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Friday, July 21, 2017

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)


 

A meditation on Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (TMoUH)

 
The first time I travelled to India, I came via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That was in 1970. Arundhati Roy was then 9 years old, living in the Kerala of her The God of Small Things (TGoST). My wife and I holidayed in Kerala in 2012, and part of the motivation was to see the literary landscape depicted in TGoST. I had contacted Noam Chomsky and Anthony Arnove (the latter listed in the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS of TMoUH as ‘comrade, agent, publisher, rock’ while the former is not … in my book about Noam Chomsky I included a photograph of Noam and Arundhati together) but neither of them obliged in giving me Arundhati’s private contact details, citing the promise they had made to Arundhati never to divulge them. I suppose if they had done so I would have asked Arundhati if we could meet her if she happened to be in Kerala at the time. I also tried to contact her mother at the famous school she runs in Kottayam but to no avail either. In the event our driver just took us to the ‘house’ in Kottayam where the Roys used to live along a river bank and where much of the action of TGoST took place. It was kind of disappointing as the area had been developed as a sort of up-market residential area. We also saw the Baker’s House in Kumarakom which featured as the haunted house in TGoST. By now it was converted into a Taj Hotel – I told the hotel manager that a plaque of literary interest might attract more tourists. He said that Arundhati Roy did not merit such honours as she advocated ‘extremist’ views.

Anyway, having come to India the first time via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1970, arriving in Amritsar, I was thoroughly immersed in what in broad terms can be called Islamic culture. Being 21 years old and having been brought up in West-Germany and having been educated to university level (Munich University, studying psychology) I had relatively little knowledge about the history of the Indian subcontinent, merely following the overland hippy-trail all the way to Australia.

When my German travel companion and I came to the Golden Temple and were accommodated there as honorary guests, we immediately adopted Sikh culture, at least as far as getting a bracelet, kara (which still adorns my wrist some 47 years later), and sporting shorts and a dagger (and of course very long hair and a beard). Personally I was even more fascinated by the many chillum-smoking sadhus who loitered along the highways and byways. After a few weeks at the Golden Temple we decided to hitchhike to Srinagar. Given our Sikh-garb it was a piece of cake getting lifts with the long procession of gaudy trucks that weaved up the Kashmir valley. I was given the honorary title of ‘commander’ by the Sikh drivers, sleeping under their trucks at night. In Srinagar we of course rented a HB (as noted in TMoUH and where tragic events happen subsequently) and paddled around in a small shikara exploring Dal Lake. In those days Srinagar and surroundings seemed to be a peaceful and very pleasant place. Having obtained a generous amount of Kashmiri opium we did not exactly have sharp political eyes – we were radical anarchist student activists in Munich in 1969 – and as such we were not aware of any frictions between the Kashmiri Moslems and Sikh Punjabis (not to mention the Hindu sadhus), nor were we actually aware that Kashmir was a divided region, torn apart between India and Pakistan. The local youth that hung around our HB were mainly interested in our music tapes that played the Rolling Stones and of course Leonard Cohen – and as Musa in TMoUH says:

              “Even he doesn’t know that he’s really a Kashmiri. Or that his real name is Las Kone …”

In those days the ‘trav’ling lady’ was more likely a hippy lady but certainly of the mould of Tilo (aka Arundhati?) and the occasional fellow hippy visitors to our HB would include some outrageous Norwegian femme fatale that even then outraged the local customs. While all and sundry were used to scantily clothed (if at all) sadhus only us HB dwellers were used to such foreign female sadhus.

In TMoUH Tilo (aka Arundhati?) on quite a few occasions gives voice to such crass gender bias which goes against her grain even in her admiration of moderate Islam:

              “Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed. Women are not allowed.” (p.387)

Not that women are treated any better in Hindu/Sikh/Western or what have you culture. One of the main points of TMoUH is of course that access to the Ministry of Utmost Happiness is only granted to the hijra of this world, and possibly to people like Tilo.

On my second visit to India in 1974 (before the Emergency), in the company of a wild New Zealand femme fatale who would not bow to any religious of secular customs, Kashmir was not included in the otherwise extensive travels (coming from Myanmar, Kolkata, Varanasi, Agra, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa (again), Kerala … on to Sri Lanka). Goa was then still a haven for ‘trav’ling ladies’ and me having acquired a sitar in Kolkata and having learned to play it a bit from Mr. Khan in Kathmandu, there was no end to more of Leonard Cohen and of course Ravi Shankar (the latter who cultivated a reverse Indian guru meets Western ladies of wealth and taste …). There was a certain male Hindu menace that not only googled the ‘trav’ling ladies’ but felt free to grope and assault. Luckily my female companion in the mould of Tilo was adept in muscular self-defence and swatted them like flies. Of course we know that the rise of right-wing (neo-fascist) Hindu nationalism, so eloquently and passionately decried in TMoUH (is Modi nick-named Gujarat ka Lalla to forestall libel?) has given rise to previously unheard of levels of sexual violence against women (no woman adept at self-defence can defend against gang rape, and anyway why should a woman have to practice self-defence against men).

Back to Kashmir, surely the centrepiece of TMoUH. Tilo’s (aka Arundhati!) unflinching support for azadi is accentuated by her non-English language feature, namely Urdu. Hardly any review I have read mentions this but I as a linguist take note, and as one of the misguided protagonists (The Landlord) in TMoUH states somewhat sarcastically:

Because nothing warms the subcontinental Muslim’s heart more than a few well-chosen lines of Urdu verse (p.158).

Reading up on the history of Urdu, one is somewhat surprised that Arundhati Roy is an adept as an offspring of a Kerala Syrian-Christian family. However when considering her long life in Delhi, especially in Old Delhi, one can understand her choice of language. Not that I fully understand the ins and outs of language choices in India (or in Kashmir for that matter) but on quizzing some Indian and Pakistani colleagues at my work, one comes to the conclusion that modern Urdu is inextricably linked to Muslim culture although liberal Indians of all denominations (atheists included) appreciate Urdu as a Hindustani mutually intelligible variant of Hindi, especially as a linguistic vehicle of fine poetry.

I suppose only readers who can read and understand Urdu and Hindi in Roman alphabet transliteration – it is not clear what system the author uses – can also figure out what is what. For example the first such instance comes about when Anjum (who only speaks Urdu) says “You mean I’ve made a khichdi of their story?” one could safely assume that is an Urdu word. When subjected to Google Translate it yields HUG (as in ‘to hug, hugged’) which doesn’t seem to make much sense in the sentence quoted. While Arundhati does provide English translations for most of her Urdu and Hindi texts, there are quite a few – as above – where the uninitiated is at a loss, i.e. no translation is provided. I suppose as well that such language questions are a can of worms, what with an Indian author writing about India in English, an India (and Kashmir) where ordinary folks (as the main protagonists) speak no or only little English. Comrade Revathy’s (CPI (Maoist)) long letter in halting English may or may not be a genuine article in this regard. The grim content of the letter played out in Southern India mirrors that of Kashmir. When we were in Kerala in 2012 the Revolutionary Marxist Party leader T. P. Chandrasekharan was murdered and the local newspapers reported the story as internecine fighting, blaming the local CPM faction. The English language daily the Decan Chronicle (8 May 2012) reported that a suspect was ‘nabbed in a secret operation’ and that ‘the interrogation is on in a secret place’. Sounds very much like the secret interrogations in the Shiraz in TMoUH. A political commentator cum academic historian in a previous edition of the Decan Chronicle had put down the whole saga to primitive Dravidians who were prone to believe Marxist and Muslim (sic) propaganda, resulting in the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’. I wrote a letter to the editor which to my surprise was published in large print, pointing out that a complicit corporate media is to blame instead and that ordinary Keralites know as much as anybody that the ‘Talibanisation of Kerala’ is a common tactic used by the elites to scare the populace into accepting extreme measures of arrest and detention (and murder by the secret state police).

That the educated elites in India (see Kerala above), Pakistan and Kashmir read all this stuff in English as a matter of course is of course a mixed blessing but of course (excuse the endless pun) we (who read English only, and maybe German and French) are ever so grateful to a myriad of Indian authors whose English prose surpasses that of the English English writers. Arundhati Roy certainly is in a league of her own in this respect (but what if she were to write in Urdu?). The main point, however, seems to be that Roy’s choice of Urdu as local language flavour is destined to be an eye-opener for all of her Indian readers, inasmuch as her book is really compulsory reading for all Indians. Readers like me will miss many of the allusions, Urdu or otherwise. Readers like me will however receive an English education as to what the political, social and individual issues are. Of course it is grim reading. Roy subverts Stalin’s saying that one death is a tragedy but a thousand are a statistic. By describing the tragic deaths of individuals like children that get mowed down by indiscriminate machinegun fire, the reader has to contemplate the many more deaths, twenty at a time. For anyone who has never ever been even close to such massacres, the scenarios are beyond comprehension. Those in the midst of it all, be it in Kashmir, Syria, Yemen or whatever place you care to name, the reality of such incomprehensible suffering on an almost daily basis must amount to barbarity on a scale not seen before on this earth. How a literary voice like that of Arundhati Roy gets inside the heads of both victim and perpetrator is also short of miraculous. Sure there are other harrowing accounts of the brutality of warfare, be it All Quiet on the Western Front or the seminal The Wretched of the Earth, but written by male protagonists who experienced many of the atrocities themselves. As such there can be only few women authors who lay bare both the facts and emotions, none more cutting to the bone than Arundhati Roy. As I write this review, Guardian news from Kashmir is that seven Hindu pilgrims got shot during an ambush, inserting Modi’s tweet that ‘India will never get bogged down by such cowardly attacks & the evil designs of hate’. Maybe it is not too surprising that so-called liberal news media as the Guardian see the need to side with Modi. Has the Guardian forgotten that much of the Northern Ireland bloody conflict resulted from the Ulster Regiment provocations, marching through Catholic neighbourhoods under heavy military protection? A reported 115,000 Hindu pilgrims marched through Moslem Kashmir neighbourhoods last year, all under heavy military protection. Obviously violent death cannot be condoned in any circumstances but those who provoke sectarian conflict for political gain must be answerable for the gravest of human rights violations. The Modis of this world are of course beyond the law that may yet silence the likes of Roy (that she fled to London to complete her book is testament to that). The Landlord in TMoUH  is given a voice that seems to be intended to showcase how certain Indian liberal reactionaries think about Kashmir:

… I have never understood how that storm of dull, misguided vanity – the absurd notion that Kashmir should have ‘freedom’ – swept him up as it did a whole generation of Kashmiri men (p.160). 

Of course the Landlord in the end realizes his incorrect thinking when deprived of the ‘infrastructure of impunity’ (p.434) – unlike the one enjoyed by Modi. It is of course interesting to note in our era of political revenge politics that occasionally the high and mighty get caught up in the net and end up in jail – rightly or wrongly (the latter include Brazil’s former popular president da Silva and the Taiwanese Chen Shui-bian, what with the former lot including South-Korea’s impeached Park Geun Hye, and who knows if Tony Blair will for ever escape a court hearing and if Trump escapes impeachment). In TMoUH the other semi-reactionary character, Naga, the TV journalist semi-celebrity who is handled by the Landlord’s Indian Secret Service outfit gets married to Tilo after Musa is killed. One does wonder about this a lot. Would a real Tilo (aka Arundhati?) contemplate such a marriage? Arundhati’s own marriage adventure, as much as it is revealed in her various biographies, begs the question. One’s obsession to equate Tilo (from Kerala) and Arundhati also stems from the mother’s story, the Syrian-Christian who has a school – biographical coincidences? One hopes so, as Tilo’s mother dies a sad death while Arundhati’s mother is alive and kicking as far as I know. In any case if I were Arundhati’s mother I would be a bit worried. Of course there was a lot of speculation as to who is who in real life compared to the characters in TGoST, what with mother and various uncles protesting that it wasn’t them. It is common literary speculation that many a great novel has autobiographical traits – and why not? One’s real life experiences provide many facts that are stranger than fiction, and weave stories from them is an art form that Arundhati Roy surely masters like no one else.

As such it also perhaps no surprise that a lot of the story in TMoUH plays out in Delhi, Roy’s long-term place of residence. Her intimate knowledge of all the nooks and crannies of this vast metropolis shines like nothing else in TMoUH. Not being much acquainted with Old or New Delhi other than on my first visit to India when my new travel companion, a guy from Switzerland and I applied for an Australian resident visa at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi – of course as hippies were domiciled in Old Delhi. It was quite a lengthy process that required us to be there for a couple weeks. In those days the Australians welcomed any white-skinned Europeans, hence with my personal lack – as a German passport holder – of any qualifications other than an unfinished psychology degree but with a good head of very long hair, all I needed to do was to fill out lots of forms, get passport photos with hair out of the way and get a medical clearance by going to a flash hospital for rich expatriates and even richer Indians. Being short on money we walked for miles and only used rickshaws in emergencies. One day we ended up in a dusty park (minus the graves as in TMoUH) where squatters welcomed us like newfound brothers. We also hung around the Red Fort – minus the light shows mentioned in TMoUH – ‘shooting the breeze’ (which seems to be a favourite idiom in TMoUH). Not that we ever came across any Hijra there or anywhere in India (I did come across some in Sri Lanka though). That the Red Fort should be a special attraction for the band of Hijra in TMoUH is of course further testimony to the fact that Old Delhi and the Red Fort still are part of the essential Urdu-Moslem fabric of India (the ‘Urdu’ language itself is said to be named after the Urdu Bazaar that existed there), what with Roy also acknowledging her supporters in Shahjahanabad (the ancient capital of the Moghul Empire and what later became Delhi). The Hijras’ excursions into New Delhi, with its monstrous highways and byways, shopping malls and high-rise residences growing like tropical mushrooms by night, are both hilarious and somewhat tragic, giving voice to Roy’s anti-capitalist (anti-corporate) stance that has seen her operate as a major activist in the many environmental battles that rage across India. Delhi, now one of the most polluted super cities of the world, is destined to be submerged in the sludge of ever faster development. Roy’s dire warnings in TMoUH are falling on deaf ears. Kashmir due to its lack of rapid industrial development may well come out best in the end, if only by default. Indeed when in TMoUH  in the last (short) chapter, Tilo shows off ‘her prowess in Urdu’ to her Kashmiri tragic hero Musa , there is also Guih Kyom, the dung beetle, announcing that ‘things would turn out alright in the end’. This by the way is not an allusion to Bertrand Russell’s dystopian famous lines on how the world, trilobites and all, will return to peace when man makes himself extinct but rather a celebration of the human species ‘because Miss Jabeen, Miss Udaya Jabeen, was come’ (note the clever braking of a rule of English grammar).

The last chapter also contains that statement stretching across the page – noted by almost every review I have come across – namely ‘How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody. No. By becoming everything.’ I suppose reviewers prefer such mystical statements to the grim political narratives spanning most other pages. Actually I think this line is very much in keeping with ancient Zen practice: didn’t the Zen painter of bamboo say that in order to paint the perfect bamboo he (or possibly she) had to become a bamboo? Or is it the Kafkaesque ‘metamorphosis’ that necessitates one to become a beetle in order to understand what it is like to be a beetle? Or what does Arundhati really mean when in the first chapter Anjum ‘lived in the graveyard like a tree’? Yes, surely we have to agree with Arundhati that we have ‘to become everything’ in order to make this world a better place.

In the first place, reading her book TMoUH will make you a better person.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

TRUMP, TRUMPER, TRUMPEST


 
Below is a very perceptive characterization by Gwenda Blair of Trump and his followers:

It is this combination – the hint of menace beneath the surface added to what appears to be an unpolished immediacy – that millions of listeners take as evidence of Trump’s authenticity and spontaneity. Indeed, the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads – a rich and sometimes dark stew of conversational snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts – and, by extension, it somehow seems as if they’re hearing the voice inside his head.


Twitter perfectly matches this state of affairs, what with ‘snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts’ being the main fare of so-called communication. It is perhaps not surprising that this mode of communication has become the mainstream news service as well, shaping public opinion in the slipstream of contemporary politics in Western democracies. That the proponents who provide the necessary machinations have become extremely rich in the process is also no accident. Trump, as a mere bit player, used his primitive, ruthless business instincts, combined with a jovial appearance, to play the game in any which way possible, exploiting every tax loophole there is. Dabbling in realty TV, golf courses, real estate and the female beauty industry landed him in a golden circle of like-minded entrepreneurs who define luxury as a golden toilet seat. With a hint of mild debauchery and good Calvinistic morals, the contradictions are many when subjected to rational analysis. The idea to elevate this game to the presidency of the USA is as outrageous as it is ludicrous. The idea that an amalgam of political mavericks, from Tea Party Republicans to KKK, could galvanize the American voters to put Trump into the Oval Office, was however not as daft as some would have predicted. Given that Trump’s verbiage was ideal for Twitter and other such moronic social media, the road to success was all but guaranteed. Ad hoc observation of the citizenry being glued to so-called smart phones and other such mobile devices, it is not too difficult to realize that a few clever algorithms could program a simple Pavlovian stimulus-response behaviour, especially tailored for American voters (see my previous blog on Mercer and Co.). Not that there was a choice anyway: Clinton was just a lesser evil, separated by two degrees. Only Putin perceived a wider gap and thus preferred a primitive businessman to a rabid politician, and thus contributed his two cents worth of cyber intervention, which now is taken as the one and only possibility to impeach Trump as a puppet on the string of Putin’s henchmen. To take the sting out of the investigation (Comey and Mueller – which is a joke in itself) Trump’s advisers will arrange for a few military strikes against the Russians in Syria, so as to prove Trump’s true Roman Christian patriotism in the face of a suspect Russian Byzantine Orthodox ideology. Putin will be even more confused – as seen in his recent interviews with Oliver Stone who as a supposed example of American rationalism demonstrates a poor grasp of Russian and world history.

Rational people operate by forming thoughts in their brains and then try to verbalize these thoughts as best as they can, given the operational restrictions that language has. In other words, the best minds are often those who match thought with language without losing any of the essential content. Irrational people, as the saying goes, speak before they think, uttering half-baked phrases, which the brain has difficulty with in actually interpreting as something that falls within the realm of reason and common sense. Such people do get hooked on very simplistic ideas that are then applied to all and sundry environments. Take for example the simple concept of ‘freedom’ and apply it to the world of business. It means, in Trump’s world, that a businessman ought to be ‘free’ of all encumbrances, dedicated only to the aim of turning a profit. Hence if a health insurance business were to be forced by government regulation to insure people with pre-existing health problems, then a basic ‘freedom’ is violated inasmuch you cannot turn a profit from insuring sick people who lack the resources to pay for their medical bills at private hospitals. ‘The freedom to bear arms’ is another brainless phrase, easily uttered, yet with devastating consequences when applied to non-sensical contexts. The freedom of keeping out unwanted guests from one’s private property, as much as from one’s own country, is another milestone – if not mill stone - in modern, archaic political discourse. By definition there cannot be ‘freedom’ to critique the proprietors and therefore protectors of freedom, especially if such critique or opposition involves rational thought expressed in scientific language. Climate change as a science project is to be dismissed as it infringes on the freedom to say otherwise, i.e. unthinking. Indeed it is most advisable to distrust all modes of deep thought as it invariably leads to Gordian knots that then need slashing with brute force. The question then arises why there are so many simple-minded people who vote for simple-minded people like Trump. While Blair’s quote seems to give the answer via ‘…the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads’ we note that this is not an answer as much as it is a restatement of the problem, namely that birds of a feather flock together. It is quite tempting to explain such a state of mind as pathology, worthy of entry into DSM-5. Not that Trump proved as yet as insane as some of his predecessors: leafing through The Great War for Civilization: the conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk (2005) one is reminded again and again that the Bush dynasties, and Reagan before them, were certainly on par with DSM diagnoses, or as Guardian correspondent Johnston puts it for Trump:

It’s laughable when pundits try to distill a Trump doctrine from his word salad. His own words illuminate the undeveloped space between his ears.


Still, all we have to go by so far, as far as Trump is concerned, are his demented twitter messages but not much action yet. Sure he is continuing covert military operations all around the world, just like Obama did, but he has not yet started any new wars – that he is itching to start one with North-Korea may be on the cards however.

Maybe Trump will turn out to be a somewhat harmless, narcissistic gadfly, bent on entertaining his followers, doing shady business deals on the side … but what if his words (and those put in his mouth by his ghostwriters) are translated into action by maniacs hell-bent on self-destruction? The cabal surrounding Trump range from the demented to clever dicks and chicks, the latter who just see a great opportunity to feather their own beds, while the former, mainly military types, want to see how far their brinkmanship will take them.

There is an obvious analogy with the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as told by Gibbon) whereby a long list of emperors (read ‘presidents’) become more and more unhinged (Nero and Caligula being outstanding examples) until the whole edifice crumbles in the dust of history. The only worry now is that the ‘dust’ will engulf the whole world and we will literally experience the end of history. Or else it could be a protracted decline – assuming that no nuclear war breaks out – by way of climate change deniers, heralding a gradual but accelerating descent into the hell of a global storm. In the meantime, the show must go on, babies must be born, lives lived, menial jobs to go to, money to be made, bubbles to be made of real estate, billionaires to be created, feudal states to be celebrated, slaves voting for their masters, climate refuges drowning in the oceans, esoteric science to be funded very well, escapist entertainment quadrupled (give the people bread and circus), fashionistas designing body bags, artists encrusting the latter with diamonds, the Internet bulging with fake news and bodies, sex robots looking for customers, people with good insurance cured of old age, a little love here and there, a sunny day after weeks of rain, a lonesome flower … all punctuated by ever more bizarre presidential and prime ministerial campaigns in Western countries while the Orient (China in particular) will remain true to its mysterious machinations, political and economical, but all the same gripped by the maelstrom that goes from Trump to Trumper and eventually to the Trumpest, creating instant history as a farce.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS à la R. Mercer: GROSS AND CRUDE


COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS à la R. Mercer: GROSS AND CRUDE


Chomsky’s 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour saved us from ‘gross and crude’ behaviourism in linguistics, if not in psychology itself. In fact, behaviourism in the world of business (marketing and advertising) still rules supreme, and if not checked will lead to neo-fascist models of behaviourist manipulation, as Chomsky also warned.

It is my contention that this threat to human civilisation has been further exacerbated by what one can call either an extension of behaviourism or else a new development occasioned by computational linguistics. Initially popular science was enamoured by the idea that language can be compared to the computer in terms of the human brain being some sort of hardware which can be programmed by some clever software. The software in question would have to be something like Chomskyian parsing programmes, embedded in Artificial Intelligence, with the ability to acquire language like children do. Given the slow progress in this seemingly impossible task, this raised the ire of the business community that wanted results so that language could be commercialized – in combination with military applications of course.

The enfant terrible in this case, unlike a somewhat benign Skinner before him, is one Robert Mercer, who not only subverted computational linguistics but also made a fortune from it and now bankrolls the likes of Trump and Bannon. The story is described somewhat diffidently in a Guardian article subtitled ‘With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing US computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network’.

Mercer, a non-linguist, had the brilliant idea that voice recognition and machine-translation can be achieved by simple statistical matching: when you say ‘hello’ when you phone your insurance company about a claim, the voice recognition program immediately constructs a digital oscillation and compares it to a stored model recorded by an average speaker, and if there is a match within an allowable range, the computer program accepts your ‘hello’ and then responds with a phrase that has a high statistical value in the context of an insurance claim, like ‘hello, we value your call, please state your claim number’. Similarly if I want to translate this phrase into German, the program will check the data bank for previous translations of this phrase and select the one with the highest statistical value, given some context that is calculated by some clever algorithm. Given the advent of ‘big data’ just about everything that has ever been said and written can be stored in digital format and can be statistically matched to anything you say or write.

The commercial application is fantastic: language is automated, making call centres redundant (even the ones that employ cheap labour in India or the Philippines). The military complex is equally jubilant, what with secret services now being able to monitor and analyse all voice and written traffic all around the world. The Orwellian nightmare of your TV watching you as much as you watch the TV has become a reality. Leonard Cohen’s line that the rich will monitor the bedrooms of the poor – for entertainment – has equally become true. The Huxleyan dystopian vision in Brave New World also rings true: information overload as a sedative, pills that make you happy and dissidents kept in human zoos. Orwellian newspeak and linguistic subversion (‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’) have become the stuff of fake news and Breitbart rhetoric.

So why has no eminent linguist debunked Robert Mercer? Why has no academic linguist commented on the ‘gross and crude’ travesty visited upon human language by Mercer and his ilk? After all he received quite a few academic honours along the way. Why has no linguist pointed out that language as a creative human facility cannot be restricted to what is stored in a data base? Wasn’t it a Chomskyian dictum that language with its set of finite syntactic rules can create an infinite output of sentences? Isn’t that the basic idea of language? People who seek to stifle this creativity are of course troubled by its potential, namely to bring unlimited (infinite) freedom of expression to the people of the world, including ideas that provide social justice and a measure of economic well-being for all. Neo-fascists (alt-right) like Erdogan, Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Petry, Bannon, Mercer and a million others who call others fascists fascists in an Orwellian merry-go-round of meaningless language, engaging in what Wilhelm Reich has called the ‘mass psychology of fascism’, emptying language of meaning, and substituting complex sentences with ever shorter slogans. The British author Ian McEwan quite rightly noted that ‘Brexit’ reminded him of the Third Reich whereby the voice of the people becomes a series of manipulated referendums.

Obviously Mercer and Co. exploit ‘big data’ not only for human voice recognition and machine translation but also for a new brand of ‘manufacturing consent’ (à la Herman & Chomsky) that forces language into a statistical straightjacket, allowing only for a algorithmic paradigm that supports the dominant discourse of the alt-right. The traditional vehicle for such manipulation – the mainstream media – has until recently played the part of benign collaborator of neo-liberal politics and capitalist economics but is now branded by Trump and Co. as the enemy lest they tow the line and begin to support with great enthusiasm the narcissistic leaders of the alt-right. Bypassing the traditional media with bizarre social media forums like Twitter and Facebook, the new media will dictate what can and cannot be said. Ever more blatant verbal attacks on perceived domestic opposition will eventually give rise to brutish violence, given many a historical precedent, e.g. the Nazi propaganda machine.

Unfortunately Mercer and Co. do understand the value of a human-specific language, hence in order to de-humanize large sections of the population, one has to limit if not to destroy language as the only faculty that makes us human. Wars cannot be fought by being polite and considerate: pathological aggression must be mirrored in narrowly prescribed language use – as the handbooks of all armed forces around the world will tell you. The categorical imperative of what one ‘should’ do is replaced by a simple ‘must’.

Computational linguistics as statistical modelling has already reached new heights in English language testing, as for example in the Pearson Test of English, which is totally computerized in all language modes, i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing. While the passive modes of listening and reading have long been subject to education systems that control and limit freedom of expression, it is now the active modes that have been harnessed. The algorithms that check your essay writing will not allow sentences that  - while grammatically correct – find no match in the prescribed data base. If you write, à la Chomsky, that the United States are a terrorist state, along with North-Korea, Israel, Saudi-Arabia and any other state you care to mention, you will fail your English language test and in addition will be referred to various secret service agencies that mine such data for dissenting language. That all this is now possible without direct human intervention says a lot about the success of computational linguistics, devised and run by non-linguists like Mercer. Naturally these systems are ‘gross and crude’ and are subject to all kinds of hacking and cyber warfare – and are being disclosed by the occasional whistle-blowers like Snowden – simply because the underlying mechanisms of language use are as ‘gross and crude’ as that of Skinner, if not more so. Computational and corpus linguistics are therefore misnomers.  They reveal absolutely nothing about human language competence per se but tell us everything about language use, like the very high statistical probability that members of the Ku Klux Klan will use ‘race’ as a key concept in their daily discourse. Statistics of this sort only confirms what we know already. In a similar vein Chomsky pointed out that linguistic fieldwork of the descriptive sort will only confirm what we know intuitively about language. Why then are we sliding into this pseudo-scientific morass that elevates computational linguistics to the absolute heights of the human sciences?

The LinguistList used to mainly advertise jobs for linguists in universities; now there is a preponderance of jobs advertised for a plethora of private companies that specialize in computational linguistics. Sure, big money is to be made if you crack the code and develop a program that will ghost-write perfect speeches for Trump and Co. Obviously one of the requirements will be to repeat and repeat key sentences (slogans) so that the message will not be lost on those millions whose attention span is less than a millisecond. Tragically the computerized speech writer will produce dumb text that will be celebrated as the height of literary rhetoric (witness Reagan’s ‘axis of evil’, Obama’s ‘yes, we can’ and Trump’s ‘make America great again’). Human language will be reduced to passive click-bait consumption. The neo-feudalist class of super-managers surrounded by computer geeks will reap all the material benefits of the vulture economy and laugh all the way to the club of billionaires.

Eventually however, the irrepressible human facility for creative language will give rise to yet another French/Russian/Chinese/Cuban-style revolution that will transform societies as never before, and by the way reinstate bio-linguistics to the top of human sciences.


 

 

 

 

Friday, November 11, 2016

A LONG KOAN FOR LEONARD COHEN



Now I drink to your awful truth
That I will hear from you
Long after you’ve gone
Dead and gone
You said you were ready
Except nobody ever is
For the great beyond
Dust to dust
That was that
The living left behind listen to you
Digitally remastered
Longing for clues when you sang
Democracy is coming to the USA
But all that came was Trump
Taking Manhattan and maybe Berlin
So long ago, we listened to you and your Spanish guitar
First in Munich, then in Auckland
You took us down to the river
Letting love flow
The past before us, the flowers and the garbage
The murderous future behind us
Words like honey and salt into the wounds of
Christ and hell to come
You were the bridge across the river Styx
Now the bridge is gone
We never have to cross it again
Hineni, you said you were here
But look what you have done
You have gone
To the other side
Never to return as great
As a Zen Master of song
As Leonard Cohen



Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight



A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight (Yale University Press)

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Chris Knight sent me his Decoding Chomsky Ms., unsolicited, presumably in the knowledge that I am one of the great defenders of Chomsky. I replied, having read the preface, with a brief message of what I thought was wrong with it, mentioning that I might do a proper review on my blog and/or submit it to Biolinguistics. He replied saying that it would be a good idea. In the event I did this longer review and sent him a copy for the right of reply. He never did. Recently I also got an unsolicited message from Philip Lieberman who encouraged me to read his articles refuting Chomsky, again presumably because I might react, which I do in the article below as well (as opposed to Chomsky himself who has no time to engage at length in such negative enterprise1).

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One of the best German grammars, in my humble opinion at least, is the (1981) Grundzüge einer deutschen Grammatik by Heidolph et al., published by the Akademie Verlag, Berlin, DDR  (the former GDR). In their foreword the authors make the following point (my translation):

The system of language should not appear to be an isolated description. It is therefore important, based on a Marxist-Leninist concept of human language, to at least point to a language-theoretic framework.

Chris Knight would approve while detractors can point out that above assertion was only mentioned once or twice (but not even in the ‘index’) in the 1,000 page compendium, adding insult to injury by perhaps being jocular, like in the TV ad, ‘they would have to say that, wouldn’t they’.

Personally, I too think it’s a nice idea that good science is done by good people, the definition of good being something like ‘socialist’ or ‘syndicalist-anarchist’, something that the political activist Chomsky espouses, something that Chris Knight approves of. Chris Knight however seems intent to prove the point that a good man like Chomsky can do bad science by claiming that the study of language is ‘value-free’, when according to Knight, language evolved from humans being social and egalitarian. What other permutations are there? Bad people doing bad science like in Nazi-Germany, like Mengele? Can you have bad people being good scientists? What about all the Nazi rocket scientist that were taken to the USA to make major contributions to NASA, like Wernher von Braun? What about all the great Soviet scientists who like our German friends above always credited Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism as their main inspiration? Chomsky who is no friend of Soviet-style totalitarianism, at least in the vein of Orwell’s Animal Farm, after all coined the term ‘intellectual commissars’ but of course given universal application inasmuch it also applies to servile American intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz.

Chris Knight is however doing more than just accusing Chomsky of bad science: he is accusing Chomsky of doing bad science that in turn supports the class-enemy, namely the American military industrial complex. His contention is that Chomsky willingly and knowingly accepted the ‘bad-mad’ science idea promulgated by the likes of  Warren Weaver, i.e. coming up with a universal language that would allow the implementation of a translation machine – with American English as the ‘universal’ language of course, being able to get into the heads of all American enemies and defeat them before they can put their bad thoughts into action. That MIT at the time was in part funded by the Pentagon is no secret and Chomsky knew as much as anybody else. So did Chomsky sell his soul for a fat salary package? Did the powers-to-be allow Chomsky to operate a sideline as political activist highly critical of the powers-to-be because he was useful in concocting a linguistic science that served them well?

Let’s briefly consider the evidence for this proposition. Machine translation has certainly made much progress but certainly not based on the Chomsky paradigm. But what about the wider implication of Chomsky’s perceived ‘value-free’ linguistics that allowed successive American governments (and their great allies in the UK) to operate without any limitations? Did the Chomskyian concept of a ‘universal grammar (UG)’ aid an abet American capitalism and imperialism? When Chomsky famously critiqued Skinner’s behaviourist model of human language as a potentially ‘fascist’ enterprise, he did save linguistics from bad science but obviously failed to stop behaviourism to take centre-stage in the ‘social’ sciences of education, marketing (advertising) and business in general, to this very day. Note that Chomsky never attacked Skinner ad hominem, he just disagreed with his bad science, perhaps giving some credence to the proposition that even good men can do bad science. Obviously Chomsky never doubted his own brand of linguistics but, as Chris Knight points out, Chomsky on occasion did have doubts about the whole academic enterprise in which he was immersed. Chris Knight seems to have a particular measure in this regard: you must get yourself arrested in order to prove you have made the transition from value-less scientist to scientist with a social conscience, à la James Hansen and of course according to Chris Knight himself who was fired from his East London university for being a political activist (and later having been arrested as well). Knight should therefore not forget that Chomsky was arrested several times and at one stage was facing a long prison sentence, and then landed on Nixon’s notorious list of enemies of the state. Knight also singles out Charles Hockett and Marshal Sahlins as ‘champions of unified science’, both academics in the mold of Noam Chomsky (but were, as far as I know, never arrested for anything, the former not notable for any political activism while the latter is indeed one of the good guys). So, Chomsky wins on that count alone. Obviously one must admire political dissidents who risk jail if not their life to stand up for their beliefs. Contemporary whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden even receive praise in the mainstream media (cf. The Guardian). Should Chomsky have taken up arms and joined the Black Panthers? Should Chris Knight leave the Labour Party and join a South-American revolutionary cadre like Regis Debray did (or at least teach social anthropology at a university in Cuba)? Should we all be brave like Orwell and rush off to the next civil war in Spain or Syria?

How come former American academics like Barack Obama and Samantha Powers achieve high political office? Is it, was it Chomsky’s fault? Sure, there is a lot of tokenism one can criticize even though Chomsky never actively engaged in it. Yes, he accepted many academic honours from prestigious (and some not so) universities but he never sought or in the slightest wanted the kind of celebrity status that would launch him into the world of political and corporate elites (à la famous linguist Steven Pinker and the aforementioned Dershowitz, both of whom got much more than they bargained for, cf. Bryant 2015). He could have easily attained high office at MIT or elsewhere, seek admission to influential think-tanks or seek political office. Chomsky, after all, as an ordinary ordained academic, was called upon to speak before the UN where it is normally de rigueur to have high political connections.

What does Chris Knight want from him? That he dress in rags and live in a hovel like the oppressed masses in the shanty towns of our global village? Should he, like Tolstoy, take to wearing peasants’ clothes to show his solidarity? Above all, what should Chomsky do to live up to Chris Knight’s idea of a good scientist? Is it just to adopt a new paradigm that fits the one Chris Knight adheres to?

There is simply no evidence at all that Chomsky’s linguistics have somehow contributed to or collaborated with the political, military and corporate establishment of the USA. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Popperian obsession of wanting to falsify Chomsky’s scientific theories (Chomsky after all came to prominence critiquing Skinner), there is everything wrong with the obsession to falsify his theories on account of a misconstrued political motivation, which in Chris Knight’s case is doubly hard to understand as he actually supports Chomsky’s politics. Maybe – and I’m only joking -  Chris Knight is a double agent, an agent-provocateur who follows the long line of infiltrators who keep up the illusion that the worst enemy of the left is the factional left.

It is much easier to understand how reactionary linguists malign Chomsky in order to diminish his political impact, for if they can only falsify Chomsky’s theories, can they bury the political animal as well. In fact, these are the ‘scientists’ Chris Knight should attack: they are subservient to the establishment first and foremost, and secondly their science may also be bad: they are the intellectual commissars Chomsky speaks about.

Chris Knight the social anthropologist – who admits to having no technical knowledge of linguistics – nevertheless makes a big deal in his book about Chomsky’s take on the evolution of language, which even if it was wrong, would not amount to much in his overall work on linguistics. Chomsky, as all other evo-devo writers, Knight included, have no empirical evidence of what language evolution is based on, so educated guesswork (called theory by some) must suffice. Chomsky (and his co-author Berwick in their most recent work on this subject – which I did review in Biolinguistics, causing much consternation amongst certain Chomsky critics, cf. Sperlich 2016) defend the theory that human language ‘evolved’ from some sort of genetic mutation in the brain that allowed language to develop, possibly in a short time, say from 80,000 BC, based on what Chomsky famously calls MERGE, i.e. the ability to merge two language tokens (like words) and conceive of them as a new category (like a phrase or a component of a phrase) and iterate up the ladder of complexity until we arrive at what language constitutes today: a finite system to creates infinite output, allowing a Shakespeare to use some 23,000 different words in his opus. Chris Knight thinks this a lot of nonsense and somehow part of the Pentagon conspiracy to reverse the Tower of Babel scenario: Chomskyan ‘universal grammar’ being the main ingredient. I am not sure why Knight dwells so much on this Tower of Babel myth even though it was a pet idea of Warren Weaver. Knight actually comes close to believing the myth himself, which is strange for a self-confessed socialist who should not believe in proverbial old-wives tales that make up the Bible. The Tower of Babel is a utterly pointless story when considering possible scenarios for the evolution of language. On the more scientific side Chris Knight, as the social anthropologist does of course favour the theory that language evolved from human social interaction, noting that the hunter gatherer period of human evolution would make for a good starting point because hunter gatherers were a band of egalitarian comrades that depended on cooperation to survive. It’s a nice idea popularized by the likes of EP Thompson and other Marxist writers like Engels2 with a view on the origins of human language. As an anthropological linguist myself (and having been arrested once too in the concrete jungles of London), I sympathize with the view that egalitarian, social interaction should condition language that in turn reinforces egalitarian, social interaction in a progressive feed-back loop but, alas, I have seen little evidence of this in the remote islands of Vanuatu where I did my fieldwork. Language, unfortunately appears to be a neutral tool, used in every which way, from quasi-religious rituals to progressive action. Language as an organ does not determine our thoughts and actions any more or less than our digestive system: the biological limitations are what they are. Even our ever increasing knowledge about such biological systems does not enable us to change the system (in medical terminology such advanced knowledge does not seem to help much to maintain such systems in good working order for the common good). We interpret the world through language but we seem unable to change it for the better even within that narrow range of what is humanly possible. Different languages do not give rise to different world views either, as some deluded linguists claim. I also studied the language of Niue which is typologically ergative, meaning roughly it is the reverse of an accusative language where typically the actor is the subject and the object the ‘patient’, in other words, an ergative language is somewhat similar to the passive voice of accusative languages (‘The cat chased the mouse’ versus ‘The mouse was chased by the cat’). The language relativist might suggest that Niueans are much nicer people than the English because their language seems to empathize with the ‘patient’, more than with the ‘actor’. That is of course total nonsense. What struck me most working as an anthropological linguist – acting somewhat reluctantly in the tradition of the Western anthropological tradition that investigates cultures that are not as much advanced as the West (now politically incorrect to say ‘primitive’) – was that all the people I have come across (and I have travelled all around the globe as well) are all the same, analogous to the language diversity conundrum that Chomsky solved by saying that if a Martian came to earth he/she/it would immediately figure out that all the human languages only differ on the surface, i.e. have a common baseline (called ‘universal grammar’). In other words the diversity of cultures and races is only a surface feature however much such notions are abused by racists and cultural supremacists. Chris Knight’s nice idea of the hunter gatherers being a nice bunch of people who developed language and the concept of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ also seems to be contradicted by some recent scholarly (sic) research, sensationally entitled ‘natural born killers: humans predisposed to, study suggests’ as published in The  Guardian:

“From the empirical figure of 2% of deaths by lethal violence in primitive hunter-gatherers, different historical times have had different levels of lethal violence,” said Gómez.


Note that the 2% is supposed to be some sort of historical average. Note also the terminology of ‘primitive’. It seems OK to use the term historically but not synchronically – perhaps Chris Knight can write a rebuttal to remind Dr Gómez above that if anyone is ‘primitive’ it must be modern man who has apparently evolved to practice mutually assured destruction – MAD, i.e. one cannot but help to point to contemporary, extreme ‘lethal violence’ perpetrated in places like Syria and the use of ‘lethal force’ by terrorist states (which includes the USA, according to Chomsky, and no doubt in accord with Chris Knight). What has language (as a biological system) to do with all that? Nothing much as far as I can see, quite apart from what Chomsky calls ‘language performance’, namely the use and abuse of language to serve the interests of the intellectual commissars, as so well described by George Orwell in his 1984.

When medical experts study the respiratory system they are subject (hopefully so) to research ethics that precludes butchering people, just like when linguistics experts study language. We cannot drill holes into the brain to find out where language resides. We can speculate that mirror neurons enable us to match real world objects with linguistic labels, as much as the cooperative ‘heave-ho’ is some sort of mirror image of the actual physical work done. We can do all sorts of advanced brain scans to see what areas of the brain ‘light up’ with electrical nervous energy when we say ‘good morning’ or ‘stop that insane violence in Syria’. In fact another detractor of Chomsky, one Philip Lieberman (2015), introduces his article as follows:

Language evolved over millions of years by Darwinian processes, and its primary role is communication. Speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others. The communicative role of language is apparent in that the neural structures that code a word’s meaning in the brain are activated by the sound pattern of its name.

In the first instance it may be worth pointing out to Lieberman’s ‘speech is default mode’ that sign is as readily available as speech and that sign languages are even developed by deaf communities without linguistic input, indicating that language is modality-independent with regard to externalization (Chomsky, pers. comm.). I certainly concur with the notion that ‘speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others’ but notice what it is we share: ‘thoughts’. If we equate thought with language (as I do) or at least in Chomsky’s sense of ‘the language of thought’, it becomes a logical thought (excuse the pun) that thought precedes speech. Even more to the point is that by introspection alone, I can claim, sadly perhaps, that many if not most of my thoughts never get put into speech (or writing) and thus communicated to others. Sure, communicating thoughts to others can confer an evolutionary advantage (however, in present times this communicative ‘performance’ as practiced by the likes of Clinton and Trump in American politics seems more of  a evolutionary disadvantage if not outright disaster), as also noted by Chomsky. Lieberman’s second point that neural structures light up when words match meaning, is nothing but a truism. Sections of the brain also light up when we think (and not speak). There is plenty of evidence that we can even influence or even direct our physiology by thought alone. Maybe it is time for neuro-linguists to determine if neural structures need to be activated to produce thoughts before further neural motor action is put in place to translate thought into speech. In any case it seems to me that detractors like Lieberman and Knight provide plenty of evidence that defeats their own theories (see also Note 1).

Still nobody, Chomsky included, has the slightest idea how the mind arises from the brain – if there is such a thing. In the same vein nobody has the slightest idea how language competence is embedded in our brains, how it is acquired and how it has evolved. Chomsky and many other linguists have devised interesting theories that seem to match the rules and ways we generate language but as Chomsky says, linguists now are only at the stage of Galilean physics, and by way of another analogy: scientists (linguists included) are like the drunks who look for the lost car keys under the lamp post because that’s where the light is. To accuse Chomsky – in this light – of a corrupt science, as does Chris Knight, is nothing short of insulting. It is more so because Chris Knight is, by all accounts, a progressive thinker in his political domain. I would not sink so low and accuse Chris Knight of practicing his version of a corrupt science just because I disagree with his scientific point of view, and based on an unwarranted suspicion that as an established academic he willingly derives his income from questionable sources. Chris Knight’s current employer being UCL, which has ties to the British military complex via its Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering – sounds a bit like MIT – what with various departmental academics attending a nefarious London conference entitled Military Radar (2016).

Notes

1            Knight in his ‘acknowledgements’ does make the point that he had sent Chomsky his Ms and that Chomsky had briefly replied which Knight summarized (which according to Chomsky is stretching the truth, pers. comm.) with commentary as follows:

I sent Noam Chomsky the uncorrected proofs, mentioning that I was concerned lest my criticisms of his linguistic ideas might provide ammunition for the political right. Chomsky reassured me that having read through my book, he couldn’t detect any criticisms of his linguistic ideas! Chomsky always situates himself to the left of his critics, and so is not used to criticism from that quarter. Following his usual political instincts, he described my misunderstanding of the relation of the Pentagon to MIT, and to advanced research in general, as a mistake common in mainstream ideology and in right-wing economics. Secondly, he insisted that there wasn’t even a remote connection between his notion of Universal Grammar and fantasies about a universal language, thus confirming my impression of a modular mind.

Not sure if Knight fully appreciated the presumed Chomsky riposte of ‘not detecting any criticisms of his linguistic ideas’ – apart from adding an exclamation mark! That’s really quite hilarious! It’s like Knight replying to my review, saying he did not detect any criticisms of him and his book!

2            Engels’ famous quote ‘Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one’.


REFERENCES

Bryant, N. (2015) Flight Logs Put Clinton, Dershowitz on Pedophile Billionaire’s Sex Jet.

Lieberman, P. (2015) Language Did Not Spring Forth 100,000 Years Ago. PLOS Biology, February 13, 2015


Sperlich W. (2016) A plea for Why Only Us? (Berwick & Chomsky 2016).


Friday, October 14, 2016

LOL, NO SIREE BOB, LITERATURE IT AIN’T



“Half the time I write to find out what I think” (Tim Winton)

Nice quote
Stumbled across on the day
Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize
What a terrible joke
Not that Tim Winton should have won either
But at least he’s an Australian writer I don’t know
So what do I think about it all?
I don’t know
I write without thinking
I don’t write when I think
When I talk to myself
Inner dialogue
Freudian tripartite, id, ego, superego
OMHS (oh my holy spirit), a Christian faux-pas
Triangulate
Ménage à trois
What am I thinking?
Words merge into phrases and green Chomsky trees
Random associations in Latin
Cogito ergo sum
Cogito ergo scribo
Chinese cat sits on my lap
Not thinking just purring
Half of the time I read what I write for free
For cat and me
And you and nobody else
NB once met Bob in Kathmandu
He kept looking in the mirror to see what he could see
Sure he wrote two or three good songs when he was still innocent
And to his credit did a cover of The Universal Soldier
A long time ago, and to no avail (drone soldiers keep a-killing)
 And now Bob’s an old cowboy celebrity
Getting prizes for neither thinking nor writing
Selling his soul to American gods and empire, OMG
Like Rod Stewart, OBE, to William the Queen
There ain’t no fool like an old pop star
BTW that’s what I think about literature
Quoting Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize
"A writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution"
Would an equally discerning Arundhati Roy say ‘herself’ the same?
But then again, who I am I to think so when half the time I write?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

TERROR




Terror is as old as warfare – they go hand in hand, or worse: warfare equals terror. Nevertheless when claiming a dichotomy, the protagonists on both sides prove the point that they are engaged in a just war but having to break the rules of warfare (as for example enshrined in the Geneva Convention) because the terrorist combatants don’t follow the rules. Terrorists cannot be considered ordinary criminals because they have political and religious motivations that threaten the ideological status quo. Interestingly terrorists from the fascist right, like Breivik and more recently the guy in Munich, are more likely to be rebranded as ‘running amok’, presumably because the ideology of the political and religious right-wing is sacrosanct while the ideology of the (atheist) left is to be abhorred even in its mildest manifestations, as currently experienced by Corbyn of the UK (how dare he propose to scrap the nuclear weapons capable Trident submarines). Modern jihadists are considered terrorists despite their seemingly fundamentalist religious (read ‘extremely conservative’) ideology, for what is lurking below this façade is a primitive socialism that is absent in the otherwise equivalent Christian fundamentalism (which is Calvinist to the extreme, i.e. beholden to an aggressive capitalism). Just like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was a threat to the capitalist West because they advocated a type of socialist fraternité (minus liberté and égalité) that ran counter to corporate free-market doctrines and was subsequently removed from the chess board by the Egyptian military with tacit support from the Western powers, the even more radical Islamic State must also be squashed by all means and therefore branded as the most evil terrorist organisation known to mankind. Of course the Baathist Syrian regime must be removed as well because it is ‘socialist’ in name if not exactly in practice. In this context, note that Christian liberation theology with its leanings towards Marxist socialism has also been extinguished where it once seemed to take root, i.e. in Central and South America. That the Islamic State fighters turn out to be such an obstinate enemy is of course a well-known reaction to the even more obstinate counter-terrorism practiced by the US and their allies. Slavoj Žižek in his article ‘Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange: our new heroes’ in the Guardian puts it thus:

We all remember President Obama's smiling face, full of hope and trust, in his first campaign: "Yes, we can!" – we can get rid of the cynicism of the Bush era and bring justice and welfare to the American people. Now that the US continues its covert operations and expands its intelligence network, spying even on its allies, we can imagine protesters shouting at Obama: "How can you use drones for killing? How can you spy even on our allies?" Obama murmurs with a mockingly evil smile: "Yes, we can."

What with France and Germany currently bearing the brunt of these so-called terrorist attacks, it is no small wonder that the media of these countries are instructed by their respective owners to shape public opinion accordingly. In Germany DER SPIEGEL is often considered one of the most influential mouthpieces of ‘liberal democrats’ (Freidemokraten), espousing a quasi-rationalist ideology that equates roughly with what goes on politically, socially and above all economically (free-market) in Germany. While the right-wing neo-fascists all over Europe decry the current refugee and migration policies and practices, accusing Germany of wholesale sell-out, the liberal democrats use this sentiment to disguise their own economic motivations as humanitarian sainthood of sorts, the fact being that Germany (and France for that matter) benefit enormously from the current migration in-flows to boost the manufacturing sector with cheap and compliant labour – just like Germany did in terms of its Wirtschaftswunder in the 1960s and 70s by importing millions of southern-European and Turkish Gastarbeiter. So how do we sell this as a humanitarian gesture in the face of terrorist attacks that fuel the ire of racists and neo-feudalists? For one, we must employ the Orwellian newspeak that muddies the waters of a rational discourse. Take a recent op-ed from DER SPIEGEL:

… was die Terroristen des IS erreichen wollen … Ihr Ziel ist es, die Gesellschaft zu spalten und aufzuhetzen. Die unbeirrte Menschlichkeit ist die stärkste Waffe, die wir gegen sie haben. Nur mit ihr können wir diesen Kampf gewinnen.
(Eng. my translation): what the terrorists of IS want to achieve … their aim is to split society and spread hatred. A relentless humanity/humanitarianism is the strongest weapon we have against them. Only with it can we win the war.

The oxymoron of ‘humanitarianism as a weapon’ is as woeful as the notion of ‘winning a war against terrorism/IS’. It might be understood as a sort of appeasement of the extreme rightwing who want to see blood and revenge but that would mean to overestimate the intellectual integrity of the writer. Neither is this approach aligned to the idea of radical (Marxist/Liberation – as mentioned above) Christianity which offers the enemy the cheek to strike, as some of the German and French Protestant heretics propose. My contention is that this use of Orwellian newspeak is exactly as described by Orwell, i.e. a propaganda tool devised by the political, social and above all economic elites of the countries in question. After a while it becomes ingrained and everybody repeats it. That such neo-feudalist despotism breeds medieval scorched-earth movements like Islamic State is no surprise. As the brutality of the ‘war’ increases on both sides (note that the ‘humanitarian’ police forces in Germany and France now shoot to kill the terrorists) we sink ever deeper into the quicksand of an age that glorified pillage and rape as a means to economic success. Germany as such must put up with terrorist attacks lest she shoots herself in the foot by stopping the inflow of cheap labour that aids and abets the current German Wirtschaftswunder. The EU’s policy a free movement of labour is a center-piece of its economic free-market strategy, emulating the USA where it would be absurd to propose to limit the freedom of movement between states. Mind you, Donald Trump and his ilk are getting close to this idea by wanting to barricade the borders to Mexico and other terrorist countries, so if a majority of a state like New-Mexico vote for Hilary instead of the winner-takes-all Donald, then Donald may close the border to New Mexico as well. The utterly brutal, neo-feudalist wars fought in Syria and Iraq must spill over more and more into neighbouring countries and into Europe and the rest of the world if the slaughter continues unabated. Strongmen like Erdogan in Turkey and Sisi in Egypt will clamp down on any signs of dissent and hold the fort for a while for Europe in return for a free hand to commit their own brands of oppression. May and Johnson in the UK, and so-called leaders in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia will also tighten immigration and strengthen the fundamentalist and anti-Muslim Christian factions, even against the advice of their free-market comrades. Hollande of France, embattled economically and politically, will have few options to respond apart from continuously declaring war on IS, which is as farcical as the word is French. The US, as a terrorist state – as noted by Noam Chomsky – engaged in indiscriminate drone warfare against so-called terrorist targets and with ‘special’ forces on the ground in many parts of the world to carry out targeted assassinations, bears the greatest responsibility for the current upsurge in counter-terrorism. As this is not likely to change – or is even more likely to intensify – the rest of the world will have to live with the consequences. Naturally, as long as the collateral damage is kept in bounds there will only be clamour for more war, emulating the Israeli formula that for each Israeli citizen 10 Palestinians must die. That the provision of cheap labour remains paramount is nicely expressed in a Guardian opinion piece (the Guardian being the UK equivalent of the German Spiegel):

It will be no consolation to learn that western Europe is actually safer now than it has ever been or that the number of deaths from terrorism is now far lower than through much of the 1970s and 1980s.

In other words, current terrorist activity is only so much more in focus because so-called social media has overtaken the fourth estate, forcing its hands in terms of sensationalist reporting. Of course the fourth estate is as active on social media as are the millions of Facebook, Twitter and WhatHaveYou apps subscribers who produce ‘raw’ sound bites as fast as they can, allowing to be there while the crazed terrorist cuts the throat of the priest. At the same time the drone pilots watch the explosions on their internal media networks, giving high fives when they hit something (anything). Sooner or later a disaffected pilot will leak a video or two, ending up on WikiLeaks or on WhatEver, ensuring that such sources will either be incarcerated for ever (e.g. Chelsea Manning) or be sort of imprisoned (e.g. Julian Assange) or be exiled a la Edward Snowden (as via Žižek above).
While the Guardian does occasionally publish voices like Žižek and Chomsky, the editors take great care that, like the German Der Spiegel, the status quo must be maintained and supported by more subtle Orwellian newspeak. Witness the article ‘Terror and rage: what makes a mass murderer different to a terrorist?’ by Jeff Sparrow who at first seems to make a valid point with saying that

The current insistence on entirely separating ideological and non-ideological rampages seems rather perverse.

But then goes off the rails by suggesting that the urge to kill is somehow a result of the boring life that entails peace on earth, quoting mad authors like Sebastian Junger:

                  That’s why, as he says, “for many people … war feels better than peace.”

And coming to the conclusion

… ending the carnage may require more than simply ending the wars (as necessary as that remains). We need also a more profound discussion about constructing a different kind of peace.


So what does this mean? Is it the pathetic maxim of ‘to keep the peace we have to prepare for war’ or is it some kind of peace that preempts sociopaths, warmongers and terrorists to take up arms by allowing them a kind of virtual warfare ad finitum and ad nauseum? Or can he possibly mean that such a ‘different kind of peace’ is a political manifestation of a genuine socialism that is the real enemy of the corporate world, the one percent, the power elites, the monarchists, the religious maniacs, the war lords, the fascists, the racists, the patriarchs, the governments – in short, the ideological status quo? As we move towards a neo-feudalism with attendant state terrorism based on the latest technologies of warfare and surveillance, the reaction by ever more primitive and brutal counter-terrorists will be a sign of the times, at least until a socialist peasant-prekariat revolution gets underway. History will repeat, hopefully not as a farce this time round but as turning point in the history of the human species that until this point perfected an Orwellian nightmare whereby the 99% of the populace gladly submitted to their own oppression. Those who will spark the revolution are scattered around the globe like escapees from the human zoos described in Huxley’s Brave New World. Perhaps this revolution will be perfectly peaceful as a result of a genetic mutation that will compel the 1% (and their armed forces) to act like lemmings and jump off the cliff. It is not that the meek will inherit the world but the new normal people who will live in a socialist world-village in harmony with a universalist nature, free from the terrors of the past, free from the bizarre dogmas of religion and Westminster politics, free to express love and sexuality, free to be good and altruistic – having switched off the gene that in the past eons might have been responsible for being bad and selfish and thus having terrorized those who were good. So, good night, sweet dreams! Tomorrow morning may be the same but not like this!