Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Talking of Freedom

This is a guest post by James Rattue

On Monday night I led the first of our church’s Lent Talks this year. We discussed guilt. There are, I think, two aspects to guilt; the objective element, your responsibility for an event which has brought harm to other people, and the subjective one, your awareness of being responsible. Often, of course, the two are difficult to disentangle.

Great events happen in the world and we turn them over in our minds. We have opinions, and sometimes voice them. Depending on where they get voiced, and who we are, they can add to what is called a ‘public mood’, and contribute to what the people who actually decide things end up doing. It’s a remote, weak sort of responsibility, but even at the weakest, we can’t help thinking what we might do, were we actually in the position of deciding.

The military situation in Libya is an example. I’ve listened to news reports, talked about the crisis in various places online as well as in real life, and debated what I would do. Generally speaking, I’ve found myself feeling highly impatient with the approach the West has had towards the whole of the Middle East, propping up horrible autocracies because they happen to be convenient for our foreign policy objectives in the short term and, when freedom appears to be on the brink of breaking out, vacillating and hedging, apparently lacking the imagination to see how secular democracy is in everyone’s interests – oil-dependent Western nations, fearful Israelis, and the Arab peoples themselves. There are three things in which every human being has an investment: peace, freedom, and trade. We should not be afraid of championing them. Hark at me, the old liberal.

Now various nations in the name of the UN are bombing Libya and, much as we talk about legitimate targets and specific objectives, war almost always means civilians die. And even if the dead are not civilians, none of them are ever coming back. Soldiers, even mercenaries, they may be, yet they are each unique individuals, blotted out forever, at least in this world. When three men die in a burning tank, they are three men who won’t be going home, even if they were doing the will of a wicked autocrat. Hark at me, the old pacifist. We should be very, very sure of ourselves before we do this kind of thing.

For a war to be ‘just’ in the classic account it needs to stand some chance of success. The current military action against Colonel Gaddafi has already ‘succeeded’ in preventing an immediate massacre of rebels in Benghazi, but protecting the civilian population in the longer term means the rebels being able to hold their own against the Colonel, and they certainly seem incapable of doing little more than that. We hear today that they attempted to recapture Aydabija – the town that controls the water supply to Benghazi – and were easily repulsed by the government army. If they can’t advance against the government militarily, there doesn’t seem much prospect of support leaching away to them from the government, no matter how long they squat in the east of the country. As Yasmin Qureshi, one of the handful of MPs to vote against intervention yesterday, said, ‘We don’t really know who these rebels are, we don’t know how much support they really have, we don’t know anything about them’.

The trouble is, we thought we did. The BBC, at any rate, seemed for several weeks to know all about everything. You’ll forgive me for not quoting the exact words – they’re not available – but not long after hostilities broke out, revered correspondent John (‘I had written Ceaucescu’s obituary with his own gold pen’) Simpson was being jeeped down the road towards Tripoli with the rebels, reporting how it was only a matter of time before Gaddafi was out. ‘The air force has defected to the rebels, Colonel Gaddafi has a few thousand troops left at best’. Every hour brought news of some retired general or diplomat in the Libyan service who had denounced the government; there was momentum. Analysts and spokesmen appeared on the Today programme giving the dictator days, even hours, and nobody seriously queried it. Gaddafi’s own deranged rantings tempted commentators to assume they knew what was going on better than he did.

Then the tide turned. Days later, the same John Simpson was reporting to Today from Benghazi that ‘nobody’ there was calling for the establishment of a no-fly zone. ‘Nobody’, perhaps, apart from the ‘rebel leader’ who was the very next person interviewed that morning, who demanded just that. You can forgive Mr Simpson for believing what he was told; what’s more disturbing is the way the BBC editors didn’t question any of this confident but apparently amnesiac narrative, that vigorously asserted one thing and then its opposite. At first a democratic revolution was sweeping more or less bloodlessly across the land, people coming out to welcome it in town after town; then a dictator was brutally repressing his population with foreign mercenaries.

Was it really like that? When BBC correspondents were so confused, how can we say we genuinely know what was going on? Now reporters are admitting that the rebels’ account of what’s happening is far from reliable. They claimed they had captured Aydabija; correspondents went there and found Libyan government forces well entrenched. They continually exaggerate their success, minimise problems, expect sudden deliverances. They aren’t reliable, and the BBC seems only just to have discovered it.

The revolutionary narrative is one that at a very deep level we rather like, as it confirms our view of ourselves and the world. It reminds us of what happened twenty years ago in eastern Europe, and in fact of our own national stories of progressive advance, whether they follow the revolutionary model of France or the US, or our own more gradualist British history. We want everyone to follow the same pattern and enjoy the benefits we have won for ourselves; nothing wrong about that, until it amounts to pulling the wool over our own eyes. In 1989 we were led to believe, again by the enthusiasm of the media, that the student protests in Tiananmen Square represented the tip of the democratic iceberg in China, the yearning of its huddled millions to be free. They were, we now know, nothing of the sort. They were representative of an urban elite and not much of that. The rest of China, in so far as it had any opinion on the matter, supported their suppression. We don’t like that kind of thing; it doesn’t fit our fantasy that everyone wants the kind of freedom we would like them to have.

I was impressed to read one intervention in the Commons yesterday by Tory MP and former soldier Kris Hopkins, who’d heard a radio phone-in programme discussing whether Gaddafi should be killed:


There's nothing glorious in war. There's nothing romantic about it. And I would say to some members of the media who have portrayed some form of entertainment about what's going on, and what has gone on in previous wars, it is just not right. I'm afraid human beings need to commit brutal savage attacks on each other to win wars.

People were phoning in and it was almost like a gladiatorial thumbs-up or thumbs-down about what the populace thought - and I've got to say I was fairly disgusted about this form of entertainment, about the killing of another human being, however disgusting he is.


Which doesn’t tell you much, but is at least realistic, and acknowledges the role the media plays in shaping opinion. It doesn’t fit the narrative either.

Now the momentum of Arab revolution seems to be taking Yemen with it. Good if it does; as I say, peace, freedom and trade are in everyone’s interests. The West almost certainly won’t do much about Yemen, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia, and I don’t mind greatly; you do what you can, not what you can’t. But are we – reporters, public, and politicians – being deluded by our own liberal histories into seeing what isn’t there and, therefore, taking the wrong decisions? Again, in the Commons debate yesterday Rory Stewart, the MP for Penrith, revealed succinctly what I’m sure is the root of many people’s thinking:

If we had sat back and done nothing, people in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria would have concluded that we were on the side of oil-rich regimes against their people. We would have had no progressive narrative with which to engage the people of that region.


… and I have a degree of sympathy with that, too. But it results in just, prudent policy only if those people in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere actually do think the way we are assuming they do. And that’s still unproven. As a coda, I’m reminded of what Silius, Messalina’s co-conspirator, says in Claudius the God: ‘You know how it is when one talks of liberty. Everything seems beautifully simple. One expects every gate to open and every wall to fall flat, and every voice to shout for joy’.

James (a.k.a. Weeping Cross) blogs at The Hearth of Mopsus