It was Nero’s 1,979th birthday yesterday and I think it’s probably time to look at him again. Among the general public he is generally regarded as a lunatic who burned Christians to death and fiddled while his city burned. Among historians he is generally regarded as a slightly fey fop who was in far over his head and lost his mind when he began to understand the sheer scope of his power.
To my mind both of these views are insufficient.
Picture a man who knows himself to be a God. He is not big headed or arrogant as such, he is a God. He is a God, a descendent of Gods and he carries on the work of his ancestor Gods. And yet, despite this knowledge of his own divinity, he is most fond of some of the most despised people in his dominion.
Nero loved acting, poetry and singing. According to Seutonius ‘he often appeared in public in a dining-robe, with a handkerchief bound about his neck’ and he never wore the same garment twice. He loved theatre above all, it was his abiding passion. He was, let’s face it, a cravat wearing 19th century fop born a couple of millennia too early.
Which is why it is perhaps stunning that, in the early part of his reign, he was reasonably well regarded by the masses of the roman people. Not the aristocracy, of course, they thought he was a disgrace. And when he took to the stage to pursue his dream of being an actor the aristocracy regarded it as a dreadful, undignified scandal. He performed his poetry to the public, he sang and played his lute for them, and though they had no option but to do so there’s no real evidence to suggest their applause weren’t genuine.
Then, before the horrors of his later life when ultimate power would consume him utterly, Rome burned. Nobody knows the cause, though it was most probably arson and could very possibly have been arson by Christian terrorists. Later it would be said that he cackled, that the scandalous lover of music watched Rome burn and did nothing but play his fiddle, but contemporary accounts tell a different story.
He opened his private estates to refugees. He did his best to prevent looting. He began a huge program of public works to rebuild and to employ the thousands upon thousands who had lost everything in nine days of inferno.
But his vision stretched further than that.
Nero was never a man to think small. He saw an opportunity to remake the eternal city before him. Instead of cramped alleys and impenetrable mazes there would be plazas, and statues, and wide avenues. His would be a Rome of art and high culture, not stern and stoic functionality. He would rebuild the empire to suit his vision, it would be an empire of staggering beauty and soaring art. No longer would actors be viewed as the scum of the earth, no longer would poetry be the domain of the young and empty headed, Rome would reshape the world to be elegant, inspiring and majestic.
It didn’t work, of course. The cost of such an operation would have been incomprehensibly massive. The world turned, Nero began to resent his failures and from there on his reign is a cascade of increasing horror. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, being a good man is incompatible with being a God.
But imagine for a moment that it had worked. Picture it; the civilisation that lies at the foundation of all of western culture turned primarily to the creation of beauty. What could have come of that? What sort of a world would we live in? It may well have been worse, of course, but think of the possibilities of a world founded and grounded in the philosophy of the aesthete.
Nero failed, but his vision as he stood and gazed at the ashes of the greatest city in the world is one that would have swept me away. I would have loved him for that romanticism, for that glory. Perhaps loved him enough to follow him as he marched into hell.
With thanks to LJ Trafford for drawing my attention to the Suetonius quote on Twitter and to Tom Holland for the excellent narrative biography of his life in his book ‘Dynasty.’
Tradition matters. In a way I wish it didn’t, a world in which we could pick up and put down customs at the drop of a hat would certainly be a more harmonious one. It would also be far more empty, a joyless trudge through time with no festivals, no holidays, and no town criers. I like traditions, but they can be problematic; it is the nature of traditions that they are abandoned only rarely, because without continuity they are nothing.
I want you, if you’re unfamiliar with British folk dancing traditions, to bear the above paragraph in mind when I tell you that some Morris sides still perform in blackface.
I’ve been brought up in a family deeply involved in folk music in general and Morris dancing in particular. My Dad started Pigsty Morris in 1987 and my Mum has been a clog dancer since 1976, my brother and sister enjoy ceilidhs and folk festivals and, though I have drifted away from it over the years, I still have a fondness for some of my childhood memories of the folk scene. In the interests of full disclosure I should point out that Pigsty Morris have never performed in blackface.
‘Well?’ I hear you say, ‘when are you going to get to the point?’
Fair enough. There is a debate currently raging about the use of blackface amongst the Morris community.
At first I could not comprehend why this was even in question. It’s blackface. A historical blot that I instinctively find uncomfortable at best. What mad ideas have led Morris dancers to think they can get away with blackface when Al Jolson and the Black and White Minstrels have almost been deliberately erased from the cultural history of the western world?
Well, actually, a few things. None of them are good enough, nothing could be, but they might explain why the debate is raging instead of long over. Also I should point out that I don’t believe anybody in the debate is deliberately racist, honestly, you’ve largely never met a more strident bunch of liberal lefties in your life.
Firstly; like most things to do with Morris dancing, the actual reasons for it are a mystery. It almost certainly doesn’t have roots in racism. Some people say that blacking up began as a kind of crude disguise, a way to hide your identity from meddling priests or landlords. I think it was more likely something to do with industry, miners meeting to practice at the end of a shift and adapting it to be part of their costume. Maybe that’s all wishful thinking. Maybe it has racist origins, maybe not, maybe there’s no real reason beyond a simple way to make your costume more striking and outlandish.
Secondly; it’s a tradition. It’s at least a couple of hundred years old, maybe more (people tend to write a lot of authoritative pieces dating the origins of Morris dancing, they have wildly different dates and are never backed up with any kind of solid evidence. It’s a mystery, and I’m okay with that). If you become, by dint of effort, the guardian of a tradition then it is your duty to defend it. It’s a good thing to do, preserving traditions serves a useful purpose.
Well… everything else really. I used to quite like it when I was a child. A white child. I even used to like their dogged determination to ignore the changing times when I was a teenager. I understand their trepidation, but Morris dancing is a living tradition, and life is change.
I also understand why the people doing it might be so upset. There is a tacit suggestion that they are racist in urging them to stop doing the thing they’re doing. They think ‘I’m not a racist, I’m the person doing it, therefore it can’t be racist.’ There’s reason there, but there isn’t logic.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the pro-blackface camp: you are wrong. Right now I can just about understand that you’re trying to maintain a tradition and that’s very much a part of what you’re supposed to do. But if you keep this up it will start to get dismal. That instinctive urge you feel to keep blackface is the same urge that keeps bullfighting in Spain and dog restaurants in China. I get it, I get why those traditions carry on, but I understand even more why they shouldn’t. And please know that if you don’t stop, soon, the rest of the world will begin to notice and you will very publically be on the wrong side of history.
So why not start a new tradition? Why not wear masks? You’re a creative bunch, I’m sure you could come up with something awesome. Why not burn a few pots of shoe polish every year to commemorate the time you used to do that crazy thing?
I’m sorry you’re losing a part of your performance, I’m sorry you feel that it lessens the importance or the art of Morris dancing (which it absolutely does not), but it’s time to put this one to bed. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.
And, now that’s out of the way, it’s time to deal with the Morris Ring.
Okay, look, this is just stupid. We’ve got people on both sides of this acrimonious divide screaming lies at one another and generally making things up, we’ve got racists getting agitated and a focus on immigration that’s making this country a worse place to live. What the hell are we supposed to think? Are we supposed to argue about the Schengen agreement or try to tell everyone the history of the Maastricht treaty? This is the route most remain voters and campaigners seem to be taking and it’s doing no good.
The problem is that the leave campaign has an emotive message and the remain campaign does not. Saying ‘our country is broken because of immigration and foreign interference’ resonates far more than ‘yes the EU is imperfect but it’s better to be on the inside than the outside because the benefits it brings far outweigh the risk of leaving.’
The truth is the EU is a mess. It’s a mountain of bureaucracy which occasionally makes some terrible decisions and its secretive, undemocratic incompetence makes it difficult to defend. Add that to a generation of hostile right wing press and we have a general ambivalence towards the EU that seems insurmountable.
Perhaps the distaste began in Sarajevo. Perhaps the failure of the EU to get its act together and actually do anything about the disgusting war crimes being carried out in its back garden began the slow slide. I don’t think so though. I don’t think most people in Britain know anything at all about the EU, what it does, how it works, its history, its purpose… anything. All we ever hear from the press and politicians is how awful the whole thing is and how bureaucrats from Brussels are ruining our way of life. It’s a joke, a failure of the press that weighs on us now.
So what can be said? What positive messages can we reduce to sound bites in order to convince wavering voters that remaining in the EU is a good idea?
Well for starters we could remind them that the member states of the EU are our friends and allies, not some international coalition of somehow anti-British plotters. Spain is our friend, as is France and Germany, and the rhetoric of the Brexit campaigners is the turgid mutterings of pre-war nationalist thinking.
We could remind them that land wars in Europe have barely happened while it exists. I’m not suggesting, as the prime minister has, that a continent wide conflict would be the inevitable result of Brexit but if you think the prejudices and discontent that precipitated two world wars have somehow gone away then you just need to have a quick look at some of the darker corners of the internet. I don’t want to be drafted in to a conflict that would end in nuclear annihilation anyway, do you?
Talking about the working time directive or the increase in food standards or the cleanliness of our beaches doesn’t seem to be doing much good. I’m mainly voting to remain part of the EU because I don’t trust the political establishment in this country to govern fairly without the checks and balances the EU provides. Do you really want to see Prime Minister Boris Johnson enacting legislation with nobody to stop him? The only people who would have any way to block his choices would be the House of Lords or the Queen, do you want to live in a country where they, inevitably, have greater power? Do you want to live in an even less democratic society?
For all its faults, and they are many, we are better in the EU than out. It, like all governments, does some good things and some bad, but our political establishment are chomping at the muzzle, clawing at power they cannot be allowed to have.
*** Spoilers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice throughout. Though you shouldn’t care because this film is terrible***
For the first time I have been moved to write a movie review. It’s a big movie, you may well have seen it already, and it has received a very poor critical reception so far. Its enormous marketing campaign will ensure it makes enough money to succeed, fans of the characters will still buy its merchandise, but it is still and will remain an abject artistic failure. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has problems far deeper than a poor script, inept direction and awful CGI and I’m still trying to figure out how it went so badly wrong. I shall try to break this review in to sections to better organise my thoughts and stay on topic but it’s probably inevitable that I will digress in to infuriated rants and call for Zack Snyder’s head on a plate, I apologise in advance.
The Good Stuff.
As with all Zack Snyder helmed projects there are flashes of brilliance. Ben Affleck is believable as Batman, for instance, portraying a more psychologically unstable version of the character than Christian Bale’s suave ninja. He is a muscular presence in every sense of the word, occasionally filling the screen with barely contained fury.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is… fine. I suppose.
Henry Cavill’s Superman is also fine, though he is certainly not given enough to do by either the writers or the director.
Gal Gadot was very promising and gave me some hope for the upcoming Wonder Woman film.
There was a jump scare during one of the many poorly signposted dream sequences, it worked. I know a lot of people find jump scares cheap and irritating but I enjoy them, they’re a perfectly acceptable film making tool.
The Bad Stuff.
This film needs an editor. That editor needs to be legally allowed to simply guillotine Zack Snyder and send me his head on a plate if he makes any kind of fuss. The middle third or so of Batman V Superman: Blades of Glory was a meandering, meaningless mess which served no purpose and should have been left on the cutting room floor.
On top of that there were a number of confusing dream sequences. They are very, very poorly signposted, though I suspect this may have been the result of Zack Snyder’s misguided attempts to employ subtlety rather than simple incompetence.
The greater problem with the dream sequences is that they told the audience nothing and did not advance the plot or illuminate the motivations of the characters in any way. At their worst they were effectively adverts for upcoming films in the series and meant nothing to non comics readers. Why would someone unfamiliar with Darkseid and the New Gods react with awe at the sight of an enormous omega symbol burned in to ground? The answer is that they would not, nor would they care or be intrigued by it in any way.
STOP DESATURATING THE COLOURS IN ALL YOUR FILMS, ZACK. I like a bit of darkness in my movies as much as the next Goth but if you don’t have anything to compare it to because everything’s dark then it loses all impact. When Batman and Superman are squaring off against one another while wearing, due to your extreme colour desaturation and decision to shoot in 3D (which makes the resulting film considerably darker) the same grey cape and grey jumpsuit combination while standing on the grey batmobile in a grey landscape under a grey sky then something has gone wrong, hasn’t it? Was anyone on hand to tell you when you’d made a blindingly obvious mistake? When watching Batman v Superman: Tower of Pisa I get the feeling that you were surrounded by yes men, it is the same feeling I had when watching the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Just to make clear how bad the desaturation was; like about 5% of people in the world I am colourblind. I find red and green hard to distinguish and I also have more than my fair share of difficulty with blue and yellow, though as long as the shades are different enough I don’t have much of a problem. Zack Snyder decided to have a man spray paint a slogan on to a statue, a statue which, due to the extreme desaturation effect, was a kind of grey/green colour. The man in the film used a can of red paint. I could not see the slogan he painted at all, and this is the first time in any film that this has been a genuine problem.
The Naked Product Placement.
Lex Luthor eats some sweets. We get a nice close up of the bowl and see that it contains a number of snickers sweets. The close up lingers for long enough for us to read the logo several times. Lex Luthor is wealthy and has Jesse Eisenberg’s hair. You could be wealthy and have Jesse Eisenberg’s hair if you act like him. Go and buy some snickers.
I wanted to call this section ‘The effects’ but I honestly don’t think there were any practical effects in this whole mess. Batman v Superman: House of Pancakes makes no visual sense during action scenes and those are the sequences in which you, as a member of the audience, need the most visual clarity. Snyder spent his time with the FX team telling them to add more clutter to his film instead of going to a nearby guillotine and chopping his own head off after instructing his PA to send it to me on a plate once he was dead. Nothing has any weight in this mess; buildings collapse, everything explodes at the drop of a hat, lightning arcs through the sky and all of it looks bad. When there are no practical effects in a film then objects and people obey the demands of the director rather than the laws of physics and your subconscious mind knows that what you are watching is not real. Contrast this mess of a film (which you will, statistically speaking, go and see even if you haven’t already) with last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road; the action sequences in that were bone crunching, astonishing sights made to feel all the more real because the director insisted on stunt work wherever possible and used digital effects only to enhance what was already present.
Now, granted, some directors fall in to the trap of realising how much of a powerful tool modern computer driven effects are and start trying to use them for everything in every instance because it, genuinely, seems like a good idea (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson) but I don’t think that’s the case here. I honestly believe, from looking at his past work and extrapolating what I can about his personality from interviews, that Zack Snyder is simply too bloody lazy to do it right. Practical effects mean directing sequences with stuntmen, pyrotechnicians, health and safety officials, choreographers and a dozen other people over the course of a long, complex working day. It would surprise me if a man as bone idle about film making as Zack “Sucker Punch” Snyder didn’t look at all that and decide he’d be far happier sat about in an office somewhere occasionally yelling at an animator.
Don’t get me wrong, computer driven special effects are amazing, but the best way to use them will always be to enhance what’s already there or to create something that is otherwise completely impossible.
The Miniature Trailers for Upcoming DC Comics Films.
Wonder Woman, in one sequence, sits at her computer and watches some video files. Each of them showcases a new superhero. Each of these superheroes has an upcoming film. Zack Snyder, unable to think of a good way to hint towards them in any other way, has Wonder Woman sit down and watch video files of them on her computer. This is the laziest, most artistically bankrupt sequence in the movie, to the extent that I suspect even Snyder is a bit embarrassed about it.
I was going to write a long rant in this section. I was going to get really, really cross about his relentless awfulness but I just don’t have the energy now that I come to it. I’ve had too many people try to tell me that there are no politics in a Zack Snyder movie, that I’m gazing too deeply in to a shallow pool. I’m saving my rage for the next part. All you really need to know about Zack Snyder and his infantile politics, especially if you somehow believe he hasn’t got any, is that he has recently expressed a desire to make one of Ayn Rand’s books in to a film.
True to Snyder’s predictable form; it has been a film before. It would be a remake.
The film opens with the iconic sequence. We all know how it goes; mother, father and child step in to an alley, a figure with a gun emerges from the shadows. The mother moves forward to shield her child with her body while the father tries to hand over his wallet and calm the situation. Something goes wrong, a flash of light or a backfiring car startles the mugger. As he panics two bullets make Bruce Wayne an orphan.
Snyder does not understand this story.
In Batman v Superman: Out of Ideas the story goes slightly differently. Mother, father and child step in to an alley. A figure with a gun emerges from the shadows. The mother moves forward to shield her child with her body while the father gets really angry and, like, totally hulks out brah and tries to punch a man holding his family at gunpoint even thought that’s an incredibly stupid move cuz he’s totally badass. The mugger arguably acts in self defence and kills the obviously psychotic and instinctually violent Thomas Wayne, presumably causing his family to sigh with relief. Then he kills Martha Wayne but she’s not a complete moron like her husband and she’s, you know, a girl so she doesn’t really fight. The mugger kills her anyway because the origin story of Batman demands it and for no other reason.
Similarly; Superman does not kill. Many times, in many comics, Lois Lane has been held at gunpoint by some sort of villainous man. In order to deal with this problem Superman has a number of abilities that he can deploy. He can use his heat vision to make the gun hot, forcing the hostage taker to drop it. He can use his freezing breath to encase the weapon in ice. He could, while the gunman blinks, simply snatch the weapon from his hand or deploy his super strength to crush the barrel and render the firearm unusable.
The Superman of Batman v Superman: Horn of Plenty is a bloodthirsty monster.
The first thing he does in the entire film is clearly and brutally murder a guy. In a sequence clearly modeled on Benghazi, because Zack Snyder, Lois Lane is taken hostage. Superman arrives. He has the options outlined above but instead he opts to fly at just under superluminal velocity and smashes the hostage taker through two brick walls. The hostage taker is human and possessed of no special abilities. That man is dead now, there can be no doubt about it.
Zack Snyder does not understand that heroism and violence are not the same thing.
Zack Snyder on Killing.
When Zack Snyder was asked about the fan reaction to the massive collateral damage caused directly by Superman his response was thus:
‘I went, really? And I said, well, what about Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens? In Star Wars they destroy five planets with billions of people on them. That’s gotta be one of the highest death toll movies in history, the new Star Wars movie, if you just do the math.’
Zack Snyder thinks this makes sense. Either Zack Snyder thinks the civilisation destroying villains in Star Wars are the good guys or he thinks it’s acceptable for Superman to destroy civilisations on a whim or… what do you mean Zack? Do you even know? He doesn’t know. Zack Snyder is the end product of a Hollywood that happily bankrolls Michael Bay. He is the bastard love child of Renny Harlin and Battle-of-Five-Armies-era Peter Jackson.
On My Own Obvious Fanboyism.
Yes, I am a comics enthusiast. Stop sniggering.
At his best Superman is an immigrant story, or a sun God, or a benign philosopher, and he is always a beacon of pacifism in a complex world. At his best Batman is a saviour and protector, a believer in redemption and mercy who delivers his mentally ill adversaries to a secure mental health unit where they can receive treatment for their afflictions.
These are not optional aspects of the characters. Superman is a hero because of, not in spite of, his pacifism. Can you imagine if such a being existed in reality and he was not a pacifist? Someone who could fly at light speed and annihilate whoever he pleased with a glance? He could not be anything other than a terrifying monster. By the same token Batman, at his best, is a billionaire with mental health problems who has channeled his illness to a constructive purpose. He wishes to make the streets safe for the people of Gotham, to ensure that no child has to go through the trauma he once suffered. If he kills criminals, or allows them to die by his own inaction, then he is a serial killer.
Saviours, heroes, are complex. Their struggles are morality tales, their victories are pyrrhic, their kindness is bottomless and they will sacrifice themselves for you without hesitation. Their actions are not driven by guilt but by compassion for compassion’s sake. Having a punching competition with a green CGI lightning monster does not make for a compelling story. Zack Snyder likes the idea of heroism, but he doesn’t understand it.
It was inevitable. It’s been inevitable since the eleventh of September, 2001. It’s been inevitable since the soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It’s been inevitable since the British Empire carved up the region and empowered a dozen petty despots to rule over oil rich land. It may even have been inevitable since the Ottoman Empire collapsed under its own weight. We’re going to bomb Syria and it’s going to escalate horribly.
Isil/IS/Daesh are a problem. There’s no negotiated settlement to reach with them, they can’t be reasoned with because they believe they are ushering in the apocalypse and, importantly, they believe that’s a good thing to do. Their King, who I will not dignify with the title of Caliph, is a racist, a rapist and a murderer who has used their fanaticism to carve himself a kingdom and now we’re going to bomb it.
So how did it come to this? Well, we’re talking about a region of the world which has arguably birthed all of the world’s most successful religions that sits on top of an enormous volume of oil but very little fertile land outside of Egypt. It’s not hard to see how that could be a powder keg, in fact it’s hard to see how it could not be. These are, however, very broad strokes. A potted, simplified history will follow.
Daesh grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), AQI declared an “Islamic State” in Iraq and changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) because they have no imagination because fascists tend not to. They were no longer getting along with Al Qaeda because ISI were brutally persecuting and murdering Shia Muslims. Why were they persecuting Shia Muslims? They say it’s because they’re infidels but really it’s for the same reason all fascist states start persecuting minorities; a shared enemy is a uniting force. It is an effective, awful way to bind people together.
Of course they didn’t stop there. They did terrible things to Christians, to Jews, to Yazidis, to Druze, to gay people, to anyone who didn’t fit in to their narrow, misogynistic, fascist cult. It wasn’t enough, they underestimated the war weariness of the West so they started to attack targets at home. The Paris attacks were the most notable, though there have been other, smaller atrocities.
So how can I argue against bombing them? How can I, I hear some of you ask, condemn military action against them?
The short answer is that I’m not. They have to be stopped. I’m not against action against Daesh, I’m against this action against Daesh. It’s another open ended mess of meaningless, mission creep drivel. Time and again in the ten hour House of Commons debate we saw MP’s stand and warn us against assuming that we were about to repeat the mistakes of the past. They didn’t really seem to tell us in what way it would be different this time.
This whole thing is probably closest to Libya. Not Iraq so much, though the rumbling war there was an unmitigated disaster by any sane measure. In Libya we sent the bombs down to help a revolution in progress and saw a vile regime replaced by a thousand warring militias and an utterly failed state, a post apocalyptic, Mad Max wasteland nightmare brewing the worst kinds of violence, a chaos of pain and misery.
The Prime Minister claims there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels with whom we can work to build a post-Assad Syria. This claim rightly raised more than a few guffaws. The idea that any kind of remotely accurate data could be extracted from the Syrian maelstrom is laughable at best, I suspect this one is on a par with the ‘42 minutes’ claim made by Blair before Iraq.
So what am I trying to say? Honestly I’m conflicted. I don’t want to see a war over there but that’s not really an option because it’s already happening. Britain does share some of the responsibility for the mess Syria is in, the sense of responsibility doesn’t come from some vestigial colonial urge. Daesh are awful and they absolutely will not stop until they are made to stop and the longer they’re left there the worse it will get both for the people living under their rule and us in the West. Doing nothing could never be an option for any nation in Britain’s position, no matter what form of government or culture or faith.
I suppose, at heart, I feel you cannot fight half a war. We have to speak with Russia to make something workable. We have to help the Kurds find a future. We have to work with Iran. We cannot allow Assad to reestablish control now that the people of Syria have comprehensively rejected his rule. We need a broad coalition, a workable solution and achievable goals. We need to know what we’re getting in to and how to get out of it. We’re not really doing any of those things.
So I’m against airstrikes because bombs alone won’t bring us peace. They won’t lift the spectre of international terrorism from the world. They won’t kill only the bad people, no matter how accurate they are and how much the political leaders might wish it. They can’t emancipate women or rebuild the temple of Bel. They can’t teach a child that a martyr’s shroud is unbecoming. All a bomb can do is explode.
It goes without saying that attacks in Paris on Friday were awful and brutal and the product of a disgusting perversion of faith. The attacks in Beirut too, of course, and their lack of equivalent coverage has been widely noted and discussed. The people who committed the acts were vile people and willing to do vile things. This entry is not about that, I have nothing to add that hasn’t been said by a thousand pundits in a thousand places. I don’t know how to defeat the ideology of IS or their physical forces. I will not refer to them as ‘ISIS,’ Isis is a loving mother goddess and I will not help them to obliterate even a portion of another religion. I don’t know how to bring peace to the middle east or end the endless war, there is no simple solution and its history, when it is written, will take up volumes upon volumes and barely scratch the surface. I don’t know how to change the culture of the various tribes, juntas, theocratic monarchies, warlords and fanatics often described under the umbrella of ‘radical Islam.’ I don’t know how to reconcile differences caused by decades of bloodshed or reconcile the modern world with Wahhabism or counter online IS propaganda. I despair of the armchair generals and insidious ‘us versus them’ attitude about Muslims pumped out by the venal right.
I do know, however, about how vulnerable a powerless and isolated young person can be in the west.
When you find yourself, for whatever reason, cut off from mainstream society there is still a powerful urge to find something to belong to. Personally I felt isolated mostly because I was bookish and quiet as a child. It was not a good way to make friends in a Bristol school in the 80’s and 90’s, I was the butt of many jokes and casual cruelties and it wore me down until it broke me. Though my social skills blossomed later and I came out of my shell as I entered adulthood I felt no real stake in the world for a long, long period of my life and as a result I resented it. All of it. I began to search for a philosophy, for a group to belong to, to find a tribe and a purpose.
As luck would have it I found Goth. I can’t honestly say why it speaks to me more than any other subculture but the sense of belonging while being simultaneously removed from mainstream society is undoubtedly a part of it. I made friends and had exciting adventures and wild times but before I got there I reveled, for a while, in a much more uncertain and cruel darkness. My isolation led to an extreme resentment against the world, I did many things I regret and I did them without conscience and it took me a long time, and intervention from people to whom I now believe I owe my life, to crawl back out of the nihilistic mire. Essentially I was an empty vessel, seeking something and never knowing what.
If I had been brought up in a different culture, one defined by the stories and history of Islam rather than secular, white England, I might easily have become a fanatic. If I had entered that period of my life and the people there with me had been radical preachers instead of relentlessly carousing, slightly messy and wonderful friends I would have turned out very differently. I can see it, when I close my eyes, a simple and horrible path to becoming a murderous zealot. I needed someone to listen to me, to help me get through the awkward years, to look out for me and to be there when I needed them. If they had been saying ‘make war on the decadent west and give your life for Allah’ in response to my search for meaning I would almost certainly take it on board. Fortunately they said things like ‘try snorting the salt, then drinking the tequila, then squeezing the lemon in your eye, whoever can do the most of those pays for the lot.’
Now I know there are as many ways to become brainwashed as there are brainwashed people. I know, also, that some of them are mentally unstable and some of them are vulnerable and a very few of them are pure, dyed in the wool psychopaths who just want to kill people. I know that, had my life been only ever so slightly different, I could have found myself one of them. It’s important to bear this in mind; can you say you’ve always understood the world and never felt in need of guidance? Can you say that you’ve never felt empty, like your life is freewheeling and without purpose? That’s the vulnerability they exploit most easily and most often, many of IS’s followers have fallen for the con, the man who enters their life and guides them gently in to the grave, broken down and rebuilt as joyless, tedious, death worshiping fascists.
It’s a hard walk back from there but it is not impossible. At the moment they are presented in the media as a cartoon villains with no nuance or subtlety, as inherently bad people with no depth and this is irresponsible in the extreme. Right now, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, it is perhaps understandable to treat IS as somehow inhuman but it is a trend that is now long established. I’m not calling for reconciliation, or for kindness, or for turning the other cheek, I’m simply calling for understanding. Already they prey on the manufactured differences between east and west and in distancing ourselves from any attempt to comprehend them we give them better tools for their awful cause. They can point at us and say ‘the west does not know Islam, they do not care to know us.’ They can use their mystique to lure the lost.
IS are only human, the things they do are human, the way they become who they are is human, a good way to weaken them is to remember that.