September 17th, 2009


Three conflicts, summarised

Life can get pretty boring when everyone agrees. So today I'm going to round up some of the more interesting conflicts going on out there in the chatterzone. These are clashes of ideas heavily invested in, personally, by their proponents. They demonstrate both the good and the bad side of dialectics; the fact that not everyone thinks the same way is, of course, great (though you may angrily disagree with me here), but ever-more-testy investment in ever-more-tightly-defined concepts can see you quickly cornered, snappy, snarly and, frankly, looking pretty petty, petulant and silly.

A dispute about music and the Nazis
Where would we be without disputes about the Nazis? Nazis are, of course, the ultimate shorthand for evil, the ultimate unacceptable other, and the ultimate machinery for guilt-by-association. For this reason, they run and run, tedious-yet-compelling, with ghost Hitlers aligning with, or menacing, movements the real Hitler couldn't even have dreamed of, let alone endorsed by lending them, or suspending from them, his disastrous non-charisma. (Or "charisma", if you disagree with me that Hitler was a bit of a plonker.)

There's a good Nazi dispute going on at Owen Hatherley's blog Nasty, Brutalist and Short. In Mechanisation Didn't Take Command, Owen takes issue with the thesis of David Keenan's Primer on Kosmische Music in the new edition of The Wire magazine. Keenan tries to distinguish Kosmische (Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, The Cosmic Couriers...) from Krautrock (Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster...)

Basically, Keenan says Krautrock = Futurism = Nazism, whereas Kosmische = pastoral German folk styles + UK and US psychedelia and therefore doesn't = Nazism. As Hatherley quite rightly points out in his riposte, this simply doesn't line up with historical fact. Nazism is if anything more readily aligned with pastoral dreams of German folk culture, nature cults and oriental religions (Thus Spake Zarathustra!) than with the Futurist, Modernist, Constructivist imagery Kraftwerk were playing with. The Nazis have not left a legacy of Modernist architecture. They put Marinetti in their Degenerate Art exhibition, for heaven's sake!

A dispute illustrating the tragedy inherent in identity politics
Our second dispute is a girl-scrum involving ever-more-thinly-sliced gender and racial identities. An entry called Voz Latina Strikes Again appeared on the Womanist Musings blog on Tuesday. To understand the context of this conflict you have to know that Renee, who writes the Womanist Musings blog, is a WOC (woman of colour) who is cisgendered, in other words someone who is fairly happy with the behaviour or role considered appropriate to one's birth gender. The opposite to cis is trans, and this particular dispute arose when Voz Latina and Genderbitch, who are trans, spoke ill of Renee on a (protected) Twitter feed, saying she wasn't the "trans ally" she claimed to be, but was in fact "anti-trans".

Things get unfathomably complicated with Renee's response: that Voz and Genderbitch were apparently unaware that there is a distinction between RWOCs (radical women of color) and womanists (black feminists). "It is entirely problematic that Genderbitch, a White trans woman, had no idea that a difference exists between RWOC and womanist," Renee remarked. "How's that for mimicking White feminists' behaviour?"

The dispute brings differences of class, race, political position, gender orientation (birth or assigned) into play, until you can't help thinking that for every two steps forward identity politics might have taken, it's taken at least six back. Here, enacted before our very eyes, is exactly why oppositional politics tends to disintegrate into bitter internecine squabbling -- much to the delight of the bigots it should instead be attacking. These people need to get behind a common cause, and preferably one unrelated to the assertion of ever-more-baroque personal identity differences.

Al Megrahi was framed
There was remarkable harmony between two articles published in the London and the New York Review of Books this week. In the LRB, Gareth Pierce's The Framing of al-Megrahi concurs with an article in the NYRB by Malise Ruthven, Deception Over Lockerbie. The picture that emerges (vastly simplified) from both articles is this: the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 had little to do with Libya. Instead it was a direct reprisal by Iran (using a Palestinian splinter cell) for the US destruction of an Iran Air flight in July 1988. A captain called Will Rogers III fired missiles at the Iranian Airbus from the aircraft carrier USS Vincennes (protecting oil tankers) after his "state of the art" radar system told him he was being attacked by a military jet. Rather than admitting a mistake, the Reagan government actually decorated Rogers.

Much later, compensation was paid for the 290 people, many of them children or pilgrims on their way to Mecca, who were killed. Ayatollah Khomeini vowed that "the skies would rain blood" in revenge for the Iranian Airbus incident, and that duly happened when the Pan-Am 747 plunged to the ground in Scotland. So why was a Libyan later charged? Both articles put it down to realpolitik. Following the first Gulf War, the West realigned: "if Iraq had to be confronted, then Iran had to be treated differently and the Syrian regime needed to be brought on board", writes Pierce. A case which had seemed to point to Iranian guilt was made -- thanks to suddenly-discovered new evidence delivered by dubious "experts" -- to point to Libyans, and eventually the bombing was pinned on Al Megrahi.

A whole series of charades follows. There's the pretense that Scottish police were assembling the evidence for the prosecution, when in fact the CIA were. There's the pretense that Libya downed the Pan-Am flight, when in fact Iran did. There's the pretense that there's no connection between the Iran airbus and the Pan-Am 747. There's Gordon Brown's pretense of outrage at the compassionate release of Al Megrahi, and the pretense of Al Megrahi's doctors that he has only three months to live (I suspect he'll live well past Christmas). And there's the pretense that no deal was done over oil, or over the dropping of Al Megrahi's appeal, an appeal that, by revealing some of the other pretenses involved in this case, was likely to embarrass the Scottish government and undermine the credibility of its legal system (because so much of this prosecution was orchestrated by the intelligence services of the UK and US).

So where's the dispute in that one? What's so worrying is that there isn't one: the LRB and the NYRB are in accord. There wasn't even a properly-conducted dispute in court. The dispute is between "what everyone knows" and the official version of events. And it's one which needs to be voiced beyond specialist book review papers, because it's a lack-of-dispute which undermines a great deal of the legitimacy of our legal and political systems.

Momus performs a "puppet reading" from The Book of Jokes tonight at Staalplaat Working Space at 8pm.