To Save First We Have To Spend

biodiversity, civilisation, climate, conservation, developing world, development, ecological economism, Ecology, environment, ethics, future, international development, land ownership, rainforest

“You can take the title to your house to the bank and borrow money. Why? Because the market puts value on a house. We need to see rainforest at that same value level,” he says. “Conservation has to be market-driven. The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging or mining.”

Dane Gobin, Iwokrama Forest Management, Guyana (Bloomberg, 2019)

For decades methods have been applied about how best to arrest the process of deforestation in the world’s tropical regions. Everyone from international development agencies to Hollywood greenies have gone all out, doing everything from berating, and even ostracizing governments in affected regions, to incentivising them with the promise of aid, legitimacy and investment if only they would quit the logging.

The argument to conserve biodiversity over the argument to develop economically has traditionally come down to a binary ethical one. Western voices have persistently pleaded on the basis that deforestation – whether it be for lumber, squatting, mining, or slash-and-burn farming of cash crops – is an immoral act that not only deprives countless millions of species of a roof over their heads, but also degrades the quality of soil, air and of the lives of every man, woman, and child in the wider world. The value, therefore, of each hardwood tree, each prowling jaguar, and each creeping vine is in and of itself incalculable – or at least with a value exceeding the sum parts of the commodities that loggers, farmers and miners seek when despoiling the rainforest in the first place. Western thinking goes thus: stay in your sprawling shanty towns; let nature be; allow only indigenes the right to dwell in biodiversity hotspots. But in a world of nearly 8 billion ambitious souls, most of whom live in what’s called the Global South where most of the real biodiversity lies broken against a backdrop of poverty, squalor and deep structural inequality, what then?

Making Borneo into one great National Park, or keeping the Amazon as a primordial world, is all well and fine, but does it really chime with our contemporary mood? Making nature exempt from commodification and monetary value was part of a conservation mindset popular during the heyday of the National Park system in the early to mid twentieth century (think the USA under Teddy Roosevelt). Let’s ring fence the beautiful places in perpetuity, which worked beautifully in wild places such as Yosemite. But today, given the mess we’re in what with a toxic blend of population pressure, degraded environment, and a model of capitalism espousing the greatest consumption for the greatest number to produce the greatest happiness, how durable is the view that wilderness should remain untouched? Isn’t it time to take other, more radical, measures to safeguard the last remaining wild places?

Look around and what becomes apparent is not that the old paradigm is changing. Moreover, it’s that it has to. Under the pressure of realpolitik, of shrinking public spaces, of expansive corporate reach, and of burgeoning populations hell bent on getting a slice of that consumer pie, closing off vast swathes of so-called virgin territory is creating a rift between governments and their people, and more importantly between the reality of the situation and the perception of how to solve it. If not, then how come the more that developing countries (as well as a few developed ones) have tightened their environmental laws over the past generation, the more incursions we see made by various players and the greater the overall dismantling of the biosphere within the primary forest? Within this paradox, political populists hostile to established models of conservation can stand on ceremony with the promise of making pots of money for everyone from what they see as their own – and not the planet’s – natural patrimony.

Seen by populist governments in heavily-populated developing countries as symptomatic of the Western tendency toward paternalism towards the regions these great powers used to rule, in some unpopular cases, such as Brazil and Indonesia, the world has seen in recent years a worrying acceleration in the acreage of virgin forest felled for lumber, cash crops, and the riches that lie beneath the forest floor. And what is the motive that belies this degradation we see in spite of decades of lobbying and campaigning for an end to wilful and unsanctioned deforestation? Why are things, in some sense, worse than anyone could have imagined even twenty years ago? Well, in the words of Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian Environment minister under Jair Bolsonaro’s polemic presidency, the reality goes a bit like this:

“We need to recognise that there are real subjects living in the Amazon,” Mr Salles said, referring to the 20m people living in the Amazon. “So we need to give a concrete response to them, and not simply saying that they cannot do anything in the area of the Amazon. That is not reasonable, it is not even feasible.” (Financial Times, 2019)

By promulgating the moral argument for making the Amazon one gigantic exclusion zone for the millions of restless, economically-challenged people living in its vast surrounds, it seems that no lasting progress can be made. The old model, backed by rich, industrialised countries, many of whom have already laid waste to their own primary forests, is turning out to be a dud. Their appeal to goodness based on the ethical presumption that ‘just because we did it to get rich, to develop our nation state, you shouldn’t necessarily follow’, is now clearly falling on deaf ears. Populism has fostered defiance among the developing states in the equatorial belt. The rising power of China as an ideological counterweight to the traditional Western hegemony is emboldening states, such as Brazil, to let ecocide reign so long as the conditions for human inequality persist. Alongside this, the vast improvements in global supply-chain logistics has smoothed the way for biodiversity loss to become one big concerted effort. Salles’ justification for this lawlessness rife on the fringes of the great Amazonian basin is clearly viewable in these terms. He elaborates the point:

‘That is why people go over to the illegal activities… because they don’t have a space to do something within the law.’

Are we hearing the makings of policy based on the precepts of what is known as ecological economics? This idea is not exactly hot off the press, but it is beginning to demand attention. With the UN’s Millennium Development Goals teetering on the brink, something has to give. And that, unfortunately, is policy attachment to the notion of deep ecology. As outlined previously in this article, building policy goals around a shared ethic that one can never put a price on nature, has proved a bridge too far, and this failure is seen in terms of unsustainable losses to tropical biodiversity in this century alone. Purists might baulk at the idea, but monetising a forest and all that’s in it might just be the one compelling way to make business, and all the rogues that dwell on its fringes, sit up and listen. Speak their language. It’s called cash. Easy to learn; tough to forget.

So, what does monetisation of nature mean in principle? According to Barbara Unmüßig of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, that conservation efforts can be bolstered and public sympathy heightened by revealing an economic contribution of nature and the services it can provide. This translates as tradable prices for ecosystem services. We can encapsulate these wider definitions into what I would term ‘natural capital/equity’. Measuring nature with economic indicators over a tradition of measuring nature, sui generis, against other ethical considerations still has a touch of the abstract to it. So, in short, ecological economism really boils down to saying, look, if you want this patch of forest you’ll have to show you truly value it by paying a high tariff for it. Ergo, those who would place such high stakes on their own economic future, and that of their corporate interests, would therefore place an enormous value on natural capital, to the extent that it would be safer in private hands (acting as a trust) than at the mercy of prohibitive legislation that invariably ends up breached by corrupt officials and short-term prospectors anyway.

If the past fifty years have amply shown that the world doesn’t quite agree on an absolute value placed on nature, it has always contrastingly shown that free market capitalism has been instrumental in placing absolute value on something so long as it can be considered commodity. No one quibbles with the price the market sets, after all. And this is where the problem lies: is it right to commodify nature? Does doing so lead to privatisation by other means? Where governments have failed, can the private sector, including the world’s investment bankers, step into the fray and actually flick the switch on ecological damage and destruction? In short, is it better to harvest a tropical hardwood than to fell it? For the tree, the answer is an unqualified yes. But for the guy who wants a quick hit of capital from the lumber, or he who desires the empty space left once the tree goes, what then? Even this radical idea (well, radical for our modern age) has its limitations. Without applying what Unmüßig terms the precautionary principle – the principle that the higher the risk to the natural environment, the greater the justification must be for a stakeholder to take such action – monetization of the natural world can all too easily slide into the kind of excessive commodification that drives Man to desire ownership and control over every tangible thing. We all know where that leads. And this instinct of tearing down only to build up, or to destroy in order to prosper, can only be moderated at the levels of governance and legislation. Which brings us back to the old ways of trying to combat ecocide.

Perhaps, there is a way, though. A new modus operandi where some ecosystems can thrive while we survive. And all in a more symbiotic, a more mutually-beneficial way. The Selva Maya is an area of tropical jungle spanning three countries: Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. A 150,000 sq km biodiversity hotspot containing no less than five species of big cat, La Selva Maya has recently been acquired at cost by conservation groups with money to put into something other than publicity and administration (Guardian, 22/04/21) Thanks to direct purchasing from the national government of Belize (i believe), this splodge of megadiverse, pristine forest finds itself now perpetually protected. Barring a constitutional catastrophe in Belize, nothing large-scale will ever again encroach on the fragile makeup of the forest. By any measure, what has happened here is a great thing for nature. And by extension, for the whole world. In purchasing the forest, conservation groups have clearly come out in the open, admitting that a monetary value – whatever it is – has been agreed with the previous custodians of the land. However, the arrangement seeks not to commodify what has been purchased, ironically, as a commodity. The contents of the forest will not be up for negotiation, or fair game for the highest bidder. No, that would miss the point.

The best analogy i can come up with for the money paid is that of a ransom. The right people now have the title deeds in their name, and presumably their business model is to leave the place the hell alone to simply be. If enough consortiums can come together to purchase small, affordable patches of rich biota, mainly rainforest, along the entire equator, then we might just begin to witness a joining of the dots until one day every last hectare that was bought by conservationists will start to outweigh the great green spaces on the map occupied by the industrialists, the agronomists, and the settlers, all content with one thing: to bleed nature for all she’s worth. By that point, capitalization of all natural ‘assets’ will be so valuable as to be out of the price league of every sinister corporation or corrupted government.

There is a faint whiff of Thatcherism in all this. In the early 1980s, with Britain exhausted and failing miserably, she encouraged affordable home ownership, and what transpired? Newly privately-owned homes across the kingdom didn’t get trashed; many actually ended up beautified where everyone become a vested stakeholder. The nature wars are reminiscent of her era. Whether humanity continues with the short-term strategy of raid and pillage until no booty is left, or the long-term one of benign ownership at a dollar price – monetising nature without commodifying her – we are, it seems, at a critical juncture. The race is on. It’s all to play for.

The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

A Cri de Coeur From This Island Prison

Brexit, Britain, British Isles, civilisation, development, England, EU, europe, future, global polity, globalisation, Great Britain, Political Culture, Politics

Attention: All friends across Europe and the half of Britain dismayed by the madness of this government’s desire to impoverish all our lives in ways that go far beyond economics, I send you warm salutations and a heartfelt sorry. And to all those across our continent who – not already bored of this interminable farce – at this present moment must be shaking their heads in disbelief at the tragicomedy unfolding before their very eyes, I declare my undying apologies. I don’t know if sending out a message in a digital bottle will make any difference to the catastrophe we see emerging in this slo-mo act of national collective suicide. We’re suffocating out here on the perimeter under a cabinet of hands all of whom stroke their fat fingers against the trigger; a merry, posh-spoken band of English outlaws who press the barrel of their hostage gun not only against my temple but also against that of the millions of others on this island who want no part in this categorical error of proportions that will without doubt come to register in time on history’s seismograph. 1+1=3. Historical+Error=Brexit.

How can you begin to forgive us our trespasses? How can we begin to forgive ourselves for letting the country sink into this morass of festering sewage? How to undo this Gordian knot of tangled pride and stubbornness and delusion? How to eviscerate a political class of unenlightened, self-interested types who have for too long fed on the timidness and deference of a people whose claim to decency is undermined by the hostility and hubris implicit in a Brexit concept that has gone from bad to worse? Christ! They’re even talking of sending in the Royal Navy to apprehend French and Dutch fisherman who have, by common consent, for centuries fished these coastal waters? Even if such threats are hollow hyperbole, the mere mention of naval intervention – gunboats, can you believe? – is not just insulting to our European compatriots, it’s also downright dangerous. This debacle is now descending into collective madness, and all under the tutelage of a twit of a P.M. for whom this is all just a Bullingdon Club game of sophistry with tomfoolery thrown in – of who can win the debate while not essentially giving a shit about the debating point. In short, old Etonians are using the futures of sixty-seven million people here and countless millions on the continent as bystanders in their game of ‘who can sell a knuckle-headed notion like storming out of Europe, friendless, in a no-deal strop (aka Brexit)’ to a bunch of gullible fools’? If anyone can sell snake-oil to a populace that wasn’t even ill to begin with, Boris can. He’s an affable chap. He dreams of being Pliny the Elder when all around him Rome is being doused in petrol. He’s more chameleon than Pliny and he changes hue effortlessly to blend in wherever with whomever. To this ability he owes his success. Clever animals, chameleons. Trust in a chameleon to lead you out the forest and onto the hot sand. Yes, he’s a selfish oaf, but at least he’s our oaf. And he uses impressive words half the country cannot fathom the meaning of, which naturally gives him an even more elevated standing among lesser wordsmiths. He’s got gravitas while the rest of us have got gravy.

This was the referendum to end all referendums. Deeply flawed from the design stage, it was an in-out referendum. Winner takes all; loser either emigrates or slips benignly into stultifying acceptance. What an ingenious device of modern democracy to fill the public with lies, obfuscation and misinformation and expect them to take that rotten meat and cook it up into an informed decision. What should be a legally non-binding advisory upon which further rational decisions can be made by educated leaders of sound mind and limited ideology becomes an in-out ultimatum on a subject so beyond the ken of the vast majority that the only sensible thing to do is to delegate that complex question to those who would be pushed to even tell you how many states make up the EU far less what they’re called. The highest expression of populist idiocy and irresponsibility on the part of a defunct governing class is to give the plebeians the keys to the kingdom in the form of a referendum on a question most are not in an intellectual position to answer with anything more than base emotion. On monumental issues, a governing class do not serve democracy’s best interests by devolving responsibility onto impressionable souls. Where we stand near-broken now, those who served up Brexit on a plate to the hungry in the end served mainly themselves. Fact: on Referendum night what seems like decades ago, even though it was only four years, Google recorded a surge in UK-based searches on queries such as, what is the EU? How many countries form the EU? What are these countries? One can only presume such searches were frantically made en masse after votes had been cast in favour of getting out. Counter-intuitive (moronic?) as it seems, that’s what you do when you’ve no idea the whys and wherefores of your decision-making process: you ask the basic questions after you’ve magicked the answer from thin air with a swish of your wand. If only Sherlock Holmes had been around to show the country the true meaning of deductive reasoning. But he wasn’t and we now find ourselves sinking into irrelevance as a nation.

This tragedy, like all tragedies, has a basis, a beginning. The original sin was cast not by Johnson, but his old Eton pal, Dave ‘The Rave’ Cameron. This former P.M. now tainted forever by complacency in thinking that a people raised on a diet of right-wing tabloids would actually arrive at the same sage decision as your well-travelled self, David. Poor judgement mixed in with public school hubris. And you, Mr Cameron, would extend the courtesy of abrogating your decision-making powers to a populace so out of touch with the membership rules of a very important club that half don’t even know what it is they’re trying to get away from. And what can spending a year abroad in Germany tell you that the front page of the Sun or the Daily Mail cannot? Maybe it’s poetic justice that England leaves in disarray, as England never really had a clue what it was involved with to begin with. England, you were a punch-drunk boxer with heavily swollen eyes swaying in the ring corner while your trainers whispered sweet nothings in your ear. Those men hunched in your corner were reporters from The Sun, The Daily Star, The Mirror (pro-EU editors with anti-EU readership), The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and the Daily Express. Their pantomime villain was the EU commission. Cue Boris Johnson, Brussels correspondent for the right-wing Telegraph: the spinner of tall tales from the engine room of continental power. No, England never really understood what Europe was about, though it undoubtedly will now that it has stormed off into the wilderness. What the sleaze-merchants at the tabloids didn’t tell you was that when you joined up to the European Economic Community you were heralded as the dirty man of Europe. You were near bankrupt, in hoc to the unions, and facing wave after wave of violent disintegration from Glasgow to Glamorgan. Twenty years later, you were helping to draft EU law. The country was cleaner. People were given workplace protections. Statutory holidays. Hitherto battered ecosystems started to recover. As Europe got greener and fairer, we followed wisely. Things started to work again. What was a stagnating, crumbling hulk of a former empire was now beginning to modernise as it moved inward to the centre of power and influence in a renovated, peaceful, and prosperous Europe. But that wasn’t good enough for the Brexit buccaneers and free-trade mercantilists in the Tory illuminati who thought they were being held back by EU processes and whose personal interests could be better served by, as they saw it, becoming unchained from EU transparency. And what better way to do it, than by telling lie after lie about the European Union, by stoking nationalism, and by protracting a sentimental obsession with the Second World War wherein the European Parliament of today were cast as the stereotypical figures of 1940: the French duplicitous, collaborating cowards; the Germans evil masterminds; the Italians pompous and ridiculous; the Greeks and Spanish lazy; the Slavs in the pocket of the Kremlin; the Scandinavians too bloody Scandinavian. The list goes on. If the aim was to convince a sceptical population stuck half way out into the ocean on their semi-detached raft called Britannia that the Germans won the war after all and with their French collaborators are now running the show under the guise of the Commission, the Parliament in Strasbourg, and the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, then Rees-Mogg, Gove, Johnson, et al did a sterling job. They bayed the mob and the mob swallowed it. Woe betide the mob. Nigel Farage doesn’t even feature because he’s an Estuary English-speaking nobody who will never assume the occult powers of a plum-in-the-mouth, true blue Brexiteer with a real $$$ stake in leaving. If anything, the vaudeville figure of Farage stands to lose from Brexit seeing that he no longer draws a MEP’s salary and cannot summon so much as an old man and his greyhound for his populist rallies.

What started out on the part of David Cameron as a concession to a tumescent Tory party to avoid a parliamentary civil war, turned into an offer to take a question lingering long on our pursed lips to the people. As soon as that platform went public, a campaign of disinformation could commence unhindered. What did the rump of England know anyway about affairs of state? Hell, most didn’t know where the European Court of Justice was, far less what its purpose was. All they knew and all they were happy to know was that these foreigners were presiding over our lives and that we, as Englishman, don’t take kindly to being told what we can and cannot do, unless of course our upper-classes (who are Norman French and Hanoverian German anyway) are the ones to do the dictating as they always have. No, we can’t really think for ourselves but better if that thinking is done for us by one of our own, albeit a rich, land-owning toff we never have dealings with, than by a Eurocrat talking a funny tongue. If most actually took the trouble to be better informed they would have realised that what is decided beyond these shores is a lot more impactful on our daily lives than we care to think. Example: who writes the software in your mobile phone that rewires your brain on a neural level? A foreigner. Who or what influences share/commodity prices? Who decides the value of your avocados? And which administration influences UK foreign policy? All emanate from abroad, Brexit or no Brexit. What’s more, if in your La-La Land of Milk & Honey you took all foreign influence away you’d end up another North Korea or Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Worst still you’d end up with Tories governing your lives to suit their own greedy, acquisitive interests even more stridently than you do now where at least what comes down from Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg has at least some mitigating effect on Tory misrule. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, Johnson is lofted to the pinnacle of party power not by popular election but by the 90,000 fawning members that make up the Conservative Party. Not content with winning those old fuddy-duddies over, with his unelected mandate he takes the reins on the government in a bloodless coup d’etat, giving him airtime to tell more whopping lies when he is not shirking public duties. With that he proceeds to scale the Red Wall – meaning he wins previously un-winnable seats in the North and Midlands. All in, the jester takes the whole court hostage. From a blasé ‘Easiest Free Trade Deal in History’ to a trite ‘Get Brexit Done’ bit of sloganeering we have degenerated from the promise of a frictionless agreement to the point of teetering on a cliff edge without having the balls to fall off. Predictably, even the language of state has gone from somewhat cordial to bellicose. When in doubt, call in the Royal Navy. Talk about making an enemy of yourself when there were never any grounds to. Not a single flimsy reason.

How has it come to this? What gives this rogue government and the destructive forces that put them there the right to tear my life away from a position of favour, unfettered travel, and an identity closely tied to progressive European politics to this sorry state of affairs? I was born Scottish and you made me British. I was born European and you took that away from me, too. Thanks England, for poisoning half a century of close relations and mutual benefits with the best club anyone could hope to be a member of in a world of clubs and powerful blocs.

Desculpes, désolé, mi dispiace, es tut mir leid. I’m sorry Europe, but these revolutionaries in London do not speak for me with their half-baked plans. My advice to you is to shine your bright light into our fading corner. Don’t give up on us before we give up on ourselves.

In Praise of Persia

Arabia, Bedouin, Caliphate, civilisation, desert, Empire, history, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Muslim, Persia, philosophy, Political Culture, Religion, thoughts, Travel, Tribes

I watched a riveting BBC4 documentary last night called ‘The Art of Persia’. Contained within that visual treasure trove were cultural jewels of incalculable worth. The West might look on with a mixture of bemusement and disdain at the black chadors, the mass weepings, the ceremonial burnings of Imperialist flags of red, white and blue, and the tales of woe spun by Persia’s disgruntled diaspora everywhere from Tehr-Angeles to London, but that’s not the half of it. The country known since 1935 as Iran is arguably as great a continuous civilisation as there has even been, anywhere. But what makes Iran so interesting is how its personality traits reveal a duality deep in its cultural psyche.

To the Persians, who live either in wealthy North Tehran or else abroad, the name Iran is anathema to them because of its proximity to all that is humiliating to a once insuperable civilisation. To them Iran equals the puppet Shah. Iran equals fanaticism. Iran equals paranoid pride. Iran equals vice and virtue and blasphemy and stoning and vicious assaults on the freedom to think out loud. Iran equals secret shindigs with homemade grog. Iran equals ousted premiers. Iran equals the Ayatollahs. Iran equals political prisoners. Iran equals implacable hostility to nearly everyone except fellow villains, Russia and Syria. The name Persia, on the other hand, conjures nothing but antiquarian admirers. The Iran we know today, in stark contrast, has nothing but perceived enemies. On top of this litany of woes, for Persians the name Iran strikes fear into the heart because it equals Islam in its most austere form of submission and at its most fervent. To those Persians who see themselves as secular patriots – defenders of 4,000 years of unique culture, rather than defenders of a faith imported from impoverished desert lands – Iran in its present state will eventually be consumed by the larger meaning of Persia. For everyone, including Orientalists like me, Persia denotes the literary romance of Sheherezade in the 1001 Persian Nights and the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi. Persia is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; of intoxicating poetry recited in a garden of red roses, crocuses and pomegranate trees; of revelling in the NOW instead of waiting on God, as is the wont of modern Islam. Persia is the Sufi mysticism of Rumi as opposed to the stripped-down demystification of latter-day political Shi’ism.

To the Iranians, who live everywhere else in Iran’s hinterland, Persia is something to be taken, if not lightly, then with a degree of scepticism. Persia equals complicity with the predatory West. Persia equals lingering resentment of being conquered by an inferior culture who brought a book – the Qur’an – which changed everything. Persia equals ambivalence, at best, toward the idea of Islamic piety. Persia equals antiquity, an age that’s gone forever. Persia equals wine and hedonism from the quills of drunken poets who saw things very differently from the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. Persia equals Zoroastrianism and the fire temples of old. Contrarily, Iran equals Shi’a, a tough, oppressed, self-flagellating branch of Islam. Persia equals all that is effete: of brocades and silken rugs; of grand viziers in courtly costume; of silver filigree and lapiz lazuli glaze on priceless urns; and, of artistic depictions too close to iconoclastic for comfort. In short, for Iranians, nostalgia for old Persia is the antithesis of political Islam. It is a weak underbelly that allows outsiders to enter the forbidden gates on the pretext of weakening the present land by exalting its past.

The BBC documentary highlighted this duality as such. Uncovering the many layers of Persian culture we learn that when it comes to a civilisation that stretches back to the Elamites at Susa 4,500 years ago, an empire that during the reign of the Achaemenids under Cyrus stretched from Greece to Afghanistan, a simple either/or will not do. When something is that old and that far-reaching, dichotomies are rarely that simple. The BBC4 series taught us that even the political Islam of the 21st century Republic can not wash away that feeling of distinction held by so many Iranians. Their exceptionalism chimes with similar exceptionalism experienced by Brexit Britain and the Trumpite United States. It is this analogue with great Western powers that plunges modern Iran into a state of competitive hostility with them. It is the similarities therefore, and not the differences, that explain the fraught relations between the anglo-American West and the new Persia.

Eternally unknowable and all-mighty for being so is what makes Iran so much like the God of Islam it has worshipped for nearly 1,400 years. A bruised civilisation in such a battle for true identity on the shifting game board of power politics is what makes Iran the Persia it truly is to this day, and likewise what makes Persia the true Iran it has become. Its place at the head of the table of nation states has become problematic, none more so than within Iran itself. This was the first civilisation to claim the one true god, Ahura Mazda. Its official state religion of Zoroastrianism was as long-established as Persia itself. But all changed so suddenly. Zoroaster’s fires were extinguished by the Arab Conquest of 637AD. In many respects, an inferior culture usurped one whose deeds it could never match. A tribe tamed a civilisation, and I don’t think Iran has ever come to grips with that. Alexander sacked Persepolis in 330BC, but he razed it to the ground supposedly in the name of Hellenic Civilisation. The Arabs who swept into Sassanid Persia on the command of the Caliph Umar just four years after the death of the prophet Muhammed were a tribe of tribes with all the ostentatiousness of a Glastonbury festival-goer. They came unadorned and, other than tax and sovereignty, demanded little else. These bedouin Arabs were no Islamic State. Their relative tolerance was their enduring power. As the documentary states, Islam was adopted in Persia at a rate that Arabisation never ever was. The Persians took the commandments of Muhammed readily enough, though it was the language and cultural traits of the invaders from the Arabian Peninsula that had little staying power in the eyes of a people who believed, rightly of wrongly, that they had nothing to learn (other than the revelations in the Qur’an) from these usurpers in their raggedy clothing.

I taught a bunch of Iranians about ten years ago, all of whom had come to the West not so much for a taste of cultivated learning, which of course they could have delved into at home. They came, rather, to throw off their chadors and to relive the secular freedoms their parents had enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty. They came to change Iran not from within, which was too dangerous, but from without. Away from the Iran of the Basij and the Revolutionary Guard they could embrace the Persian in themselves, throwing off the shackles of the Iranian who boarded the aircraft in Tehran. In our ignorance, some locals asked if, being Muslim and existing in the heart of the Middle East, they were Arabs. The Iranian reaction was prompt and dismissive to say the least. You could actually see them wince at the mere suggestion. In my classroom there they sat together, far from the ethnic Arabs who were seated at the other end of the room. They looked and spoke different. They carried themselves differently, for unlike the Arabs in the room, the Persians had a dual identity: the one Iran foisted upon them at birth, and the Ferdowsi-reading Persian residing permanently in their heart.