Weep for Egypt

 

The government has censored hundreds of websites and drafted a law regulating internet activities which, among other things, would make the ‘illegitimate trading of ideas’ online a crime punishable by up to 15 years behind bars.’

 

This quote is from the latest issue of The London Review of Books, and refers to the country that had a joyous revolution in 2011. People welcomed a freedom from dictatorship, meaning they would be free to express themselves without fear of torture or death. Mubarak had been in power for 30 years, and despite some early good works, became increasingly corrupt: a stolen election in 2005 and a net worth of 70 billion (gained through bribes and venality) contributing to his downfall.

 

I noticed at the time that the response from the USA was luke warm. Why weren’t Obama and colleagues not delighted at the freedoms gained by the people of Egypt? The people were deliriously happy with what were small gains by our standards. Who could argue with that? Well, the USA, Britain and France, to name a few. I am amazed now at my naivety in 2011, the hope I felt at the time, entirely misplaced. Obama’s secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, effused in 2009:

 

‘I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family.’

 

Does that give you a clue as to why the USA was not celebrating? ‘…friends of my family’ –  partners in stealing money at the expense of the people, at the expense of torture, death and corruption. You can add Cameron, Trump, May, Macron and many more to that roll of dishonour. But worse than them we have the new rulers of Egypt and their many helpers.

 

‘They are changing the books of schoolchildren, and rewriting history.’

 

says Basma Abdel Aziz, a novelist and dissident, who writes on the difference between official state rhetoric and the stubborn inconvenience of reality, the truth.

 

The families of protesters killed by live ammunition are told they must accept certificates giving ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause of death before their bodies can be released from Cairo’s Zeinhom morgue.

 

Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a , young mother and poet, was gunned down by police in 2014, the third anniversary of the revolution; she had been walking unarmed clutching a bouquet of flowers, which she had intended to lay in Tahrir Square. The government initially offered no explanation, then suggested that ‘Islamist infiltrators’ were responsible before finally arguing that her murder was really her own fault. ‘According to science she should not have died’, the forensic authority declared:

 

‘She did not have any percentage of fat. So the small pellets penetrated very easily, and four of five pellets that penetrated her body were able to penetrate her heart and lungs, and these are the ones that caused her death.’

 

In February 2016 a 24 year old taxi driver was shot dead. The official report into the incident declared that:

 

‘The police officer’s bullet mistakenly came out of the gun.’

 

There were almost 1000 forced disappearances in 2016, as well as more than 500 cases of individual torture, more than 300 cases of collective torture, and more then 100 deaths in detention.

 

‘We do not have forced disappearances and we do not have torture,’ the interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, has asserted, ‘Exaggerating individual excesses is the aim of our enemies.’

 

Basma Abdel Aziz has written a novel, The Queue, where, in Egypt, reality itself has become subjective and legitimate criticism is blurred with doubt, where foreign powers incite public opinion to distort the image of the regime. Inhabitants queue at the gate, in a line of residents needing permits or other paperwork from the state. The queue stretches for miles. The gate never opens.

 

Egypt was a key partner in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme during the Bush War on Terror. Egypt’s security apparatus is seen as an asset by its allies, not an aberration, hence the USA not being overjoyed by the revolution.

 

‘If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them tortured you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.’

 

In the past two years Egypt has signed new arms deals with the USA and France, while Donald Trump has called his Egyptian counterpart, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, ‘a fantastic guy’. In 2015 David Cameron rolled out the red carpet for Sisi at Downing Street; Theresa May has promised ‘a new chapter in relations between the UK and Egypt.’ The IMF is back to peddling unrealities of its own. The 2011 revolution came as a result of the miseries and corruption created by Egypt’s neoliberal reforms, which the IMF described as ‘prudent and bold’. The latest vicious reforms and austerity are dependent on a new 12 billion loan from the IMF, who describe Egypt as ‘an example of positive transformation’ albeit a transformation that requires sacrifices in the short-term’ for its citizens.

 

In early 2016 the corpse of Giulio Regini, an Italian PHD candidate studying at Cambridge was found abandoned by the roadside. His neck had been broken and his body subjected to ‘animal-like’ violence consistent with torture by the Egyptian security services. The government responded with obfuscation and lies. Under domestic pressure (the public) Italy withdrew its ambassador, but since then a partnership has begun between Italian energy giant Eni and Egypt, and diplomatic relations have been restored.

 

A young man was stopped at a checkpoint for wearing a T-shirt declaring ‘Nation without Torture’. He was incarcerated and tortured for two years. His brother visited him in jail with a few books. The Queue was not allowed through. The officer explained that it was because the book appeared to ‘contain ideas’. Sisi’s regime has done its best to educate its citizens about the impossibility of changing their own reality. Last year armed police walked into a hospital and demanded that doctors falsify the medical reports of detainees that had been subjected to torture.

 

Sisi has spoken about the need to reform Egypt’s education system:

 

 

‘1 + 1 = 2…I don’t want that,’ he declared. ‘I want 1 + 1 = 3, or 5, or 7, or 9.’

 

The comment was intended as a critique of Egypt’s traditional teaching technique of learning by rote, but it could just as easily be describing his regimes worldview, or more accurately the reality it depends on for survival.

 

Aziz’s book, The Queue, reminds me of a quote by Karl Rove, a George Bush aid, that I never tire of repeating:

 

‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

 

At the time I thought that the quote and Karl Rove were signs of minority madness, but now, I’m afraid, I see it as typical of the new breed of politician, and of less clever members of the public. There are many of them. Graham Greene’s comment of many years back now seems typical of most politicians and great swathes of the general public:

 

In any government there grows a hideous establishment of stupid men.

 

I think it’s a little worse than that now.

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Equivocation

“These doubtful speeches were used much in the old times by their false prophets, as appeareth by the oracles of Delphos and of the Sybil’s prophecies devised by the religious persons of those days to abuse the superstitious people, and to encumber their busy brains with vain hope or vain fear.”

The Art of English Poesy   

George Puttenham (16th century).

Equivocation: The art of saying one thing but meaning another.

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George Puttenham was writing about equivocation, an art he considered historical. He also considered it dangerous and wicked, a way of telling lies (sinful) while appearing not to. Shakespeare used much equivocation in his plays, although the word hardly existed then. Shakespeare portrayed equivocation as entertainment, as a way of providing information about the world and its people; while no angel Shakespeare was certainly not wicked. At that time equivocation had fiercely anti-Catholic connotations; the authorities were worried about the way Catholics used equivocation to deny their beliefs or that they were hiding priests. You could tell the authorities, for example, that you were taking dinner at a friend’s house while not mentioning that you were attending a Catholic mass. You were not lying but you were concealing the truth.

Equivocation was a rare and scholarly term, appearing in only a few books in the sixteenth century, mostly religious works and never in a play, poem or story. Because Shakespeare was such a gifted writer, wonderful words seemingly just flowing from him without thought, equivocation came naturally to him and his characters. All actors equivocate; it is entertaining, it is human, it can be clever, it can be wicked. We would be bored into slumber if all actors spoke honestly and always spoke the truth. The first time that Shakespeare used the actual word (although he many times used the deed) was in Hamlet, at the turn of the century, during the grave scene with Yoric’s skull. In answer to the Gravedigger’s clever but maddening replies, Hamlet tells Horatio:

How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.

Hamlet means that they must speak literally or the Gravedigger will continue with his evasive replies. Shakespeare is being humorous here; later he would use the word in a more sinister fashion. Most people thought that equivocation meant ambiguous; as late as 1605 Francis Bacon defined it as such in his Advancement of Learning. But by 1606, familiarity with the word was almost universal. It was no longer a neutral word, it was now commonly thought to mean concealing the truth by saying one thing while deceptively thinking another. Shakespeare used equivocation as an action and a word to great effect in Macbeth, of the same year.

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Although the Earl of Salisbury wrote of “that most strange and gross doctrine of equivocation” which would “tear in sunder all the bonds of human conversation”, and should be rooted out from society, Shakespeare would have understood that efforts to eliminate equivocation were hopeless and naive. Salisbury, the King – everybody – equivocated whether they were conscious of it or not. Equivocation was life’s most common sin – lying.

Shakespeare was subtle with his use of words, and equivocation was not always obvious. Though the word originated in its present use with Catholics using it to deny their beliefs, it soon became much more common with writers. One could say a King equivocated without actually accusing him of lying. Equivocation is a sophisticated word, suitable for a King and his courtiers to use.  Today a politician can say “I may have used slight equivocation on that point” and most people will not even understand that he/she has actually admitted to lying.

The action of equivocating had been in common use for as long as humans have had language. Augustus convinced the Romans that they were living in a free and fair democracy, although they lived under a ruthless dictatorship. Now, in the UK people are told that they live in a democracy, but they are presented with a choice between two almost identical parties who will merely preserve the status quo, likewise the USA. and many other countries. I live in Cuba where daily the TV convinces the people that they live in a wonderful free and fair society, but it’s a dictatorship with some good points. It’s not free and fair. Today politicians and advertisers (the main culprits) use it constantly. I can mostly ignore politicians but advertising is ubiquitous, stupid and wicked; it is impossible to ignore. Equivocation, even if it was once an art, is now the “gross doctrine” that Salisbury feared.

There is no advertising in Cuba, apart from the Cubans advertising themselves: their revolution, their system, their sportsmen and women – everything Cuban; they do not advertise commercial products. The only other place I know of where TV doesn’t advertise is Britain, with the BBC, but a significant section of the population would like to destroy it, as that section worldwide would destroy anything precious.

 

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Even in Cuba I cannot escape advertising. We have satellite TV, where my woman watches the telenovelas and I watch the football. I thought advertising in England was extremely stupid but the US satellite channels are much more obviously dumb, just a medium for advertising, rather than a medium for entertainment. Programmes are interrupted every ten minutes with the dimmest adverts imaginable, merely a method for repeating names hundreds, thousands of times so that you will be unable to forget them; there is no humour, not very much thought – just the repetition of brand names and phone numbers – and in many, many hours of programming there is not even one minute of intelligence on show. Coke now transposes its logo over the crowd during the football matches – distracting and mind-numbing – as it is supposed to be.

I have found similar programming in East Asia but particularly the United States, the country that has been bombarded more than any other. It has affected even many of their decent writers, whom write of drinking a coke when they really mean something else. Coke has been so ruthlessly advertised for over a century, that taking a drink now means taking a coke to many, many people, such is the effect of constant brainwashing. I don’t even like Coke. I think it’s horrible, but am prepared to believe that some people like it and are not just influenced by the advertising. Hoover became an actual adjective thanks to that company’s successful promotions.

During a long life I have refused to believe that people can be affected by advertising because it is so simple-minded, but of course they are. They believe soap characters are real, and they believe advertising even more if an actor or celebrity equivocates and pretends that he/she uses a particular product (for a large amount of money). One must assume from this that at least seventy per cent of world’s population (particularly the USA’s) is irredeemably stupid; they buy cars, labour saving devices, clothes, tablets and phones that they do not need, and will  soon be persuaded to replace them.

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Graham Greene said that “In any government there grows a hideous establishment of stupid men”. That is true, but unfortunately those stupid men represent a very large mass of even stupider people whose “busy brains they encumber with vain hope or vain fear.” These stupid men, big swinging dicks (an apt phrase) rule the world. While once harbouring vague thoughts that human beings will eventually sort themselves out, I tend to agree now with Voltaire, that “men are mad, and anyone who thinks they can be cured is even madder.

The consumer society does not work; it will destroy itself sooner than you think. Who will stop it? Not the public. One cannot underestimate the stupidity of the public. The public is a big fat idiot. Being naturally non-violent, I would not go quite so far as Bill Hicks, who requested that all those in the public relations/advertising industry kill themselves, but I would like to put them all on an island where they can sell each other junk, and not pollute the world.

Drink Coke. You know it makes sense.

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Who’s happy?

masks-001I began this blog a week ago, intending to write about happiness and how, generally, I believe the upper-classes to be less happy than the lower. I thought I had loads of quotes to use: stuff read over the years – but finding them was a different matter; buried in hundreds of books. However, after nearly abandoning the idea through lack of material, I decided to press on anyway.

A controversial theory perhaps but interesting all the same. Of course the classes as I imagine them mainly existed in the past, nevertheless, there are probably three groups of people everywhere: those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top. There are of course major differences in ambition among these categories, some being more-or-less happy where they are, while others’ aspirations and desires know no bounds.

I generalise shamelessly, but I have never understood sentiments such as Vita Sackville-West’s, below:

No thinking man can be happy, all that we can hope for is to get through life with as much suppression of misery as possible.”

I’m sure Sackville-West was immensely talented. I don’t know. I haven’t read her. The above quote is from West’s novel, The Easter Party, quoted in a review of the latest biography of West in the Spectator, written by Mary Keen. She preceded the quote with a comment on Sissinghurst and the gardens created by West, and on which were based her Observer gardening columns. She writes:

Isn’t that what imaginative people do? Make somewhere they can call their own world? Reality, both of the real and of the modern, manufactured sort, is often pretty unbearable and most of us wear masks and adopt strategies for dealing with life in whatever way we can.

Keen goes on to quote Myles Hildyard, who questioned in his letters the right of those who expect to be happy.

So, we have:

…as much suppression of misery as possible’

Reality…is pretty unbearable’

and Hildyard questions those who

expect to be happy’.

All three statements are alien to me. I can’t speak for others, because people are rarely honest about this, but I have been mainly happy throughout my life, at worst content and occasionally miserable. I have no idea why West had to suppress misery. She was well-born, wanted for nothing, lived in splendid surroundings, had a successful career as an artist and two lovely children. What was there to be miserable about?

Now, I do not hide from reality. I am well aware of all the suffering in the world, but thankfully it hasn’t reached me. The unnecessary suffering of others can haunt and anger me; it does not affect my own happiness though – why should it? Making oneself miserable about the suffering of others does no good to the sufferers and no good to oneself. I think in many cases it is merely an excuse to be miserable. I am amazed at the number of young people I meet who declare life a trial, who didn’t ask to be here and don’t appreciate that life is a gift. To be enjoyed. You are here once for a comparatively short time. Be happy.

As you may have gathered, I am working-class.

I suppose what Sackville-West is suggesting is that no thinking person can be happy because the very act of thinking reveals how horrible the world is. But the world isn’t horrible, some human beings are. I don’t see that as a reason to be miserable, especially one as privileged as Vita Sackville-West. It seems to me that many of her class were, and are, just plain miserable. A misery, through their actions, they often end up inflicting on the rest of us, who are not miserable.

Steven King is most certainly working class, straight-talking, no-nonsense and honest. Norman Mailer was always a happy soul, and he was far from well-born. He was at home in – and wrote about – all levels of society. Chekov was descended from peasants, and wrote about them honestly. Tolstoy wanted to be a peasant, learnt their ways but couldn’t be one; he wrote about them sentimentally, but his motives and his heart were in the right place. Graham Greene was happy, although he said he made himself sad by doing too much with his life. Not a writer, but a genius just the same, Charlie Chaplin was born poor, but still thought:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Of course there is another side, many examples will prove me wrong. Ernest Hemingway said:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

I don’t agree with him. Hemingway was never a happy man and projected his feelings on to others. Kafka, born into the middle-classes, was just plain miserable (and unreadable, in my opinion):

People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair.

Beyond repair; good-grief. I’m glad I never met him.

I believe that if you’ve never struggled to pay a bill, never wondered where the next penny is coming from, never been close to homelessness through no fault of your own, then you don’t really fully understand life. Many of the rich and well-off consider the poor to be to blame for their own predicament. This is an easy way to think (or not think); some of the poor are to blame, many lack great ambition (no sin), most are just not greedy, and the majority are not to blame for where they happen to be. They were born there. As were most of the rich. Being born with money means (through no fault of your own) you never have to really deal with life. And I’m not sure you really know happiness either.

Most of the poor I have met are a damn sight happier than the rich. Markedly so. Especially in India, Bali and Cuba, to name just a few of the places I have experience of. Cuba, where 90% of the people are very poor, has the happiest people I’ve ever met. I believe the poor, or not rich more accurately, are happier because, as Epictetus put it:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And Aristotle:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

Charles Darwin, who understood much, and was not of the poor said:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

Our institutions cause not only poverty but people in body bags. Of this, Barbara Bush said:

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

This does show how some people deal with reality. They ignore it. I’m not at all sure that Bush has a beautiful mind, but she believes that she has, and the fact that her son caused those body bags to be used does not seem to trouble her, or indeed even occur to her. This is a fine example of how someone, born to riches, lives in a sort of dream-world, a strange world that doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of very rich, stupid people.

Sadly, I have generalised and simplified outrageously, but at least I have raised a subject for discussion. I will end on a positive note, from perhaps the greatest optimist of all time, Anne Frank, whose happiness in the most horrible of circumstances is an example I wish everybody would follow:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.

Whoever is happy will make others happy.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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