‘I was wrong’ usually claims this distinction. If so, then Andrew Gowers, the former FT editor, ought to be applauded for his fortitude. He did admit, in the Sunday Times, that he was wrong when agitating for Britain’s entry into the euro 10 years ago and in general cheerleading for the ‘European project’. But there are words that are much more unutterable than admitting one’s mistake. These are ‘I am stupid’, closely rivalled by ‘I am ignorant’. The problem is that those who qualify to makes such admissions are ipso facto incapable of making them. Nothing personal and all that, but Mr Gowers falls into that category. Otherwise he would have known from the word go that the ‘European project’ was wrong historically and culturally — an attempt at creating a federation even out of the culturally, ethnically, religiously and linguistically close states of America led to the bloodiest war in the nation’s history. Closer to home, the contrivance called Yugoslavia had to break up with much bloodshed, even though the differences between, say, Croatia and Serbia were minor compared to those between, say, Greece and Holland. It was wrong politically — as Western governments are supposed to derive legitimacy from public consent, who in his right mind would expect the Finns and Italians to agree on major policies? It was wrong morally — in the absence of public consent the EU can govern only by coercion, blackmail and bribery, even if for the moment it is refraining from the use of violence. And, more appropriate to Mr Gowers’s stock in trade, it was wrong economically — well, you can see why. Now, ‘I told you so’ are possibly the easiest words to roll off one’s tongue. My friends and I, who have been saying all this since before the ‘project’ kicked off for real, are variably successful in restraining ourselves. So here’s my undertaking: if Andrew Gowers says the really hardest words, I promise never to say the easiest ones.
Our venerable Business Secretary has declared that he has ‘sympathy with the emotions that lie behind’ the St Paul tent city. ‘Some of their recommendations aren’t terribly helpful, but that’s not the point.’ I agree: never mind ideas — it’s emotions that count. Driven by his noble feelings and nonexistent ideas, Mr Cable himself ought to move into one of those smelly tents, doing on the floor of St Paul’s what he is doing to the British economy. It has to be said that, in choosing emotions over thoughts, Cable has form. Not so long ago he defended the 50% tax rate by saying that, though the financial effect of it is negative, it does send the right message. Again I agree; it does. And the message is that the likes of Cable ought not to be allowed within a mile of Whitehall — not even as tourists. But not to worry, Vince. There are plenty of opportunities at the EU for bright, emotional men like you.
According to today’s papers, Sven-Goran Eriksson, England’s awful ex-manager, was madly jealous of his girfriend Nancy Dell’Olio, whom he suspected of sleeping with Tony Blair. That gave rise to speculations along the lines of ‘did they or didn’t they?’ Well, if they didn’t they should have done — should still do it for that matter. They are a perfect match, twin emblems of our soulless, mindless modernity. When Nancy broke with her priapic boyfriend for having played away from home, she said she no longer needed him. ‘I,’ she declared, ‘can become a celebrity in my own right.’ Now a celebrity being by definition someone I’ve never heard of, achieving this status these days requires no real achievement. All one needs is a couple of friendly reporters, a good PR flak, an effortless ability to mouth New Age platitudes and a prurient public willing to listen. So Nancy has been as good as her heavily accented word. She has indeed become a celebrity, appearing on Strictly Come Dancing and putting on her garter belt the notches of such A-Listers as Sir Trevor Nunn. In short, she is the signature type of our time: an important nonentity. Her once (or future) friend Tony is the same. His scale was grander, but the qualities he brought to the task of becoming a celebrity are similar to Nancy’s: the Nordic male equivalent of her sultry menopausal charms, intellectual vacuity, lack of any noticeable principles and a gift for self-promotion. That elevated him to the honour of becoming arguably Britain’s most destructive PM ever, and the list of aspiring candidates is long (Dave Cameron, call your office). But now he’s between jobs, he does what Nacy is also good at: staying in the news, charging huge fees for speaking much and saying little (who in his right mind would pay to hear Tony run off at the mouth?) and lobbying for whomever can pay the ticket. So if this isn’t a tryst made in heaven, I don’t know what is. Sorry, Cherie, even you must see the two are made for each other.
American neocon publications (The WSJ, Commentary, Weekly Standard etc.) are these days full of commiserations about the impending withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. With newly found precsience, the hacks predict much strife in the country, complete with massacres, deportations, foreign invasions neatly harmonised in the background with a civil war from hell. A prolonged US military presence would allegedly prevent such outrages, they claim. How prolonged? Well, who’s counting among friends? A generation or two, maybe a century or two — it’s the thought that counts. Of course, American presence there since 2003 was coextensive with the best part of a million Iraqis (not to mention 4,500 Americans) dying violent deaths, a coincidence that makes sceptics talk causal relationship. But the neocons are adamant: no sacrifice is too big for democracy. Those poor Iraqis had to die for the bright future of their country becoming like, well, Norway. Or even, do let our imagination run wild, Idaho with oil but no potatoes.
Nowhere does one see a regret, not even a mild misgiving, about going in to begin with. And yet the war was criminally stupid and stupidly criminal from the very beginning. Far be it from me to make pacifist noises: ever since Augustine put the concept of just war into a Christian context, pacifism has lost a natural home in the West. Some wars are just and must be fought; some are unjust and must be avoided. But putting justice aside for a moment, a government thinking of going to war must first answer three questions: 1) Why are we doing it? 2) What end to the war do we seek? 3) Do we have the means to achieve this end? The US attacked Iraq without first finding satisfactory answers to any of these. That’s why the world is much worse off than it was in 2003.
The declared objectives have been changing kaleidoscopically from the very beginning. First, it was ridding Saddam of WMD. What, no WMD? Gee, sorry. What we meant was preventing terrorism. Oh, Iraq was implicated in this much less than others, including some of our close allies? Okay, so it’s about getting rid of Saddam anyway. He’s a nasty bit of work, no? Well, there you are then. Okay, okay, so Saddam is gone and we aren’t. We’re still here to build the Iraqi nation, to turn them into PLUs (People Like Us). Two cars in every pot, two chickens in every garage, democracy, PTA, Little Leagues, that sort of thing.
Now that the cars are blowing up, the chickens are running scared, not knowing which street to cross, and the street is no longer there, the absurdity of it all ought to be clear to anyone other than neocon zealots. No war can be won that starts with such moronically obtuse answers to the critical questions. No one has a right to be so moronically obtuse as not to see that democracy anywhere in that region is neither achievable nor realistically desirable. Just as democracy is unravelling in Europe, where it goes back centuries, it takes an IQ below room temperature (Celcius) to believe it can be installed in an area that has no historical, cultural, political or religious premises for it. The neocons remain true to their DNA, combining Wilsonian imperialism with Trotskyist temperament. This sort of heredity is never going to produce a truly democratic offspring.
It is of course possible to coerce or bribe the natives into holding Potemkin villages of sham elections. Indeed, all sorts of thugs have learned that, if they put ‘democracy’ into every sentence, Western money will zigzag its way into their Swiss accounts faster than you can say ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged’. For neocons, this virtual democracy seems to be sufficient. Ever since ‘manifest destiny’ has acquired a laser-guided aspect to it, that’s the only kind they’ve ever been able to get. The only kind they’ll ever get. Democracy for them is a meaningless shibboleth, all form and no content. It’s a bull’s head sitting on top of a totem pole. Or else a battle cry to put fire in people’s belly.
I’m not lamenting the passing of Saddam or, for that matter, the rapidly approaching one of Mubarak. Couldnta happened to nicer guys, as neocons no doubt are saying. But I do lament the rapid islamisation of the Middle East (say what you will about Saddam, but a Muslim fundamentalist he wasn’t) as a direct result of the West’s involvement in Iraq and elsewhere. Nor am I happy about the erosion of America’s and Europe’s will to face real challenges to peace in the world, such as a nuclear-armed Iran. The US is a sprinter, not a stayer (and Europe these days is neither). A decade or so of even limited warfare she can just about handle — after that it’s usually ‘Hell no, we won’t go’. Let’s pray that, just as the invasion of Iraq eventually produced the present debacle, the Arab Spring won’t lead to a nuclear winter.
Western politicians say un-PC things when they don’t realise the microphones are on. The Russians make sure the mikes are on. Putin, whom Mrs Clinton named ‘alpha dog’ with grudging admiration, leads the way. Chechens will be ‘whacked in the shithouse’, a foreign journalist politely enquiring about the whacking will be circumcised so radically that ‘nothing will grow again’, Saakashvili will be hanged by the portion of his anatomy that probably can’t support his weight.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Vice Chairman of the Duma, delivered a drunken rant about Condoleeza Rice a few years ago, taking exception to her putative bellicosity. As a curative for this, the leader of the Russian LibDems suggested ‘that black bitch’ (John Terry, call your office) visit ‘our Spetsnaz barracks’ where she would be ‘f…ed’ until ‘soldierly sperm came out of her ears.’ (Russophones can still find the complete text on YouTube.)
And Dmitriy Medvedev, seen as more of the alpha dog’s poodle than a rottweiler like Zhirinovsky, sought to toughen up his image by reacting to the Arab Spring thus: ‘Enough f..king around, Mubarak! F..k’em up with tanks! Don’t be a Mub-arse!… And anyone who supports this revolution here, if only in word, must be nicked straight away, taken to the Lubianka cellars and f..ked up the a..e with a steel pipe. And his b…s must be cut off, so that he won’t multiply, because an a…hole like that will never teach his children anything good.’
Fairly robust idiom, that, and within earshot of a dozen journalists. A doctorate in law must mean something different in Russia.
One can learn a lot about Russia by looking at words and concepts she exports into the English language. The 19th century gave us ‘nihilism’ and ‘pogrom’, closely followed by ‘bolshevism’ and then ‘Soviet’. From there we move on to ‘Cheka’, ‘zek’, ‘gulag’, ‘disinformation’ (like ‘nihilism’, the root is Latin but the provenance is Russian), ‘rezident’ (spy master with or without diplomatic cover), ‘collectivisation’, ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ (blueprint translation of the Russian bezrodnyi kosmopolit), ‘thaw’ (ottepel), ‘sputnik’. Forwards and onwards to ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’. And now the on-going court case featuring Berezovsky and Abramovich has made another valuable addition, which London newspapers don’t bother to translate any longer: krysha. For those who don’t read London newspapers, the word (literally ‘roof’) means ‘protection’ for a legal or usually illegal business. Anticipating a linguistic trend now under way, I’d like to to make a few pioneering contributions, words that have entered Russian since perestroika: otkat (kickback), nayezd (shakedown), raspil (embezzlement), razborka (sorting out differences), strelka (razborka involving firearms), bespredel (a situation like strelka, where no moral scruples apply), otmorozok (one who is even beyond bespredel). When these words appear in the OED, I expect to be credited.
The similarities between the EU and the country of my birth are striking, and I think the EU’s name should be changed to reflect this. A government’s legitimacy in the West is traditionally derived from divine right or popular consent or, ideally, both. In the EU and its eastern precursor, it’s neither. Like the USSR, the EU is led not by a king or elected politicians but by bureaucrats (technocrats, as they are mislabelled). For Moscow read Brussels, and power in the EU radiates from the centre to the periphery, where it’s personified by obedient figureheads cordially hated by the locals. People in various provinces mostly communicate to one another in a patois bearing some resemblance to the lingua franca, in this case castrated English. Their preferences in this or anything else are ignored: the state is the machine; the people its cogs. Most important in the light of the present economic catastrophe, in the EU, just like in the USSR, politics trump economics. As long as the state hangs on, it doesn’t matter if the people are impoverished. Now for the differences, fast disappearing: 1) While the USSR had no hard currency, the EU still does — but for how long? 2) While the USSR relied on violence to hold the union together (the last time in 1989 when the sainted Gorbachev’s special forces murdered hundreds in the Caucasus and the Baltics, a tradition lovingly maintained by Putin in Chechnia), the EU uses blackmail instead — but for how long? Are we sure that when some country, say Italy, proves recalcitrant, violence won’t be used? It’s not for nothing that France has built her armed forces to a point where all three branches are bigger than ours. So do join me in the campaign for the name change. The EUSSR, anyone?