Thursday 16 June 2011, 19:00

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad's archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.

That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite - and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that "the Syrian people are naturally democratic" and that all that was neccessary was to get rid of the elites - and a new world of "peace and progress" would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

I thought I would tell that story.

In 1968 a CIA agent called Miles Copeland wrote a book called 'The Game of Nations' that revealed what went on in 1947. Back then Copeland was part of a mangement consulting team in Washington who were working out how America should contain the threat of communism in the Middle East, now the old European Empires had gone. This was before the CIA existed, and Copeland describes how they got together an odd group of diplomats, secret agents left over from the war, advertising men from Madison Avenue, and "pipe-smoking owls" (which is what intellectuals were called in those days).

Copeland describes an impassioned lecturer telling this group that their aim should be to change the leadership in the countries in the Middle East:

"Politicians in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt seem to have been elected into power, but what elections! The winners were all candidates of foreign powers, old land-owners who tell their tenants and villagers how to vote, or rich crooks who can buy their votes. But peoples of these countries are intelligent, and they have a natural bent for politics. If there is a part of the world which is crying for the democratic process the Arab World is it."

They decided to start with Syria.

Compared to what was to come, it was all very sweet and innocent. Elections were due in Syria in 1947, and the Americans decided to give "a discreet nudge here and there". This involved warning landowners, employers, ward bosses and police chiefs not to intimidate the voters. The American oil companies were paid to put up big posters telling the Syrians to "vote for the candidate of your choice" (apparently this baffled all the Syrians because the posters didn't mention any candidates by name). Hundreds of taxis were hired to take voters to the polls free of charge. And the Americans brought in automatic, tamper-proof voting machines.

It didn't go as expected. The landowners and other elites ignored all the warnings and intimidated everyone. There were massive gun fights and scores of people were killed. The taxi-drivers bonded together and sold themselves to different candidates - promising to make their passengers vote the "right" way. The voting machines didn't work properly because of irregularities in the electric current, or were sabotaged. Two did work - but the losing candidates refused to accept the verdict of "imperialist technology" - and got recounts by hand, which strangely made them win.

And worst of all, most of the pro-American candidates defected to other foreign powers. The Americans had nobly refused to give them any money - so the Russians, the French and the British stepped in and bribed them - and the candidates changed their allegiances.

The Americans were upset. So they decided they would have to go further. The chief diplomat in Damascus was called James Keeley. The solution he said was to find a way of "quarantining" the Syrians from the corrupting forces that had wrecked the election so they would become more self-confident. More "naturally democratic". Here is a picture of James Keeley.

And the way to create this "quarantine" was by engineering a military coup. According to Copeland, Keeley believed that America should get rid of the present elected leaders, bring in a short period of dictatorship which would protect the Syrian people and thus allow them to develop self-confidence and stronger personalities, and within a few years a real independent democracy would emerge.

And that is what the Americans did. In 1949 a "Political Action Team" was set up that went and made friends with the head of the Syrian army, Husni al-Za'im. Copeland was part of the team and he is completely open about what they did.

"The political action team suggested to Za'im the idea of a coup d'etat, advised him how to go about it, guided him through the intricate preparations in laying the groundwork for it...Za'im was 'the American boy'. "

Here is a picture of the American boy - General Za'im and his limousine.

And Za'im promised the Americans he would throw all the corrupt politicians in jail, reform the country, recognise the new state of Israel, and then bring in proper democracy. All the Americans were convinced that it was a brilliant plan - except for one man, a young political officer called Deane Hinton. Copeland describes a moment when they were out in Damascus planning the coup when Hinton turned to the rest of the group and said:

"I want to go on record as saying that this is the stupidest, most irresponsible action a diplomatic mission like ours could get itself involved in, and that we've started a series of these things that will never end."

Deane was promptly kicked out of the group and ostracised. The coup happened in March 1949. It was the first post-war military coup in the Middle East. It was a great success and the American celebrated "opening the door to Peace and Progress"

But then Za'im immediately went back on all his promises and turned into a violent tyrant. He got so bad that five months later a group of his subordinates surrounded his house and shot him to bits. And then they mounted another violent coup, this time with no promises. As Copeland noted - Hinton had been right. The Americans had started something - they had "opened the door to the Dark Ages" in Syria.

Here is Copeland interviewed in 1969. He is reflecting ruefully on the disaster they had created in Syria. His is the voice of a generation of Americans who had tried to intervene to bring democracy to the Middle East - not just in Syria but later in Iran and in Nasser's Egypt. The "Game" he refers to is a management game-playing exercise the CIA did in the 1950s when planning the interventions. It's aim was to predict how all the "players" in the country would behave.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

As a result Syria was torn apart by miltary coups throughout the early 1950s. Then in 1954 the parliamentary system was restored. The politicians - and most of the Syrian people - were now terrified of America, not just because of the interventions and the coup, but also because of their support for Israel. In response the new government turned to the Soviet Union for economic aid and friendship.

Here is a fascinating film made in 1957. The BBC reporter, Woodrow Wyatt, goes to Syria with the aim of proving that everyone there is a communist. But repeatedly they tell him that this is not true. Both students and millionaire businessmen insist they are not a Soviet satellite, that they like capitalism. They just fear America because of its plots - and they have turned to the Soviets as a message to America. They also see Israel as America's agent.

Just before Woodrow Wyatt arrived the Syrians had uncovered yet another CIA plot to overthrow the government. Three CIA men had been expelled, and even Wyatt has to admit in the commentary that the evidence for the plot is strong.

In fact it was true. The Americans had been planning another military coup, code-named Operation Wappen. The CIA man in charge was called Howard "Rocky" Stone, and he terrified the Syrians because he always stared intensely at them. But Stone did this because he was almost completely deaf - and he was trying to read their lips.

But while all the Syrians interviewed in the film dislike America, they also all have a hero. He is President Nasser of Egypt. What inspires them is Nasser's dream of a united Arab world that would be strong enough to challenge America and the western powers.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

But Syria also had its own fast-growing version of Nasser's Pan-Arabism - and it was even more epic in its vision. It was called the Baath party. It had been started by a Syrian Christian called Michel Aflaq - and Aflaq's dream was to rouse the Arabs from what he considered a living death. To free them from the shackles of tribalism, sectarianism, the oppression of women and the cruel autocracies of landowners. All these made the Arabs feel inferior - and that was then exploited by the Western empires, and now by America. In the process they had turned the Arab people into powerless zombies.

Here are some pictures of Aflaq.

Baath meant rebirth - and that was what Aflaq wanted to bring about. His aim was freedom not just from America and the old empires, but he also wanted to bring about personal liberation from mental and social chains that were holding the Arabs back. It was an extraordinary fusion of Arab nationalism, grand ideas from the French Revolution, and modern socialist theories which wanted to transcend the deep sectarian divisions in the Arab world.

Then, in 1958, Syria and Egypt merged as countries to become the United Arab Republic, led by President Nasser. Aflaq believed that is was the beginning of a united Arab world and under pressure from Nasser he agreed to dissolve the Baath party as a separate entity. But he and the other Baathists quickly discovered that Nasser wanted to use the opportunity to destroy the Baath party because he saw it as a rival to his pan-Arab vision.

Here is part of a film shot in Syria in 1961 at the very moment when the UAR was falling apart. It records the growing hatred of Nasser among the Syrians. I particularly like the posters of American Hollywood starlets - with Nasser's face stuck on them. He's just as bad as the Americans now.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Faced with growing chaos in Syria, five young Baath party members who were also army officers decided they would save the country. They set up a secret committee within the army and planned to bring about the Baath vision in Syria. They would create a united Arab world where Nasser had failed. One of them was a young Hafez al-Assad.

And the Baath idea was spreading. At the same time, a group of Baathists in Iraq were plotting to bring down the nationalist ruler of the country - General Qassim. And in February 1963 they struck first. But the coup they mounted wasn't all that it seemed - and the reason was that yet again the Americans had got involved.

The Baath party had emerged and risen to popularity precisely because it promised to liberate the Arab people from foreign intervention and control. But in the strange twists and turns of Middle Eastern power struggles the Baath in Iraq ended up coming to power in a coup that was in large part organised and funded by the CIA. And one of the CIA's "assets" in that coup was a lowly member of the conspiracy - Saddam Hussein.

The reason the Americans got involved was simple. General Qassim depended on the Iraqi communists for power. The Baath party hated the communists because they saw International Marxism as their biggest rival to their dream of uniting the Arab world. And the CIA wanted to get rid of the communists in Iraq. So Bingo - why not help the Baath party? And that included giving them a list of the communists in Iraq that they should kill. (The elimination list was given to them by a Time Magazine correspondent who was really a CIA agent - and it was out of date)

This is a photograph of a group of some of the Iraqi Baathists of that time - including a young Saddam.

Here is a section from the film I made called It Felt Like a Kiss. It tells the story of Saddam's involvement in the Baath-CIA coup of 1963 set to music and images, and also sets it in the wider context of a growing uncertainty within America itself at the time.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

But the Syrian Baathists weren't going to be outclassed. A month later they mounted their coup, and this time without the CIA's help. Hafez al-Assad was one of the leaders. Everything went fine until Assad arrived outside one of Syria's main airbases to take it over. The officers refused to let him in because they said he wasn't really a Baathist, he was a Nasserist. Assad stood for hours shouting "I'm not a Nasserist, I'm a Baathist" at the airmen. The revolution was held up as they argued over the niceties of Pan-Arab theory.

But it succeeded. And it now looked as if the Baath vision might really spread across the Arab world. Nasser was furious - he used everyone's favourite political insult. He called them "fascists".

Here is a comedy sketch the BBC programme That Was The Week That Was did two days after the 1963 coup in Syria. It's not very funny, but it is interesting because of the prism through which it sees the coup. The "joke" is that the coup will only happen when the western media arrive. The plotters are waiting for the Panorama reporter to turn up because they know that coup will not be real until it is reported by the west.

It is an early example of the techno-orientalism that is being repeated today in the media's firm belief that it is the western social media networks that made possible the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

The dream of Baathism was to overcome the sectarianism that had always riven the Arab world, to create a secular society in which everyone was included. But now, as Assad and his four friends on the secret committee took power, that sectarianism rose up to possess and distort their revolution.

Of the five conspirators, three of them - including Assad - came from the Alawite sect. They were a Shia sect who lived in the western mountains of Syria. The two others were Ismailis - another branch of Shia Islam. Traditionally power in Syria had resided with the old Sunni landowning and merchant class of the plains who also made up the bulk of the population. The seizing of power by Assad and his conspirators was a dramatic reversal. It was the triumph of a low-class peasant population and lower middle class urbanites against the old metropolitan elites. And the Sunnis hated it.

The hatred went deep because when the French ruled the country they had practiced a programme of divide and rule which deliberately fomented and exaggerated the sectarian divisions in the country. Faced with this, Assad began to follow a logic that would destroy the very core of Michel Aflaq's dream of a united Arab world. Assad wasn't a sectarian, but he moved through the army and the institutions of state ruthlessly installing those he trusted into positions of power - while removing, often bloodily, Sunnis, Druze and other members of the old elite Syrian class. And many of those he installed were Alawites, like him.

In the process Assad also came into conflict with the other four members of the secret committee behind the revolution. So he destroyed them too. Until, by 1969, there were only two men left - Assad and an austere General called Salah Jadid. Assad couldn't get rid of Jadid because he was protected by the ruthless Bureau of National Security. So Assad sent troops to the one petrol station where all the security bureau jeeps refuelled - and grabbed them one by one. When the head of the bureau realised that he was defeated, he rang one of Assad's allies and then shot himself so that his enemy could hear the gunshot.

Here is some footage - beginning with the celebration from the early days of the revolution among the urban poor - as the Baath party free them from the old bosses. Followed by images of the strange Baath state that Assad then created in Syria. It was centred round countless images of Assad as a the heroic leader of the nation. It is very odd because, unlike Saddam who was doing the same sort of thing in Iraq, in every image and statue Assad looks like a middle manager.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Assad believed that this ruthless exercise of power was necessary because of the deep sectarian divisions. It was a strange echo of the American diplomat in 1949 who believed that a military coup was needed to "quarantine" the Syrian people - because Assad believed that the naked exercise of power by an elite was necessary to enforce a genuinely plural society. To quarantine the Syrians from their sectarian past.

And many Syrians greeted it with a sigh of relief after the relentless chaos and violence of the past twenty years. They welcomed the stable state Assad created for fear of the alternative - and as a result he became popular with millions of Syrians.

But what he had also created was a repressive state that resorted to violence and fear to maintain its rule.

Here are some unedited rushes - shot in 1977 - of the city of Hama. They are labelled Stockshots in the BBC archive. But since 1982 they have become more than that. They are one of the few film records that remain of a city that was practically destroyed by Assad as he struggled to put down an uprising by the disgruntled Sunnis, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who dominated the town. The accepted estimate is that Assad's security forces killed 10,000 people - and bulldozed many of the buildings - to try and wipe away yet more of his enemies.

But he wasn't successfull, Hama is yet again one of the main centres of the revolt against Assad's son's regime.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content

Nobody knows what is going to happen in Syria today. The optimistic view is that a new generation is emerging who really want a proper representative democracy in which all groups can negotiate with each other without violence. The pessimistic view is that those sectarian divisions, encouraged by the French - and then incubated further by the Assad family - will re-emerge. In truth no-one knows.

But there is a terrible naivety in the West's view of the ongoing revolt in Syria. It forgets its own history and the role it played in helping create the present situation.

Back in the 1950s America set out to create democracy in Syria, but it led to disaster. It was by no means the only factor that led to the violence and horror of the Assad dictatorship, but its unforeseen consequences played an important role in shaping the feverish paranoia in Syria in the late 1950s - which helped the Baath party come to power. And while the Western powers no longer remember this history, the Syrians surely do.

The man who had originally created the Baath vision, Michel Aflaq, was forced into exile in Iraq. He died in 1989 - a sad man, convinced that Assad had destroyed his dream of a united, confident Arab world.

The Iraqi Baaths hated the Syrian Baaths and they embraced the exiled Aflaq. After he died they built a grand mausoleum for him in Bagdhad. Here is a photo of what had happened to the mausoleum by 2006. It had been turned into a gym for the invading American troops. You can see Aflaq's tomb behind the weights and the table football.

One idea of personal transformation had been replaced by another.

Tagged with:


Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    have to admire the American armies respect for ideas, bet there were a few steroid fuelled fights over that Fußball table

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    @ bet there were a few steroid fuelled fights over that Fußball table

    If it all got too violent the players would be sent for an early baath I suppose. One difference I've noticed about Syria is that there are no British tourist revolutionaries being interviewed off the streets. The Egyptian period was almost a running farce here with one guy being interviewed on our Newsnight current affairs show, explaining that the night before he'd been *in the square* and tomorrow night he was flying back and would be back *in the square* again by the day after. Never mind the CIA, whatever happened to the Peace Corps?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    The politics of power is oh so predictable. Ideals can only flourish when they're raised above all things, including the sacred. This is known in the rational world as a liberal constitution or bill of rights. The problem with the Arab world is that rational ideals are not raised above the sacred, and the consequences are that such ideals will simply not flourish long term. Non-rational or anti-liberal ideals are just as dangerous, such as in Fascism or Communism.

    The reason why so-called 'civilized' western nations behaved like barbarians abroad, is because there was no international protection, or at least no forceful international constitutional authority, and so nations were playing the old game of power politics. And power politics only breeds power politics, you cannot raise beautiful ideals above the sacred by using the old irrational game of force.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "...there is a terrible naivety in the West's view of the ongoing revolt in Syria. It forgets its own history and the role it played in helping create the present situation."

    For Syria, read Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, the Congo, the Rwandan genocide etc etc. One of the indispensable aspects of Adam's work is to remind us of the West's forgotten colonial and neo-imperialist history in Africa and the Middle East, and its continuing influence on recent and current events. (On our own unedifying foreign policy in the 20th century, see Mark Curtis's Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World).

    Miles Copeland, by the way, was the father of Stewart Copeland, drummer with the Police (I'm sure Adam could make something of that by way of musical accompaniment to relevant footage - not to mention the irony of the coincidental link with Sting's campaigning on human rights etc).

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    It's like Hip hop History

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Once again thank you for informing me in a way that would not have happened by other means. No other media source talks about this stuff, and not everyone can spend their days doing first-hand historical research. I only knew about the Hama masacre already because a friend has traveled extensively in the Middle East and told me about it, having heard the story direct from the locals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    This is a really great post Adam — very engaging and a supreme example of content curation. I hope the BBC encourages more people to breathe new life into its archives in this manner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Adam Curtis, you are what the BBC was made for! I wish someone could do what you do but Hegels philosophy - you are the most stimulating creater since Clark's 'Civilization' or when A.J.P.Taylor 'talked to screen' (in my youth) and Dennis Potters 'Singing Detective'. Just when you think the BBC has lost all it's balls someone comes along! Thankyou - but, of course, the patronising beaurocracy put you on BBC 2, which no one watches!? I watched your 'Kiss' experiment - how to tell a story purely visually - I think it was succesful but bleak - at least, your authorial voice, in your other essays, seem to show the slight glimmer of a path out. I know, from my own experience, we aren't merely stupid - we love, we see each other, even if it is below the waves and we've stopped breathing. I love you, Adam. You give me hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    One of your best posts so far, Adam. My friends and I really enjoyed it.
    The same day I read it, I came across a news article from your colleague, Wyre Davis:
    I thought it was a good present-day example of the black and white fairy-tale that we still keep trying to apply to complicated situations in countries we know nothing about.
    The convenient story of the self-immolating martyr turned out to be much more confusing than we would have wanted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I would like to obtain a copy of "The Way of All Flesh" to screen to students who will be reading "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". I would need a NTSC version as I am in the United States. Is it possible to obtain a copy of this documentary here with screening rights? If so, can you tell me where I can purchase a copy, please? Thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    deconstructing Curtis (and the modern narrative): it's all a blame game, and the badies are always at the top: foreigners, elites, and abstract notions of "divisions, sectarianism". It creates the illusion that somehow Syria could have avoided these issues, if only "we" hadn't been ignorant.

    "The hatred went deep because when the French ruled the country they had practiced a programme of divide and rule which deliberately fomented and exaggerated the sectarian divisions in the country "

    "The pessimistic view is that those sectarian divisions, encouraged by the French"

    Please back this up. Most modern readers will be fascinated by some concrete evidence that the French (or British) were this demented. We all know the roman maxim of Divide and Conquer, but it's a maxim. Where is the beef? Is there a Divide and Rule? What possible benefit from the French to rule a divided country, and encourage hatred. Isnt' rule, all about consolidation?? So I want more than blame statements.

    Second. There is a gross inconsistency in the narrative. Miles Copeland aside, the mention of Russian, and French (and even West German jounalists and the imporance of the BBC) are constantly mentioned. Isn't it absolutely reasonable, that while Nasser gets Russian Migs and T34s, that a geostrategic gain is made by the USSR. And you say "Russian" and forget it was the USSR. And no matter how much you sugar-coat it, you have the USSR (not Russia, very different polities) in the heart of the Middle East, backing Nasser in his UAR project! Americans are naive? Or were we we supposed to play dead, and let everyone else tell Syria what to do? Where did this anti-American rhetoric come from anyway. Contemporay Arab countries had very favorable views of America, and suddenly in Syria, America is associated with Israel and Colonialism, this early!? While most of Israel was Kibbutzim and the Labor Party? While America objected to French nuclear weapon transfers to Israel!? When Israeli Labor was still reaching out to Yugoslavia and Hungary, and other communist and socialist countries?

    The only way to explain such anti-american sentiment is Soviet anti-colonial propaganda. Most Syrian elite were pro-Western and pro-American, and knew damn well that they were between a rock and a hard-place. And they spoke to the people in the schitzophrenic language that a place like Syria can only speak!

    Are we supposed to watch "documnetary" images of Arabs saying they are not communists but have a million dollars, speak fluent english, but put a communist i

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    [the above got cut off]

    put a communist in the parliament?

    How much can one blame American naivete by having Copeland talk about games? As if the word games reveals American stupidity?

    One should not downplay the Soviet effort, even if some US backed millionaire put a Commie into the Syrian parliament. The Soviet fingerprints are all over the place. The facts on the ground remain that the Soviets were becoming Syria's biggest trade parnetr and the sudden inexplicable anti-American sentiment surely came from their coffers.

    The fall from favor of Nasser. Did it just happen spontaneously? WAsn't Jordan threatend by this? Didnd't Faisal, after all propose an Iraqi-Jordanian pact to balance teh UAR? So where did this sudden change of heart happen, in relation to Nasser?

    Third. Who did support Assad? It's hard to believe that two esoteric and cryptical groups such as the Alawais and Ismailis, were NOT networking or receiging backing from someone. What, suddenly out of nowhere, a real home grown revolution? Since that is what the narrative above implies, that we have a genuine people's revolution. And its obviously a gross simplification, since the majority of the people who were Sunni, didn't identify with Assad. Or did they?

    Look, I don't want to conclude and say "let's blame the Syrian people," but I also dont' want to conclude let's blame the usual culprits:

    the Colonialists. As if they only acted out of malice, and NEVER had a hard situation on their hands. As if they defined borders ARBITRARILY. And as if they somehow didn't already inherit a totally screwed up area.

    The Elites. As if they always knew what to do.

    The Americans. As if they were some ignorant children.

    Sectarians/Divisions: as if they didn't represent real people.

    The reality of Syria has been very difficult from the time Islam took over. The notion that Jews and Christians, who were a majority, and came to constitute a minority, had it easy, is jejune. The entire reason why there are Alawites and Ismaili's is becuase these were forced conversions, and according to the New Encyclopedia of Islam, did not intend to remain Muslims. In the last 15 years, Saudi Arabia has funded the most aggressive mosque building proram on earth, introducing 10 mosques to villages which previously had one. This conquest, and the flood of refugees from neighboring Iraq, is a powderkeg waiting to explode. It does not help, that reasonably credible information on Saudi plans backed by the US to destabilise the Assad

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    wow. my message got cut up! so the conclusions vanished into thin air!

    Ok, real quick then.

    Nasser was not an Islamist, but he was close to Erdogan's vision of today. Islam still played a leading role. The Ba'ath party was a reasonable historic alternative and assured both Iraq and Syria SOME industry (contrast with other Arab states).

    Islam has been the heart of the regions problem since its arrival on the scened. It is responsible for the sectarianism. Islam never flourished wherever it was established. It only flourished when it was a minority ruling over non-Muslims and exploiting their labour and crafts. As their numbers dwindled under persecution and exploitation (converted to Islam, annihilated) Islam showed itself for the unproductive and retarding force of history which it is exposed as today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    avishalom's analysis does tend to deconstruct Curtis. Who are the bad guys? The ones at the top of course. Whether it's the state, or the rich or mad scientists. Those at the bottom are the good guys, although that isn't really true because they commit genocides or execute members of the UN. Hence Oh Dearism.

    That doesn't fit the left narrative so well. The good guys are neither the top nor the bottom, hence the left narrative has come to an end, powerless and pessimistic, and the liberal dream has turned into a nightmare.

    Oh but there is no end to it! And so we must keep putting faith in ordinary people and return again to the old narrative of the bad guys at the top, oh but those guys at the bottom, with their playstations, they're also bad, and they are powerless to do anything about genocides in the Arab world.

    And so around and around we go, pointing out the bad guys are everyone, and everyone is powerless to do anything, because they're living in a nightmare.

    This is the pessimism of the left.

    But liberalism is still about freedom, albeit now we liberals find ourselves in a world that is no longer rational. Reforms and progress can only take place when things are running rationally, where markets are regulated, where bad guys are taken out of society, where secularism rules over religion.

    And so it is up to rational liberals to once again seize power and reform the system. There is no need for complete pessimism, however the old narratives and myths need to be put to rest, and new ones erected to replace them.

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    avishalom wrote: "deconstructing Curtis etc"

    The two recurring ideas I take from his his work

    1. The notion that history is perceived both by elites and manipulated masses as following some inevitable evolutionary path. We are here at this point in time because that is the only way it could be. This mindset appears to infest everyone who has a theory of history (politics /economics /social Darwinism etc) and despite being a rather marxist take on the world it is embraced paradoxically in much of the thinking about the free market and neo-liberal democracy. People have over the years accepted the state of the world as some result of "history" or "human nature" rather than a accident by influential elites with unforeseen consequences. when you look at his work no matter what the point of the piece is its always a story of decisions and ideas by actors that were not driven in some inevitable way.

    2. People are politically isolated and apathetic which tends to jar with the idea of non inevitability somewhat because it suggests some generalising effect brought about by "human nature", but paradoxically is result of people accepting the world as some inevitable form?

    I find much to criticise in AC's work but overall I sympathise with these two ideas. And lets face it its damm good telly.

    As for this syrian thing..I could almost imagine the TV version as a 10 min slot in a AC series

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Whoo-hoo. I wonder what you boys think when you see those little brave Arab Spring types shouting 'Allah Akbar'. I can only imagine you shudder. But you "shudn't".

    Of course you're entitled to your interpretation. It just happens to be wrong. Firstly let's bear in mind the Goodies and Baddies post, what that title and post is referencing.

    The blame in this situation is pretty clear, it's clear by the second paragraph - the lethal combination of a deep simplification and almost behavioural approach to 'creating' democracy in sovereign (ish) states, and a clear underlying set of Western liberal interests and values that we seem desperate to impose all over the shop, unaware of the dangers in our bias, the contradictions that arise, or even the possibility of other forms of social organisation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Ok so we have 'a management consulting team'. We have them 'working out how America should contain the threat of communism in the Middle East'. And we see, above the fireplace, 'the old European Empires had gone'. Who'd live in a house like this? Well arrogance and hubris live there. The fear of communism is understandable, but the complete assumption of their own right to influence Syria's affair to suit their geopolitical agenda is a recipe for bad things. There's no question about a broader set of ethics or ideals, or what suits any non-US interests in these terms, and of course there are no real overarching questions or ideas in 'management consultancy'. Avi, you say, "as if they somehow didn't already inherit a totally screwed up area" - as if they don't have themselves to blame! What right did any colonial power have to the "inheritance" of any colony in the first place?! This just in - Empire is narrow and brutal and anti-democratic and its repercussions last a long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    And as for this ranting about reminds me of someone I heard say 'Islam is a wicked, vicious faith'. Sorry - the simplification buzzer has just gone again. If you meant the abuse of Islamic ideas, or the exploitation of people using Islam, then I apologise. If you really do think Islam is inherently a destructive force, or preaches hatred more than the atheistic or other religious tradition, then bring your Torah round my house one night, someone bring their Mein Kampf, I'll get my highlighters out, and don't eat any cheese before you go to bed. This just in - the quest for certainty can lead to holocausts.

    Listen it's not as if the bad guys are always at the top as such, but they have the power, so they take the blame in large part. Simples. Us guys with the Playstations, we are complicit, I'm sorry but it's true. But our complicity is dependent on power, in this case the power to know that people died as a consequence of the battle for the resources that make it. Knowledge or information as power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "But liberalism is still about freedom, albeit now we liberals find ourselves in a world that is no longer rational".

    I'd love to know when it was, firstly. Two, it can't be, and I wouldn't even want it to be totally. Everything measured, everything that the gates of Dachau I can hear creaking? Sorry, enough with the sarcasm. I think you're right, but individuated liberalism is part of the problem. Because if it's about individual rights and freedoms, then these are things (and it sounds contradictory when it shouldn't) that can only be protected or actually gained through collective action. E.g. you say about markets and regulation. Well market regulation ain't rational to say, Murdoch (easy target). But it's collectively rational and has an individually rational outcomes for lots of people.


Page 1 of 2

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts


Tuesday 10 May 2011, 17:42


Thursday 7 July 2011, 13:36

About this Blog

This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?