Sunday, 30 December 2007

It is possible to be moral without God

We should recognise and celebrate good wherever we come across it, while being ready to acknowledge and counter the darker side of human nature

Richard Harries
Sunday December 30, 2007
The Observer

Philosopher Michael Ruse has written: 'The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.' But in all the hype and embarrassment over geneticist Professor Richard Dawkins's anti-religious arguments, there is an important strand in his argument that has been overlooked: his views on morality. These are interesting and significant, and well worth weighing very seriously.

First, and most importantly, he corrects the wrong impression given by the title of his most famous book, The Selfish Gene. Many people took this to mean that he thought that human beings had no option but to act selfishly. Quite the contrary. At a personal level, Dawkins believes that whatever the evolutionary processes that have brought us where we are, we have a responsibility to act as moral agents.

He grounds this in the fact that although genes always act in such a way as to maximise their chance of replicating themselves, the organism of which they are a part may in fact act altruistically, this being the way the genes optimise their chance of surviving. He gives four examples of this, two being well-known. One is how mammals can act with great altruism on behalf of their offspring. Another is the reciprocal benefits that flowers and bees bring to each other through the process of pollination. This co-operation increases the chances of the genes of each of them surviving.

In a more speculative way, Dawkins then builds on this in suggesting that as the sex instinct is not limited to reproduction but can find a broader focus in its contribution to culture, so this capacity to think of others is no longer confined to helping kin or forms of reciprocal altruism, but can find wider expressions. From a philosophical point of view, this is important in refuting the idea that as humans we will always be driven by considerations of narrow self-interest, that morality is unnatural to our evolutionary make-up. On the contrary, Dawkins shows that it is just as built-in for mammals such as ourselves to act in the interest of others. Morality is part of our nature.

Dawkins also draws on the work of Peter Singer and Marc Hauser who presented two moral dilemmas to a wide range of people. In the first, a railway truck careering out of control down a track is about to kill five people in the way. But the onlooker has the chance of pulling a lever and diverting the truck on to a siding where there is one person standing, who will inevitably be killed. Do you pull the lever? The vast majority of people of all ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds said yes.

In the other dilemma, there is no lever or siding, but a bridge on which sits a very fat man. If this man is pushed and falls in front of the truck, it will be stopped and save five lives. The onlooker is too light to make any difference to the truck, so jumping himself would serve no good purpose. But he is strong enough to push the fat man off. Should he do it? The vast majority of people, again from every conceivable background, said no.

Peter Singer draws some conclusions from this that I do not want to do myself, but the important point is that people's moral judgments have far more in common than used to be thought. There was a time when people loved to emphasise the alleged differences between different societies and hence the relativity of all moral judgments. But it seems we all inhabit a moral realm which we can recognise as such.

This is no surprise to monotheists who believe that all of us, whatever we believe or do not believe, have been created in the image of God and this means we have an ability not only to think, but to have some insight into what is right and what is wrong. In its most philosophical form, it is a belief in natural law, and in its most advanced legal form, a belief in universal human rights.

Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov said: 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted.' Sartre agreed. Dawkins disagrees. Morality belongs to us as human beings. I agree too. I do not believe that a society without a religious basis for its morality will always collapse. But I do think that the relationship between morality and religion is more complex than either Dawkins or religious believers usually allow. Take an analogy: someone hears a great piece of music and responds to it in itself. But someone else knows that the piece is part of a symphony and can be even more appreciated when heard as part of the whole in which it has a crucial place. As human beings we can recognise and respond to particular moral insights. But a religious believer claims to understand these as part of a much larger whole in which they have a vital place: in particular, there is a fount and origin of all our moral insights which is good, perfect good, all good, our true and everlasting good. For a Christian, this is above all shown in the willingness of God to enter the flux of history, to redeem it from within.

Religious people have been at fault in the past for slagging off moralities that did not have a faith basis. Today, it is the other way round, with religion being widely criticised for stopping people acting with moral maturity. But the crisis of moral values is such that we should simply recognise and rejoice in the good wherever it is to be found, while continuing to converse about whether it has its place in a larger scheme of things.

Commenting on the view that a society without religion will collapse, Dawkins writes: 'Perhaps naively, I have inclined towards a less cynical view of human nature than Ivan Karamazov. Do we really need policing - whether by God or each other - in order to stop us from behaving in a selfish and criminal manner? I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance - and nor, dear reader, do you.'

But this overlooks a number of points. First, many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has been essentially built up by our Christian heritage as Charles Taylor has recently brought out in his magisterial study, A Secular Age. How far are we living on moral capital?

Then, although I believe there is a shard of goodness in every human person, there is a dark side to our nature that it is sentimental to ignore, one which is still wreaking such terrible havoc. As WH Auden put it: 'We have to love our crooked neighbour with our crooked heart.' This points to the need for both self-knowledge and grace. At the beginning of this new year, with the world so stricken with growing inequality, corruption, decadence and conflict, each of us, believer and unbeliever alike, need all the help we can get.

· Richard Harries (Lord Harries of Pentregarth) was Bishop of Oxford. His book, The Re-enchantment of Morality: Wisdom for a Troubled World, is published by SPCK next month

Saturday, 29 December 2007

'You Can Name Musharraf As My Assassin If I Am Killed': Benazir

'You Can Name Musharraf As My Assassin If I Am Killed': Benazir

Her exchange of e-mails with a confidant shows Benazir was on the verge of exposing an ISI operation to rig the January 8 election


On November 13, 2007, I had a one-to-one meeting with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the Lahore residence of Senator Latif Khosa. She said she had no doubt about the people who had masterminded the attack on her on October 18, the day she had returned to Pakistan from exile. Benazir told me, "I have come to know after investigations by my own sources that the October 18 bombing was masterminded by some highly-placed officials in the Pakistani security and intelligence establishments who had hired an Al Qaeda-linked militant—Maulvi Abdul Rehman Otho alias Abdul Rehman Sindhi—to execute the attack." She said three local militants were hired to carry out the attack under the supervision of Abdul Rehman Sindhi, an Al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant from the Dadu district of Sindh.

Before Benazir arrived in Pakistan, Sindhi had been mysteriously released from prison, where he had been incarcerated for his role in the May '04 bombing of the US Cultural Centre in Karachi. She said she subsequently wrote a letter naming her would-be assassins. When I asked her who the recipient of the letter was and whether she had named Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf as well, she had smiled and said, "Mind one thing, all those in the establishment who stand to lose power and influence in the post-election set-up are after me, including the General. I can't give you further details at this stage. However, you can name Musharraf as my assassin if I am killed."

Al Zawahiri: Al Qaeda imprint is distinct, but analysts say it’s a smokescreen

Twenty-four hours after Benazir was assassinated, Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong-based web newspaper, reported that Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for her killing, further adding that the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi'ite militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, operating under Al Qaeda orders. "We terminated the most precious American asset who had vowed to defeat the mujahideen." These were the words of one Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a top Al Qaeda commander for the Afghanistan operations as well as an Al Qaeda spokesperson. "This is our first major victory against those (Benazir and Musharraf) who have been siding with infidels (the West) in the fight against Al Qaeda..." Interestingly enough, Sindhi—the person whom Benazir had named in our conversation—is an LeJ member.

But few here believe LeJ could have managed to carry out the attack without assistance from sections in the establishment. Analysts believe Al Qaeda has become a convenient smokescreen to explain motivated attacks on political rivals. The question people are asking is: What motive could the establishment have in killing Benazir?

Top political sources told Outlook that hours before Benazir was assassinated, she was on the verge of exposing an ISI operation to rig the January 8 general election. They say she had been collecting incontrovertible proof about a rigging cell allegedly established at an ISI safe house in Islamabad. The cell was tasked with changing the election results in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) on the day of the polling. Sources say a close confidant of Benazir had sent an e-mail message on December 25 to her address——informing her that Brigadier Riazullah Khan Chib was working in tandem with Intelligence Bureau director Brigadier General (retd) Ejaz Hussain Shah to manipulate election results.The PML-Q (a party of Musharraf loyalists) was in power before the National Assembly was dissolved, and was the instrument through which Musharraf had ruled Pakistan over the last five years.

The e-mail message to Benazir said the so-called Election Monitoring Cell was to ensure that ballot papers in over 100 constituencies of Punjab and Sindh were stamped in favour of the PML-Q. These ballot papers were to be stamped at the ghost polling stations established in the provincial headquarters of the ISI and the IB, and were to be counted before the presiding officers were to announce the results. "All this is being done because of the fact that Musharraf simply can't afford a hostile parliament as a result of the 2008 polls," the e-mail message said.

Benazir replied to the e-mail message from her Blackberry the same day. She wrote, "I was told that the ISI and the MI have been asked not to meddle. But I will doublecheck." On December 27 at 1.12 pm, a few hours before she was assassinated, Benazir sent a mail to the confidant asking, "I need the address of the safe house (in Islamabad) as well as the phone numbers of the concerned. Pl try and obtain ASAP. Mbb, Sent from my BlackBerry(r) wireless device."

PML-Q sponsor: Chaudhry Pervez Elahi

The confidant wrote back at 3:06, "I have re-checked the information with the same source which earlier said the ISI and the MI have been asked not to meddle. The source claims that Brigadier Riazullah Khan Chib retired from the ISI a few months ago but was re-employed, since he belongs to the arm of the artillery and considered close to Musharraf who too comes from the same wing of the army. The source says Chib's cover job is somewhere else but he is actually supervising a special election cell which is working in tandem with the chief of the Intelligence Bureau. I have further been told that Brigadiers Ejaz Shah and Riaz Chib are close friends because of their having served (in) Punjab as the provincial heads of the ISI and the Punjab regional director of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) respectively in the past. Both are considered to be loyalists of the Chaudhries..." It was the powerful Chaudhry brothers of Punjab province (Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi) who spawned the PML-Q after engineering a split in the PML (Nawaz).

The confidant's message further stated: "The rigging cell/safe house in question is located on Shahra-e-Dastoor, close to the Pakistan House Bus Stop in Sector G-5 of Islamabad. It is a double-storey building, without inscribing any address, as is the case with most of safe houses. The cell consists of some retired and serving intelligence officials, which will show its magic on the election-day. Let me further inform you that Musharraf had granted Sitara-e-Imtiaz Military to Brig (Retd) Riaz Chib on December 17, 2007, for his meritorious services in operational field. Before his retirement, Chib was in charge of the ISI-led Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) which used to deal with the internal security matters, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan."

Weeks before her return on October 18, Benazir had been accusing Ejaz Shah of plotting to kill her. She told me in our meeting that she was in London when she was told about the conspiracy to assassinate her. She then added, "Having come to know of the plot, I instantly wrote a letter to General Musharraf, naming those in the establishment possibly conspiring to kill me, seeking appropriate action. However, it did not occur to me then that I was actually committing a blunder and signing my own death warrant by not naming Musharraf himself as my possible assassin.It later dawned upon me that Musharraf could have possibly exploited the letter to his advantage and ordered my assassination." Following the October 18 attack, it was disclosed that Shah was one of the three persons whom Benazir had named in her letter to Musharraf.

However, a week before my conversation with Benazir, a high-level meeting reportedly presided over by Musharraf in Islamabad had already dismissed her accusations as "childish". Those who participated in the meeting were informed that the suicide attack on Benazir bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, arguing that she has incurred the wrath of militants because of her support for the military operation against the Red Mosque fanatics in Islamabad in July and for declaring that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question the father of the Pakistani nuclear programme Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan about his proliferation activities.

Days before her return to Pakistan, Benazir told The Guardian that she felt the real danger to her came from fundamentalist elements in the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment opposed to her return. She scoffed at the assassination threats of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, saying, "I am not worried about Baitullah Mehsud. I am worried about the threat within the present government. People like Baitullah are mere pawns."

Asked in an interview on NBC a day later whether it was not risky to name a close friend of Musharraf (Shah) as being someone who's plotting against her, Benazir said: "Well, at that time I did not know whether there would be an assassination attempt that I would survive. And I wanted to leave on record the (name of) suspects. I also didn't know that he (Shah) was a friend of General Musharraf. But I asked myself that even if I knew that he was a friend and I thought of him as a suspect, would I have not written? No, I would have written."

But this isn't to say that investigations into the assassination of Benazir will reveal the names of those who masterminded it. Like all infamous assassination cases, the mastermind will remain a shadowy figure on whose role people will only speculate about in whispers.

I Am But A Disembodied Voice, The Living Dead

  I Am But A Disembodied Voice, The Living Dead

What have I done that I can neither cross my own threshold nor enjoy human company?

TASLIMA NASREEN Where am I? I am certain no one will believe me if I say I have no answer to this apparently straightforward question, but the truth is I just do not know. And if I were to be asked how I am, I would again answer: I don't know. I am like the living dead: benumbed; robbed of the pleasure of existence and experience; unable to move beyond the claustrophobic confines of my room. Day and night, night and day. Yes, this is how I have been surviving. This nightmare did not begin when I was suddenly bundled out of Calcutta—it has been going on for a while. It is like a slow and lingering death, like sipping delicately from a cupful of slow-acting poison that is gradually killing all my faculties. This is a conspiracy to murder my essence, my being, once so courageous, so brave, so dynamic, so playful. I realise what is going on around me but am utterly helpless, despite my best efforts, to wage a battle on my own behalf. I am merely a disembodied voice. Those who once stood by me have disappeared into the darkness.
I ask myself: what heinous crime have I committed? What sort of life is this where I can neither cross my own threshold nor know the joys of human company? What crime have I committed that I have to spend my life hidden away, relegated to the shadows? For what crimes am I being punished by this society, this land? I wrote of my beliefs and my convictions. I used words, not violence, to express my ideas. I did not take recourse to pelting stones or bloodshed to make my point. Yet, I am considered a criminal. I am being persecuted because it was felt that the right of others to express their opinions was more legitimate than mine.
Does India not realise how immense the suffering must be for an individual to renounce her most deeply-held beliefs? How humiliated, frightened, and insecure I must have been to allow my words to be censored. If I had not agreed to the grotesque bowdlerisation of my writings by those who insisted on it, I would have been hounded and pursued till I dropped dead. Their politics, their faith, their barbarism, and their diabolical purposes are all intent on sucking the lifeblood out of me, because the truths I write are so difficult for them to stomach. How can I—a powerless and unprotected individual—battle brute force? But come what may, I cannot take recourse to untruth.
What have I to offer but love and compassion? In the way that they used hatred to rip out my words, I would like to use compassion and love to rip the hatred out of them. Certainly, I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that strife, hatred, cruelty and barbarism are integral elements of the human condition. This will not change; and how can an insignificant creature like me change all this? If I were to be eradicated or exterminated, it would not matter one whit to the world at large. I know all this. Yet, I had imagined Bengal would be different. I had thought the madness of her people was temporary. I had thought that the Bengal I loved so passionately would never forsake me. She did.
Exiled from Bangladesh, I wandered around the world for many years like a lost orphan. The moment I was given shelter in West Bengal, it felt as though all those years of numbing tiredness just melted away. I was able to resume a normal life in a beloved and familiar land. So long as I survive, I will carry within me the vistas of Bengal, her sunshine, her wet earth, her very essence. The same Bengal whose sanctuary I once walked many blood-soaked miles to reach has now turned its back upon me. I am a Bengali within and without; I live, breathe, and dream in Bengali. I find it hard to believe that I am no longer wanted in Bengal.
I am a guest in this land, I must be careful of what I say.I must do nothing that violates the code of hospitality. I did not come here to hurt anyone's sentiments or feelings. Wounded and hurt in my own country, I suffered slights and injuries in many lands before I reached India, where I knew I would be hurt yet again. For this is, after all, a democratic and secular land where the politics of the votebank imply that being secular is equated with being pro-Muslim fundamentalist. I do not wish to believe all this. I do not wish to hear all this. Yet, all around me I read, hear, and see evidence of this. I sometimes wish I could be like those mythical monkeys, oblivious to all the evil that is going on around me. Death who visits me in many forms now feels like a friend. I feel like talking to him, unburdening myself to him. I have no one else to speak to, no one else to whom I can unburden myself.
I have lost my beloved Bengal. No child torn from its mother's breast could have suffered as much as I did during that painful parting. Once again, I have lost the mother from whose womb I was born. The pain is no less than the day I lost my biological mother. My mother had always wanted me to return home. That was something I could not do. After settling down in Calcutta, I was able to tell my mother, who by then was a memory within me, that I had indeed returned home. How did it matter which side of an artificial divide I was on? Now, I do not have the courage to tell my mother that I have been unceremoniously expelled by those who had once given me shelter, that my life now is that of a nomad. My sensitive mother would be shattered if I were to tell her all this. Instead, I have now taken to convincing myself that I must have transgressed somewhere, committed some grievous error. Why else would I be in such a situation? Is daring to utter the truth a terrible sin in this era of falsehood and deceit? Is it because I am a woman?
I know I have not been condemned by the masses. If their opinion had been sought, I am certain the majority would have wanted me to stay on in Bengal. But when has a democracy reflected the voice of the masses? A democracy is run by those who hold the reins of power, who do exactly what they think fit. An insignificant individual, I must now live life on my own terms and write about what I believe in and hold dear. It is not my desire to harm, malign, or deceive. I do not lie. I try not to be offensive. I am but a simple writer who neither knows nor understands the dynamics of politics. The way in which I was turned into a political pawn, however, and treated at the hands of base politicians, beggars belief. For what end, you may well ask. A few measly votes. The force of fundamentalism, which I have opposed and fought for many years, has only been strengthened by my defeat.
This is my beloved India, where I have been living and writing on secular humanism, human rights and emancipation of women. This is also the land where I have had to suffer and pay the price for my most deeply held and fundamental convictions, where not a single political party of any persuasion has spoken out in my favour, where no non-governmental organisation, women's rights or human rights group has stood by me or condemned the vicious attacks launched upon me. This is an India I have never before known. Yes, it is true that individuals in a scattered, unorganised manner are fighting for my cause, and journalists, writers, and intellectuals have spoken out in my favour, even if they have never read a word I have written. Yet, I am grateful for their opinions and support.
Wherever individuals gather in groups, they seem to lose their power to speak out. Frankly, this facet of the new India terrifies me. Then again, is this a new India, or is it the true face of the nation? I do not know.Since my earliest childhood I have regarded India as a great land and a fearless nation. The land of my dreams: enlightened, strong, progressive, and tolerant. I want to be proud of that India. I will die a happy person the day I know India has forsaken darkness for light, bigotry for tolerance. I await that day. I do not know whether I will survive, but India and what she stands for has to survive.

Taslima Nasreen is an exiled Bangladeshi writer who was forced to leave her home in Calcutta in November, and put under police protection at an undisclosed location.

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Robert Fisk: They don't blame al-Qa'ida. They blame Musharraf

Published: 29 December 2007

Weird, isn't it, how swiftly the narrative is laid down for us. Benazir Bhutto, the courageous leader of the Pakistan People's Party, is assassinated in Rawalpindi – attached to the very capital of Islamabad wherein ex-General Pervez Musharraf lives – and we are told by George Bush that her murderers were "extremists" and "terrorists". Well, you can't dispute that.

But the implication of the Bush comment was that Islamists were behind the assassination. It was the Taliban madmen again, the al-Qa'ida spider who struck at this lone and brave woman who had dared to call for democracy in her country.

Of course, given the childish coverage of this appalling tragedy – and however corrupt Ms Bhutto may have been, let us be under no illusions that this brave lady is indeed a true martyr – it's not surprising that the "good-versus-evil" donkey can be trotted out to explain the carnage in Rawalpindi.

Who would have imagined, watching the BBC or CNN on Thursday, that her two brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz, hijacked a Pakistani airliner in 1981 and flew it to Kabul where Murtaza demanded the release of political prisoners in Pakistan. Here, a military officer on the plane was murdered. There were Americans aboard the flight – which is probably why the prisoners were indeed released.

Only a few days ago – in one of the most remarkable (but typically unrecognised) scoops of the year – Tariq Ali published a brilliant dissection of Pakistan (and Bhutto) corruption in the London Review of Books, focusing on Benazir and headlined: "Daughter of the West". In fact, the article was on my desk to photocopy as its subject was being murdered in Rawalpindi.

Towards the end of this report, Tariq Ali dwelt at length on the subsequent murder of Murtaza Bhutto by police close to his home at a time when Benazir was prime minister – and at a time when Benazir was enraged at Murtaza for demanding a return to PPP values and for condemning Benazir's appointment of her own husband as minister for industry, a highly lucrative post.

In a passage which may yet be applied to the aftermath of Benazir's murder, the report continues: "The fatal bullet had been fired at close range. The trap had been carefully laid, but, as is the way in Pakistan, the crudeness of the operation – false entries in police log-books, lost evidence, witnesses arrested and intimidated – a policeman killed who they feared might talk – made it obvious that the decision to execute the prime minister's brother had been taken at a very high level."

When Murtaza's 14-year-old daughter, Fatima, rang her aunt Benazir to ask why witnesses were being arrested – rather than her father's killers – she says Benazir told her: "Look, you're very young. You don't understand things." Or so Tariq Ali's exposé would have us believe. Over all this, however, looms the shocking power of Pakistan's ISI, the Inter Services Intelligence.

This vast institution – corrupt, venal and brutal – works for Musharraf.

But it also worked – and still works – for the Taliban. It also works for the Americans. In fact, it works for everybody. But it is the key which Musharraf can use to open talks with America's enemies when he feels threatened or wants to put pressure on Afghanistan or wants to appease the " extremists" and "terrorists" who so oppress George Bush. And let us remember, by the way, that Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by his Islamist captors in Karachi, actually made his fatal appointment with his future murderers from an ISI commander's office. Ahmed Rashid's book Taliban provides riveting proof of the ISI's web of corruption and violence. Read it, and all of the above makes more sense.

But back to the official narrative. George Bush announced on Thursday he was "looking forward" to talking to his old friend Musharraf. Of course, they would talk about Benazir. They certainly would not talk about the fact that Musharraf continues to protect his old acquaintance – a certain Mr Khan – who supplied all Pakistan's nuclear secrets to Libya and Iran. No, let's not bring that bit of the "axis of evil" into this.

So, of course, we were asked to concentrate once more on all those " extremists" and "terrorists", not on the logic of questioning which many Pakistanis were feeling their way through in the aftermath of Benazir's assassination.

It doesn't, after all, take much to comprehend that the hated elections looming over Musharraf would probably be postponed indefinitely if his principal political opponent happened to be liquidated before polling day.

So let's run through this logic in the way that Inspector Ian Blair might have done in his policeman's notebook before he became the top cop in London.

Question: Who forced Benazir Bhutto to stay in London and tried to prevent her return to Pakistan? Answer: General Musharraf.

Question: Who ordered the arrest of thousands of Benazir's supporters this month? Answer: General Musharraf.

Question: Who placed Benazir under temporary house arrest this month? Answer: General Musharraf.

Question: Who declared martial law this month? Answer General Musharraf.

Question: who killed Benazir Bhutto?

Er. Yes. Well quite.

You see the problem? Yesterday, our television warriors informed us the PPP members shouting that Musharraf was a "murderer" were complaining he had not provided sufficient security for Benazir. Wrong. They were shouting this because they believe he killed her.

Friday, 28 December 2007

A tragedy born of military despotism and anarchy

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto heaps despair upon Pakistan. Now her party must be democratically rebuilt

Tariq Ali
Friday December 28, 2007
The Guardian

Even those of us sharply critical of Benazir Bhutto's behaviour and policies - both while she was in office and more recently - are stunned and angered by her death. Indignation and fear stalk the country once again.

An odd coexistence of military despotism and anarchy created the conditions leading to her assassination in Rawalpindi yesterday. In the past, military rule was designed to preserve order - and did so for a few years. No longer. Today it creates disorder and promotes lawlessness. How else can one explain the sacking of the chief justice and eight other judges of the country's supreme court for attempting to hold the government's intelligence agencies and the police accountable to courts of law? Their replacements lack the backbone to do anything, let alone conduct a proper inquest into the misdeeds of the agencies to uncover the truth behind the carefully organised killing of a major political leader.

How can Pakistan today be anything but a conflagration of despair? It is assumed that the killers were jihadi fanatics. This may well be true, but were they acting on their own?

Benazir, according to those close to her, had been tempted to boycott the fake elections, but she lacked the political courage to defy Washington. She had plenty of physical courage, and refused to be cowed by threats from local opponents. She had been addressing an election rally in Liaquat Bagh. This is a popular space named after the country's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was killed by an assassin in 1953. The killer, Said Akbar, was immediately shot dead on the orders of a police officer involved in the plot. Not far from here, there once stood a colonial structure where nationalists were imprisoned. This was Rawalpindi jail. It was here that Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged in April 1979. The military tyrant responsible for his judicial murder made sure the site of the tragedy was destroyed as well.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's death poisoned relations between his Pakistan People's party and the army. Party activists, particularly in the province of Sind, were brutally tortured, humiliated and, sometimes, disappeared or killed.

Pakistan's turbulent history, a result of continuous military rule and unpopular global alliances, confronts the ruling elite now with serious choices. They appear to have no positive aims. The overwhelming majority of the country disapproves of the government's foreign policy. They are angered by its lack of a serious domestic policy except for further enriching a callous and greedy elite that includes a swollen, parasitic military. Now they watch helplessly as politicians are shot dead in front of them.

Benazir had survived the bomb blast yesterday but was felled by bullets fired at her car. The assassins, mindful of their failure in Karachi a month ago, had taken out a double insurance this time. They wanted her dead. It is impossible for even a rigged election to take place now. It will have to be postponed, and the military high command is no doubt contemplating another dose of army rule if the situation gets worse, which could easily happen.

What has happened is a multilayered tragedy. It's a tragedy for a country on a road to more disasters. Torrents and foaming cataracts lie ahead. And it is a personal tragedy. The house of Bhutto has lost another member. Father, two sons and now a daughter have all died unnatural deaths.

I first met Benazir at her father's house in Karachi when she was a fun-loving teenager, and later at Oxford. She was not a natural politician and had always wanted to be a diplomat, but history and personal tragedy pushed in the other direction. Her father's death transformed her. She had become a new person, determined to take on the military dictator of that time. She had moved to a tiny flat in London, where we would endlessly discuss the future of the country. She would agree that land reforms, mass education programmes, a health service and an independent foreign policy were positive constructive aims and crucial if the country was to be saved from the vultures in and out of uniform. Her constituency was the poor, and she was proud of the fact.

She changed again after becoming prime minister. In the early days, we would argue and in response to my numerous complaints - all she would say was that the world had changed. She couldn't be on the "wrong side" of history. And so, like many others, she made her peace with Washington. It was this that finally led to the deal with Musharraf and her return home after more than a decade in exile. On a number of occasions she told me that she did not fear death. It was one of the dangers of playing politics in Pakistan.

It is difficult to imagine any good coming out of this tragedy, but there is one possibility. Pakistan desperately needs a political party that can speak for the social needs of a bulk of the people. The People's party founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was built by the activists of the only popular mass movement the country has known: students, peasants and workers who fought for three months in 1968-69 to topple the country's first military dictator. They saw it as their party, and that feeling persists in some parts of the country to this day, despite everything.

Benazir's horrific death should give her colleagues pause for reflection. To be dependent on a person or a family may be necessary at certain times, but it is a structural weakness, not a strength for a political organisation. The People's party needs to be refounded as a modern and democratic organisation, open to honest debate and discussion, defending social and human rights, uniting the many disparate groups and individuals in Pakistan desperate for any halfway decent alternative, and coming forward with concrete proposals to stabilise occupied and war-torn Afghanistan. This can and should be done. The Bhutto family should not be asked for any more sacrifices.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Seduction Of Indifference, Again And Again And Again

By Gaither Stewart

20 December, 2007

(Rome) Yesterday I ran into a poem I had read as a student in Germany written by the Luthern Pastor, Martin Niemöller, who broke with the Nazis in 1933 and became a symbol of the German resistance. His words prompted me to look more closely at the complex subject of indifference he speaks of. Niemöller wrote the following at war’s end in 1945:

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

In my mind the subject of indifference is not a closed end affair. You don’t even need a password to enter this site. Most certainly I cannot relegate the matter to “oh, that, well, we’re all indifferent to many things in life.” If so it would imply “indifference to indifference,” which in my mind is located still another ring deeper in the Dantesque Inferno. In that respect; I hope that here, as Baudrillard writes, words will prove to be carriers of ideas and not the reverse.

Life Is Oh So Beautiful

Recently one-third of Italian TV viewers watched a 100-minute tour de force of a literary-political interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy delivered by comic philosopher Roberto Benigni (Remember the film, Life Is Beautiful!). At the point Benigni referred to the “indifference” of Dante’s characters in his Inferno, I ran for pen and paper.

Making notes on indifference, I have continued thinking about that grassroots activist in Asheville, North Carolina who warns that voting is just not enough to change things. As a growing number of others like her, she feels frustrated because of the widespread indifference to Power’s deviations. I have in mind the polls showing that over half of Americans oppose the war in Iraq, oppose how it is conducted and its costs to America, and some are even horrified by the slaughter of Iraqi people.

The other side of the coin is that, amazingly, nearly half the public either favors the war against Iraq or they just don’t care one way or the other. Those many millions of people display an inexplicable indifference to the reality of the suffering, indifference to war’s uselessness and to its criminal-terroristic nature.

Some writers have long dealt with that one aspect of indifference, the indifference that the strong feel toward the weak. In the end most concord that such indifference is frivolity and knavery and cowardice.

Categories of Indifference

It’s true that there are many kinds of indifference and many things to which we can be indifferent. Animals can be loving and attentive one moment and totally indifferent the next. Just watch a cat, after a few caresses it marches away triumphantly. Nature in general is indifferent. Medieval Europe was incredibly indifferent to the great Alpine chain—the magnificent geographical mountain divide of the continent. Especially the Papal State was indifferent to nature in general and to its former territories around Rome in particular.

Researching the word indifference I re-encountered Albert Camus’ notation of the universe’s “benign indifference” toward creation. Also my former professor Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz was fascinated by “the contradiction between man’s longing for good and the cold universe absolutely indifferent to any values. “If we put aside our humanity,” Milosz writes, “we realize that the world is neither good nor bad—it just is.”

The spark of human life in us differentiates us from nature, which, though neither good nor evil, doesn’t always seem neutral. But in human beings the battle between good and evil is eternal. From that point of view humanity is also in battle with nature, against its apparent meaninglessness. We humans instead search for meaning.

Therefore man is an alien creature in the universe because he cannot be genuinely indifferent to what is good and what is bad.

In that sense, the indifference of reasonable people to war seems inconceivable. In the same western generation that was obsessed enough with the Vietnam War to help bring it to an end, the indifference to the Middle East wars today seems impossible.

Back To Earth

This year Italy is marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alberto Moravia, a major novelist of the 20th century. Born to a family of the Rome bourgeoisie in 1907, Moravia published his most famous novel, The Age of Indifference, at age 22. That story shows the apathy of Rome bourgeois society during the same time that Fascism was taking root in the nation.

“All these people,” Moravia’s protagonist, Michele, thinks, “have something to live for, whereas I have nothing. If I don’t walk, I sit; it makes no difference.” Michele knows he should act but never succeeds in shaking off his inertia. All actions and situations are alike for him. He is indifferent to emerging Fascism as were the masses of Germans during the rise of Nazism.

Here one might shrug and say indifference today is so general that it is not worth reflection. What difference does it make? Nonetheless here are some examples.

Indifference means “no difference.” On a basic human level, the indifference of one person to the other in a dwindling love affair is emblematic of the terrible impact of indifference in any field at all. As French chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg sang of his love for Brigit Bardot: What does the weather matter, What matters the wind! Better your absence than your indifference. Or Gilbert Becaud’s words: Indifference kills with small blows.

For Indifference, as Martin Niemöller and most people of the murderous 20th century know, is the destroyer of whole societies. I have excerpted some lines from a speech on Indifference by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, delivered in the White House on April 12, 1999:

A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between … good and evil. Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue?

Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims….In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.…Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor.

What Is the Alternative?

For me the opposite of indifference is involvement. It’s the search that leads to fulfillment, the extraordinary event we wait and hope for that interrupts the everyday flow of time. It is a kind of transcendence that points toward answers to questions like, ‘What am I as an individual?’ ‘What is my life all about?’ ‘Do I count?’

The answers to such questions however are forever misty and cloudy. We are aware—just barely aware—of that something hovering in the beyond, which at some rare times, for brief moments, seems within reach. It is something like longing for an impossible Utopia that we aspire to, most certainly the conviction that we are not neutral in the world.

However, that devil and prison of Indifference—and the indifference to indifference—excludes a priori the possibility of those high moments of existence that make life worth living.

Three Steps Back

So what, all these quotes and reflections about indifference! What does it mean today? What does it mean to me personally? Am I involved and committed just because I am aware of indifference? Does it even matter?

At this point I want to retrace my steps toward the heart of the subject at hand: indifference toward evil.

Late in life, the great Argentinean writer, Jorge Borges, denied he wrote for either an elite or the masses; he wrote for a circle of friends. This claim is familiar but suspect. His thesis that “there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition” is dangerous banter. Nobel Prize winner this year, Doris Lessing, said in an interview last October that she wrote for herself, for what interested her at the time. But her case is different from that of Borges, for she always dealt in ideas—anti-war for example.

Indifference toward evil! In 2002, I “covered” the G-8 conference in Genoa, a phony show, which ended with the murder of a real little man dressed in black. An Italian, from the suburbs of this port city, he called himself an Anarchist. The Big 8 labeled him an enemy of globalization, of the free market, an enemy of progress. While representatives of the rich world were barricaded inside the safe zone and served sumptuous meals by hordes of servants, they exchanged expensive gifts that were/are slaps in the face of the poverty they had gathered to combat.

Leaders of the world’s eight richest nations nonchalantly discussed poverty in Africa, issued casual sentences about the economies they do not control, imparted lessons they themselves do not observe, and finally budgeted the indifferent sum of 1.3 billion dollars to combat epidemics in Africa, a few pennies for each African dying of AIDS, a sum reportedly equal to one-eighth of the annual cost of only the tests for the US space shield project.

As inhuman as it is, indifference to suffering is bearable as long as it is invisible. We all experience that each day watching newscasts. Indifference to war is something else; were it not for the enthusiastic way humans participate in war we could call it inhuman.

Most people know of someone whose loved one died in US foreign wars for absurd reasons. But then time passes. Wounds heal. Indifference takes over.

Ignorant and deaf indifference is bad enough. But today, in Europe and the United States where information abounds, we have to call conscious indifference to war and injustice, and also its brother “indifference to indifference,” criminal and evil.

Here is an example of active indifference: the Chávez referendum in Venezuela. A former journalist acquaintance in Rome when he was the correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, today an editor and columnist of the New York Times, in his articles about Chávez on the eve of the referendum, was remarkably indifferent to what is really happening in Venezuela. A talented but overly ambitious journalist, he, like the newspaper he works for, is aware of but indifferent to the reasons that Venezuela and most of Latin America are striving for independence from the USA, whether its struggle is called “Socialism of the 21st Century” as in Venezuela, or “Agrarian Revolution” as in Bolivia.

Indifference! It doesn’t matter! Indifference appears in all places and at all times about every subject that has no direct, personal bearing on one’s own little life.

Indifference about global warming.
Indifference about national health care.
Indifference about poverty and the abyss between rich and poor.
Indifference to the value of labor and the working man.
Indifference about a society based on euphemisms and slogans.
Indifference about public corruption and crime.
Indifference about violence against women.
Indifference about arms controls.
Indifference about the government defrauding its citizens.
Indifference about the indifference granting the government license to defraud citizens.
Indifference about capital punishment.
Indifference about bombing civilians from the stratosphere.
Indifference about facts.
Indifference about a free press.
Indifference about indifference.

I made this list, sat back and examined it again and again, added one more indifference, deleted another, and turned a few words until I came to realize I had omitted the principle indifference: the indifference to evil itself that creates the things about which we are indifferent.

This rings complex but in fact it is not.

And I realized too that indifference is in fact often active indifference. It encourages indifference in others.

In a speech in 1908 Eugene Debs, the great Socialist trade unionist-activist, said more or less what Pastor Niemöller said in his poem a half century later: the indifferent ones do not see others. Theirs is a life of emptiness, devoid of any future. Debs recalled that thousands of years ago the question was asked: ''Am I my brother's keeper?''

Our society refuses to answer that question.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

"British Citizens"?

"British Citizens"?
Posted June 16th, 2007 by Priyamvada Gopal

The kind of citizenship and Britishness that is being called for by Gordon Brown is facile and ceremonial rather than truly engaged and reflective…

“British citizens” -what a good idea! So as the Blair era recedes into the twilight of lucrative speaking fees, so, it seems, are the sanctimonious and so far, futile, tears for Africa. The Brown rhetorical drum will be beating instead for that not-so-new chestnut, ‘Britishness’. The Chancellor has long been talking, of course, about the need for a cohesive national identity and celebratory days. But as Brownism becomes official, we are hearing more now about a ‘citizenship revolution’ (a terrific idea if it were really were to happen), further tests for migrants (as of April, you have to prove knowledge of British life before you can even stay on as a resident, leave alone become a passport holder) and citizenship courses for migrants and teenagers. Jack Straw, campaign manager for the coronation of Brown as Labour leader, has been puffing away on what he calls the ‘British story’, the need for a common vision of ‘freedom and democracy’. Excellent values, both, of course, if the government could actually find a way to broaden their scope.

Excellent too is the idea of having British citizens. It would mean, of course, that all Britons would, in fact, become citizens of a democratic republic rather, agents than “Subjects” of a monarch and head of church with a Divine Right to rule. If in the process we could get to discuss a ‘common vision’ rather than having it imposed on us by the benevolent all-knowing patriarchs of New Labour, then the possibilities are endless (‘Blue skies’. I’ve been listening to Blair for too long….). As many in Britain’s former colonies were able to do as their new nations came into being after wresting freedom from their imperial rulers, Britons too could finally participate in a debate about what it means to be a nation and to participate in a national community. Precisely such a debate gave India a constitution, for instance, and whatever (the many) crises and betrayals that have followed independence, there has always been a point of reference, a constitution which enshrined civic, social and political values to which citizens and activists can appeal (and which the corrupt can honour in the breach). If the ‘citizenship revolution’ can give Britain this much, then let us rush to the barricades.

This revolution (Straw wants a Bastille Day equivalent without a Bastille day) could, in theory, open up a discussion not on what British values are (sententious rhetoric about tolerance and fair play) but on what they should be. Liberty and tolerance are apparently there already, but perhaps they need closer examination. Can we talk about social justice as a national value: a liveable, not just a minimum, wage? Affordable housing for the citizenry? Higher taxes for the really wealthy without it being perniciously and falsely termed ‘the politics of envy’, one of New Labour’s many borrowings from Toryspeak? Truth in politics? (Or would that bring too many politicians down and cause Prime Ministers to resign?). Broad internationalism (productive dialogue with and relationships with nations other than the United States)? Can we talk about ‘community’ without it being immediately collapsed into ‘faith communities’ as though religion were the only axis around which communities can arrange themselves? ‘Inclusivity’ that isn’t just about making sure there are a few women and ethnic minorities in the group photograph but also about addressing economic marginalisation? It’s not just the flag that the Right has appropriated but also the moral high ground on questions of disenfranchisement and marginalisation. Much easier to take the Union Jack back than to seriously address the gap between rich and poor Britons without scoffing at something called ‘envy’ (I think they mean what was once called ‘fairness’).

But the reason all these more substantial ideas about a common vision won’t fly is that the kind of citizenship and Britishness that is being called for is facile and ceremonial rather than truly engaged and reflective. It’s easy to say that we should reclaim the Union Jack and patriotism from the far Right but more challenging to discuss how we might rewrite and reposition what we take back from them. So much easier to call for a ‘British story’, (a fairytale? myth? legend?)as Straw does than to address a complex national British reality. What greater warning could there be then that Brown and Straw want this story and accompanying ceremonies to ‘mimic’ America and its Fourth of July celebrations. THAT story with its exclusions and glossings over (the butchery, the genocide, the landgrabbing, the plantations worked by slave labour)! Is that what we really want to imitate? Look where it has taken that country (and Britain, in the bargain).

And if we really are talking about an inclusive and cohesive national community, then why are all the models and ‘equivalents’ drawn from Europe or America? This ia country with citizens descended from Asian, Africans and Caribbean nations. What about those stories and traditions—the great traditions of uprisings against slavery and struggles against imperialism? Should we not be memorialising them too and learning about traditions of democracy and debate outside Europe? For it is not only false but counter-productive to talk about ideas of liberty and participatory governance as though they were purely European ideas; it encourages false oppositions which each chauvinists on all sides can take refuge in. Until ethnic minorities, including British Muslims, can participate in a ‘story’ and history which reminds them that they too come from great traditions of debate, dissent and humane thinking, ‘Britishness’ will continue to be a narrative aimed at outsiders expected to integrate by swallowing its complacent assumptions wholesale – thereby denying their own cultural heritages of tolerance and diversity.

We DO need a debate on national community and common values. But until it is offered as a challenge (for politicians as much as the citizen-subjects) and goal to strive for rather than a given ‘story’, we will keep circling the wagons and rehearsing the same old divisive cliches. Let’s wrest Britishness and citizenship away not only from the right, but from Brownian myth-making as well. Then we’ll have something to celebrate.

We must understand why racist belief systems persist

Racial differences may be genetically few, but human beings seem designed to attach importance to them

Priyamvada Gopal: The story peddled by imperial apologists is a poisonous fairytale
Niall Ferguson
Tuesday July 11, 2006

Some things are worth debating. Are empires always and everywhere irredeemably malignant? Or might some empires have conferred benefits as well as costs? I am happy to argue about such questions, even if it can be frustratingly hard to get specialists in postcolonial studies to think intelligently about the economics of imperialism.

There is, however, no debate worth having over racism. In my new book, I argue that it was the willingness of groups of men to identify one another as aliens - as if "the Other" were actually a different species - that lay at the root of much of the 20th century's worst violence. The idea of racial difference spread round the world like a virus of the mind.

So I was appalled by a recent article on these pages that strongly implied that I condone racism. According to Priyamvada Gopal, my book is helping to bring "the racism institutionalised by empire ... back in fashion". My argument, she alleges, is "not far from the pseudo-scientific nonsense that once made it possible to punish interracial relationships". This is a gross misrepresentation.

Race mattered, and, alas, may still matter, not because there are biologically distinct races but because people believe in their existence. That belief has repeatedly served to justify acts of organised repression, ranging from discrimination to attempted annihilation. It is therefore of considerable importance to understand why racism persists as a belief system.

First the reality about race. Modern genetics has revealed that humans are remarkably alike. The evolutionist Richard Lewontin famously calculated that about 85% of genetic variation in humans occurs among individuals in an average population; only 6% occurs among races. The variants that affect skin colour, hair and facial features - the things that are perceived to differentiate races - involve an insignificant amount of the billions of nucleotides in an individual's DNA. Our underlying similarities reflect our shared origins. It is clear that, despite the obstacles of distance and mutual incomprehension, human populations have been interbreeding since the earliest times.

Why, then, have men repeatedly thought and acted as if a few superficial differences were evidence of biologically distinct races? The superficial answer is that people swallowed a lot of 19th-century pseudo science: the idea of biologically distinct races was able to reproduce itself far more successfully than the distinct races it claimed to identify.

But why was this idea so contagious, when so many other theories of heredity declined? In the 20th century, most people stopped believing that power and status should be inherited. Some doubted if even property should. Why did people persist in believing that a combination of character traits could be passed from generation to generation?

Here the work of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists - not, however, postcolonialists - offers important insights. The first is that when people were few and far between, the overriding imperatives were to hunt or gather sufficient food and to reproduce. People formed small groups because cooperation improved the individual's chances of doing both. Tribes were inevitably in competition for scarce resources. Hence, as Paul Seabright has argued, conflict could take the form of plunder - the seizure by violence of another tribe's means of subsistence - and downright murder of unrelated strangers, to get rid of sexual rivals. Man, so some neo-Darwinians argue, is programmed by genes to protect his kin and fight "the Other".

Second, there is evidence from the behaviour of humans and other species that nature does not necessarily favour breeding between genetically very different members of the same species. As Patrick Bateson and others have shown, "optimal outbreeding" is achieved with a surprisingly small degree of genealogical separation. A first cousin may actually be preferable as a mate to a wholly unrelated stranger. This makes evolutionary sense. A species of hunter-gatherers that could reproduce successfully only with genetically (and geographically) distant individuals would not have lasted long.

Third, it must be significant in its own right that separate human populations so quickly developed distinctive facial characteristics. Some evolutionary biologists argue that this was a result not just of "genetic drift" but "sexual selection". Like attracted like, and continues to; those drawn to "the Other" may be atypical in their sexual predilections.

Finally, recent research by Andreas Olsson and his collaborators has indicated that human beings seem predisposed to trust members of their own (self-identified) race more than members of other races, though how far this can be explained in evolutionary terms and how far in terms of inculcated prejudice is clearly open to question.

In short, racial differences may be genetically few, but humans seem to be designed to attach importance to them.

No one would accuse the authors I have cited of seeking to make racism fashionable. Rather, we are all concerned to understand better why the biologically nebulous concept of racial difference has proved so resilient - and dangerous - a force in modern history.

At a time when British voters are expressing unprecedented anxiety about immigration - when terrorist acts and the measures to prevent them threaten to polarise our multi-ethnic society - it is imperative that we improve our understanding of racism. The last thing we need is crass distortion of a serious historical attempt to do so.

· Niall Ferguson is the author of The War of the World and professor of history at Harvard University

©Niall Ferguson, 2006

The story peddled by imperial apologists is a poisonous fairytale

Neocon ideologues are being given free rein by the media to rewrite the history of Britain's empire and whitewash its crimes

Niall Ferguson: We must understand why racist belief systems persist
Priyamvada Gopal
Wednesday June 28, 2006

Aresurrection is haunting the British media, the bizarre apparition of "benevolent empire". It takes the form of documentaries and discussions steered towards the conclusion that colonialism was not such a bad thing after all and that something of a celebration is in order. Trouble is, to get there, some creative reworking of the facts is needed. After a recent brouhaha about Britain's imperial history on Radio 4's Start the Week - in which I took part - the presenter Andrew Marr worried that the debate had been "pretty biased" against empire: there was a lot of enthusiasm and a "warm nostalgia" for empire, he suggested in the subsequent phone-in, even in former colonies, "still something there, absolutely".

Only the desire to recover some imaginary good from the tragedy that was empire can explain the elevation of the neoconservative ideologue Niall Ferguson to chief imperial historian on the BBC and now Channel 4. His aggressive rewriting of history, driven by the messianic fantasies of the American right, is being presented as a new revelation. In fact, Ferguson's "history" is a fairytale for our times which puts the white man and his burden back at the centre of heroic action. Colonialism - a tale of slavery, plunder, war, corruption, land-grabbing, famines, exploitation, indentured labour, impoverishment, massacres, genocide and forced resettlement - is rewritten into a benign developmental mission marred by a few unfortunate accidents and excesses.

Soundbite culture thrives on these simplistic grand narratives. Half-truths and fanciful speculation, shorn of academic protocols such as footnotes, can sound donnishly authoritative. The racism institutionalised by empire also seems to be back in fashion. The book accompanying Ferguson's current Channel 4 series on 20th-century history, The War of the World, tells us that people "seem predisposed" to "trust members of their own race", "those who are drawn to 'the Other' may ... be atypical in their sexual predilections" and that "when a Chinese woman marries a European man, the chances are relatively high ... that only the first child they conceive will be viable." Not far from the pseudo-scientific nonsense that once made it possible to punish interracial relationships.

Behind such talk and the embrace of the broadcasters is the insistence that we are being offered gutsy truths that the "politically correct" establishment would love to suppress. This is the neo-conservative as spunky rebel against liberal tyranny. Yet Ferguson peddles nothing more than the most hackneyed, self-aggrandising myths of empire, canards once championed by old imperialists such as Macaulay and Mill and rehashed now by the Bush administration: western imperialism brings freedom, democracy and prosperity to primitive cultures. The myth decorates US and British foreign policy spin while trendier versions have also emerged in platforms such as the Euston Manifesto. By anointing Ferguson and his fellow imperial apologists such as Andrew Roberts as semi-official historians, the British media are colluding in a dangerous denial of the past and lending support to contemporary US imperial propaganda .

The evidence - researched by scholars such as Amartya Sen, Nicholas Dirks, Mike Davis and Mahmood Mamdani, Caroline Elkins and Walter Rodney - shows that European colonialism brought with it not good governance and freedom, but impoverishment, bloodshed, repression and misery. Joseph Conrad, no radical, described it as "a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly". Good governance? More famines were recorded in the first century of the British Raj than in the previous 2,000 years, including 17-20 million deaths from 1896 to 1900 alone. While a million Indians a year died from avoidable famines, taxation subsidising colonial wars, and relief often deliberately denied as surplus grain was shipped to England.

Tolerance? The British empire reinforced strict ethnic/religious identities and governed through these divisions. As with the partition of India when 10 million were displaced, arbitrarily drawn boundaries between "tribes" in Africa resulted in massive displacement and bloodshed. Freedom and fair play? In Kenya, a handful of white settlers appropriated 12,000 square miles and pushed 1.25 million native Kikuyus to 2,000 restricted square miles. Resistance was brutally crushed through internment in detention camps, torture and massacres. Some 50,000 Kikuyus were massacred and 300,000 interned to put down the Mau Mau rebellion by peasants who wanted to farm their own land. A thousand peaceful protesters were killed in the Amritsar massacre of 1919.

A collective failure of the imagination now makes it difficult for us to think about the globe before European and American domination. Greed and violence are hardly exclusive to one culture. But colonialism destroyed or strangled possibilities and potential for progress, such as Mughal Emperor Akbar's "sul-e-kul" or "universal good" which underpinned his governance. The scale of European imperialism inaugurated a new chapter in the history of greed which still shapes all our lives. Natural resources - cotton, sugar, teak, rubber, minerals - were plundered in gigantic quantities. The Indian textile industry was the most advanced in the world when the British arrived; within half a century it had been destroyed. The enslaved and indentured (at least 20 million Africans and 1.5 million Indians) were shipped across the globe to work on plantations, mines and railroads. The stupendous profits deriving from this enabled today's developed world to prosper.

The point isn't for Europeans to feel guilt, but a serious consideration of historical responsibility isn't the same thing as a blame game. Forgetting history is tempting but undermines a society's capacity for change.

Among the many facile assumptions encouraged by these imperial apologists is that those who criticise colonialism are absolving tyrants and bigots in Asia and Africa from responsibility for their crimes. Of course it is possible and absolutely necessary to condemn both. Indians must acknowledge their culpability for atrocities during the partition, for example. But that in no way exonerates the British Raj from its pivotal role in the tragedy that led to over a million deaths.

A wilful ignorance of other people's cultures and histories encourages the notion that freedom, democracy and tolerance are intrinsically western. As Amartya Sen has argued, the subcontinent has long been home to traditions of free-thinking and debate. Participatory governance was not Britain's gift (recall Gandhi's indigenous village republics), even if parliamentary democracy as an institutional form was adopted in some ex-colonies. Free trade is another mythical western contribution to world history. Amitav Ghosh has reconstructed the forgotten history of a vibrant trade culture between medieval India and Africa. When the Portuguese arrived, they demanded that the Hindu ruler of Calicut expel Muslims, "enemies of the Holy-Faith", from his kingdom. He refused and was subjected to two days of bombardment.

Indeed, one legacy of European colonialism that we all reckon with is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the "clash of civilisations". The claim that east and west are bound to come into conflict is merely an extension of imperial practice which found it useful to seal off porous cultures into fixed categories. This tragic "lie of the colonial situation", as Frantz Fanon called it, rebounds on us tragically in the terror unleashed in the name of Islam and Bush's "war on terror". If we are to undo the destructive legacies of empire, it won't do to invest celebratory falsifications with credibility. To make sense of a shared present and look towards a more humane future, we need to start with a little informed honesty about the past.

· Priyamvada Gopal teaches postcolonial studies at Cambridge University and is the author of Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

What The Reader Wants

If journalism is a consumption item like butter chicken, then why not give the customer the flavour and taste he wants? At least that is what advertising managers and self-styled media pundits would have us believe...


This is the full text of Outlook Editor in chief's speech on receiving the IPI Award 2007 which the magazine won for its Navy War Room leak and Scorpene stories


It is an honour and a privilege for me accept this coveted award on behalf of the Outlook Group. I would like to especially congratulate Saikat Datta, the correspondent and Ajith Pillai, his editor. Saikat pursued this story for over six months, putting it together for all of us was like a roller coaster drive.

Ladies and gentlemen, in India 2007 numerous challenges face the media. There is the reluctance of the media, especially the electronic media, to regulate itself. And simultaneously we see daily the eagerness of our political masters to impose a code on the profession which will effectively castrate it.

Then there is the strange but seemingly irresistible animal called sting journalism, which when it is good is very good, but when it is bad, shames us all.

Then there is the media’s myopia regarding how its credibility is being eroded. To the extent that journalism today is often confused with being part of the entertainment industry.

Then there is the challenge of the markets. What is the media for? Is it only for making money? Once you treat the media as if it is no different from running an ice-cream parlour, journalism loses out to commerce.

Then there is the accusation, hurled by politicians, that the media creates cynicism about politicians. Thanks to the media, our politicians maintain, the public views its leaders and the very process of governing, with suspicion and mistrust. Our netas say a pervasive climate of cynicism leads to the sense that a whole range of problems are beyond the control of mere politicians, beyond solutions altogether. This in turn breeds frustration, hopelessness and lack of faith in government. I don’t accept this highly exaggerated accusation, but I concede it is on the table. And the media needs to counter it, probably with the response that politicians by their conduct create the cynicism, we journalists merely spread it around.

And last but not least, what checks and balances should the media impose on itself in India 2007, where the intense competition, both in print and TV, is threatening professional ethics? As journalists we need to remember that a newspaper’s credibility is like the virginity of a woman. You can lose it only once.

I now come to my main concern. There is one more critical challenge, one that is rarely discussed in journalism seminars or among serious editors. But I notice advertising managers and self-styled media pundits pontificate on it endlessly -- and they have by now signed and sealed the argument. They have given us a new mantra. When these guys speak in the excellent and proliferating media and advertising journals, they assume the pose of Moses. Their words are written on tablets of stone. And what is their subject? It is the nature of editorial content in television and print. They have come to the considered conclusion that the highest responsibility of the media is to give the reader or the viewer what he or she wants. Any other kind of journalism is irrelevant, indeed an insult to the public!

I believe this is a crucial issue for the media. Alas, the wrong guys are discussing it, the wrong guys are giving us the solutions.

I say this with much humility, but brand managers, with honourable exceptions, are congenitally incapable of understanding the nature and purpose of journalism.They simply cannot understand it by virtue of their background: which is sales in order to maximise profits. They can never understand that content is more, much more, than what readers want. It also has a social dimension. Thus, content is a mix of what the reader wants and what he does not want. The trick is to marry the two and make money.

Accompanying the mantra, is much loose talk that the old journalism is dead and a new journalism has been born. This new journalism is entirely based on reader or viewer demands. So, we are told the reader is king and it is the job of a responsible media organisation to provide cent per cent satisfaction.

This proposition is now so widely accepted that to argue against it is like whistling in the dark. Those who believe otherwise are seen as cranks, out of touch with the contemporary market -- in other words the reader. If journalism is a consumption item like butter chicken, then why not give the customer the flavour and taste he wants. That, after all, is the first rule of free market capitalism.

Ladies and gentlemen, in my nearly 30 years as editor, I have heard a lot of nonsense talked about journalism and its role in India, but this piece of nonsense is outrageously and self-evidently absurd and dangerous. To demolish it is urgent. To let it become the benchmark of our profession is to put in peril everything we have worked for in 60 years.

I ask you this: If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about paedophilia, should we oblige? If some readers or viewers wish to see or read about wife-beatings, should we oblige? I could go on. The whole idea is preposterous and I dare say most editors would end up in jail if they followed the mantra.

I will just provide three examples of the confusion in readers minds regarding their expectations from the media.

One. Research shows unambiguously that most readers desire to read more international news. Yet, the international pages of a paper are the least read. International news may be good for the soul but it does nothing for circulation.

Two. Readers insist that the price of their morning paper does not matter. It is such a vital part of their life that they would happily pay the extra rupee for it. Yet, as Mr Rupert Murdoch and Mr Samir Jain have demonstrated, print publications are extremely price sensitive. You can bleed the opposition by cover price cuts. The phrase "invitation price" terrifies rival publishers.

Three. Readers will tell you that they want a single-section, compact morning paper. They don’t want sections and supplements dropping out. Yet the opposite is true. Papers with multi-sections prosper, others suffer.

I think I have made my point. We must lead readers, not be led by them. Really great journalism must do more than merely give people what they want. There has to be room for the unexpected, for stories the public has no idea it wants until it sees them.

The reader is a paradox. He frequently complains about negative news being constantly reported. But for all his clamouring for positive news, surveys show that people are more interested in negative news, sensational news, news about crime, violence and corruption. The reader, ladies and gentlemen, is not king; actually he is a nice hypocrite.

Editors in India are an endangered species, but only a good and professional editorial team can decide what is news and what is humbug. That is the sum of what I have learnt in 30 years. Thank you.

Poison Earth

  Poison Earth

Courtesy an overzealous Green Revolution, Punjab has poison in its water and a cancer epidemic on its hands

CHANDER SUTA DOGRA The Curse Is Spreading
  • The Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh has conducted a study over two years in five villages along Punjab's major rivulets in Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Amritsar districts
  • 88 per cent ground water samples showed alarming levels of mercury, over 50 per cent samples of ground and tap water contaminated by arsenic
  • Lady's fingers, carrots, gourds, cauliflower and chillies found to have toxic levels of lead, cadmium, mercury; cadmium, arsenic, mercury are known carcinogens; mercury also affects the nervous system
  • Pesticides beyond permissible limit found in vegetables, fodder, human and bovine milk, as well as blood samples
  • 65 per cent blood samples showed DNA mutation; there has been a sharp increase in cancer, neurological disorders, liver and kidney diseases, congenital defects, miscarriages
  • This health crisis has been caused by the overuse of pesticides and the dumping of industrial effluents, which have made soil and water toxic
Though it constitutes 2.5% of the country's area, Punjab accounts for 18% of pesticide used in the country


Baljeet Kaur of Giana village in Punjab's cotton belt has been battling cancer for the last 10 years. First it was her husband who died of colon cancer, now she has cancer of the oesophagus. Her neighbour Mukhtiar Kaur is being treated for breast cancer. The family had a hand pump at home which provided them water for their daily needs but abandoned it after health officials told them its water was toxic. Now they get raw canal water for drinking and cooking. "Who knows if it is the water which has brought this disease on me?" she says. "All I know is that scores of people in our village are dying of cancer." In neighbouring Jajjal, the word cancer only evokes deja vu. Karnail Singh and his wife Balbir Kaur both have cancer, live in adjoining houses, each with one of their sons. "This village is cursed," says their brother Jarnail Singh.
On death row: Jajjal's Karnail Singh and his wife both have cancer, live in adjoining houses, each with a son

In Ghaunzpur in Ludhiana district, a good 200 km away, Manjit and Gurjit Singh lost both their parents to hepatitis; an uncle is afflicted with the same. The water from the hand pump in the courtyard turns foamy when heated, so they have dug a submersible pump which pumps out water from 300 ft below. Other households in the village cannot afford to do so.

For Punjab's prosperous farming households and lush green fields, the famed Green Revolution is beginning to turn bilious from within. Its gushing tubewells, the cattle heavy with milk, the trolleys laden with vegetables destined for urban markets—all are likely to be contaminated with toxins. The state is sitting on an environmental crisis and few of have any idea of how to tackle it.

Some two years ago, when reports of increased cancer deaths first started coming in from the state's cotton belt, the Chandigarh-based Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) decided to investigate. A preliminary study it conducted found a much higher prevalence of cancer in the Talwandi Sabo block and the presence of heavy metals and pesticides in drinking water in the area. It recommended a comprehensive study of the status of environmental health in Punjab's other cotton-growing areas, the setting up of a cancer registry in the state, and regular monitoring of the drinking water. Of course, intense pressure from the pesticides lobby ensured none of this came to pass and the report was ignored.

This month, the PGIMER's department of community medicine has submitted a comprehensive epidemiological study (see box) in areas along the state's five major rivulets to the State Pollution Control Board. The results are so shocking that the board has put it under wraps and is having second thoughts about releasing it. Says Dr J.S. Thakur, an assistant professor at PGIMER, who conducted the study, "Our two studies show that all of Punjab is toxic and people do not have safe water to drink. Both agricultural and industrial malpractices are to be blamed for this."

The worst affected is the southeastern Malwa region, better known these days as the 'cancer belt'. To counter increasingly resistant pests, farmers here spray their fields with pesticide doses far above those recommended—often cocktailing two or more chemicals. As the former sarpanch of Jajjal, Najar Singh, told Outlook, "Although the recommended dose is about five sprays per season, we sometimes spray our fields 25 to 30 times. Almost every third day!" Punjab, which makes up for just 2.5 per cent of the country's area, accounts for 18 per cent of the pesticides used in the country.

The state's problem is their unregulated use, say experts, with most farmers unaware of how to use or dispose of the empty pesticide cans. So, in the last four decades pesticides have seeped into the underground water aquifers, as also in the state's water bodies. And in the last 10 years, more and more well-off households along the drains have begun setting up submersible pumps to get water from deep aquifers, as water from taps and handpumps is unfit for human use.

Punjab's finance minister Manpreet Badal is a legislator from Muktsar district's Gidderbaha, located in the cancer belt. "In the 50 villages in my constituency," he says, "there'd be a thousand-odd cancer cases. I've lost count of the funerals of cancer victims I've attended in my area since the beginning of this year. It is an epidemic here." A train leaving from Bhatinda to Bikaner has been dubbed 'cancer express' as most patients from here go to Bikaner's cancer hospital for treatment. Even a child in these parts knows what chemotherapy is about. "Our neighbour used to take hot injections before she died last year," says little Kiranjot at Chandbaja village in Faridkot district. "Many others in our village have taken them."

Giana's Baljeet Kaur has cancer of the oesophagus

Dr G.P.I. Singh, who heads the department of community medicine in Ludhiana's Dayanand Medical College, has recently begun studying, along with other private doctors across the state and NGO Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), the impact of heavy metals and pesticides on reproductive health in Punjab. "One of the things worrying us," he says, "is that the skewed sex ratio in both Punjab and Haryana could also be due to chemical exposure, as the female foetus is more vulnerable. We notice an increase in spontaneous abortions, infertility, distorted menarche and foetuses with neural tube defects." There is also a high incidence of grey hair among children and young adults in this area. Ask for one, and most villages throw up several.

Not just pesticides, but unchecked effluent flow from industries into the rivers and drains too has contaminated underground water in Punjab. At Ghaunzpur, for instance, five paper mills dump their entire effluent unchecked into the Buddha Nullah. However, the state pollution board which is supposed to check industries such as these from polluting water bodies couldn't be bothered. This is evident from the response of the board's chairman, Yogesh Goel, when queried about the PGIMER report."I'm busy right now. You can ask the secretary of the board about it," he told Outlook. Quite predictably, the secretary too made himself unavailable. KVM director Umendra Dutt, who has been most active in raising the issue of cancer deaths in Punjab, feels that agricultural scientists in cahoots with pesticide manufacturing mncs have led to this health crisis. "All these years agricultural scientists have been advocating heavy doses of pesticides without informing farmers of the damage improper usage causes," he says.

Meanwhile, though officials are aware of the problem, the state is yet to evolve a concrete water policy to address the problem. Says J.R. Kundal, Punjab's secretary for water supply and sanitation, "Ideally, there should be an umbrella task force to deal with the problem in its entirety," he says. "Presently, different agencies are conducting overlapping studies which will take us nowhere. I am heading a task force to study arsenic in water, while the state planning board is looking into drinking water and allied issues. Although 90 per cent of the underground water is used for irrigation and just 10 per cent for drinking water, we realise that this 10 per cent is crucial for the health of our people."

With the government unsure of what to do, Manpreet Badal has installed four distribution points supplying Reverse Osmosis water in his constituency. "Till a statewide water supply scheme comes up," says he, "I've taken this interim measure." His people are lucky. Others in the state are condemned to drinking polluted water and suffer from deadly diseases, reaping the poisoned fruit of a Green Revolution gone unchecked.

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In Praise Of The Native Intellectual

Or how to rubbish all those who don't agree with you, get up your nose, yank your goat, or articulate critique and are likely, in any way, to challenge your undisputed supremacy as Pundit of the Postcolonial Nation. A response to Ramachandra Guha


A 'native intellectual', suggested Frantz Fanon, the great freedom fighter from Martinique, is essential to the development of any great nation as it comes into its own after decades of colonization. Fanon, a complex thinker by nature, evolved a whole theory of how intellectuals could and should participate in the life of their country. They had to find ways to engage with ordinary people and their aspirations and to think about the many meanings of freedom, justice and democracy beyond simply replacing white rulers with black or brown ones. Native intellectuals would need, above all, to discard their smug complacency, learn to be self-critical and forge international alliances with like-minded others. (Though from Martinique, he himself worked alongside the Algerian anti-colonial movement).

But these old freedom fighter types, our own Gandhi and Tagore included, really were rather long-winded and needlessly sophisticated. Who can blame them? They missed the cyber age where we do things faster and with a lot less agonizing over details and nuance. Here, in India, we can now produce the New and Authentic National Intellectual (NANI) in double-quick time, futta-fut. Here's how you can become one in Ten Easy Steps:

1. First, position yourself at all times as the Real Indian, the one who stayed behind selflessly to serve nation and countrymen while others have departed for foreign shores. You have remained (or returned) to live the simple life in your old family pile in Alipore or Prithviraj Road or Benson Town.

2. Locate a handy counterfoil, a Ravan to your Ram. These are easy enough to find. Rummage through the heaving NRI hordes coming back to (your) home this December. A couple of likely prototypes immediately present themselves. In practice, they may be polar opposites and sworn enemies, but that should not deter you from handily clubbing them together. So, take a rabid Hindu chauvinist and a secular academic-activist and pop-psychoanalyse both as alienated losers who have lost their way by living away from the motherland. The fact that their politics and views may have been formed during their long years growing up or studying in India is neither here nor there. Where the academic is concerned, long years of published research into Indian history, culture or economics is also irrelevant.

3. This will also enable you to place yourself as the Eminently Reasonable man in the middle between two Extremes. The truth, of course, is geographically certified, to lie 'in-between.' Anyone who thinks that this position (like Tony Blair's Third Way) is somewhat facile and easily arrived at is an extremist to begin with anyway.

4. A NANI, while selfless, also needs to eat. Fear not, you do not actually need to lecture at an Indian college or work for the Indian civil services to earn your daily bread. That would needlessly fetter your creativity. Write popular books which will be widely sold in the free and individual West where they love their 'native' writers anyway. (If one of these books can praise NRFs or Non-Resident Firangs who devote their lives to India and her 'tribes,' so much the better). The royalties will keep you in Fab India silk kurtas for the rest of your life. Please note that this is different from and vastly morally superior to actually living in one of these grey northern lands and getting your grubby monthly paycheck (from which income tax is actually deducted) there.

5. If you need to do research for your books in well-resourced libraries, you can easily get lucrative visiting fellowships or short-term teaching contracts at Cambridge or Harvard or Yale. (After all, you cannot really be expected to produce your words of wisdom sitting at the decaying National Library or even swish Teen Murti alone).This way, you can retain the glow of rectitude that being a Resident Indian gives you. Jet-setting and networking with the Global Great and the Good is, in any case, a form of national service.

6. Relatedly, don't worry too much if you yourself have undertaken your undergraduate or graduate study at one of these prestigious foreign institutions or even if you have taught there for a while. But please, do take due care to underplay this where you can or it may seriously affect your ability to be perceived as a real NANI. You need to be able to roundly denounce the Indian academics who live and teach abroad without any hint of compromise on your end. You, after all, are sweating it out on the coalface at the IIC or Habitat Centre while they are swanning around in New Haven or Warwick. These suckers actually teach for a living.

7. Now, while you dutifully condemn religious chauvinists (as all refined people must, dear boy) you must not lose sight of your real bete noire. This is what you term the 'Non-Resident Political Radical' (NRPR) -- professionals and academics based abroad (there being, of course, no political radicals or 'desi leftists' in India itself). This type of academic don is the real threat to national well-being and security. In terms of the calendar year, they may spend just as much time in India as you do abroad, but they must be reminded at every possible turn that they, unlike you, are Inauthentic and Deluded. So write vitriolic denunciations of Indian academics abroad at every available opportunity, including in academic books published abroad. Remember, you cannot do this too often.

8. Remind everyone that you yourself have your fingers on the Pulse of the Masses. (If challenged, point out that you have servants which even the most well-paid of these NRI types don't, certainly not the dons). The Masses, you can assure us unequivocally (because, after all, you talk to your bai, driver and mali) are unanimously in favour of every unfettered aspect of globalization. Oh, yes, even when it means loss of land or livelihood, polluted water supplies or ill-treatment in a Gap supply-chain sweatshop. Small price to pay for India Shining after all. And remember, Non-Resident Capital is far superior to Non-Resident Indians unless the latter happen to be providing the former. These useless NR-academics don't have two pennies to invest into a Bangalore start-up anyway.

9. If Indian academics who happen to be based abroad raise questions about the possible downsides of unchecked globalization, you can toss them into the dustbin of history in one fell swoop. Again, conflating different historical and political contexts is a handy tool--Cuba, China, Burma, Kazakhstan, the Congo--all are socialist 'autarkic autocracies' which these deluded dons want to transform our beloved nation into. (You can take the opportunity to reveal the hitherto little-known fact that Burmese generals are apparently seeking to convert their country into a socialist utopia, along with the big oil companies who are, of course, well-known supporters of socialism). Like McCarthy did for the United States, simply imply that all dissent is part of a vast anti-Indian left-wing conspiracy. If the (non-existent) desi leftist writer or intellectual based in India happens to also dare to voice critique, write a vicious denunciatory screed and dispatch them into obscurity forthwith.

10. Finally, and this is important so that you too not become alienated like them, end your perorations on a constructive note. This can be done with a soothing paean to all 'humans' to which category the 'right sort' of NRI are deemed to belong.Humans are people who agree with you. They don't get up your nose, yank your goat, or articulate critique. Above all, they are unlikely, in any way, to challenge your undisputed supremacy as Pundit of the Postcolonial Nation.

Priyamvada 'Main Hoon Don' Gopal is a suspected NRPR who has just tumbled off the plane from Cambridge/London at Bangalore Airport

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Left for dead by New Labour, liberal Britain must urgently fight back

Blair and his cult have wrecked the very beliefs millions thought they were voting for. The time for direct action is now

John Pilger
Tuesday December 18, 2007
The Guardian

The former Murdoch retainer Andrew Neil has described James Murdoch, the heir apparent, as a "social liberal". What strikes me is his casual use of "liberal" for the new ruler of an empire devoted to the promotion of war, conquest and human division. Neil's view is not unusual. In the murdochracy that Britain has largely become, once noble terms such as democracy, reform, even freedom itself, have long been emptied of their meaning. In the years leading to Tony Blair's election, liberal commentators vied in their Tonier-than-thou obeisance to such a paragon of "reborn liberalism". In these pages in 1995, Henry Porter celebrated an almost mystical politician who "presents himself as a harmoniser for all the opposing interests in British life, a conciliator of class differences and tribal antipathies, a synthesiser of opposing beliefs". Blair was, of course, the diametric opposite.

As events have demonstrated, Blair and the cult of New Labour have destroyed the very liberalism millions of Britons thought they were voting for. This truth is like a taboo and was missing almost entirely from last week's Guardian debate about civil liberties. Gone is the bourgeoisie that in good times would extend a few rungs of the ladder to those below. From Blair's pseudo-moralising assault on single parents a decade ago to Peter Hain's recent attacks on the disabled, the "project" has completed the work of Thatcher and all but abolished the premises of tolerance and decency, however amorphous, on which much of British public life was based. The trade-off has been mostly superficial "social liberalism" and the highest personal indebtedness on earth. In 2007, reported the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the United Kingdom faced the highest levels of inequality for 40 years, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer and more and more segregated from society. The International Monetary Fund has designated Britain a tax haven, and corruption and fraud in British business are almost twice the global average, while Unicef reports that British children are the most neglected and unhappiest in the "rich" world.

Abroad, behind a facade of liberal concern for the world's "disadvantaged", such as waffle about millennium goals and anti-poverty stunts with the likes of Google and Vodafone, the Brown government, together with its EU partners, is demanding vicious and punitive free-trade agreements that will devastate the economies of scores of impoverished African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. In Iraq, the blood-letting of a "liberal intervention" may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, while the British occupiers have made no real attempt to help the victims of their lawlessness. And putting out more flags will not cover the shame. "The mortality of children in Basra has increased by nearly 30% compared to the Saddam Hussein era," says Dr Haydar Salah, a paediatrician at Basra children's hospital. In January nearly 100 leading British doctors wrote to Hilary Benn, then international development secretary, describing how children were dying because Britain had not fulfilled its obligations under UN security resolution 1483. He refused to see them.

Even if a contortion of intellect and morality allows the interventionists to justify these actions, the same cannot be said for liberties eroded at home. These are too much part of the myth that individual freedom was handed down by eminent liberal gentlemen instead of being fought for at the bottom. Yet rights of habeas corpus, of free speech and assembly, and dissent and tolerance, are slipping away, undefended. Whole British communities now live in fear of the police. The British are distinguished as one of the most spied upon people in the world. A grey surveillance van with satellite tracking sits outside my local Sainsbury's. On the pop radio station Kiss 100, the security service MI5 advertises for ordinary people to spy on each other. These are normal now, along with the tracking of our intimate lives and a system of secretive justice that imposes 18-hour curfews on people who have not been charged with any crime and are denied the "evidence". Hundreds of terrified Iraqi refugees are sent back to the infinite dangers of the country "we" have destroyed. Meanwhile, the cause of any real civil threat to Britons has been identified and confirmed repeatedly by the intelligence services. It is "our" continuing military presence in other people's countries and collusion with a Washington cabal described by the late Norman Mailer as "pre-fascist". When famous liberal columnists wring their hands about the domestic consequences, let them look to their own early support for such epic faraway crimes.

In broadcasting, a prime source of liberalism and most of our information, the unthinkable has been normalised. The murderous chaos in Iraq is merely internecine. Indeed, Bush's "surge" is "working". The holocaust there has nothing to do with "us". There are honourable exceptions, of course, as there are in those great liberal storehouses of knowledge, Britain's universities; but they, too, are normalised and left to natter about "failed states" and "crisis management" - when the cause of the crisis is on their doorstep. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, for the first time in two centuries almost no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist is prepared to question the foundations of western actions, let alone interrupt, as DJ Taylor once put it, all those "demure ironies and mannered perceptions, their focus on the gyrations of a bunch of emotional poseurs ... to the reader infinitely reassuring ... and infinitely useless". Harold Pinter and Ronan Bennett are exceptions.

Britain is now a centralised single-ideology state, as secure in the grip of a superpower as any former eastern bloc country. The Whitehall executive has prerogative powers as effective as politburo decrees. Unlike Venezuela, critical issues such as the EU constitution or treaty are denied a referendum, regardless of Blair's "solemn pledge". Thanks largely to a parliament in which a majority of the members cannot bring themselves to denounce the crime in Iraq or even vote for an inquiry, New Labour has added to the statutes a record 3,000 criminal offences: an apparatus of control that undermines the Human Rights Act. In 1977, at the height of the cold war, I interviewed the Charter 77 dissidents in Czechoslovakia. They warned that complacency and silence could destroy liberty and democracy as effectively as tanks. "We're actually better off than you in the west," said a writer, measuring his irony. "Unlike you, we have no illusions."

For those people who still celebrate the virtues and triumphs of liberalism - anti-slavery, women's suffrage, the defence of individual conscience and the right to express it and act upon it - the time for direct action is now. It is time to support those of courage who defy rotten laws to read out in Parliament Square the names of the current, mounting, war dead, and those who identify their government's complicity in "rendition" and its torture, and those who have followed the paper and blood trail of Britain's piratical arms companies. It is time to support the NHS workers who up and down the country are trying to alert us to the destruction of a Labour government's greatest achievement. The list of people stirring is reassuring. The awakening of the rest of us is urgent.