There goes the equestrian statue

Genocidal maniacs get statues put up in their memory. So do lots of other people. Florence Nightingale, Paddington Bear and Oliver Cromwell come to mind. Oh, sorry, quite a few people think Cromwell was a genocidal maniac, don’t they?

No-one could call Robert E. Lee genocidal. Or a maniac. He was rather prone to fighting battles using an army of men with no shoes on their feet or food in their bellies but that wasn’t unusual in the mid-19th century. General Lee was a good military leader who fought for what most people see as the morally-wrong side in a war whose nuances were so complex that legions of historians are still fully occupied sifting through them 150 years later.

No-one should have the slightest respect for white supremacists, neo-Nazis or the still-extant breed of bullying, black-hating redneck that does his or her best to restore overt segregation. But does that mean removing every lump of bronze recognisable as General Lee on an ‘orse from town squares across the former Confederacy? I’m coming from this from the point of view of the great-grandson of a genuine black slave (though his masters were also black and also African).

General Lee certainly fought, to a greater or lesser extent, for the right to keep slaves, since that was a large part of the root causes of the civil war. It tends to get forgotten that the North’s animus against slavery was not solely or even primarily a moral issue. Abolitionists there certainly were, and they were vocal in their opposition to slavery on what we’d today call human rights grounds. But they were a minority in the North where it’s fair to say that many citizens’ views on freeing slaves didn’t extend to welcoming them as next door neighbours or as prospective sons or daughters in law.

The North’s anti-slavery concerns in the lead up to the civil war were quite as much economic and political as moral.

America’s main economic rival, Britain, together with her neighbouring northern European countries, was rapidly developing the new form of fossil-fuelled industrial consumer economy that conferred enormous economic and military reach on those nations. America, with its enormous resource base, had the potential to outdo the combined might of Britain, France, Germany and Italy (the latter’s north industrialising on the back of imported British coal) in the long run. But in this context, the southern states’ slave economy was a millstone around America’s neck.

Slavery allowed the south to maintain a near steady state economy. It didn’t create consumers, which were essential to the expansion of  the new industrial economies. Worse, since Britain’s early-mid-19th century industry centred on textiles, cotton exports from the American south actively helped Britain to increase her dominance at the same time as holding back the North’s attempts to grow as a rival industrial power to Europe.

Throw in the traditional American culture of independent-mined obstinacy that helped create the states in the first place, and the south was never in a million years going to to sit back and allow the North to tell it to industrialise for the sake of Yankee global ambitions.

Underneath those pretexts, everything quickly got all human and very messy as people used their big brains to come up with as many tendentious and self-serving justifications for, on the one hand, maintaining slavery as others came up with moral arguments for abolishing it. By the 1850s, it was clear to any logically-minded person who’d ever seen a coal fire, let alone a steam engine, that the southern economy was doomed in the long run as long as fossil fuels remained economically viable.

Given humans’ tendency to try to delay whatever inevitable is staring them in the face, the southern states’ cascade of secession declarations was a completely predictable response to what southerners saw as rising coercion from the North. To the industrialising North, an independent south was no more use than a south that stayed within the union but ran on raw human power.

That meant war. The wonder was that the south lasted so long: the hungry, unshod rebel infantry who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg were in many ways symbolic of the confederacy’s relative economic weakness. A lot of the credit for losing the war so slowly has to go to better southern generalship. If Robert E. Lee was the right man fighting the wrong cause with insufficient means, George McClellan was his mirror image. Preening, petty, backstabbing, timid and tactically inept, George B.’s mishandling of the more powerful Union armies came close to costing his side the war and definitely prolonged the struggle.

How many more statues of Robert E. Lee are there in the US than statues of McClellan? At least 10:1 I’d guess. Militarily, that makes complete sense.

More to the point, though, how many statues, busts and plaques are there in southern state capitols (and not a few northern ones) commemorating the many racist politicians behind the Jim Crow laws, which denied black Americans civil rights for a century after the civil war? I bet there are boatloads of them. But of course no-one learns their names in history lessons and their prideful memorials don’t sit astride horses in public squares so no-one’s agitating to pull them down.

The point is rightly made that many of the statues of southern generals were erected as recently as the 1930s and the 1950s. Quite a few people see such rearward-looking statue-raising as a two-fingered gesture to the north and to agitators for civil rights for blacks. But if they’re southerners, I guess, the statues are a symbol of resurgent southern pride and culture. Of course, that all depends on which bits of your culture you’re actually proud of.

By all means, discuss removing statues of dead generals. While we’re at it, let’s take a vote on chipping Washington and Jefferson’s faces off Mount Rushmore. Me, I guess I could take a trip to Ghana, where I’m sure I’d find a statue or bust somewhere of a past Ashanti (Asante) ruler to object to on the grounds that his people kept slaves and one of them was my great granddad and therefore his statue might be seen as a symbol of oppression (note: I wouldn’t see it as such).

If a particular statue of Robert E. Lee was erected as a sly symbol of oppression, it shouldn’t be difficult to identify that fact by reference to press reports of the speeches and from articles published at the time. In that case, everyone can debate the speeches and articles and decide whether the statue should stay, go or be given some contextual signage (although good luck to the latter lasting more than a few days). If not, leave it up, even though it’ll always be a dog-whistle to certain people.

As Jim Crow showed, the pen is mightier than the sword. It was politicians’ pens that condemned generations of black Americans to violence, poverty and insecurity for 100 years after the civil war, not a bronze replica of Robert E. Lee’s ceremonial sabre.


Brief flash of truthiness lights up the BBC

So slavishly does the BBC stick to the Establishment line that big, bald moments of truth rarely make it to its airwaves.

So let’s hear it for Misha Glenny for fitting not one but two hefty doses of reality into one sentence on this morning’s R4 Today programme.

“…both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have been failures…” he stated during an interview about the vast amount of ex-Balkan Conflict weaponry now circulating  in criminal and terrorist hands across Europe.

“Criminal disasters” would be a more accurate description of the outcomes from a public perspective, because neither war can be said to have failed in terms of its instigators’ apparent agenda. Each has successfully generated decades of pointless fear, misery and – of course – profit.

It’s getting hard for even the most closed-in, Daily Mail-hardened mind to overlook the naked greed and callousness behind our ‘Wars Against Abstractions’, despite their relentless championing by the rest of the mainstream media.


Which is why Aunty prefers never to mention WoD and WoT if at all possible. And, if it has to, never together. And certainly never, ever, ever to suggest that the lives and blood and freedoms and happiness sacrificed to them were casually tossed away for no good reason at all.

All that and Cold War II


Was that all it took? A bit of a dust-up on the Black Sea and now the cold war is on again.

The dynamics are rather different this time. There’s no Iron Curtain and it’s more of a joint enterprise than a genuine stand off.

But everyone’s happy by the look of things. The War on Terror outlived its usefulness. It lost its power to terrify the citizenry of the US and Europe. And while it achieved much useful erosion of voters’ rights and expectations, the project needed a new impetus and focus.

Militarily, the WoT only delivered insurgencies in dusty places. No justification for grand weapons programmes. And too much influence for the spooky side of the business–the NSA, GCHQ and the rest.

What the people behind the people we elect to lead us here in the West want is a proper bogeyman. Right on our doorstep. Bristling with weaponry. And with convincing form.

Putin has been building that form for years–with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Western media, of course. Now the time has arrived for everyone to cash in their chips, pack away the WoT and move on to CW2.

As a plot, it has everything going for it. It sandwiches the EU (henceforth to be known by its US name, the “fucktheEU”) between Uncle Sam and Big Boris. It’s a perfect cover-up for a further carving-up of Europe’s plum assets and plump citizenry. Big military spending comes back into fashion even though lights are going out and shops are shutting on the reverse slope of Hubbert’s peak. The list goes on.

No wonder Putin and Obama spend so much time on the phone to each other these days. There’s a hell of a lot to organise.

The organisers gratefully acknowledge the unstinting cooperation of all major US and EU media organisations in making Cold War II possible.

Syria – the problem and the pretext

The on-going kerfuffle over Syria is as much about gas as about anything else. Not sarin or some other weaponised chemical cocktail. No, we are talking about good old natural gas.

Syria is the focal point of rival plans to pipe natural gas into Europe. Plan A would pipe gas from Russia via Iran. Plan B would pipe it from the Persian Gulf. Assuming that only one pipeline gets built, its backers can hold Europe to ransom over energy supplies for years to come.

The Gulf gas exporters need a stable, friendly Syria through which to pipe their gas. Should Syria remain pro-Russian, or break down into a collection of warring fiefdoms, the Gulf pipeline would be pretty much a non-starter. Without it, Qatar and the other regional exporters have to liquefy their gas and export it by tanker. That is expensive and vulnerable to Iran’s potential to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz.

For Russia, anything less than a West-backed military occupation of Syria is a win. Russia can still pipe gas directly across its Western border with Europe. Blocking the gulf routes would be a bonus, though. That would give it a near-monopoly on the European market. And, as extra icing on the cake the option of a Mediterranean outlet to the increasingly energy-desperate southern European periphery.

Hence the outbreak of brinksmanship over chemical weapons.

In today’s world, 100,000 deaths from explosive chemicals is a problem. 1,000 deaths from poisonous chemical gas is a pretext. Unexpectedly for the US administration, the thing the gas attack was supposed to be the pretext for – an escalating US-led military involvement in Syria – has not happened.

Putin’s assessment of public opinion in the West turned out to be very astute. Apart from France, which gets three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy and needs US support to secure its North African nuclear fuel supply route, no one in Europe had any appetite to go adventuring into another Middle Eastern military morass. Germany is trying to get off the fossil energy hook as fast as possible, while the UK Government has perhaps recognised that Royal Wootton Bassett was, in its understated way, a watershed for Britain’s electorate.

As for the US, the Big Lie that it is foisting on its citizenry, about fracking its way to energy independence, has backfired in this instance. Why go to war over a right of way for energy on the far side of the world if you are being told you have 100 years of bounty under your own soil?

Of course, this is not the end of the Syrian civil war, nor of the widening spider’s web of political, ethnic, economic and religious cracks across the Middle East, nor of the deepening energy predicament undermining Europe’s status quo.

The main change is that, after last week’s Russian-American manoeuvrings, Europe finds itself a choice of devils to sup with. The questions being: which one and how long a spoon will we need?

No good choices for Britain

What happens when an owner no longer sees much reason to maintain a special relationship with one of his pets?

Immanuel Wallerstein of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University, NY, writes in his latest commentary:

“Britain’s Search for a Post-Hegemonic Identity”

Ever since 1945, Great Britain has been trying, with considerable difficulty, to adjust to the role of erstwhile hegemonic power. One has to appreciate how difficult this is, both psychologically and politically. It seems today as if the dilemmas of its political strategy have finally imploded, and it is faced with choices that are all bad.

Do read the whole piece.

Declaring war on a continent

When your son is an army cadet, it’s helpful to know the probable location of the foreign field that his remains may one day make forever England.

Going by today’s UK media, the faces on the daisies he could be pushing up in few years’ time will be turned to an African sky.

The BBC, FT and Telegraph all ran variants of the same headline: “War against al-Qaeda in Africa could last decades”. The Times has “New front opens in war against al-Qaeda”.

They mean war as in boots-on-the-ground embroilment. Bases in poor, dusty countries. Body bags at Brize Norton. A formal declaration? Not required. All it takes these days are unanimous headlines advertising the next venue for the war on terror.

Standards of provocation

How things have changed since 1967, when an unprovoked attack by foreign jets and torpedo boats on a lightly-armed US Navy research vessel killed 34 of its crew and wounded 171 others. To this day, there is strong suspicion that the incident was an attempt to drag the US into someone else’s conflict by cynically murdering an entire ship’s complement of Americans in international waters.

Or again 20 years later, when 37 American sailors were killed by an Iraqi fighter that fired a missile at the USS Stark for no apparent reason during the Iran-Iraq war.

The first incident was settled with a quick apology by Israel and payment of modest compensation. The Navy relieved the Stark‘s captain and two officers of their posts over the second.

Two deliberate attacks by sovereign military forces on US naval assets, then, and death tolls commensurate with this weekend’s Algerian raid, but no retaliation. Certainly no instant declaration of war on half a continent.

Lowered barriers

But since the launch of the war on terror, the entry barriers to full-scale anti-insurgency operations (henceforth known as ‘war’) have been massively lowered. When every Western workers’ compound in every energy or water facility on the face of planet is a potential causus belli, then the ‘good guys’ in the war on terror have effectively stuck a placard on their backside reading “Provoke me”.

So if dragging Europe and America into another post-9-11 sinkhole is what the group or groups behind the attack on the Algerian gas plant had in mind, they appear to be succeeding. And at a fraction of the cost and complexity of the Twin Towers operation.

Why Britain and France have bundled so obligingly into the frame is anyone’s guess. But we seem to be heading for another long war in a vastly bigger and more dangerous theatre than Iraq or Afghanistan. And we’ve announced it as casually as a junior rugby club putting up next season’s fixture list.