The backlash against ‘Freedom day’ – how valid is it?

Only Boris Johnson could come up with a cheap slogan like “Freedom Day” in the middle of a deadly pandemic. (This is reminiscent of his joke in the early stages of the pandemic about “operation last gasp”).

Idiotic remarks aside is it indeed crazy and irresponsible to remove all remaining Covid restrictions (laws and that ambiguous middle-ground of “government guidance”) now as this widely backed letter in the Lancet argues?

The authors of this letter – who could be said to be from the pro-lockdown side of academia – make 5 arguments. Let’s consider them. Before we do that let’s just remind ourselves of the context. Currently 50% of the UK population has been offered both doses of a vaccine (spaced apart by more than the manufacturer’s recommendations in the case of Pfizer of course). This includes all the especially vulnerable groups. By some point in September all over 18 year olds will have been offered 2 doses. Vaccinations in children has not yet been decided. Lifting all restrictions now will lead to more infections than if they were maintained until, say, September when all adults will have been offered a vaccination. This delay is what the authors of this letter in the Lancet want.

Continue reading “The backlash against ‘Freedom day’ – how valid is it?”

Brave liberal journalists and their blind-spots

I’ve just read an article in the Guardian about a documentary film by Oliver Stone. The film is about the former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. The piece, (by the Guardian’s Andrew Roth who usually writes fakes news on Russia – the land in which vast numbers of supporters of the popular ‘opposition politician’ and democrat Navalny are being suppressed by a brutal police and media crackdown), is a hatchet job on Stone’s film. The problem for the Guardian is that Stone doesn’t criticize Nursultan Nazarbayev. The interview subject is treated sympathetically. We are supposed, I assume, to believe that the kind of journalism which Roth himself exemplifies is brave and daring, always ready to ask challenging questions of dictators. He proves the point by giving the final word to an opposition blogger (who he probably found on the Internet) – about how Nazarbayev controls media access to himself and how the film does not report on the negative aspects of his rule.

Roth does quote Stone explaining that maybe democracy is not the right system now for Kazakhstan. It seems to me that Stone has grasped something which Roth has not. I don’t know much specifically about Kazakhstan – but as far as Russia goes the fact is that the majority don’t want ‘democracy’ – in the sense that the UK has ‘democracy’. This remains a challenge for progressive-liberals. Or, at least, it should be a challenge for them. In practice, like Roth, it just turns out that they are imperialists all along, quite happy to impose their ‘democracy’ on people whether they want it or not, blithely unaware that this negates the actual idea of ‘democracy’ which they are promoting.

Meanwhile, the US and UK have just finally pulled out of Afghanistan. Hundreds of UK and US servicemen died there – the majority not fighting Al Qaeda terrorists but trying to take over the country for our installed client. The US has spent more than 2 trillion dollars on its failed nation-building project. Biden was recently asked by a journalist about the US pull-out. He refused to answer and replied “I want to talk about happy things man”. A few days later he did talk about the pull-out. He told the enormously huge whopper that the US had succeeded in its mission – which was to “root out Al Qaeda and prevent attacks on the US”. Everyone in the media and politics knows this is a whopper. The US hasn’t been building roads and schools and other infrastructure in Afghanistan and organising elections for 20 years, to “root out Al Qaeda”. Rooting out Al Qaeda happened within a few weeks of the invasion in the mountains of Tora Bora. Everyone knows that the US/UK have failed in their goal to build a ‘democratic’ Afghanistan. Why? Because, just like Kazakhstan perhaps, Afghanistan is not yet ready for democracy. “Democracy” is not a product you can just copy and paste onto any country in the world you feel like. It doesn’t work like that.

But what interests me is the more or less total media silence on this disastrous pull-out and ignominious failure. 450 (or so) UK soldiers and MOD personnel died in Afghanistan. The equivalent US figure is over 2000. And the mission has failed. The Taleban already control half (or more) of the country. The central government has already lost control and allowed militias to form. The country is already in a civil war. The media should be leading on this. Surely an ignominious defeat and the waste of 450 lives matters to these democrats at the Guardian? I’ve barely seen anything in the Guardian and Independent. The BBC manages a very terse and short piece which acknowledges that “US officials concede [Afghanistan] may be heading for civil war.” [1] But nothing there about the failed mission and huge waste of life (and money).

This is the point which Noam Chomsky made about the media in our ‘democracy’ in his book Manufacturing Consent. They control the narrative by selective focus. Andrew Roth can complain about how someone has made a film about a non democratic politician in Kazakhstan without asking him difficult questions. But his newspaper is turning a complete blind eye to what should be the story of the day – the waste of over 400 young British lives in a foolish and doomed project to impose “democracy” on a tribal and ethnically riven country in the Middle East. (And of course the way that the exit is being carried out under cover of the pandemic).

* * * * * *

Concerning Kazakhstan; what the Guardian journalist is doing here is applying a well-worn template. He criticizes Stone for his sympathetic treatment of the former Kazak President – Nursultan Nazarbayev. The journalist doesn’t actually say what precisely offends him about this but we get a clue when he talks about “autocracy”. Then the journalist finds one or two voices who are ‘against the regime’. In this case he refers to the author of a book Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan (we can guess from the title that this is not a sympathetic treatment of Nursultan Nazarbayev) and a dissident blogger who is clearly strongly opposed to Nursultan Nazarbayev. This is what they do with Russia when they represent Navalny as “the opposition” in Russia and quote the press releases from his office verbatim as news. They accuse the “autocrat” of all sorts of things (the journalist mentions a  97.5% win in the 2015 election; the implication is that it was fixed) and rely on one or two relatively marginal figures to represent a supposedly “democratic” opposition. A very simplistic template which distorts reality; in place of an analysis a caricature is born.

Out of interest I asked the one Kazak I know what he thought about Nursultan Nazarbayev. Did he have a good opinion of him I wondered? Yes. (As an example my collocutor mentioned policies which dealt with unemployment by extending small loans at low interest rates to help people start businesses). I asked if Nursultan Nazarbayev had won elections during his 30 years in power. Certainly. Were those elections fair? That isn’t the point, he explained. The point is that Nursultan Nazarbayev won. I mentioned that to the Western ear this sounds a bit strange. But he explained; Kazakhstan is a country facing risks. The important thing is that there were no risks. (By which he meant any of the other candidates). This is a strong point (and applies to Russia equally); for a country going through cataclysmic changes there may well be an argument that the best thing for the country is to find one strong leader (or leadership) who has a clear vision of the path to development and who is allowed to implement it over a course of many years. (Churchill is often represented in this way as Britain’s wartime leader; flawed but the country needed strong and stable leadership). Chopping and changing leaders every 5 years may work in a country which is “settled” and politically and economically robust. Perhaps the same does not apply for a country undergoing a rapid path to development and which has very recently suffered huge instability? Western journalists and critics of “autocracy” never seem to think that what works in one country at one point in its development might not work in another country at a different point in its development.

My single collocutor does not of course represent a full sample of Kazak opinion. On the other hand I chose him at “random” – not because I knew in advance that these would be his political views. And this random Kazak had nothing but good to say about Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Guardian journalists go hunting for the opposition figures, the dissidents, the writers of salacious books. They find that Putin, Nursultan Nazarbayev and others are dodgy characters and that people in their country oppose them. Students of media studies call this “confirmation bias”. Looking for ‘facts’ to support what you want to believe. The ‘truth’ is at the very least much more complicated. Nursultan Nazarbayev may well be very popular in Kazakhstan. “Autocrat” or not.



Money laundering on an epic scale

One of the main activities of liberal governments is to extract money in taxes from the populations they control. Nominally this is in order to provide “essential services”. Arguably, they do provide some essential services. However, a secondary aspect has developed. Providing these essential services turns out to be massively enriching for rather non-visible elites – people who control companies who benefit from state contracts. In fact this enrichment process is so wonderful that governments look for new opportunities to operate this model. Wars being a case in point. Of course it doesn’t work if the services are provided directly by the state through state owned enterprises. This is “inefficient” (fall about laughing). No – the “efficient” solution is to contract out as much as possible the actual provision of the services. This is the modern model of neo-liberal government.

The US has just left Afghanistan. The UK is also departing. You might have missed this event given how quiet it is being kept. That is hardly surprising. No one can possibly avoid seeing that the West’s involvement in Afghanistan has been a total disaster. According to the UK government 454 soldiers and MOD personnel have died in Afghanistan. Over 2000 US troops. And, of course, tens of thousands of Afghans, many of them civilians. In terms of financial costs the figures are truly staggering. A US academic-run projects puts the total US expenditure at USD 2.26 trillion. [1] Some of that went on military expenditure. Tens of billions of dollars went on nation building. [2] And what is the end result? The Taliban are resurgent. They are taking ground. [3] There will likely be civil war between regional militias and the Taliban (as there was after the Soviets left). The Taliban will likely end up controlling vast swathes of the country – as they did before the US invasion in 2001. Billions of dollars and hundreds of deaths and the end-result is a big zero. Even from a purely self-centred perspective (in which the deaths of Afghans don’t count) this doesn’t seem like a good result.

Continue reading “Money laundering on an epic scale”

Orwellian propaganda on Syria

This is an AP piece in the Guardian about a bombing/shelling in Syria. I comment on it because it is entirely Orwellian in its sheer alternative reality. People work at the Guardian and they are entirely happy to do this – to tell people A is B. I just wonder why?

As usual; extracts and comments.

Artillery fire from government-controlled territory and airstrikes killed at least eight civilians in Syria’s last rebel enclave on Saturday, most of them children, rescue workers and a war monitor said.

It turns out that the “rescue workers” are the ‘White Helmets’ – a group part-funded by the Foreign Office and set up with the express purpose of producing ‘evidence’ of Assad’s war crimes. This is no secret (and certainly not a ‘conspiracy theory’). At the start of the Syrian conflict the then Foreign Secretary William Hague explained that the British role would be precisely this; to support local groups which would produce evidence of Assad’s war crimes; in order to undermine and topple Assad which was the strategic aim of the British government. This was presented as a better alternative to direct military involvement (though of course British special forces and aviation have been illegally operating in Syria as well). Oh, did I hear “international rules based world order”. I must have misheard. The “war monitor” is the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” – a small operation run by a Syrian emigrant in Coventry. According to highly respected (and mainstream) journalist Peter Hitchens the Foreign Office also funds the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Oh. So the two sources for this AP/Guardian story are both funded by the UK government who is an illegal participant in this war and whose stated aim was to remove Assad by generating evidence of his war crimes. (Assad, recall, was pre-excluded from the “transitional government” which William Hague was promoting).

The AP/Guardian story continues with an account of wounded/killed children. But given the sources we have no realistic means of knowing if this is true or not.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) also reported the shelling and casualties. 

AP/Guardian present this as corroboration. Most likely the information comes from the same sources.

The White Helmets said one of its centres was targeted and destroyed in the air raid, and five volunteers were slightly wounded

That sounds plausible. From the point of view of the Syrian regime the White Helmets is a legitimate target given that it is an anti-regime operation which provides supports for anti-regime actors.

Residents of the enclave are dependent on humanitarian aid brought in from across the border with Turkey. The region is dominated by insurgent groups, among them is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group once linked to al-Qaida.

Oooh. A whopper. We are told that HTS was “once” “linked” to Al-Qaida. And, anyway, it is just one “insurgent group” amongst others who altogether just “dominate” Idlib. This is of course absolutely straightforward lying. Not even the most deluded and self-deceiving believer in the ‘truth’ of the Western narrative could believe this. Idlib is not “dominated” by insurgent groups. It is wholly run by them. HTS plays a dominant role in governing the province. One can believe or not believe the claim of HTS that it has severed links with Al-Qaida though that is not the same as changing its ideology. At any event both the EU and the UN consider it a terrorist outfit.

This is a quote from a June 2018 UN report: “Despite the announcement and attempts to distinguish itself from Al-Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, the group [HTS} remains aligned with Al-Qaida and continues to carry out terrorist operations under this new name”

This is France24 in a report from March 2021: “The region is run by HTS and its 10,000 mostly Syrian fighters, a UN report released last month said.” And “The group is also reported to control distribution of humanitarian aid, ‘and confiscates portions of these goods to reinforce HTS patronage networks,’ the report added.”

And, according to France24 some of the other groups still maintain links to Al-Qaeda: “Among these, the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen, estimated to have 2,000 to 2,500 fighters, according to the UN.”

This is a paper published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (a European think-tank) and authored by a researcher at the Centre for Global Policy – a US think-tank [1]. The author makes it clear that HTS controls Idlib. “Through these rounds of fratricidal fighting, HTS came to dominate Idlib”. [1]

This is from a report on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham by the EU: “It was reported that HTS frequently commit serious human rights abuses, including harassment, assassinations, kidnapping, and torture, as well as unlawful detention of civilians. Civilians have also been extorted and kidnapped for ransom.  The group has conducted formal military campaigns, assassinations, hostage takings, and ‘lone wolf’ operations, including suicide bombings. Members of religious minorities have been forced to convert to Islam and adopt Sunni customs”.

The story published by the Guardian that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is just one group in Idlib and that it has broken its links with Al-Qaeda is a very nice example of the Orwellian propaganda that we now live with as the norm. It is fiction – not remotely true. HTS dominates Adlib and is regarded by the UN and EU as a terrorist organisation. But…. in fact the text in the Guardian could be defended in court. It is true that HTS has publicly said that it has broken with Al-Qaeda. It is not the only group in Idlib; in fact it cooperates with Turkish-backed Islamist groups. And so – full-on Orwellian. True but not true at all.


  1. The article is curiously undated but on internal evidence it was written later than July 2020.