Words and such.

Month: May, 2012

The Graveyard of Empires

The title famously refers to Afghanistan, and I’ve never liked it. I have it in mind because I’ve been reading a book which might be seen to back up the assertion, but which actually reminded me of why I dislike it so much. David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt: Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan is exactly as it sounds, and it’s rather good at it. That two hundred years, much like the previous two and a half thousand, can be easily characterised as one of imperial failure, but that’s far too simple a narrative. Britain’s adventures in the 19th century take up a large chunk of Loyn’s book, and it not hard to claim that the empire exercised what was considered a sufficient degree of control over Afghanistan for over a century, even with the intermittent (and admittedly spectacular) setbacks. Plenty of others have had considerable ‘success’. The Mughal Emperors, for example, didn’t have too bad a time of it. Indeed, the history of Afghanistan is almost invariably a history of imperial activity, in all its forms. The truth is that all empires recede in time, invariably with some embarrassing defeats and retreats along the way. Large parts of Afghanistan are pure romance, and so a few high profile imperial failures combined with popular perception of a wild frontier and a supposedly indomitable populace and the legend-cum-cliche prospers.

Afghanistan: really, really, ridiculously good looking.

There’s plenty of writing out there rebutting the ‘graveyard’ thesis, usually citing examples such as those above or even Afghanistan remaining Seleucid for many decades after Alexander’s death. The strongest point, however, is that Afghanistan’s supposed resistance to one empire has tended to be due to the influence of another. The British in the 19th century had Russia to contend with, and the Russians in the 1980s had to face Charlie Wilson and the seemingly bottomless pockets of his Saudi friends. One could hardly call Pakistan an empire, but it is that nation’s imperialism which will eventually kill off NATO’s admittedly half-arsed effort. So part of my dislike of the ‘graveyard’ idea is that it is a perfect example of lazy history, the kind which picks up a simple narrative and ignores or squashes anything which doesn’t fit.

A graveyard of imperials, certainly.

There’s a bigger issue than the poor history behind the concept, however. Afghanistan does after all, have as good a record for frustrating imperial ambition as anywhere. Rather it is the lazy characterisation of the place and its peoples that such history encourages that is the real problem. The outside world has repeatedly used these stereotypes to wash its hands of Afghanistan, no more scandalously so than in the early 90s, when Afghanistan’s darkest moments drew effectively no interest from the so-called international community. There is a tendency to see the living tenants of the ‘graveyard’ as either somehow alien and inscrutable, or simply beyond civilisation. Afghans have long been seen by many as so bizarre, so distant from supposedly civilised people, as to be unknowable. Worse, they are seen as capable of savagery apparently incomprehensible to our lofty ideals. The inevitable response to seeing a country as a graveyard, and its people as alien, is to throw up one’s hands and declare the place best ignored. The two interlinked images of Afghans are perfectly represented by the two Afghan faces most famous in the west. One an ethereal, almost otherworldly face, the other marked by staggering violence:

One could do a PhD on media portrayals of asian women based on these two images alone.

Before one can take issue with the stereotypes themselves there must be derision heaped on their basis in the laughable idea of a singular Afghan people, an idea seemingly based on a presumption that Afghan means Pashtun. Indeed both Sharbut Gula and Bibi Aisha are Pashtun, as are a plurality of Afghans, but hardly a majority. Afghanistan is a huge and typically artificial country, with multiple ethnic groups and two sharply different official languages. While it is understandable that the east and south of the country, and the border/frontier region in particular, grabs most of the headlines, it is myopic in the extreme to ignore the entire rest of the country and the Hazara, Tajiks and so on who inhabit it. Of course, one can’t stereotype an entire people anyway, but it does make the tendency all the more irritating. The bigger problem is, again, not the intellectual sloth itself, but the abundant bigotry that results.

The only other Afghan face you’re likely to see in western media is one possessing beard, turban and kalashnikov.

Reading Butcher and Bolt has been fascinating in light of this desire for a more nuanced understanding of the people of Afghanistan. Most of the research I’ve done on Afghanistan has had a heavy focus on politics, religion and violence, but my favourite read has been The Places Inbetween, Rory Stewart’s account of walking across the country and meeting its people in the immediate aftermath of the NATO invasion. The connection with Loyn’s work is to be found in the multiple accounts of 19th century Afghans written by Britons, Russians and Indians on various imperial endeavours. When reading these accounts all I could think of was the many Afghans that Stewart described in detail, and how smilar the people of two different centuries were. In large part this is because they’re people, after all, and humanity varies relatively little across era or culture. It goes beyond that though, Loyn’s 19th century sources and Rory Stewart’s early 21st century accounts have a remarkable synergy, in some instances they could almost be describing the same people. Of course, Stewart is perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to a 19th century cavalry officer in the modern day, and this somewhat comparable outlook makes the similarities in character all the more striking.

Roderick James Nugent Stewart OBE FRSL MP, just possibly born in the wrong century

At this point the logical choice would be provide direct comparisons, but, annoyingly, I’ve misplaced my copy of The Places in Between. Regardless, the conclusion can be drawn that the people of Afghanistan are not mysterious and alien, it is simply that those Afghans who are the focus of media attention tend to be the poor and tribal, those who live lives largely untouched by the industrialisation that so completely defines the West. And yet even these differences remain blatantly superficial. Every account I’ve encountered has been relentlessly human, with all the tragic glory that defines our species. Even with an astonishingly stagnant, poor, and tribal society, Pashtuns, once you get past honour codes and language and so on, seem to be little more inscrutable than the French. Indeed Afghanistan itself is nothing special, it isn’t the supposed ‘graveyard of empires’, and nor is it some inscrutable wilderness full of bizarre alien peoples. Afghanistan is no more exceptional or inscrutable than Hungary or Indonesia or the United Kingdom, it just labours under certain lazy and dismissive stereotypes in the West. Stereotypes which are not only wrong, but have been, and will continue to be, deeply harmful.


Hit ‘return’ to ruin your life

A teacher friend of mine told me yesterday that upwards of thirty teachers in Lancashire have been disciplined for comments on social media sites, and three have been sacked. That aspect of internet usage has been covered extensively and by now, to be frank, everybody should be aware of the permanent nature of the internet. However, we were all teenagers once, and we all said very stupid things on an at least daily basis, and some of us did so online. And the conversation with my friend reminded me of a very low-level kerfuffle last week involving up and coming leftie Owen Jones, which in turn reminded me of a long-held fear/expectation. A blog uncovered an email written by Jones when he was sixteen, in which he railed against contemporary Stalinists, in a less than polite manner. I shan’t link the blog which did the revealing, because no matter how inevitable such a thing is it is still despicable, but I’ll quote the opening:

You stupid fuck.. You fucking have the nerve to speak like that you retarded moron. There’s some fuckers I don’t take this shit off, and Stalin worshipping brain dead fucks like you are one of them. You’re the type of shit who could have gone either way…fascist or Stalinist…as long as you can make your wank fantasies about pulling people’s guts out come true. You reckon you’re hard core being a Stalinist…why no just become a Marilyn Manson fan you reject shit

It goes on like that for awhile.

Most of what Jones said as an angry sixteen year old is hard to disagree with, and his tone is simply that of the average teenage male, as far as I can remember, but you can imagine there’s much worse out there. For him, for others, and certainly for me. Being a high profile political or cultural commentator is bad enough in terms of making enemies, but imagine the muck-raking the internet-using politicians of this generation are going to face. I’ve thought before that future generations will be completely immune to shame of this sort, because privacy is being voluntarily done away with. We’ll know absolutely everything about politicians long before they get near office, and perhaps that will make for a better understanding of the essential humanity of everyone, even Members of Parliament. Certainly we’re all going to enjoy reading the chatlogs of the 2040s equivalent of Barack Obama. My generation, however, will face the unfortunate combination of (soon to be) old fashioned standards and newfangled technology. The lucky ones who never posted on a web forum or had a Myspace page or even used any kind of webmail in their teens can hope to have a high-profile life in the coming decades without the most basic of online skullduggery causing immense embarrassment. The substantial minority who have offered opinions online from a young age, well, we’re unlikely to be so lucky…

The future’s shite, the future’s blogging

A few days ago whilst trawling the job sites I came across this, a job I’m typically under-qualified for. The most interesting part was this:

You’ll be required to have expertise in the workings of the Labour Party. You’ll have a comprehensive knowledge of the Labour Party and a good awareness of constitutional affairs.

Being not a complete imbecile, I recognised that the BBC Political Research Unit must employ party-specific analysts, which I hadn’t known but makes perfect sense. So you can imagine my bemusement to see this inoffensive job ad reappear as the latest bit of incoherent grist for British politics’ most banal and destructive mill. Or, to be more depressingly accurate, the leading light of British political blogging. Now, Paul Staines and his sidekick Harry Cole, the veritable Beeblebrox behind ‘Guido Fawkes’, are many things, but I strongly doubt they are lobotomised. As such, when one of those bizarre creatures of the Right that lurk the internet looking for evidence of ‘cultural marxism’ and the like excitedly emailed this in, whichever one of the braintrust does the actual blogging these days (presumably Cole) will have known full well that there was nothing to see here. Unsurprisingly this didn’t stop him, because even running a website supposedly read by hundreds of members of parliament doesn’t imbue in these men any sense of responsibility to be truthful.

Whilst tame compared to some of its brethren across the Atlantic, Guido Fawkes is about as bad as it gets in high profile British blogging, but it is simply the highest peak in a mountain of shit. There is an utter lack of integrity in vast swathes political blogging, of which this nonsense is merely a particularly inane example, and it’s doing so much damage already that one can only look to the likely future primacy of the internet with dread. There are thousands of examples of just this one facet of the evils of internet media every single day, wherein a blog invents a story based on little to nothing, and all its fellow travellers leap aboard and ride the bandwagon roughshod over any standards of integrity and critical thinking one might hope political commentators to have.

A particularly memorable example to me, for the permanent impression of political blogging it left me with, was a quiet day in the midst of the god-awful 2008 US presidential race. Barack Obama, in a speech to veterans, mentioned that his uncle had been part of the liberation of Auschwitz, and that it had had a horrible effect on the man. A brief personal relation to the horrors of war, or so you’d think. Subsequently all hell broke loose, with the usual suspects frothing at the mouth about Obama’s supposed deceit. For an entire day I watched as the outrage built to a crescendo, with this being an apt example. Except, of course, there was no deceit, merely a simple semantic mistake, as Obama’s uncle had actually been at Buchenwald. An unfortunate mistake, but with Auschwitz having become virtually synonymous with the holocaust for many, not an especially surprising one. But what proportion of the hundreds of thousands who lapped up that outrage ever learned the truth? It simply isn’t about being accurate, it’s about being first and being loudest. It’s about winning, regardless of means or consequences.

And perhaps the most depressing habit comes when bloggers are called out on their distortions, and, for whatever reason, feel the need to correct their initial and usually deliberate ‘mistake’. On these rare occasions they follow an even worse version of the tabloids’ trusty ‘one inch retraction on page 17’. The done thing is to update the initial post, several days later, and with the details of the inevitably half-hearted retraction below the jump. It’s the equivalent of screaming accusations at someone in a public place, and then muttering under your breath that you made them up. Three days later. At four in the morning.

Despite the great work done across the world by many bloggers, there can be no doubt that, much like their print forerunners, the most successful by far are a feckless nightmare of deceit, partisanship and astroturfing. Worse, it is almost certain that blogs and other online news and opinion sources are going to edge out traditional media in the long-run. And while the good of blogging is often better than print, the bad is so, so much worse, and there is nothing that can be done. Calling for regulation of the press is equal parts unsettling and pointless, so hoping for regulation of political blogging would be Canutesque. Equally unlikely is a slowing of the rising tide of influential bloggers, and so the nightmare scenario is that the likes of Drudge or Fawkes will gain the influence and prestige of a Fox News or a News of the World without even their modicum of standards and accountability. Ideally you could convince bloggers to adopt some kind of code of conduct, but if self-regulation achieved next to nothing with the press, it’ll get nowhere online. There are many out there, on all angles of the political spectrum, who abound with integrity, but we all know that their already limited share of the traffic is only going to be further marginalised as the web’s importance grows. Sadly, such people are, to co-opt Henry Winter’s recent wonderful turn of phrase, broadsheet men and women in the most tabloid world imaginable.

Returning to Fawkes, I ventured into the comments to see how many people were calling the site out on its nonsensical innuendo. Aside from killing another small part of my humanity, it was worthwhile because someone had been good enough to root out a recent job ad for another position in the beeb’s political affairs unit, which included the following requirement:

You will be required to have a good working knowledge of and expertise in the Conservative Party.

‘Shameless’ doesn’t even begin to cover it…