Sunday, December 18, 2016

My Log 541 December 18 2016: As the year ends, the United States seems to be losing influence in the Middle East, as the fog of war deepens

Here we are nearing the end of 2016 and we certainly feel like we are living through momentous times, what with a coming US president of whom no one has any idea what he may do, the looming end of the  five-year civil war in Syria that has engaged the attention of the whole world for so long, and the continuing development of surveillance techniques that now enable our governments to watch over our every action, and to know more than they need to know about what we think and what we do.
The old adage that truth is the first casualty of war has never been more clearly expressed than in the divergent views about what has been going on in Syria. For some months I have been watching quite a lot of the TV channel RT (Russia Today), a channel owned by the Russian government just as the BBC is owned by the British government and the CBC by the Canadian government.
To watch RT is a salutary experience, for it has its own alternative view of global events, and in fact, watching has made me even more conscious than I have normally been of the extent to which news presented by our Western, so-called “free” media, is engaged in putting out to the world its own slant on events.
As a fairly regular watcher of RT I find suggestions being made in the United States, from the President on down, that the channel is a pure source of Russian propaganda, to be entirely ludicrous. That is surely more true of the United States than any other country, for the team that RT has assembled in its American operations is almost impeccably comprised of journalists with excellent reputations, and, even among those who are just making their reputations, of young, vigorous, opinionated people who give every appearance of being completely on the ball, and of believing what they say.
Among the luminaries of the RT team are Larry King, with an early evening interview programme, Thom Hartmann, with a programme covering the news in some depth, Ed Schultz, an old-style progressive who makes of his newscast every night a vigorous argument with interlocutors from both sides, and Chris Hedges, who has spent much of his life as an international correspondent for the New York Times, and whose emergence as a leading voice of liberalism in the United States arises from his upbringing in a Christian environment that lies at the base of his world-view. Although there are other programmes that are somewhat more strident in defence of the Russian position, to describe any of these forenamed contributors as pawns in a Russian propaganda game is beyond absurd.
On the other side, however, misplaced hysteria seems to on the point of becoming the posture du jour of the American authorities. As the celebrated journalist Robert Fisk (who probably knows more about the Middle East than any other journalist in the world) has pointed out, the tirade issued by US representative at the UN, Samantha Power against all Russian and Syrian actions on the ground, comfortingly ignored the long history of the United States in carrying out or conniving in  exactly the same brutalities in many parts of the world,  and in providing the weapons with which these brutalities have been carried out. Her outburst was slyly referred to by the Russian representative Vitaly Churkin, as delivered, apparently, by Mother Teresa.
RT has not been alone in pointing out that the reported terrible Russian actions in Syria have to a large extent been based on circumstantial evidence, much of it from doubtful sources, yet that  evidence has been unquestioningly seized and trumpeted around the world by the Western media. I could direct anyone’s attention to a debate on Democracy Now on Dec 14 between Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton University. Roth launched into a full-scale assault on Russia along the line so familiar from what we read in the press, that 250,000 people have been literally bombed and starved into submission by the Syrian government that have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian institutions in a “war crimes strategy… to make life so miserable that people either flee or the enclave ultimately topples.”
Professor Cohen, a notably coherent man who could not be accused of being soft-headed, had a different view from Roth. Since his attitude is not being endlessly propagated in western media, I give this fairly lengthy version of what he said:
“The account Mr. Roth just gave is only one of two or three competing narratives….. He says that the Russians joined with the Syrians in deliberate war crimes. This is based on very selective reports that come from sources that cannot be verified. For example, the White Helmet man, that you had testify to this, didn’t tell us how he knew that, how he observed it, how he escaped with his own life. Moreover, there are people who doubt the reports that come from the White Helmets, that they have an agenda. So the rest of us are left here trying to weigh the different narratives. Mr. Roth’s is a very extreme set of accusations. What Samantha Power has said at the United Nations, over a long period of time, can’t be taken at face value, because she has performed there not as an ambassador, but as a propagandist for a certain point of view.
….The reality is, I think—at least this is what the United States government told us until September—that terrorists were holding large parts of eastern Aleppo. They were not letting innocent civilians use the multiple corridors out of the city that the Russians—yes, there’s plenty of testimony to this—had opened up and guaranteed, that people could not escape the city because of these terrorists. Then, suddenly, when the American-Russian—Obama’s plan to cooperate with Putin there disappeared, apparently all the jihadists and the terrorists disappeared.
So we’re left today in a fog of war. Perhaps Mr. Roth is correct, but I don’t think he’s fully correct. And we have two narratives. Either we have witnessed the liberation of Aleppo, and then we would say this is a good thing, or we’re witnessing war crimes by the Russians and the Syrians in Aleppo, which is a bad thing. So, I would ask Mr. Roth: If the Russians hadn’t done what he alleged they would do, what was the alternative to setting the people of Aleppo free?”

That the mainstream Western media speaks with almost one voice can hardly be doubted, especially after its behaviour towards this Syrian civil war. I have no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is not a nice man. Canadians have more reason to know this than most Western citizens, because we have had three Canadians who were infamously rendered by the United States to Syria in the full knowledge that they would be tortured in a Syrian prison. They were eventually released when nothing could be found against them even under torture, and Canada has paid a substantial sum to at least one them as compensation for his ordeal.  But this torturer’s country appears to have been in most respects a more secular and progressive place than most of the Middle Eastern satrapies that the United States (and even Canada) is so busy arming so that they can keep oppressing their own populations, and interfering in the governance of neighbouring countries.
It does strike me as odd that the very Middle Eastern countries that appear to have progressed furthest in the direction of providing a free education for their peoples (men and women both), and to have moved in the direction of freeing women from the worst shibboleths of religious oppression, should have been those chosen to be attacked by Western arms ---- Iraq, Libya, Syria, being the most notable examples.
As to what is going to happen next, one would need to be a soothsayer to offer an opinion. At time of writing it appears that among the proxy powers that have torn Syria apart, only Turkey and Russia seem willing to put aside differences between them in a conference to be held in Kazakhstan in an effort to bring the war to a conclusion, whereas the latest offering of the United States has been an announcement that it is making more weapons available to the combatants, an action that seems likely to add to the number of deaths, both civilian and military.

One cannot but shrug, and hope for the best.

Friday, December 9, 2016

My Log 540 Dec 9 2016: Anthony Trollope, a master Victorian novelist, and the two enchanting English girls he created to prove that virtue will always win out in the end

In recent months I have devoted quite a bit of my time to an activity that will no doubt surprise any regular readers of this space, in view of my customary hostility towards religion. I have been reading a series of novels that deal in immense detail with the lives of Anglican clergymen in Victorian England.
Readers with  a modicum of knowledge of English literature will probably have immediately guessed that I have been reading the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope. I read some of them many years go, but recently came across a couple of others that have been sitting in my library unread for years, and was immediately hooked.
As portrayed in Trollope,  Anglican clergymen of that period could more closely be compared to a nest of vipers, bitterly embroiled in resentful behaviour towards those above and below them, than to the  cosy milk-and-water nice blokes that we are accustomed to think them.
 The two novels that are the subject of this article are Framley Parsonage, and The Last Chronicle of Barset, the latter of which brings the series of six books to a close. Trollope, as I have discovered from reading a biography of him written by James Pope Hennessy, was an amazingly prolific writer who produced  almost 40 novels, plus a plethora of short stories, travel books and other works in the 35 years that  he was an active writer, but who also, during most of that time held down a job in the Post Office which took him to various places in the British Isles and even to other countries.
He was a keen observer of social conditions, and of politics, of which his so-called Palliser novels take us into the centre of the politics of his time.  One distinguishing fact about him according to Pope Hennessy, was that he was incapable of recognizing his many bad works from his many good ones; he would no doubt have been amazed to discover that his two great series of novels are still being read 130 years after his death, and, also according to his biographer, many other of his novels besides the Palliser and Barchester series are among the finest novels ever written by an Englishman.
Trollope was a gruff, rowdy, unprepossessing  character, marked for life by an horrendous boyhood in which he was neglected, virtually ignored  by his family, who at one point emigrated to the United States with siblings in tow except that he was left behind alone at a school in England. When he decided to become a writer –-- very much in the family tradition, because his mother became a famous popular writer of travel books and novels --- he set himself a semi-industrial schedule which required him to get up at 4.30 almost every morning of his life and write until breakfast, producing in his almost illegible handwriting page after page of plots that he had carefully worked out in advance.
These two novels have cracking plots, but are even more impressive for the characters he draws with such deep understanding. One aspect of the life of that time that I found extremely fascinating from Trollope’s description of the country gentry and those dependent upon them, is that the inequality of incomes that is so notable a feature of our own times appears to have been even worse in those days than today, when we so often hear claims that it has reached “the worst levels ever.” Pope Hennessy claims that no other British writer has ever so clearly described the concern about money shown by the gentlemen of the shires. Within the Church the same thing was true: in Framley Parsonage  Bishop Proudie, was the top dog in theory, but in practice he was a much despised weakling who was totally under the thumb of  his aggressive, domineering, and, in the parishes,  bitterly resented, wife.
Bishop Proudie came to his office against the wishes of Lady Lufton, a proud relic of the landed family of the county, who had at her disposal a number of parishes and other clerical appointments, some of which were accompanied by a substantial income, but others that were fated to be among the very poorest in the land. Lady Lufton had been nursing along one of her favourites, Mark Robarts, a handsome, likeable young man who quite soon felt the need to assert some minimal independence from his benefactor. He had his own horses, of course, with which to ride to hounds, and he did not hesitate to have social intercourse with certain characters who came under the rule of the Duke of Omnium, a man despised by Lady Lufton.   This independent streak soon landed him in trouble, for he agreed to sign a bill for an influential man of business and politics, in the expectation that no call would be made on him to honour the debt.  Of course the man was unreliable, and so the Rev. Mark, who was a close personal friend of young Lord Lufton, eventually found himself in some pretty dark waters.
Lady Lufton was a woman of immense wealth, and her son could have paid off his friend’s debts if only he had turned to him with a request for help. The Rev. however, was too proud to do so.   Lady Lufton was hoping that her son might marry the eldest daughter of the Archdeacon, Griselda Grantly, a beautiful but rather empty-headed girl, thus assuring his future for all time, the Grantly’s being almost as wealthy as her ladyship. But Mark Robarts had a sister, Fanny, unregarded by Lady Lufton or anyone else, except that it was noticed that the young Lord was spending a lot of time in conversation with her. In the event Lord Lufton steadfastly refused to marry Griselda, and caused a tremendous kerfuffle by insisting that he would marry Miss Robarts.
The further complication of this plot came through the plight of Mr. Crawley, the impecunious holder of the parish of Hogglestock, a man of rigid virtue, immense learning, unbendable principle, and a pride so intense that he would refuse to allow his wife to accept gifts offered from better-off houses to ease the burden of poverty imposed by his rigidity on his wife and children. It has been written that Mr. Crawley is one of the greatest characters ever created in the English novel, a man so pious that even his wife recognized at times that his piety drove him to the brink of actual lunacy. So poor were they that Mrs. Crawley became stricken with typhoid, and to everyone’s amazement Miss Robarts insisted on moving into the Crawley hovel to tend to the invalid, and stayed here without ever leaving for many months until her patient had recovered.
With a girl of such sterling qualities, Lord Lufton’s infatuation with her could not be denied, especially since Griselda Grantly had begun to attract the attention of a stodgy Lord Dumbello, who stood to inherit an earldom, thus clearing the way for Lord Lufton to marry Miss Robarts,  elevating her into Her Ladyship, albeit at a lower level than the Archdeacon’s daughter.
The various incomes of these people are said to have ranged from Duke of Omnium’s  unmentionable fortune down through a graded system past the wealthy Dean Arabin and Archdeacon Grantly, with their two hundred thousand a year, to  Mark Robarts with his several hundred a year, and lower to Mr. Crawley’s thirty-nine pounds a year, a veritable famine wage.
The clergymen may have had the occasional duty but none of the monied people is ever described as actually working for a living. They lived on their estates, and presumably on the income derived from rents paid by their tenants, and of course, from their investments.  The sterling Lucy Robarts arranged for Mr. Crawley’s children to be housed with some of the more wealthy neighbours while their mother was ill, and one of these children Grace, was found already to have a sound classical education forced on her by her father,  and in other respects to be a girl deserving of high praise.
By the end of Volume I of the Last Chronicle, Mr. Crawley had been accused to having cashed a cheque for twenty pounds which belonged to someone else. Thus he was accused of stealing, an offence which could end his career as a clergyman, and plunge his family into a social status beyond the imagination of any proper person. But there had been a further superb development of the plot. Just as Trollope had succeeded in creating in Fanny Robarts a portrait of a wonderful, pure, English girl, so he had created in Grace Crawley an even more rigidly proper, even more engaging and delightful young woman, who was lusted after by Major Henry Grantly, brother of the Marchioness, and son of the wealthy Archdeacon, who was so outraged that his son could think of marrying a girl from the family of a man likely to be convicted of theft, that he threatened to strip him of the eight hundred pounds allowance that enabled his son to live in relative luxury. 
I simply had to find Volume II of this book, and instituted an immediate internet search for it. I was not surprised to find it was not available in second-hand bookstores in North America, but no fewer than 50 small second-hand bookstores in England had on offer exactly the Volume I was seeking. I bought one that was being sold for one dollar, plus four or five dollars for the postage. Although obviously no one could be making money on this transaction, the book arrived, printed in 1936, looking as if it had never been touched, in apple-pie order, and thus I was able to finish the story.
The Archdeacon was beside himself with fury that his son should have thought of marrying so far beneath him. He was adamant on the matter, but when he was finally persuaded to meet Grace Crawley, she so charmed him by her upright honesty and winsome manner that he began slowly to regret his stern admonition.  When told that his son had already proposed to Grace and been rejected, the Archdeacon was delighted, the more especially because her refusal arose from the most impeccable of reasons, namely,  the impossibility, in her eyes, that she should bring discredit on the Archdeacon’s family by allying it with a family headed by a likely thief.
This is the kind of dilemma that could occur probably only to the super-ethical  heroines portrayed by Trollope. Certainly I have never known such a woman in my life, and I am not sure I should have liked her had I known such a one. But it all came out in the end, propelled by Miss Crawley’s outstanding qualities: a family friend, John Eames, who himself had been denied the girl he loved because, after falling for a bounder she had decided she would be an old maid for the rest of her life,  undertook to go to Europe in search of the holidaying Dean Arabin, who, in his younger days had been a close personal friend of Mr Crawley.  This voyage was so successful that Mrs Arabin, who had been unaware of the charges against Mr Crawley, readily admitted that she had slipped the cheque into an envelope of notes that she had sent to Mr. Crawley. The man was therefore cleared of theft, the whole case dropped, along with the Archdeacon’s objections to Miss Grace Crawley. And Mr. Crawley was reluctantly persuaded to accept an appointment to a better parish that would pay him a living wage for the rest of his life.
I have no reason to doubt Mr. Pope Hennessy’s extremely high opinion of Trollope the novelist. Certainly, once involved in his unlikely tales of intrigue among the churchmen, I have proven unable to put them down. And I recommend them to anyone who loves a rattling good tale, and who has the time to read some very long books.