarter of a century. I am also of ‘the Left’, a paid-up Labour member who has never voted for any other party (unless you count a tactical vote for the Liberals in a Tory safe seat thirty years ago), whose political thinking has been shaped by the likes of Ruskin, Morris, Raymond Williams, E P Thompson, plus a smattering of early Marx, feminism and anti-racism. And yet when I read this, the supposed collective voice of the ‘academic left’, I feel nothing but alienation and revulsion, and want to cry out: ‘Not in my name!’

The letter is short, so a line-by-line fisking is in order. Here’s the first sentence:

We the undersigned watch with horror yet another ruthless and criminal Israeli assault on the defenceless people of the Gaza Strip.

You would never know from this that Israel’s ‘assault’ came after a week in which hundreds of rockets were launched indiscriminately from Gaza towards residential areas in Israel. Surely, if anything was ‘ruthless’ or ‘criminal’, it was this series of unprovoked terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. This lack of informing context is, to say the least, surprising from a list comprising so many expert social scientists. And in what way was Israel’s response, carefully targeting terrorist leaders, arms dumps, communication centres, and going out of its way to avoid civilian casualties, ‘criminal’: do states not have a right to protect their people against terrorist attack? ‘Ruthless’ and ‘criminal’ might better describe Hamas’ strategy of siting their military hardware among civilians, using their own people cruelly and cynically as human shields. And ‘defenceless’? What about all that firepower aimed at Israel in the past few weeks, including sophisticated weaponry supplied by Hamas’ paymasters in Tehran? 

Moving on:

The assassination of the Hamas’ military commander, Ahmad al-Jabari, by Israel was intended to disrupt any chance for a permanent cease fire between the two sides and caused the current cycle of violence.

This is quite breathtaking. Remember: before Israel targeted al-Jabiri, there was no two-sided conflict requiring a 'ceasefire', just a one-sided campaign by Hamas and its proxies. It was this series of attacks that ‘caused’ the current cycle of violence: Israel’s careful targeting of one of its masterminds was an attempt to end the violence. Again, it’s astonishing to find academics who spend their professional lives analysing causation wilfully misreading the obvious chain of cause and effect here.

For the last five years al-Jabari had been responsible for limiting rocket attacks on Israel.

Far leftists are often unfairly accused of being implicit apologists for terror – but this is a quite brazen apologia for a known terrorist. As Carlos Tomatis (to whom I'm indebted for the original link to this letter) commented on Facebook: ‘These fine people think that it's okay to attempt to murder random Jews as long as you don't do it too often.’ It’s striking that the signatories to this letter go out of their way to ‘understand’ a jihadist commander like al-Jabiri, but refuse to extend any such understanding to his victims, or to those who seek to curtail his terrorist activities.

The inaction of the Western governments is further proof of their indifference to their electorates’ wish to stop Israel from perpetrating yet another massacre against the Palestinian people.

Again, ‘massacre’ hardly seems the appropriate word for carefully targeted attacks against terrorist infrastructure – and what do they mean by the other 'massacres' implied here? Have these supposedly thoughtful and critical academics bought into the myths of one side? And what ‘action’, exactly, do these signatories want western governments to take? Do they want to stop Israel making any response to Hamas’ provocation - and if so, why?

We call upon our governments, which have stood aloof and indifferent, in the face of Palestine’s  dispossession and colonization since 1948 to take immediate and effective action. No other people in the world has been subjected, for more than sixty years, to such relentless acts of collective punishment and military brutality as have the Palestinian people.

‘Dispossession and colonization’ – these are not the words of people seeking a two-state solution, one in which Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully side-by-side in two legitimate nations. No, this is precisely the language of rejectionists who deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state, who seek to deny the Jewish people, alone in the world, a right to a homeland of their own. This is also the boilerplate rhetoric of the anti-imperialist far left, which seeks lazily to impose a false template, transferred from very different conflicts, on the complexities of the Middle East.

As for the second sentence in this paragraph, it’s a downright, ugly lie. Even if Israel’s admittedly imperfect treatment of the Palestinians could be accurately described using terms such as 'collective punishment' and military brutality' (terms with, one suspects, deliberate and offensive overtones of Nazism and fascism - and by the way, did you see the actual collective punishment meted out by Hamas to suspected collaborators this week? - there's real fascism for you) - how can any sensible person say this is worse than (say) the treatment of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs by Saddam, or the Tibetans by the Chinese, or the East Timorese by the Indonesians? The list could go on indefinitely, and the more examples are adduced, the more absurd and offensive this letter's claim becomes. To accept that Israel's treatment of Palestinians could be compared to these brutal, genocidal campaigns would be to acknowledge that words have lost their meaning - again, surprising for a group of academics whose writings are often concerned with the precise nuances of language.

We call for the removal of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, the free movement of people and goods in and out of the region and a total cessation of lethal attack from the air, land and sea, against a helpless civilian population in one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.

At last, you may think, an end to the rhetorical windbaggery, and something like a measured call for practical action. After all, even 'moderate' voices like Tony Blair have called for a removal of border restrictions between Israel and Gaza. But those voices also recognise, as this letter quite fails to do, the reason for those restrictions: the fact that, as events even this past week have shown, there are some who would abuse an open border to launch yet more terror attacks on Israel. And as for the sea blockade, surely the news this week of a secret Iranian shipment of weapons to Gaza has demonstrated that Israel is absolutely right to maintain this, for as long as Hamas and its backers in Tehran explicitly seek to destroy the state of Israel and call for genocide against the Jewish people. 

The world cannot stand by when Palestine is once more battered to death.

Sorry for resorting to linguistic trivia, but that just isn't English: you can’t be battered to death more than once, any more than you can commit suicide twice. More seriously, it prompts the question: why did 'the world', including this esteemed collection of academics, 'stand by' a couple of weeks ago when Israel was literally being 'battered' by repeated rocket attacks out of Gaza? Where were the letters to the press then? The almost complete silence from the great and the good following that outbreak of violence, when taken together with this letter's complete disavowal of Hamas' role in the 'cycle of violence', not to mention the bloated and offensive rhetoric, might lead some people to wonder about the motivation of the letter writers. How would these academics, many of them skilled in textual analysis, respond themselves to this kind of text in other circumstances - a text so replete with absences and silences, and one which focuses its whole attention on the actions of one party in a conflict to the exclusion of all others? 

By the way, I read that more than 400 Arabs of Palestinian origin have been killed in the civil war in Syria: maybe I haven't been paying attention, but I don't recall seeing any letters to the left-wing press protesting this particular massacre of Palestinians. One might wonder what it is about Israel that, alone of all the nations in the world, spurs such a hasty and vehement response from the combined academic 'left'. Some of those who signed this letter are acknowledged experts in the analysis of racism: I wonder what they would call it, if they came across another text in which one nation, one people, was singled out for such opprobrium, to the exclusion of all others, in defiance of all sense of balance and reason, and in such ugly and contemptuous terms?

Sunday 17 June 2012

John McCarthy: well-meaning but wrong

John McCarthy seems like a nice chap. I quite like his travel programme on Radio 4 on Saturday mornings, and he has that air of affability and basic decency characteristic of the more liberally-minded members of the English upper middle classes. And he seems admirably unbowed by his hellish experience as a hostage in Lebanon.

So I was disappointed to hear him talking, on this morning’s Andrew Marr Show, about his forthcoming documentary on 'the Palestinians of Israel’(sic). Of course, I haven’t seen the programme, or read the accompanying book, but from the few things McCarthy said by way of introduction, I could tell that this was an intervention with a very definite agenda.

For a start, there’s that jarring title: not the Arabs – the usual term - but the Palestinians of Israel. Not the Palestinians of the West Bank, or Gaza, but of Israel. This seemed to be a political, and deliberately provocative choice. To me, it suggests that Arab citizens of Israel are not simply an ethnic group among others but one with nationalist claims to the land in which they live. It’s an odd term, because there never was a country called ‘Palestine’, and Israeli Arabs have never lived in a country with that name: except in the sense that it was a province of the Ottoman Empire, and then a British Mandate – and in that sense, the Jews of Israel have as much claim to be called ‘Palestinians’ as their Arab neighbours. To which we must add the undeniable fact that the main reason there is no state called Palestine is that the Arabs rejected the two-state solution offered to them in 1948, preferring a war to deny the Jews their right to a homeland, a war they have continued and renewed at intervals ever since. 

And maybe it’s just me, but to call the Arabs of Israel ‘Palestinian’ also suggests that you think the land is somehow ‘really’ theirs - is really somewhere called ‘Palestine’ - and is yet another example of well-meaning (?) western liberals effacing the existence of the state of Israel. It’s almost as odd as it would be to call the Jews who live in Arab countries ‘Israelis’: but then, of course, many Jews became Israelis precisely because they were expelled from their homes in Arab countries such as Iraq, and those who remain in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are feeling particularly vulnerable right now, with the rise in antisemitism and religious intolerance following last year’s revolutions. Not to mention the chilling promise of some Palestinian leaders to ensure that any future Palestinian state is Judenrein.

I may be wrong, but it doesn’t sound like you’ll hear much about Arab antisemitism and the threats to Israel’s existence in McCarthy’s documentary. On Marr, he talked about the image Israel has as the Middle East’s only true democracy, and how his findings about the treatment of its ‘Palestinian’ population undermined that claim. But Israel’s democracy, which affords democratic rights to all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, is a matter of fact, not conjecture. As is the poor democratic record of literally every Arab and North African state. Israel is by no means perfect, but when (say) European states have shortcomings in their treatment of their minority populations, their democratic legitimacy is not usually called into question.

At the same time, I wonder whether McCarthy’s programme will introduce us to the Arab judges, politicians and soldiers who serve their country (Israel) loyally? Or talk about how the lives of Arab women, or Christians, or gays, are infinitely more free than they would be in any Arab or Muslim country? Or balance its discussion of the lives of ‘Palestinians’ in Israel with the experience of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries such as Lebanon or Syria, not to mention those countries’ callous failure to allow those refugees to settle permanently, so that they can continue to be used as a political tool to ‘shame’ Israel.

Finally, when Andrew Marr asked John McCarthy what he thought were the current prospects for the peace process, the latter thought the outlook was negative. Why? Because of Netanyahu’s ‘right-wing’ government. Now, I’m no fan of Netanyahu, and certainly not a right-winger, but surely the more immediate threats to peace in Israel/Palestine come from the continuing rocket attacks from Gaza, the tearing-up of existing peace agreements and warlike noises from the emerging parties in the new Egypt, not to mention the rejectionist propaganda spewing out of the PA-controlled media in the West Bank?

Against this hostile background, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens, while not perfect, is surely to be commended rather than condemned. How many other countries in the region can claim to grant members of ethnic and religious minorities comparable rights? And when will we see well-meaning western liberals making high-profile documentary films about them?

Tuesday 29 May 2012

My ancestors in the age of revolution

Last week I wrote about the way that one’s historical sympathies can be swayed by one’s ancestors’ political affiliations, and I mentioned my discovery that my Robb forebears had supported the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 as a case in point.

For the family historian with an interest in political history, discovering an intersection between your ancestors’ lives and wider historical events is always thrilling. However, until recently, I believed that my family had always been on the 'wrong' side of history. Besides their support for the romantic but reactionary Jacobites, there was also the case of Reverend William Robb (1763 - 1830), the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. He was an Episcopal clergyman in St Andrews, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a poet: in fact, the only member of our family until the current generation to make it into print. In addition to a number of verses ‘illustrative of the genius and influence of Christianity’, William Robb wrote a long poem entitled ‘The Patriotic Wolves’ in December 1792 ‘when [as he says in the introduction] the agents of France, and those seditious societies, falsely styling themselves “The Friends of the People”, threatened the subversion of our happy constitution’. The poem,  a ‘fable’ characterising reformers as ravenous wolves threatening the sheep-like British people, was published in the arch-conservative ‘Anti-Jacobin Review’.

Handbill produced by London Corresponding Society, 1793

I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries, the age of revolution and reform, the period covered by E. P. Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class: an era when radical politics was still untainted by bureaucratism, when Enlightenment rationalism had yet to give way to pious Victorian sentimentalism, and when the cause of liberty had a romantic sheen and boasted literary luminaries such as Hazlitt, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Byron and Shelley: bliss was it in that dawn indeed. So while it was intriguing to find that one of my ancestors had contributed to contemporary political debates, it was disappointing to discover that he had been an implacable opponent of progress.

Francis Place

The only marginal corrective to this ancestral conservatism was the fact that, when my 3 x great grandfather Charles brought his family down to London some time in the 1820s or 1830s, they found lodgings at 29 Charing Cross – the very house that had once been occupied by the radical tailor Francis Place. This provided a rather tangential link with radical history - I’m fairly sure my ancestor Charles would have had little sympathy with the politics of the previous occupant of his house - but it was better than nothing.

So much for my father’s family: mind you, in the next generation they would switch from Episcopalianism to Wesleyanism, slip in class terms from distressed gentry to respectable working class, and move from the West End to the East End, their line culminating in my late grandfather, a teetotalling Methodist, council lamplighter and NUPE shop steward in East Ham.

Westminster election campaign, 1784

However, I’ve recently found out that my ancestors on my mother’s side were of a more radical cast, and in precisely the historical period that interests me. Thanks to the excellent London Lives website, it’s now possible to find out who voted in elections in the Westminster constitutency during this period: the poll books contain details not only of their addresses, occupations and property values, but also the way they voted (no secret ballot in those days). And since Westminster had a wider franchise than some other boroughs, it included some of the craftsmen and tradesmen who populate the upper branches of my maternal family tree.

Among them was James Blanch (1755 – 1840), one of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers. Born in Tewkesbury the son of a Quaker heel and patten maker (pattens were the metal over-shoes worn to protect against the mud of the eighteenth-century streets), he grew up in Bristol and came to London as a young man, an apprentice in the same trade as his father. Living in Compton Street, Soho, James married for the first time in 1779, to a young woman who was probably the daughter of his apprentice master. The Westminster poll books record the votes of James Blanch, patten maker, in three elections: 1780, 1784 and 1790.

Charles James Fox

I was delighted to discover that James voted for the most radical candidate in two out of three of these elections. In the election of 1780, he cast his vote for the radical Whig politician Charles James Fox. The latter was a supporter of the American and French revolutions and a campaigner against slavery and in favour of religious tolerance and individual liberty. Victorious in the 1780 election, he was lauded with the title ‘Man of the People’.

However, my ancestor was obviously not a party man, since in 1784 he hedged his bets and voted for both the Tory Samuel Hood (perhaps because he was something of a national naval hero) and the Whig Sir Cecil Wray – even though Fox was standing in the same election. This was the controversial ballot in which Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, toured the streets offering kisses in return for votes on behalf of Fox, who won narrowly.

John Horne Tooke

By the time of the 1790 election, James Blanch was living in Cross Lane in the parish of St Martin-in-the- Fields: on this occasion he voted for the radical John Horne Tooke. A prominent member of the Bill of Rights Society and the Society for Constitutional Reform, Horne Tooke was strongly influenced by the writings of Tom Paine and was a supporter of the working-class London Corresponding Society. His involvement in organizing an abortive constitutional convention led to his arrest and imprisonment in the Tower, along with leadings lights of the LCS, on a charge of treason. To great popular acclaim, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’.

I find it nicely ironic that John Horne Tooke, the favoured candidate in 1790 of my mother’s ancestor James Blanch, was exactly the kind of person that my father’s ancestor, Rev. William Robb, would satirise and condemn in verse two years later.

Joseph Priestley

James Blanch’s votes for Fox and Horne Tooke are the only definite evidence I’ve found of radicalism among my direct ancestors. However, I remain intrigued by the fact that, two generations later, my great-great-grandfather Daniel Roe, another shoemaker (he married Mary Ann Blanch, the daughter of James Blanch’s son John), named his youngest son (my great-grandfather) Joseph Priestley Roe. This was almost certainly a tribute to the great 18th century dissenting minister, inventor and radical reformer. Joseph Roe was born, in 1862, in Great Windmill Street, Soho, just a few doors away from the Red Lion pub, where Marx and Engels had hammered out the first draft of the Communist Manifesto, fourteen years earlier.

Guy Aldred

Finally: I can claim a much more distant family connection with a more recent radical. Also on my mother's side of the family, it seems that the anarcho-communist writer and activist Guy Alfred Aldred, who died in 1963, was my fourth cousin twice removed. To put it another way: my great-great-great-grandfather was his great-great-great uncle...well, you get the general idea.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Something for the weekend

Just heard this online at KCSM, the Bay Area Jazz Station. It's 2.30 a.m. over there, but I often find their lazy late-night moods match mine on a slow Saturday morning. Lots of wonderful things about this - the Hoagy Carmichael tune, Oscar Peterson on piano, Satchmo's growl. But just marvel at the purity of Ella's voice...

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Roundhead or Cavalier (or a bit of both)?

I imagine serious historians must tear their hair out at programmes like Roundhead or Cavalier: Which One Are You? which was on BBC 4 last night (though I noticed quite a few of them among the contributors: they must have been reading this). Me, I gave up a couple of minutes in, when the presenter described Cromwell as an ‘egalitarian’. From the little I saw, the programme committed the cardinal sin of history documentaries: reading modern debates and divisions back into an era utterly unlike our own.

Nevertheless, the parlour-game format around which the programme was built – where can we see the ‘two tribes’ of Roundhead and Cavalier in contemporary Britain, and which one do you belong to? – is a bit of harmless fun. The trouble is, speaking for myself, it’s not a question I find easy to answer – not any more, anyway. Once, in my far-off youth, it was all so much simpler. Brought up a Methodist, with early stirrings of socialist sympathies, I was an instinctive Roundhead. As a child, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ was probably my favourite in the Ladbybird history series: I felt a natural sympathy for the spiritual simplicity, the political reformism, even the clean, proto-modern lines of the uniforms, clothes, hairstyles. As for the Cavaliers, they were so obviously everything we aspiring-working-class Nonconformists were against: hierarchy, pomp, ritualism, tradition.

But then, as I grew older, it became more complicated. In my early twenties, I had a short-lived flirtation with Catholicism. That’s to say, I converted, but lapsed soon afterwards, though I retained strong residual sympathies in that direction, and if I were ever to become a practising Christian again, I can’t imagine belonging to any other denomination. I was inspired by the Catholic Worker movement and the liberation theologians of Latin America, and my conversion fractured the connection within me between Protestantism and political radicalism. (It helped that evangelical protestants, the modern-day heirs of seventeenth-century Puritanism, tended to align themselves with the political right). Left-wing Catholicism offered me a way of being traditionalist and sacramentalist in religion, while supporting social justice on the political level.

Complicating things still further, my researches in family history led to the discovery that my father’s forebears had been Aberdeenshire Episcopalians who (so family tradition had it) fought for the Bonnie Prince in the ’45: indeed, my great-great-great-grandfather bore the name Charles Edward Stuart Robb in his memory. As a result, I became fascinated by the Jacobites and by extension the Stuarts: their cause seemed far more glamorous than that of their dour Presbyterian opponents, with their grim sabbatarianism and censorious kirk sessions (before which some of my ancestors were apparently hauled for various offences against purity and sobriety).

My theological and genealogical sympathies have also inspired some recent revisionist historical reading, from which I’ve learned, inter alia, that it was the Catholic Mary Stuart who tried to introduce a degree of religious tolerance to Scotland, only to be thwarted by the fanatically Calvinist and misogynist John Knox, just as it was her great grandson James II, who, for all his autocratic ways, wanted to extend religious rights to both Catholics and Dissenters, a policy that in part prompted the so-called Glorious Revolution – supposedly the foundational moment of modern liberal democracy, but from another perspective a coup by the Protestant elite. As for Charles II, he was just a lot more fun than his predecessor Cromwell: I enjoyed reading Jenny Uglow's biography, especially the unforgettable image of Charles and James rolling up their sleeves to help put out the Great Fire.

Then, last year, I read Michael Braddick’s superb revisionist account of the English Civil War, a period I’d never really studied properly before. Braddick sees the various internecine wars of the seventeenth century in these islands, not so much as the beginnings of English political radicalism, but as a continuation of the religious conflict sparked by Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome in the previous century. I found the book revealing about the religious as well as the political beliefs of those who rebelled against Charles I. I don’t think I’d realized before quite how important Calvinism was to the religious outlook of the Puritans: rather than simplicity of worship and equal access to the scriptures being their prime motivation, as the Whig version of history taught us to believe, it was their core belief in the doctrine of predestination - in the divine election for salvation of a chosen few (and therefore the uselessness of human ‘works’) - that galvanised their opposition to Church and King. Far from the Puritans being egalitarians or proto-democrats, this was about the most elitist worldview imaginable, not to mention one that tended towards a strident paternalism, a knowing-what’s-best for the unsaved and unwashed.

For all of Charles I’s many faults and missteps, Braddick’s book showed the battle for legitimacy between crown and parliament as much more finely balanced  than I remembered. And the victory of the parliamentary cause seemed, in the end, more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally. But reading Braddick’s history, Cromwell seemed more like Lenin or Mao than Attlee or Bevan. As for the New Model Army, seeking to impose their theocratic will by force of arms and (when in power) banning Christmas, closing down theatres and imposing strict dress codes, one was reminded less of the dear old Labour Party than of the Taliban or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And if you want to see what happened when the Puritans got a chance to found their own God-bothering commonwealth, just think of New England later in the seventeenth century: the memory of what happened at Salem is a useful corrective to any notion that they foreshadowed modern egalitarian tolerance. Nearer to home, the three words ‘Cromwell in Ireland’ should be enough to undermine any simple notion of a great democratic liberator.

It goes to show that you shouldn’t try to interpret past conflicts in terms of modern categories. ‘Roundhead’ and ‘Cavalier’ aren’t timeless universals, but labels with very particular meanings in a very different historical context. The same goes for ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ in the next century, labels which are easily misconstrued in terms of today’s Conservative-Labour divisions, when in fact (for example) Tories began as supporters of the insurrectionist Jacobite Pretender, while the original Whigs were those dour and paternalist Presbyterians again.

Two more points. What if, rather than representing two persistent ‘tribes’ of Britons, the Cavaliers and Roundheads reflect two complementary aspects of the British spiritual and political psyche that were unnaturally split apart some time in the sixteenth century (the Reformation having a lot to do with it)? And what if, rather than representing a cleavage in society, these labels reflect a fault-line that runs through each of us? After all, it was said of Robbie Burns that he was both Jacobin and Jacobite, a paradoxical position that sounds impossible to sustain, but one with which I have an instinctive sympathy. What if there’s both a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in anyone with any kind of sympathetic imagination, and the struggle isn’t to decide which one you are, or to defeat one or the other, but to reconcile the warring tendencies within oneself...?

Friday 11 May 2012

Brody and blowback: reflections on 'Homeland'

So farewell then, Homeland: or rather, farewell Season 1, since we’re told that a second series is currently being filmed. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to find out whether Carrie’s delayed memory of Brody muttering the name of Abu Nazir’s son in his sleep has been wiped by electro-convulsive therapy. (Apologies to non-aficionados: it would take far too long to explain…)

As others have said, Homeland really has been the best thing on television for a long time: combining an original premiss, nail-biting plot, intelligent script – and superb acting. From such a stellar cast, it’s invidious to mention individual performances: though Claire Danes deserves every award she’s got for her depiction of obsessive CIA agent Carrie Mathison, while Mandy Patinkin as her grizzled colleague Saul, and Morgan Saylor as Brody’s teenage daughter Dana also stand out, and (as with The Wire) it was good to see two British actors, Damian Lewis and David Harewood, taking on key roles.

Any criticisms? To my mind, the first half of the series, which cleverly played with our suspicions about whether or not Brody had been ‘turned’ in captivity was more engaging than the later episodes, which substituted the more traditional suspense of the thriller - will he/won’t he (blow up himself and half the US government)?  And I half-agree with Ed West that Brody’s conversion to Islam, and his turning from loyal US marine to potential al Qaeda suicide bomber, was not entirely convincing. (For those with an interest in matters theological, West links to a couple of interesting articles about the show by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith – the first piece headed by a photo of three of the show’s photogenic stars which provides more, ahem, eye candy than one is used to seeing in the Catholic Herald).

My own marginal reservations about Homeland are slightly different to West's. I wonder whether, in attempting to provide a plausible reason for why a loyal US soldier would turn into a terrorist who would attack his own country, the programme-makers have failed to reflect what we know of the actual motivation of Islamist terrorists, and risked giving comfort to those who blame the West for providing the rationale for terror.

At about the half-way point in the series, we see the hostage Sergeant Brody – unwashed, long-haired, bruised and beaten – being taken from his hellish captivity, to the home of his captor, the terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir, in a remote corner of northern Iraq. Brody is allowed to wash and shave and given clean (ethnically and religiously appropriate) clothes. The experience looks like a new birth, a rising from the dead, and indeed Nazir’s house - clean, bright, book-lined – resembles a kind of paradise, after the purgatory of captivity. The picture is completed by Nazir’s cute son Issa, whom Brody is to teach English. Can this really be the hide-out of a notorious terrorist? It looks more like the retreat of a noted scholar, or a spiritual master, and indeed in this and subsequent episodes, Abu Nazir is often depicted in this way.

It could be argued that Homeland does, in fact, show another side to Nazir. After all, before being given this chance of new life, we see Brody (in scenes that are almost too gruesome to watch) being beaten, tortured and (he believes) forced to murder a fellow prisoner. But the programme fails to show any connection between Nazir the torturer and planner of terrorist outrages, and Nazir the scholar, man of God and loving father. Perhaps it’s expecting too much of as primetime thriller to get inside the mind of a terrorist, but what’s surely missing from the depiction of Abu Nazir and his world is the obsessiveness, the puritanical paranoia, the warped religiosity of the fanatic, with which we’re all too familiar from al Qaeda propaganda videos and the like.

The portrayal of Nazir is actually of a piece with Homeland’s sterling efforts to show Muslims in a favourable light. Back in the US, we see the FBI pursue Tom Walker, another ex-captive American marine who definitely has been ‘turned', into a DC mosque, where a number of innocent worshippers get killed in the crossfire. The programme goes out of its way to depict the imam and his wife (despite her traditional headscarf, shown as equal in status to her husband) as gentle, inoffensive types, with the programme-makers’ desire not to offend reflected in the Arabic greetings and general cultural sensitivity of Carrie and her colleagues. It feels like reverse or compensatory stereotyping, of the kind we’re familiar with from depictions of native Americans in anti-Westerns of the 60s and 70s, in which every Indian seemed to be of the ‘we come in peace’ variety, as if deliberately making up for decades of crude Hollywood racism. It’s not to say that such imams and such mosques don’t exist, far from it: but would a terrorist stooge like Walker, and his Saudi (and presumably Wahhabi) contact choose this kind of mosque for their rendezvous? Wouldn’t it have been more convincing – if risking accusations of more traditional negative stereotyping – to show something more like the Finsbury Park or East London mosques?

As for the explanation for Brody turning terrorist – the death of Nazir’s young son, to whom Brody has become close,  in a drone strike ordered by the programme’s one unmistakable ‘baddie’, the US vice-president - one can see why the scriptwriters hit on this, as it provides a powerful and intensely personal justification for Brody’s anger against his own government. But I think Lucie-Smith is right to question whether someone like Brody would ultimately put revenge for his captor’s son ahead of his attachment to his own children. Ed West is also right that drone strikes of this kind are hardly typical, and the episode distracts attention from the undoubted fact that almost all of the massacres of innocent men, women and children in Iraq after the fall of Saddam were carried out not by US forces but by al Qaeda and their sectarian surrogates – led by people rather like Abu Nazir - and were deliberate acts of mass murder, not accidental or ‘collateral’ damage.

Moreover, by choosing this event as Brody’s, and by extension Nazir’s motivation for a terrorist attack against the United States, the programme provides implicit support to blowback theorists, who misinterpret acts of Islamist terror as tit-for-tat repayment for western actions, rather than as the working-out of a twisted clerical-fascist ideology. As I’ve written before, blowback theory gets it back to front: the reactionary worldview comes first, and the sins of infidel westerners are mere excuses that play into an existing narrative. Even if the actions of western governments were blameless (and even when they are in support of Muslims, as in Bosnia), they would still hate us: not for what we do, but because of what we are.

By making Brody’s decision to work for Nazir a calm, rational choice based on emotions with which the viewer can identify, Homeland is certainly convincing on the superficial plot level, but in doing so it leaves no room for the role of ideology, or for the kind of brainwashing process that has always been evident in the few cases of hostages ‘turning’ to identify with their captors. There are hints earlier on in the series of Brody developing a kind of love-hate attachment to his erstwhile torturer, Nazir, but this is soon dropped in favour of the simpler motivation of revenge for Issa’s death. The only sign, on Brody’s return, of his continuing identification with his captors is his conversion to Islam, but this is kept in a kind of sealed box (literally as well as figuratively: he says his prayers in a locked garage after his wife and children have gone to bed) that is separate from his dealings with his family and friends, and the programme misses an opportunity to show how his new faith might have changed his outlook, for good or ill.

Having said all that, it’s surely a sign of Homeland’s general brilliance that, despite these cavils, I still think it’s the best television programme of the year. In its temporary absence, it’s time to settle down and watch the original Israeli version

Thursday 16 February 2012

Faith under fire?

What’s a decent secular liberal supposed to do for a daily newspaper these days? A refugee from the indiscriminately pro-faithist and worryingly fundament-apologist Guardian, I’ve recently found uneasy shelter in the pages of the Times. But this week has seen the latter paper launch a full-scale, confected moral panic about an entirely imaginary threat to organised religion.

Last Saturday the Times’ front-page headline (£) screamed about ‘Christianity on the rack’. Leave aside for one moment the unfortunate metaphor (historically, it has tended to be Christians who have used the actual rack to extort confessions from heretics and unbelievers). What on earth had happened, one wondered? Had the church been disestablished, the bishops kicked out of the Lords, door-to-door preachers arrested, or Salvation Army bands banned from town squares? No. A judge had told a town council that opening meetings with specifically Christian prayers was inappropriate, when councillors these days were members of all religions and none (a ruling that, paradoxically, would hardly provoke a ripple in most parts of the ultra-religious US, where this kind of separation of church and state is written into the constitution as a guarantor of religious freedom).

The Times headline was disingenuous to say the least – downright dishonest would be nearer the mark – in its claim that the judge had banned ‘public prayers’, as if this were some kind of ominous foreshadowing of a totalitarian future. There was nothing in the court’s ruling barring Christians, or anyone else for that matter, from praying in the street, or even in shops or restaurants, if they wanted to. The judgement related specifically to official political meetings, and was designed to protect the rights of non-believing representatives (presumably the majority these days, if opinion polls are to be believed).

And then today, when you’d think a serious paper would have better things with which to lead its front page (continuing repression in Syria, anti-bailout riots in Greece, that sort of thing), we have a story (£) about the Queen, no less, riding to the rescue of  a ‘beleaguered’ Church, beneath a photograph of Rowan Williams bowing gratefully to the monarch. Apparently Her Majesty has made a speech defending the role of the good old C of E in public life, ‘after a week in which religion has come under intense attack’.

Apart from the National Secular Society’s court victory over council meeting prayers, of what did this ‘intense attack’ consist? Well, it seems that on Tuesday, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which we are told ‘propagates a vehement atheist agenda’ (note how the word ‘atheist’ is rarely used by pro-faithist commentators without some kind of hostile qualifier: if not ‘vehement’ then ‘militant’), published a survey ‘claiming many people who identified themselves as Christians did not take a literal approach to Christian doctrine and the Bible’. Well, knock me down with a feather. Oh, and Baroness Warsi ‘defended religion during a trip to the Vatican to meet the Pope’. And, er, that’s it.

So a judge defending the rights of non-believers not to have religious rituals imposed upon them in their workplace, a bunch of atheists quoting what people actually think about religion, and a publicity-seeking politician actually defending religion – all this amounts to an ‘intense attack’? And doesn’t the Queen weighing in sort of make the secularists’ case for them: that, far from beleaguered, the Church remains at the heart of the Establishment, its official leader none other than the head of state?

The piece was written by Ruth Gledhill, the paper’s normally level-headed religion correspondent (well, compared to the Buntings, Odones and Armstrongs whose bylines adorn the faith-related papers of other broadsheets), and I was inclined to blame the skewed agenda of the paper’s editorial team for the overblown headline and the tendentious slant of the piece. But then I saw that Gledhill had written a ‘commentary’ piece inside today’s paper, under the headline ‘The new atheists have succeeded only in uniting faiths against them’. It’s basically the same thin gruel (a dash of Dawkins, a burst of Warsi) rehashed into a pro-faith and anti-secularist polemic.

What is one to make of all this? Well, firstly, I ought to re-state the usual personal caveats. I am by no means anti-religion. I had a religious upbringing, was quite devout in my youth, and retain a deep fascination with and on-and-off attraction to faith, which somehow rubs along with my wishy-washy liberal humanism. Having got that out of the way, I’d like to make three points.

Firstly, I think it’s absurd to claim that religion in general or Christianity in particular is under attack in this country. The Church has an enviably prominent role in public life, is well-represented in the media and public prints, and believers of all stripes enjoy complete freedom of belief and practice. If there’s any beleaguering going on, it’s the fault of the Church itself – of its failure, for good or ill, to hold on to mass appeal in an age of increasing secularisation, declining religious practice and diversification of beliefs.

Secondly, to claim victim status, to cry wolf at every minor slight or offence against faith, hardly seems in the spirit of the Christian gospel, as I understand it. Did Jesus exhort his followers to claim constitutional positions, privileged media access, or special rights? Did he say, when you are persecuted for my sake, complain about it endlessly in the press? Or did he, on the contrary, advise believers to expect persecution, even to rejoice in it? Surely a church that whinges at every sign of opposition is an unhealthy, declining church: a vigorous, vibrant body of believers would surely welcome debate and challenge as an opportunity to show its mettle?

Thirdly, the call for the followers of different faiths to make common cause in defence of religion, while sounding nicely harmonious and ecumenical, is actually quite worrying. This week has seen the distinctly odd spectacle of a British Muslim politician (Baroness Warsi) defending Christianity in a speech at the Vatican. Even the Queen’s speech (in a passage which I suspect was supplied by her spiritually eclectic son and heir, who has expressed a wish to be ‘defender of faiths’, plural) argued that the job of the Church of England was not to ‘defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions’ but ‘to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country’. 

This is all very well, but pro-faithists like Baroness Warsi want believers of different faiths to unite against the imaginary and loosely-defined bogeyman of secularism. But what if some Christians, for example, feel their values are closer to those of their secular humanist neighbours than of some other religions? Elsewhere in today’s Times, we read claims that the leader of the Scientology cult, David Miscavige, ruled by terror and subjected dissenting employees to torture, harassment and abuse. Should Anglicans see their role as defending the right of Scientologists to practise this kind of religion freely? And as for the ridiculous claim that the freedom of religion is under threat from atheists and secularists, I can do no better than quote from Douglas Murray’s characteristically spot-on riposte to Baroness Warsi:

(It) is so much easier to blame the diminishment of Christianity in Britain on ‘militant’ and 'totalitarian’ secularists. All this despite the fact around the world today we do not see any secularists, in the name of separation of church and state (or mosque and state), murdering or attempting to murder a believer for their differences of opinion. What we do see, around the world every single day, is Christians being killed for their beliefs. And the people who are doing the killing are notably not secularists.
The real, rather than imaginary danger to believers comes not from secularism but from others acting in the name of religion, and as always, the best guarantee of continuing freedom of religion is a secular constitution and the secular rule of law. In their obsession with a hyped-up secularist threat, the Church and its pro-faith supporters are in danger of creating imaginary enemies, and choosing the wrong allies.