Chemistry set-up

The war hawks’ lack of imagination is depressing. When they want a war, they hit the public with a hyped-up, evidence-lite or evidence-free, chemical atrocity and take it from there.

There’s no hard evidence whatsoever that Monday’s alleged incident in Douma, Syria, was actually a chemical attack. If it was, there’s no hard evidence who did it.

Even the normally-docile BBC is having to lead its stories with the word ‘suspected’ in front of ‘chemical attack’ although the body of its stories quickly moves on in language that implies the footage is genuine and Assad’s regime did indeed carry it out. Similarly, when giving talking heads a platform to demand ‘strong action’, none of the BBC’s interviewers I’ve heard bother to correct statements implying the allegations are proven.

Likewise, the official stories (they keep changing) on the Salisbury attack simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. In particular, if it was a nerve agent of the degree of lethality claimed by the government, how come all three alleged victims survived contact? The government’s own scientists say the stuff can’t be traced to Russia – or anyone else. In the end, the government’s endlessly-repeated assertion that Russia was the ‘only plausible’ perpetrator turned out to be based on waffle, insinuation and weasel wordings so finely-tuned that Boris Johnson repeatedly fell off the tightrope into flat-out lying.

At first it seemed that Salisbury was merely being used as a pretext to rescue Theresa May from her own party and give the government a hedgehog ramp out of the mess it had got into with Europe over Brexit.

Now Salisbury also looks like a precursor to escalating Britain’s involvement in Syria. Step one: wind up the UK public about Russia and chemical warfare over the Skripals. Step two: another mysteriously-timed ‘chemical attack’ falls neatly into the lap of the White Helmets in Douma. This ‘demands’ immediate military action by the US and its allies to prevent more chemical atrocities by the side allied to Russia. Except there’s no conclusive proof of chemical atrocities. Not this week. Not in January. And not last April.

And no mention of the ongoing tragedy of war deaths, refugee flight and civil collapse across Syraquilbyastan thanks to the West’s trillions of dollars-worth of involvement ranging from military advisors, to bombing missions, to arming ‘moderate rebels’ to full-scale coalition invasions.

No-one with one functioning brain cell and an internet connection seriously believes the official line on these these ‘chemical attacks’ on civilians, which are so mysteriously-timed to suit the Western war-hawks’ agenda. Yet the Western mainstream media, with a very few honourable exceptions parrots the government line as per the BBC, referenced above. An honourable exception:

After the Iraqi WMDs ‘dodgy dossier’, the faked-up warnings of impending genocide in Libya and the repeat doses of unsubstantiated chemical attack horror in Syria, there’s a significant slice of the public whose tolerance for escalation is weak to non-existent. Not just the radical left peacenik side of the balance but right across the spectrum to loyal conservatives who’re deeply suspicious of Russia or indeed all ‘foreigners’ but who equally despise the establishment and its tame media because of its constant lies.

Here’s a quote from a 2016 post by Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy, which he republished today, for obvious reasons.

By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich.

I believe that the UK government does not think it needs the public’s express consent for another Middle Eastern military adventure. It doesn’t need to oppress us with a giant military machine (yet). It considers that, with a cognitively-captured mass media with which to cow MPs, it can get away with almost anything it wants.

But selling us misadventures on the basis of lies, for which the price will be counted in body bags and retaliatory attacks, corrodes democracy and freedom.

Whichever air bases they decide to bring home the Syrian war dead through, tacking ‘Royal’ on to the nearest town’s name won’t make up for the massive hole the UK government seems determined to blow in its legitimacy at home and abroad by going along with the hawks’ latest chemistry set-up.

(Edited 19 April 2018 to add link to Seymour Hersch’s piece in Die Welt on the US administration’s response to what its intelligence services knew were false claims about a chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, on 4 April 2017)

So, not plausible after all

As predicted by QuadRanting among many others, the wheels are inexorably coming off the Novichok/Skripal story despite a full-house effort by the UK’s permanent government, including the state media (BBC) and ‘non’-state media (ex-Fleet Street).

Well, mostly.

The day of Mrs May’s ‘triumph’ at the March EU summit, where she got backing for the line against Russia from trusting and/or credulous leaders, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg delivered a splendidly-nuanced summary of the UK’s position on the Brexitcast podcast, ending with the words ‘plausible … plausible, plausible, plausible’.

She was referring to the UK government’s tenuous argument that Russia is the only plausible source of the ‘military grade’ nerve agent allegedly deployed in Salisbury, even though there was not then – and is not now – any scientific evidence to support the claim. My reading of ‘plausible … plausible, plausible, plausible’ aligns with Spike Milligan’s contention that any word will raise a laugh if it’s repeated often enough. In the Brexitcast context, ‘plausible’ was funny ha ha, and thus funny unbelievable.

As we know, some nations told Britain they’d support us only if we produced conclusive evidence, rather than hearsay and circumstance. Others reluctantly fell in in line and weakened their position with Russia by expelling Russian diplomats. The usual suspects lined up alongside Britain in the belief that the UK government would somehow avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls that were plainly-visible potential in the official narrative.

But it didn’t. God knows what pressure the scientists at Porton Down endured to lie about the provenance of the Novichok. If they’d given in, it would have destroyed their professional credibility because if you ask any competent organic chemist (not that the UK government or its tame media did), they’d tell you that the formulae for these agents are widely-known and they can be produced anywhere with little difficulty by someone with the necessary knowledge. In other words, there’s no such thing as a ‘weapons grade’ Novichok.

Of course, the Russians might have simply been fiendishly clever: deploying an effectively untraceable substance and thereby adding another layer of doubt to any attempt to pin the blame on them (that is, if it was them and, if it was Russian, whether it was an official operation). Or they may have been super-supremely fiendish and laid a trap tailor-made for the UK’s propaganda machine to blunder into.

Either way, when Porton Down publicly stated what it had told the Foreign Office nearly three weeks before, that there is nothing to suggest that the nerve agent is Russian, May and Johnson were out on a limb. Doubtless the phone was ringing off the hook at the FCO with calls from foreign governments that might justly be paraphrased as “You stupid twats, we trusted you and look where you’ve got us”.

The day the ‘not Russian’ statement appeared, the Skripal story disappeared from top ¾ of the BBC news page, while the rest of the news media launched into a moral panic/outrage over a pensioner charged with murdering a burglar. I think we know enough about the police and criminal justice system to know that in normal times the burglar situation would have been handled very carefully and very slooooowly. But when a public distraction is called for …

QuadRanting still believes that the Skripal case will never be publicly resolved. We’ll never conclusively know who did whatever it was – an FSB handbook for applying poison to doorknobs? Do us a favour — because the UK will do everything it can to prevent the Russians or anyone else investigating it properly.

In Propaganda Britain 2018, it’s enough that 90% of the public now believe that Russia Did It, that Russia Wants to Harm Us Because We’re Wonderful and They’re Ghastly, and Thank God for a Strong Leader. Germany 1932 all over again.

What would the men who believed they were fighting for freedom on the Western Front a hundred years ago make of it?

Car industry expects hundreds or thousands more to die so it can get self-driving cars right

Lentz-Reuters

Toyota Executive Jim Lentz on Reuters TV

Car industry reaction to last week’s fatal collision between a ‘self-driving’ Uber car and a pedestrian sheds useful light on its view of humans’ place in the carosphere.

“A hundred or 500 or a thousand people could lose their lives in accidents like we’ve seen in Arizona,” Toyota North America Chief Executive, Jim Lentz, suggested to Reuters in a discussion about the future of real-road tests of AVs (for the record, the Uber vehicle involved was a Volvo).

Lentz continued: “The big question for government is: How much risk are they willing to take? If you can save net 34,000 lives [about the annual US road death toll], are you willing to potentially have 10 or 100 or 500 or 1,000 people die?” he said.

Note how the issue of self-driving cars killing people by the hatful suddenly becomes the government’s problem. The car industry wants to know how much carnage ‘the government’ is willing to suck up so that its members can enjoy an unimpeded run at perfecting self-driving cars.

It’s an absolute article of faith among AV cheerleaders that self-driving vehicles will eliminate road fatalities. This belief rests on a dangerous combination of overstretched logic and hubris. The logic runs that almost all vehicle ‘accidents’ result from human error, so eliminating human drivers will eliminate mistakes and therefore all injuries and deaths. The hubris is that engineers can create AVs that are 100% perfect 100% of the time. And AVs will have to be thus.  No less than absolutely-undiluted perfection will do.

But some very experienced AV engineers seriously doubt whether the incredibly-complex webs of intra- and extra-vehicular technology required will ever achieve the 99.99999999999999999999999% glitch-free operation envisaged.

Lentz suggests that 1,000 lives is ultimately a reasonable price to pay to see whether perfect robocars are possible. After all, that would be just 0.08% of the 1.2 million people killed on the roads worldwide every year.

There’s something distasteful about an industry that viciously fought against seat belts and dirt-cheap safety improvements in the past solemnly counting-out, in the lives of strangers, the price of … perhaps … absolving itself from responsibility for the consequences of its trade.

One thing’s for sure. The quote at the top would never have been conceived if ‘government’ had been replaced with ‘Toyota’ and ‘people’ with ‘our employees’.

13 Minutes and the modern propaganda state

Watching the movie 13 Minutes on TV last night was a reminder, if ever one was needed, that one should never lightly make comparisons with Nazi Germany.

13-minutes-601

Burghart Klaußner as Arthur Neber and Christian Friedel as George Esner in 13 Minutes.

One of the film’s many strengths is its naturalistic depiction of authoritarianism creeping up on small-town Germany. Briton’s are still raised on an historical diet of jerky clips of Hitler gesticulating from podiums, motorcades hurtling through streets and massed ranks of storm troopers rallying at Nuremberg and we think “how did they fall for that?”

In 13 Minutes, the moment we realise the Nazis have fully taken over is when the town’s Party puts on a cross between a film show and a fête. There’s free beer and children skipping. The film they show isn’t of a political rally but a country sports day – except that there’s already something recognisably totalitarian about the shots of happy, healthy sons and daughters of the motherland racing towards the camera. The mayor-turned-local-Party-chief makes sure everyone knows who they should thank for Germany’s blessings.

Georg Esner, the carpenter whose bomb missed possibly killing Hitler by 13 minutes in November 1939, possesses both the prescience to understand the devastation Adolf will ultimately wreak on Germany and the courage to try to stop him. Alone, the film suggests. And certainly despite horrific torture, Esner maintained to the end that he was working with no-one else.

All around him in the two years leading up to the attempt on Hitler, the Nazis are ruthlessly preparing for all-out war, beating up and imprisoning anyone who openly opposes them and ostracising Germans who don’t join the Party.

The timing of 13 Minutes’ showing on UK TV was fortuitous given some uncomfortable parallels between the German government reaction to Esner’s bomb attack and what happened in Salisbury.

Neither the Germans, in 1939, nor the British government, in mid-March this year, had any idea to begin with who carried out the attack. That didn’t stop both of them instantly launching media blitzes blaming their respective bêtes-de-jour. For the Nazi leaders it was Churchill. For Theresa May’s government it’s Vladimir Putin.

The difference as of today is that a German border patrol stopped a man as he was trying to slip into Switzerland and found he was carrying materials linking him to the bombing. So they had a perp whereas the British authorities today, when you parse what they’re actually saying, have no incontrovertible evidence of what the Salisbury nerve agent was or the identity of the individual(s) who deployed it.

For five years after the Munich bombing, the dwindling number of Germans inclined to believe what they read and heard in the media understood that the incident was a dastardly British attack on German sovereignty carried out via the treacherous Esner. Their leaders new different – or at least that they couldn’t prove anything of the sort, though they kept Esner alive until the bitter end of the war in the hope of somehow being able to mount a show trial.

History.com’s account concludes: ‘Hitler dared not risk a public trial, as there were just too many holes in the “official” story’.

Of course, no-one disputes that the Germans had the actual bomber in custody; a man who’d killed seven people and injured nearly 70. One could debate for a very long time the many contradictions in keeping alive a traitor, who very nearly succeeded in derailing the Nazi leadership, for five long years during which the same leadership shot, hung and gassed millions of Germans and and carelessly slaughtered tens of millions of foreigners on the Eastern and Western fronts.

No-one should equate the record of the British state since WWII with anything that happened in Germany between 1936 and 1945, although we do have bad form when it comes to scapegoating innocent people following bomb attacks. The bottom line, though, is that our State didn’t execute the wongfully convicted individuals and it – eventually – owned up to subjecting them to ordeal and injustice.

Nevertheless, the Britsh state in the twenty-teens is becoming more authoritarian and more propagandising than at any previous time in my 60 years. But if I’m tempted to make a comparison with Germany in the late 1930s, I remind myself that I live in a society that’s still a thousand times freer, more tolerant and more open than Nazi Germany was.

What a pity that the UK’s national embarrassment and disgrace of a foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, lacks a similar perspective.

What May Deems (W.M.D.)

I see the neocons and likuds as very damaged and traumatized individuals. They carry a set of internal wounds that express on the outside as a very belligerent and hostile set of postures and actions.”

Chris Martenson, Peak Prosperity Blog, 2016

QuadRanting would like to believe that the Prime Minister privately feels profoundly ashamed about her role as the UK’s propagandist-in-chief. After all, that’s an appellation with the most sordid history imaginable.

Mrs May’s assertions that the only possible candidate for orchestrating the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury is the Kremlin have been widely discredited. The Government has resorted to bullying its own chemical warfare experts to try to get them to lie about the level of certainty surrounding the provenance of the Salisbury nerve agent.

Although the Skripal-Russia story still has a lot of unravelling to do before it’s as dead in the water as Trump-Russia, or the infamously cooked-up Iraq WMDs story, it will carry on echoing down the years in the minds of those who don’t or won’t bother with critical thinking. Which of course is the point of propaganda.

The truly sad thing about Mrs May is that she could choose to pin her flag to the mast of addressing the very real predicament facing our (and every other advanced) nation. She could tell some truth for a change. She could say that there’s a lot of toil, tears and disappointment ahead. Because the reality of declining global net energy per capita will trump all dreams of carrying on as we have for the last couple of centuries, and bits will keep dropping off the economy for many, many decades.

Try uniting us to tackle the problems in our own backyard, Mrs May, rather than merely baring your teeth and dancing to the neocons’ war drums. That would be being tough, Mrs May. That would show strength and stability.

I mean why? What, or who, close to you, is so scary and powerful that you prefer to play to the stalls with tired old, Cold War era, chest-beating than to look like a grown-up who works with international experts and proceeds only as fast as hard facts become available?

How sad must it feel to sit at Chequers at the weekend, watching your corner in the propaganda campaign being fought by a politician whose CV serially lists ‘caught out by my lies’ as the reason for leaving jobs?

What could you be doing for your country and the world, Mrs May, if you didn’t allow yourself to be railroaded by those many damaged and traumatised people whom you think you can trust in the UK’s permanent government?

 

Poisoning our chance of a safer future

QuadRanting is depressed by current events. From the limited viewpoint afforded by his rural hermit hole, he cannot for the life of him get the apparent assassination attempt in Salisbury to smell right.

What would the Kremlin stand to gain by attacking a former (alleged) spy who was exposed, jailed and swapped-out for rival spooks many years ago? Why, if the Russians are so brilliantly fiendish at the dark arts of subversion and subtle revenge-taking, would they show their hand at a time of rising tensions and when the man has his very photogenic daughter with him – which makes the story a full house in Tabloid Bingo terms ?

Why aren’t supposedly impartial media outlets like the BBC asking the same questions? Their main story on the affair this morning read like a masterclass in state smearology; full of ‘is-believeds’, ‘thought-to-bes’ and ‘sources-says’. Endless references to Alexander Litvinenko but none to Georgi Markov. Perhaps that’s because the Bulgarian secret service killed Markov – and they don’t count – whereas all the players in the Litvinenko case were Russian. And a UK official enquiry into Litvinenko eventually got round to pointing a finger at the Kremlin – though only when it suited the UK Government to do so.

The key point, some 24 hours after the Salisbury incident began, is no-one yet knows what apparently poisoned the two Russians, or when, where, how or by whom the mystery substance was administered. All we have is speculation backed up by large photos of police in anti-contamination suits and of the late Mr Litvinenko (in case we’re not making the required connections fast enough).

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that we’re looking at an overdose of some recreational material, although that hardly looks likely. Assuming the poisoning was deliberately done by a third party, the possibilities at this stage are endless.

Secret services? If so, whose? The US permanent government is plainly intent on driving up tensions between its putative allies and Russia. The UK, mindful of past kickings dealt to it over non-participation in Vietnam, and other disloyal moments, has always harboured plenty of spooks willing to play Mutley to Washington’s Dick Dastardly.

Crime? Possible. The carve-up in Russia, post Soviet collapse, epitomised Honoré de Balzac’s saying about great crimes lying behind great fortunes. Who knows what might one day pop out from the labyrinths of old scores and rivalries, and why and where?

Trade? Anyone who thinks our top Brexiteers are patriotically devoted to reclaiming British sovereignty, rather than to their own chances of becoming the UK’s next oligarchy, probably doesn’t have an internet connection. Poisoning pension-age ex-spies in Wiltshire might not impinge directly on trade but it does throw a lifeline to the likes of Boris Johnson, who gets to direct stern international noises at Putin instead of having to listen to everyone stifling their laughter at his incoherent pronouncements around Brexit.

And yes, it could be a Russian state hit job. But the question comes back to why and why now? The victim was a guest of the Russian state for four years after his conviction, until swapped in 2010. Violent places, many Russian prisons. But you wait eight years to get your revenge, until a few days after your winter sportsmen and women have been officially readmitted to the Olympic fraternity and only months before hosting the soccer World Cup?

Doesn’t smell right. Doesn’t smell right at all. Not that that will prevent our fearless politicians and media from doing everything they can to instil the belief that it was the Russians wot done it, short of actually coming out and saying so.

And at least in this case there’s an actual incident to use as a launching point. Not like the incident of the mythical Russian sub in Swedish waters. The US papers that clarioned the story in 2014 never got round to telling their readers when it eventually emerged that there never was a sub and the whole thing was merely a red scare in a teacup. Funny that.

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Two visions of utopia

Quadranting loves sharp, intelligent comedy. Therefore it loves Bridget Christie’s Utopia on Radio 4.

She gets plenty of mileage from the idea that our current civilisational trajectory is “not good; rapidly getting shittier” (my phrase not hers). There are too many humans now for us to reverse course – as per Quadranting First Law1 – so, as individuals, our best recourse is to find a way of coping with the knowledge that billions of our fellow beings, with the best of intentions, are striving with all their might and main to bury humanity’s future under piles of vanity projects like self-driving cars and colonising Mars.

You can see how fucked up we are by doing a Google search for pictures of Utopia. You get this as the top result:

The Prologue and the Promise. McCall Studios

Painted for Disney World (where else?), it reads from the pyramids and Acropolis on the left – the prologue – to a glorious near-futuristic metropolis around now and lastly to the lifeless, radioactive void of space interstellar civilisation – the promise.

What does this tell us – apart from suggesting that Disney was already plotting to get its hands on the Star Wars franchise back in the 1980s?

It tells us a lot about hubris. Essentially it’s the myth of progress writ large. Who is promising the viewer a passport to the City on a Hill and then the whole Universe? Is it God? The Almighty Inevitability that our dirty, temporary, fossil-fuelled living arrangement (notably absent from the mural) will shortly pupate into CGI-ed heaven because that is What Is Ordained.

Human scale is absent from the picture. People scurry along roads that lead away from, or at a safe distance from, the symbols of civilisation in the background. Perhaps that’s because all the empires represented, from Egypt to Washington, rested to a greater or lesser extent on human slavery because that’s all there was before industrialised carbon came along.

The future is a monstrous, towering, machine-made environment stripped of vegetation and animal life, lit by a Hiroshima-like sun. It takes for granted that the essential millions of fossil, fission or fusion-supplied energy slaves will continue to multiply endlessly, although the mural paints all energy conversions out of history.

You can say ‘Oh well, it’s just a feel-good painting from an amusement park’ but it’s more than that. The Prologue and the Promise still fits the official narrative, peddled in everything from smartphone adverts to the never-ending Star Wars series. Which is that this type of techno-grandiose utopia is what we should be heading for. And if your own life feels like an unfulfilling, exhausting farrago of debt slavery and pointless consumerism apparently designed expressly to exacerbate pollution, congestion and inequality, it’s because you are not trying hard enough to keep up.

Oddly enough, although our ancestors lacked almost every advantage of modern life from property rights and freedom of speech to pain-free dentistry, vaccination, clean water, ample food and insecticides, they seem to have had a far more achievable and sustainable vision of an idealised living arrangement.

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_The_Golden_Age

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Golden Age, 1530

Surely there has to be a middle way between Disneyfied hubris and a level of existence so precarious that the idea of going for a swim in a wildlife park seems like paradise?

The infuriating thing is that we could be working towards a balanced approach now, if humans en masse weren’t so utterly fuckwitted. Instead of being prepared to nuke each other for the right to live on the right end of the Prologue and the Promise, we could be making an honest appraisal of planetary limits, not lying to ourselves about the potential to run industrial civilisation at current scale on future energy flows, and generally building a worthwhile future for our grandchildren, not indenturing their lives in service of an impossible fantasy.


  1. Humans are wonderful in smallish groups but batshit crazy in large numbers