Thursday, June 13, 2013
Looking back to Spain, and sideways to Syria
The New Statesman recently reminisced about its former editor Kingsley Martin’s feud with Tribune’s former literary editor George Orwell about the latter’s attempt to tell the whole truth about the Spanish War. Martin preferred the commodity doled out sparingly, for which Orwell never forgave him.
Like many people who would otherwise swear by the truth as an abstract principle, Martin made it a partisan issue for the “cause.” Orwell, of course, often defied such criticism: that to tell the truth would harm the war effort, or harm unity with the part of the so-called left that had tried to kill him in Spain and was busily executing Socialists across Eastern Europe. Interestingly, twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, its ghosts haunt Orwell’s reputation yet, with vitriolic detractors whose ad-hominem hatred has almost forgotten its original roots in the purges and now uncontested mass murders of the era.
Veracity as a sacred principle has lots of small-print exceptions for so many people. It would be “bad for Israel,” or bad for the Palestinians. Over years of writing, I’ve been told I couldn’t say “that” about Militant in Liverpool, New Labour, UN corruption, and many other causes. In an eerie echo of Martin in the Statesman, I was told that the Nation in the US had a line, so we could not write anything about intervention in Kosovo that was not outright condemnation. It would “aid imperialism” to say that Slobodan Milosevic built his power on unleashing genocidal impulses.
The Hapsburg lip allegedly led generations of sycophantic dons into emulatory lisps -- which is a minor lapse -- the compared to all those who joined committees to “defend” Rwandan and Balkan mass murderers against “imperialist” justice.
All of us practice a partial vision some extent. Someone might indeed be very ugly, but it behooves us not to point that out. But like the emperor with his new clothes, if such a political figure poses publicly, then it is indeed a writer’s duty to mention their absence of raiment.
Recent weeks have seen some outstanding examples of reckless candour that deserve applause and support. Bradley Manning revealed clear examples of crimes by the Pentagon, notably the murder of a Reuters camera team in Baghdad and the gunning down of innocent civilians coming to help the wounded. It is worth recalling that the Pentagon lied to Reuter’s legal Freedom of Information request by claiming the video was lost.
He deserves all-out support from journalists, not the mumbling diffidence of the New York Times that published his revelations while abandoning their source. Similarly, one hopes that revelations that Edward Snowden supported deranged libertarian right-winger Ron Paul will not detract from support for his deed revealing, dare one say, Orwellian, government surveillance that would have Big Brother green with envy!
One other, almost unrecognised act of non-partisan balance, has come from the UN, in its reports on Syria, which suggest that people on both sides have used chemical weapons and violated human rights. It has resisted attempts to provide the smoking chemical canisters that neocon hawks would like, even though it has indeed made plain that the balance of crimes weighs heavily down on the regime side.
The parallels with Spain are painful. Most atrocities from the rebel side in Syria seem to be associated with their version of the International Brigades, which include fundamentalists coming in to “help.” This week, Russia Today quite correctly reported on their execution of a young Syrian for “heresy.” Somewhat less correctly, RT maintains complete silence on the regime’s mass killings of civilians and opponents.
Orwell’s commitment to the defeat of fascism was unimpeachable. And apart from being one of nature’s awkward squad, he appreciated that publicly ignoring obvious horrors for expediency’s sake does not help the cause of justice and progress in the slightest.
Orwell supported the Republicans in Spain, even though the KGB operating under their aegis tried to kill him -- and actually did execute many others. He certainly did not collectively condemn his comrades in arms who went to fight in the Brigades.
The reason that many of us oppose Assad’s regime is because it is ruthless and murderous, so there is absolutely no reason not to denounce such behaviour when committed by some of “our” side. Indeed, there is even more reason to do so, since to be silent implies complicity.
The truth is not only an effective principle, it is also an expedient weapon in the war of public opinion. We should pillory all who betray it.