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Jim, John, Bjorn and the GOAT

I doubt I fully appreciated the trouble my father had gone into to secure my first ever Centre Court ticket at Wimbledon in June 1979. I had desperately wanted to watch Bjorn Borg, my childhood hero, but instead we got his tenacious rival (pre-McEnroe), the player who invented the tennis grunt (pre-Sharapova), Jimmy Connors.

We watched the American World No.3 come back from a set down to defeat Marty Riessen in the second round and overawed as I must have felt just being there, I probably consoled myself that there was value in watching my hero’s arch enemy close up. Borg overpowered Connors in the semis and despite being pushed in the final by the freaky serves of Roscoe Tanner he went on to win his fourth Wimbledon title.

Until that moment there was really no talk of a ‘Greatest of All Time’ (GOAT). There were several ‘greats’, Perry (mostly for the British), Laver, Emerson, but no definable GOAT.

In the following year, 1980, in the second most spectacular Wimbledon final ever (the 2008 Nadal-Federer one was by far the best), Borg defeated the impertinent and painfully talented John McEnroe to win his fifth title1. People then began to talk of a GOAT.

Five Wimbledon titles in a row, the Swede was on the cusp of greatness. In its cover story in June 1980 TIME magazine asked ‘Is he the best player to ever lift a racquet?’ 2

Then, after losing to McEnroe in his sixth Wimbledon final in 1981, GOAT talk was temporarily suspended. It was permanently terminated two months later when after losing in the US Open final (again to McEnroe) Borg not only shunned the award ceremony (for which he was booed by the crowd) but left New York and walked out of professional tennis. Completely. He had won 11 Grand slams. He was 26.

By coincidence at 26, in 2012, Rafael Nadal (pictured above with Borg) had also won 11 grand slams: 7 French, 2 Wimbledon, 1 US Open and 1 Australian. He too was on the cusp of greatness, though he had to put up with (but also be thankful for) the cruising dominance of his arch rival Roger Federer who had by then won 13 grand slams. At that moment both were behind Pete Sampras’ record of 14.

Today what makes the 36-year-old Nadal a GOAT contender is not just that he leads the pack having accumulated 22 grand slams but that he has done so in a career that has spanned two decades and, crucially, he has done it despite the degenerative Mueller-Weiss Syndrome which affects his foot.

The Spaniard has played with painkillers for most of his career. “I am not injured; I am a player living with an injury” he said recently. Mueller-Weiss syndrome is a rare disease where the navicular bone in the foot undergoes spontaneous osteonecrosis. This causes blood to be cut off from the navicular bone, causing pain and deformity3.

The glamour and the prize money often obscure how excruciatingly demanding the sport is. Nowhere else do players battle it out alone for four, sometimes five hours. At best, professionals – who essentially start an intensive junior career as early as their late teens – can on average look ahead to a 12 to 15-year long career.

Nadal turned professional at 15. He has been an impeccable one for 21 years. He is the only player that has been in the Top Ten for 17 years without fail. Federer who was born the year Borg retired is 41 and intent on playing more. Serena Williams, who announced she will retire after the current US Open, dominated women’s tennis from 1999 to 2017. She won her last slam that year two months into her pregnancy. With 23 to her name, she is, for the moment, ahead of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.

Our media induced obsession with metrics drives competition and comparisons and generates ticket sales and television viewership. Numbers sustain narratives. Records and the desire to break them prolong careers. While going for his 23rd grand slam at Wimbledon this summer Nadal had to withdraw in the semis following an abdominal tear he had picked up in the quarters. On the morning of his match, labouring over whether he should face the talented but insouciant Australian Nick Kyrgios, Nadal practiced for an hour just to test the injury. Kyrgios later admitted that he had practiced for only an hour a day leading into the championships.

Hard work and discipline are key ingredients of legendary status. What made Borg one was not the unconventionality of his strokes, the top-spin and the hockey-stick double handed backhand but his endless practicing and the cool discipline behind his stubborn desire to win. For reasons that those of us outside must acknowledge we cannot comprehend he suddenly lost that desire. Thankfully, and equally incomprehensibly, Nadal has not.

In the end the debate about the GOAT is misleading if not entirely inappropriate. There have been great players who have not broken records or reached ranking heights but who have thrilled crowds and brought change in ways that are less technical or statistical but certainly more significant. Arthur Ash, Martina Navratilova, Yannick Noah and Billie Jean King come to mind.

Their sporting lives were battles not just against their opponents across the net but wars of attrition against institutional discrimination and prejudice. Their grinding victories on issues of gender and race demanded a whole lot more than just talent and on-court hard work. The impact their careers have had goes well beyond the sport.

Perhaps instead of counting titles and tracking rankings we should focus on the greatest impact OAT. In which case, much as I admired Borg and continue to root for Nadal, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams are the clear winners – racquets down.

Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, BNP Paribas Open, 2014

Notes:

1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnwYdF8a5ws

2 – TIME magazine June 1980:

3 https://www.orpha.net/consor/cgi-bin/OC_Exp.php?lng=en&Expert=566943

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Post Fact Figments

As if the collective Cypriot mind didn’t have enough trouble distinguishing myth from historical reality, along comes Andreas Hadjikyriacos with an intricately constructed story based on historical events to short-circuit the excitable conspiracy-prone Cypriot psyche.1

For optimists the publication of fact-based historical fiction in a country that still struggles with its recent past might be construed as some kind of progress. More so at a time when almost everywhere else, even in countries grounded in sound readings of their history, fact-based fiction is increasingly being served as truth.

Hadjikyriacos’ teasing novel focuses on the Cyprus Airways flight that crashed into the Mediterranean near the island of Rhodes on 12 October 1967 with the loss of all 66 passengers and crew. It was at the time the worst aviation disaster in Cypriot history.

The De Havilland DH-106 Comet 4, operated by British European Airways, took off from London Heathrow as BE284 bound for Nicosia via Athens where it was designated as CY284. Building on Simon Hepworth’s diligent research on the crash and the results of the investigation that followed2, Hadjikyriacos uses the prevailing but never proven hypothesis as his narrative decoy: that CY284 came down as part of an attempt to assassinate General Georgios Grivas who had been expected to be on board.

The anti-colonial guerilla leader, who played an insidious role in post-independence Cypriot politics, had reportedly booked a seat on the flight but was a no-show. Hadjikyriacos allows the reader to hover between this deeply embedded perception and the cover-up counter narrative: that the British authorities had conveniently advanced the assassination line to deflect attention from the mechanical problems Comet 4s were experiencing at the time.

Hadjikyriacos’ own improbable but not entirely impossible fantasy begins in Nicosia four years ago and blends real people whose identities he obscures and key political figures from Greece and Cyprus. His main character, reporter Stratis Leondaritis, who one suspects is Hadjikyriacos’ alter ego, is prompted to dig deeper into the CY284 saga following a freak discovery connecting an unknown-to-him family event with a passenger on the fateful Comet. The reporter turns to his mentor Iasonas Spanides, a veteran journalist in Athens and once press officer at the Greek royal palace, for guidance and clues.

Pre-Google investigative journalism and yellowed diary entries combine with bruised civil servant egos and shadowy secret service operatives to take the reader into the darkness of the 1967 Athens junta and the tensions between the Greek generals and Archbishop Makarios. The story heats up with the Archbishop’s alleged close relationship with the Queen Mother, Frederica of Hanover, the devious mother of King Constantine, and their discussions about an urgent mystery shipment to Cyprus.

It will not come as a surprise to those who know Hadjikyriacos (full disclosure: this writer among them) that he has produced a masterful plot combining his love of politics and historical detail with his astute journalistic writing. The story holds because he skillfully supports his figments as if he were corroborating the validity of factual reporting.

A former journalist at Phileleftheros, later news editor and anchorman at MEGA TV, he now runs a highly successful communication agency. At his peak he was the most well-informed and dispassionate political reporter at a time when it was rare for journalists in Cyprus to write with non-patriotic clarity. Having always had access to the political establishment he had to soak up many versions of the same stories. Finding their inconsistencies had been his bread and butter. This book does in fact feel like an homage to the journalism of old, the journalism he abandoned for the glamorous complications of communication consulting.

Had he stayed in the frustrating world of reporting perhaps he might have helped stave off the depressing decline of Cypriot journalism. Perhaps, even, instead of expertly fictionalizing what is ultimately an engrossing story, one for which his publishers would be well advised to consider an English translation, he may have helped resolve the great mystery and delivered an explosive exclusive.

The Scotland Yard and UK Home Office files on CY284 will, however, remain suspiciously out of the public domain until 2066. The official line was that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone. Hepworth’s 2018 book offered a comprehensive account of the flight, the recovery operation and the investigation and even led to a belated commemorative plaque placed at Heathrow to honour the 66 victims. But clearly there’s more.

Hadjikyriacos spins his project along the famous quip by former US National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism Richard A Clarke3: “Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction.” Probably. The reality of course is that outright lies and pure fiction are far easier to deal with than non-truths that are interspersed with facts and which then infiltrate our news stream and national narratives.

But that is, as they say, another story. This book is expertly spun and certainly challenges Cypriots’ perceptions of their history. It also takes digs at the worshiping of their not-so-great political legends, the country’s offshore money-making sins and even its lingering gender stereotypes. In its most meaningful part, in a short afterword entitled Post-Factum, Hadjikyriacos the journalist overrules Hadjikyriacos the novelist and goes on to explain to readers what the facts actually reveal and what they hide. Once a journalist always a journalist.

Photos: The CY284 book cover and the front page of the Cyprus Mail newspaper on 10/2/1968.

  1. Πτήση CY284 – Ανδρέας Χατζηκυριάκος, 2022, Καστανιώτης.
  2. Bealine Charlie Oscar – The Mystery of Flight CY284, Simon Hepworth, 2018, Mention the War Publishers Ltd.
  3. https://richardaclarke.net/
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Belling the Cats

Post-Journalism takes on Post-Truth

In his seminal 1999 book What are Journalists For? NYU professor Jay Rosen pointed to a plaque at the National Press Club in Washington dating from 1958 which reads: “I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than public service is a betrayal of that trust.”

It is difficult to know whether that covenant of trust means anything to anyone in the profession today. If it does, it is probably to a minority of journalists doggedly fighting the good fight but likely to be constrained by the ruthless reality of ownership and the complexities of vested interests. A reality that has seen the profession bow to commercialism, slide into partisanship and, more recently, succumb to the insane culture of social media.

The troubles facing journalism would have been the last thing on Eliot Higgins’ mind when, a decade ago, sitting in his Leicester home, he began analysing photos and videos on Facebook and YouTube of the fall-out of the chemical attacks in Syria and, in 2014, the wreckage of the Malaysian Airways Boeing shot down over Ukraine.

An obsessive gamer from a military family, Higgins pried into social media accounts, watched endless CCTV footage, scrutinized photos of weaponry and geolocated images of military movements and targets. He discovered things the media weren’t picking up and proceeded to share them on his blog challenging the prevailing narratives surrounding unfolding global events.

At that time traditional journalism had still been chasing stories by extracting information through its privileged access to power and from its anonymous sources, considering what the internet was spewing as less worthy. It underestimated what was hidden in plain sight; what Higgins calls OSINT: Open-Source Intelligence.

OSINT was exploding just as media operations were shrinking. Newsrooms didn’t have the time, revenues or the qualified staff to monitor the deluge. Higgins claims they were overwhelmed whereas he had all the time and the skills – Google Earth assisting – to zoom in and to check evidence more closely. Like a latter-day David Hemmings from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, he enlarged and analyzed photographs and maps connecting pieces of shrapnel and mustard gas canisters to culprits and their victims.

In his thriller of a book We Are Bellingcat 1 Higgins explains how he and his network of internet sleuths expertly produced the evidence that demolished the narratives of Basher Al Assad and Vladimir Putin simply by delving deeper than established media were willing, or capable, of digging.

Higgins proved that the missile that hit the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 killing 298 people had been fired from a BUK missile launcher in Russian-held Ukrainian territories. He produced photographic evidence of its precise location and then tracked the BUK’s subsequent transfer into Russia – with one missile missing from its launch pad.

Mashable run the news under the headline “Group of Bloggers Unearthing MH17 Intel Quicker than US spies”2. Their work would even find its way to the MH17 tribunal in The Hague.

The journalist Peter Jukes, now editor of the Byline Times, helped christen the group by alluding to the fable of the frightened mice that tried to hang a bell around the cat’s neck to get early warning of its arrival. Bellingcat’s mission is to put bells on the necks of those preying on the truth and rattling democratic discourse.  

It was Tahrir Square’s social media revolution that first promised citizen journalism but the results were shallow and chaotic. Bellingcat has raised the bar. By observing citizen journalists and their posts it corroborates witness testimonies and affirms or debunks sources; it maps networks of relationships among key actors, sorts and verifies the raw data and painstakingly assembles the stories.

Today the Bellingcat team consists of 40 staff and senior contributors. If you’ve watched the recently released documentary Navalny3, the investigation that leads up to the astonishing dial-up scene where Alexei Navalny confronts the Russian agents who had attempted to assassinate him, was coordinated by Bellingcat’s executive director Christo Grozev4. And while it probes the world’s most pressing stories Bellingcat also focuses on the ones that major news outlets are overlooking or deliberately ignoring.

Bellingcat, admits Higgins, now finds itself in an unusual position: “We are not exactly journalists, nor human-rights activists, nor computer scientists, nor archivists, nor academic researchers, nor criminal investigators but at the nexus of all those disciplines”. Perhaps it is this unusual position that makes Bellingcat so appropriate to the task: Focusing on the primacy of fact not on profit or favour. Bellingcat operates as a charitable trust, transparent about its funding and strict in its editorial standards and verification practices.

Illiberal regimes and corrupt institutions will seek to subvert its work. Large sections of the public are likely to remain confused and distrustful. Yet its purposefulness and hard work against disinformation will win citizens over. Its impact may even prompt the rest of the media to snap out of their self-absorbed business model that has, for so long, corrupted their responsibility as trustees for the public. Post-Truth, Bellingcat is animating Post-Journalism.

 

1. We Are Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, 2022, Bloomsbury; see also http://www.bellingcat.com

2. https://mashable.com/archive/citizen-journalists-mh17-spies

3. Navalny, Daniel Roher (director), 2022, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt17041964

4. On 24 May the International Center for Journalism awarded Bellingcat and Christo Grozev its 2022 Innovation in International Reporting Award.

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Yanis at the traffic lights

Wanting to thank a friend recently I got her Kati Marton’s The Chancellor1 an insightful and well researched account of Angela Merkel’s ‘political brilliance’. Books are my appreciation currency and in offering them as gifts they represent, non-fiction titles in particular, a measure of what I consider important in the world of ideas at any given time. But, much as I acknowledge Merkel’s historical significance and respect the restraint and civility she showed at critical moments, it struck me that on its own the book would send a one-sided signal. While she held Europe from breaking apart in 2015, her condemnation of Greece to years of unnecessary austerity was an avoidable failure.

I opted, therefore, to add to my friend’s gift package a copy of Adults in the Room2, the lowdown on Greece’s Eurozone crisis by the controversial economist Yanis Varoufakis a frequent critic of the former Chancellor. It was a deliberate mismatch, a ‘both-sides’ stunt to use the term that captures journalism’s current malaise.

Fifteen years-ago there could not have been a more ill-suited candidate for Germany’s Chancellorship than Merkel. Born in Hanover, her family relocating to East Germany in the 1950s, she would study at Karl Marx University and, improbably after unification, join the centre-right Christian Democrat party, CDU.

Similarly, seven years ago, there could not have been a more ill-suited candidate for Greece’s finance ministry than Varoufakis. Born to leftist activist parents, an obscure but brilliant academic he would take – reluctantly he claimed – centre stage during the Euro crisis to become one of the Left’s most articulate spokespersons.

I pointed to the oddity of the book-pairing in the accompanying card and admitted my binary appreciation. My friend retorted, with exclamation marked excitement, that she was in fact a fan of both Angela and Yanis.

I am quite sure we are in the minority. More so when it comes to Varoufakis who drew immense hostility in the Greek speaking world where his name has been unfairly smeared, but where, I suspect, more people than would dare admit follow his interventions. Less out of conviction, I think, and more as guilty intellectual pleasure.

One might ask “How is it possible to reconcile the ideological positions of Merkel and Varoufakis and ‘appreciate’ both?” It is a question conditioned by an increasingly polarized public discourse which precludes the capacity to hold two seemingly different positions at once.

With politicians desperate for media attention and the media’s own deliberate effort to generate tension, public discourse is a battleground of irreconcilability. Politicians and parties are often pitched against each other in ways they might not actually intend themselves. Some stay trapped there forever.

Mary Southcott, a scholar who had worked closely with the late Robin Cook on constitutional reform in the UK, once told me that elements of socialism, liberalism and conservatism are best in union, not argued against the other. Political parties, she said, will identify with one over the other but sustainability required elements from all of them. Justice and equality from the Left, freedom and individual rights from the Liberals and conserving the best from the past from the Right. It’s a simple notion but one which our political culture doesn’t tolerate; it rarely affords us the chance to contemplate it.

Last month Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, took office with the support of what has become known as the traffic light coalition between his party, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the centre-right and fiscally conservative Free Democrats.

It is an odd mix with the three parties holding very different positions on economic and foreign policies. Significantly, as the economist Andreas Charalambous wrote3 for the Cyprus Economic Society recently, the swiftly reached 700-page agreement is not based on a lowest common denominator but is a synthesis of the priorities of the three parties.

True to form Varoufakis claimed the new federal government would be neither rebellious nor progressive, because, as he put it, politics in Germany is “visionless, conformist and without ambition”.

Yet Varoufakis knows well that post 1945 Germany is not a country of revolutions. It is a mature democracy of rational evolution and incremental progress. It is the only place where responsible market freedom and real social protection achieve an acceptable if not yet fully satisfactory balance.

Which is why, one assumes, Varoufakis has decided to launch DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement4 that he co-founded (and leads in Greece as MERA25) as a new political party there. By utilising the EU right to contest elections across member state jurisdictions his move is a bold foray into European political integration. The radical who was portrayed as anti-European is practically charting a path of pan-Europeanism by pursuing the block’s democratisation on the basis of his movement’s alter-globalisation social ecological agenda.

It is not dissimilar to what the Greens did back in 1983 when they first entered the West German Bundestag and gradually began to change the face of politics in Europe. Now, post-Merkel, the Green Party’s co-leaders have found themselves in the heart of government. Robert Habeck is Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister while Annalena Baerbock is in charge of foreign affairs. Their party is now firmly rooted in the European political spectrum. It took decades but much of what was considered alternative Green extremism in ’83 is now mainstream.

DiEM25 is endorsed by high profile thinkers like Noam Chomski, Naomi Klein, Srecko Horvat and Catherine Lucas as well as a range of already elected European parliamentarians. It is slowly making headway as a transnational progressive movement especially among the educated young fed up with inequality and austerity. Like the Greens in the 80s it is capable of bringing a fundamental rethink of Europe in a post-capitalist world.

With capitalism stuck and democracy shrinking, Europe feels and seems lost. The US is locked in a potentially explosive Republican-Democrat polarity and Brexit Britain is unable to escape its Tory-Labour divide. But a resilient Germany remains sane and open. Which is why there is no better place for DiEM’s ideas to be tested.

As Varoufakis revs up his engine at the traffic lights of German politics he should consider that the Greens may have left it too late. The urgency of the climate crisis demonstrates that languishing in permanent opposition for years and shouting from the outside brings little change. He is definitely onto something important but he is over-committing on rebellion and risks remaining trapped on the sidelines. If he does intend to make any meaningful difference, late as it is, he might consider a more Merkelian approach: The maddening but strategically imperative coalition-building avenue.

  1. https://www.bookdepository.com/The-Chancellor/9780008499457
  2. https://www.bookdepository.com/Adults-Room-Yanis-Varoufakis/9781784705763?ref=grid-view&qid=1640875085680&sr=1-1
  3. https://cypruseconomicsociety.org/oikonomiko-programma-tis-neas-kyvernisis-sti-germania-stratigiki-proteraiotites-epiptoseis-gia-ee/
  4. https://diem25.org/about/

Photo by Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

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Pandora’s Vox

For reasons beyond my control I was obliged to amend this piece. Obviously it no longer reads that well but, in any case, as the thrust of its argument is entirely unrelated to the deletions it still works – especially from the paragraph on David Pilling’s book onward. Thanks for reading.

“To think how far we have come” boasted a tweet from Cyprus last month “…to be servicing ■■■■■ @LimassolMarina” referring to the arrival of ■■■ ■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ off the shores of the Mediterranean island. The metaphorical distance traveled is meant to imply how this once quaint haven of fishing boats and victim of crusader fleets now attracts and services the mega-toys of the super-rich ■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■ ■■■■■■■ ■■■ ■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■■.

The giddiness of the corporate PR machinery evokes the delight a star-struck New York hot-dog vendor might feel for serving the occasional celebrity passer-by. ■■■■■■ ■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■ ■■■■■ ■■ ■■ ■■■■■■. ■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■■ ■■■ ■■■ ■■ ■■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■ ■■ ■■■ ■■■■■■.

Nothing unusual there. Indeed it’s very much business as usual for a country that was on the brink of financial collapse only a decade ago. In a desperate attempt to remain afloat Cyprus sought to attract new investors and their vessels and exploited a passport-for-property sale scheme (now suspended) that fueled a construction boom of marinas and skyscrapers. The stuff of ‘economic miracles.’ Yet, while the country is guilty of its share of shady lawyers and accountants, the keepers of billionaires’ secrets, it is fair to say that it is not the only one. An estimated 10 percent of the world’s wealth is ‘parked’ in offshore tax-avoiding jurisdictions some of them reputable G20 capitals.

But the bottom line is that Cyprus has capitulated to the worst of capitalism; and it shows. The scarring of the land and the inequality these practices have brought are now visible. While their government speaks of growth the younger generation cannot afford the rents in their hometown as hoards of loaded oligarchs descend on their city.

Aristotle’s ‘rule by the few,’ oligarchia, today expresses the influence wealthy Russian individuals exert on politics. Mostly bankers and commodity traders, right-place-right-time types who amassed huge wealth from the fast privatization of Soviet state enterprises. From oil and gas to coal and steel came financialized fortunes, hidden in layers of trusts and moved around the globe.

And few they are not. In the case of Russia there are dozens on the EU-US sanctions blacklist alone ■■■■ ■■■ ■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■ ■■■ ■■ ■■■■ ■ ■■■■■2. Neither it must be said is oligarchy a strictly Russian affair. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos also fit the Aristotelian classification. In fact their wealth makes their Russian comrades look beggarly. They too wield disproportionate influence, have easy access to the corridors of power and as supreme tech-oligarchs have a very direct say over people’s lives.

Zuckerberg’s client base is a third of the world’s population3. Mr Bezos owns the most dominant online store in the world and is worth approximately $205 billion. For a few minutes of megalomaniac weightlessness he shot himself into space in an anthropomorphic torpedo ■■■■■ ■■ ■■■■ ■■ ■■■■ ■■■ ■■■■ ■■ ■■■■■ ■■■■ ■■■■■■■■■■■■ ■■■■■■■■. Those few minutes cost around $5.5 billion and released fumes into the stratosphere that will persist for at least two years.4

The paradox with oligarchs is the secrecy with which they move their money and the pretentiousness with which they showcase it. The problem for us is that governments in crisis succumb to their will. Small and economically weakened states like Cyprus turn a blind eye to their unchecked wealth and long for a share.

David Pilling in his book, The Growth Illusion5, said “Economic growth has become a fetish, a proxy for everything we are supposed to care about and an altar on which we are prepared to sacrifice all’. The culmination of what Mark Fisher had called Capitalist Realism6 that “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.

Earlier this month a loud alarm in Glasgow thrust a hybrid alternative upon us. And while COP26 failed to garner the support necessary for real and immediate progress, its failure may turn out to be more useful than its success might have been. Had leaders reached an agreement they would have gloated and then hypnotized us for another decade of pledges and metrics that they would never have met.

By failing to curb the greed of their polluting industrialists they have awakened and alienated the world. None more deeply than a younger and no longer silent generation, desperate for a greener egalitarian future.

While the globetrotting oligarchy and the presidents they invite on their jets and yachts fail to see the pain of the lands and seas, an impatient global citizenry is seeing it more clearly and feeling it more directly. From Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth to Greta’s school strike and now the fall-out from Glasgow it is global environmental consciousness that has come a long way. COP26’s failure has just gifted it a louder voice.

2 Pandora Papers investigation: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/us-russia-sanctions/

3 https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

4 https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/bezos-space-tourism-environmental-cost-billionaires-20210721.html

5 https://crownpublishing.com/archives/news/growth-delusion-wealth-poverty-well-nations-david-pilling

6 https://bookshop.org/books/capitalist-realism-is-there-no-alternative/9781846943171

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No Room For Decency

Supporting a football club is an entirely irrational yet easily explicable affair. It is as much about the frenzy that follows the gasping anticipation as a beautifully struck free-kick curls into the back of the net as it is about memories of childhood, bonds of friendship and the history of cities.

The more cynical among us have managed to accept football’s financialized reality but still struggle with some of the dilemmas it throws at us. It has become as much about revenues and dividends, players stats and transfer values as about passion, trophies and sporting glory. Incongruities that we accept as effortlessly as the coexistence of brutal tackles and vulgar language with moments of fair play and plain human decency.

But when Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, PIF1, the rogue state’s sovereign wealth fund with total estimated assets of €430 billion, purchased a majority stake in Newcastle United FC a last line of defense was broken. The attackers are alone in front of an empty goal.

As a Liverpool supporter I have never cared much for Newcastle. I’ll glance at its league position mostly because my uncle supports the club. The little sympathy I have stems from sketchy childhood references. Supermac Malcolm McDonald’s relentless scoring in the Seventies, Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan’s managerial spell there and the unforgettable 1996 roller-coaster at Anfield when we beat them 4-3. It was a time when Newcastle produced some of their best football and big names like Asprilla, Ginola and Alan Shearer.

The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s name is not readily associated with football let alone Tyneside. But billboards of his photograph along-side Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s were displayed outside St James’ Park last week to protest his brutal murder in October 2018. Described by the UN as “overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials” of the Saudi state it is just one example of the ruthless persecution of government critics. According to Amnesty International “virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year”.2

It is tempting to blame Newcastle United for all this – inept and desperate as their previous owners were – but the absolute blame lies with the Premier League for allowing the deal.

No one would like to be in the shoes of lifetime Newcastle supporters. Their overwhelming majority are likely to abhor human rights abuses.

Which raises the question: How dare the Premier League place the burden of such a distressing moral choice on the shoulders of a parent forcing them to explain – or lie – to their children about the brutality of their cherished club’s new owners? How do you explain to a 10-year-old that the footballer they idolize is paid by a regime that beheads people, denies women the vote and kills journalists at will?

Sacha Deshmukh, head of Amnesty International UK, wrote3 that the way the Premier League waved this deal through raised deeply troubling questions about sports-washing and the integrity of English football. At a time when pressure must be put on the Saudi regime to end arbitrary detentions, the deal helps it fix its tarnished image.

The glamour of football is a dizzying distraction. As fans celebrate the dribbling skills of their expensive players, slick Saudi narratives will manoeuvre into the pages of match-day programmes; politically loaded slogans will flash across stadium billboards. Saudi Arabia and football glamour will merge and become accepted. Human rights will be relegated. Saudi Arabia will then sell its acceptance by the UK and the Premier League to the rest of the world.

It would be right to argue that the British government and its military industry have sold arms to Saudi Arabia for decades and that it might be too much to expect of the Premier League to ride the high ground and reject a take-over in an industry as innocuous as football. It’s a valid though cheap line of defense but it does capture the oppressive hypocrisy and widespread ignorance of our time.

Both were in full display when the rest of the Premier League clubs protested the Saudi deal but only with regard to issues of competition and financial fair play, worried that Newcastle will strike lucrative sponsorship deals with its new owners. It has finally come to this: Our weekly football experience as slick corporate standoffs between rogue Arab dictators, Russian oligarchs and American moguls.

Shameful as it is, in the end, it is in fact a pity because the Premier League has missed a huge opportunity to make a meaningful statement on human rights. It may have completely escaped them that if they can’t put human rights above all else they cannot be seen as credible messengers of their otherwise worthy No Room for Racism campaign4.  

They can boast of running the best football league in the world but this will count as a humiliating defeat relegating them from the one league that trumps everything else in British culture: Decency. Of course, in the new Tory ‘Global’ Britain that too is in short supply.

1 https://www.pif.gov.sa/en/Pages/AboutPIF.aspx

2 https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/

3 https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/uk-saudi-backed-bid-newcastle-united-must-prompt-football-ownership-rule-changes

4 https://www.premierleague.com/NoRoomForRacism

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The Late Career Switch

Lucy Kellaway had a dream job. Her self-proclaimed title was Chief Bullshit Correspondent for the Financial Times though in polite company she’d describe herself as an observer of the peculiarities of corporate culture. Her weekly columns deconstructed corporate press releases and deflated the bloated egos of management gurus. She interviewed hot shot bankers and massacred CEOs making flatulent statements. If she showed up at your AGM it was not to value your company’s share price; she was there to expose the “heinous guff”.

After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics – the academic equivalent of a train ticket for the front carriage of the British ruling class – she took a stab at banking at J.P. Morgan and, in 1985, walked through the old doors of Bracken House for a lifetime at the FT.

She resigned in 2017, 32 years and 1023 columns later. In her book Re-Educated: How I changed my job, my home, my husband & my hair released this summer by Ebury1 she explains why. More entertainingly she recounts how she reinvented herself and ended up teaching Maths and later Economics at inner city comprehensives in London’s poorest boroughs.

It was not so much the decision to leave her ‘swanky’ job that was ‘brave’ as her friends and colleagues discouragingly told her, but it was what she did in the transition that became the most instrumental aspect of her journey. Not only did she convince others roughly her age (she was 58 at the time) to join her but with her friend Katie Waldegrave they founded Now Teach2 a charity that entices professionals near the end of their careers to consider re-training as teachers. In the midst of a teacher recruitment crisis in the UK the Now Teach website says it has been “a colossal waste” that no one had never successfully managed to recruit experienced people into teaching.

Before resigning Kellaway consulted an online life-expectancy calculator and answered a series of questions ‘mostly honestly’ and was reliably informed that she is likely to live until she is 93. She was also encouraged by the new gerontological division of old age into two classes: Young-Old and Old-Old. The former identifies those between 60 and 75, the period “when you are healthy and can still do most things.”

It is rarely considered strange when executives or politicos leap into academia and take on professorships but it does seem odd to see someone step into a secondary school classroom. The latter is of course more complicated. It’s probably a status thing as well. Now Teach maintains that this older class of professionals not only brings wisdom, experience of the world, fresh ideas, perspective and careers advice but status too and “may offer solutions to some of the more intractable problems our schools face”.

Whether they have the stamina, the patience and the willingness to suffer the huge salary cut that comes with it is another matter. In their first year qualified teachers earn between £24,000 and £30,000.

Kellaway landed in a school “built on the broken windows theory of policing where pupils who get yelled at for putting their hands in their pockets are considered less likely to throw desks or stab each other”. She agrees that such children are more likely to do their homework, get decent results and have a better start in life. But she is torn when on her very first day she sees a nervous pupil vomit during assembly.

Re-Educated is a unique and meaningful story; it is cleverly structured and despite the brutal self-analysis it is elegantly told mostly because Kellaway tells it without bullshitting. But more significantly the book captures England’s social inequalities, the deteriorating state of the education system, the difficulties of parenting and of course the mystery of the savage but rewarding experience of being a teacher.

And because once-a-journalist-always-a-journalist the book’s greatest moments come when Kellaway the journalist observes Kellaway the teacher and deftly describes her own humiliations when she loses control of her class and the stress of talking to a parent about their child’s poor performance.

When Kellaway was a child she attended the Camden School for Girls where her mother taught English. When she meets people she knew at school most don’t remember her but they remember her mother. Her mother’s death, almost a decade before she took the plunge, was the first time quitting the FT crossed her mind. She made up her mind when her father died.

Kellaway’s own daughter, Rose, also became a teacher. Unlike the Now Teach troupe Rose went straight into teaching after university. It is not right to feel jealous of your children says Kellaway but recounts how along with pride she did feel envy when a particularly difficult boy gave Rose a Christmas card on which he’d written “You’re awesome, Miss”.

One evening, after they had become colleagues, Kellaway begins to recount a difficult conversation she had with the parent of one of her worst Year 11 students. Rose interrupts her: “Mum, let’s not talk about school stuff.” Rose, writes Kellaway, “had spent ten hours at the coal face in a much tougher school than mine. And now she wants some life. I, on the other hand, am still new enough to teaching and still so in thrall to the whole thing I don’t want any other life at all”.

Kellaway confesses that she decided to leave her job at the FT because she wasn’t getting better at what she did. Her writing, she claimed, was no better than what it used to be. In fact, sometimes she thought it had actually gotten worse. On the evidence of this book that is bullshit.

1. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1120365/re-educated/9781529108002.html

2. Now Teach: https://nowteach.org.uk/

Photo from the Now Teach website

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De-Erdoganisation

A month before the fall of Kabul, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed that Turkish non-combat forces there stay beyond the agreed withdrawal deadline. The Taliban warned that despite ‘historic, cultural and religious bonds with the Muslim people of Turkey’, they would view such a move as a continuation of the occupation of Afghanistan.

Despite the snub and the anticipated migratory pressure on Turkey the Afghan crisis has played into Erdogan’s hands domestically as well as in terms of his geopolitical ambitions. With the help of the Turkish media the crisis has deflected attention from his mounting difficulties at home, it has made him strategically more useful for the US and, crucially, it has reignited Europe’s migratory phobia.

No one will be in the mood to get tough with him now. Not that anything the EU has said or done over the years has restrained his misguided imperialism or domestic despotism.

To a large degree Erdogan’s unbroken 19-year rule has rested on his capacity to impose his narratives through the near total control of Turkey’s media. Reporters without Borders found that 90 percent of Turkish media are controlled by the government1. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 37 Turkish journalists in jail2. In the coming weeks a Social Media Directorate will be established under the guise of regulating digital media3.

Despite this stranglehold the gap between his AK Party and the opposition CHP stands at 8.2 percent, the narrowest on record according to July polling monitored by Michael Sercan Daventry, a British-Turkish journalist4. It stood at 20 percent in the 2018 elections.

The British analyst Robert Ellis reported that the mood in Turkey is grim and “like the wildfires which destroyed the country’s forests it doesn’t take more than a spark to set off an explosion”. He quoted editorial sources as saying that “Drop by drop, the fury against Erdogan’s rule is accumulating.”

It is this domestic fury that will in the end bring him down. Internal resistance and the turmoil it has intermittently given rise to has always been his greatest fear. It does seem like a long shot, yet the EU can begin to contemplate what Turkey might look like after Erdogan.

It must know that handling a volatile and potentially hostile fall-out might be tougher than handling Erdogan himself. There is no guarantee that the rule of law, the respect for fundamental rights and media freedom would prevail even if he were to go quietly after the 2023 elections.

More pressingly his departure won’t mean that imprisoned human rights defenders, journalists and academics will be released. Nor can it be guaranteed that activists and dissidents, those abroad and those within, would be able to cope against a pro-Erdogan body politic unwilling to transition to an era without him. What happens to the elite courtiers both corporate and institutional that have set roots? How quickly can the secular but divided opposition regroup and how can free media re-engage?

Certainly, unlike other autocracies on the periphery of Europe, Turkey does have experience in democracy albeit the kind closely surveilled by its once invincible and not so democracy-loving military.

Erdogan’s fall will not mean a return to 2002. Religious nationalism has completely reshaped the country and has created deep divisions. The refugee crisis and the deepening economic one will still be there. On top of which there is no guarantee that if and when the toxicity he injected in the country’s judicial and educational veins is diluted that any new leadership would actually step back from his internal tactics or ambitious expansionism.

To hope therefore for ‘a new kind of politics’ would be exaggerated particularly when western democracies are incapable of attaining it themselves. The burden will fall on Turkey’s own liberal class, the moderate political elite, even the now protesting westward looking university student body and, especially, independently minded journalists and intellectuals.

Once a new Chancellor is elected in Germany the EU and the US will need to reflect closely on Turkey. They cannot afford to get it wrong this time. Sixteen years ago, in 2005, the Financial Times maintained that Erdogan’s government had made ‘enormous strides’ in meeting the conditions for EU membership but considered that Turkey was still ‘a decade away from actual entry’. Turkey and the world have changed since then but it is still absurd that membership was actually seen as feasible sometime around 2015.

Today Turkey is sitting somewhere in the 1980s. Fed on a diet of political Islam and populist notions of military prowess the majority of voters seem to have stopped looking west and have bought into Erdogan’s narrative. Not only has he convinced them not to want EU membership but many now believe Turkey to be the EU’s equal.

Accession always was and will remain an impossible prospect; clearly neither side wants it anymore. Yet a strong EU-Turkey political partnership is absolutely necessary. It will take time for a changed Turkish public opinion to see meaning in that.

The re-emergence of independent media can help a post-Erdogan Turkey re-frame its domestic priorities, gradually redefine its foreign policy orientation and create a new narrative. It might, hopefully, also help dispel some of its illusions. Among them one that predates Erdogan but which he and the media that support him have shamelessly exploited: The myth that Turkey is constantly under threat which gives it license to systematically bully its neighbours.

Photo: Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit in Hamburg, 2017. Reuters/Bernd Von Jutrczenka.

1: https://rsf.org/en/taxonomy/term/145

2: https://cpj.org/data/imprisoned/2020/?status=Imprisoned&start_year=2020&end_year=2020&group_by=location

3: https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/legislation/turkey-to-open-social-media-directorate

4: https://www.jamesinturkey.com/

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Hell is patient

Until recently my favourite T-shirt slogan was one I saw worn by a middle-aged man in Bristol a few years ago. No logo, no photo or cartoon, just a traumatized man’s determined statement set in red letters: “Still Hate Thatcher”.

In a city that has been a Labour stronghold for decades, in a country that pre-Boris Johnson used to be known for its subtle humour rather than slapstick politics, Margaret Thatcher’s divisive personality has left deep scars. Much of the pain is no longer remembered; in fact these days Maggie enjoys near Churchillian status, facilitated mostly by the abject quality of the puny Tory politicians that succeeded her.

My new favourite T-shirt slogan is of the Maggie genre but somewhat hard core: A photo of a dour Henry Kissinger in his thick rimmed glasses accompanied by the words ‘Hell is Patient”.

Nasty as it might seem to those who still believe in heaven and hell it could be argued that politicians of Henry’s public exposure are game, especially at a time when posthumous myth-making and our illiterate social media world are helping airbrush their appalling pasts. In the war against creeping ahistoricism any unsavory T-shirt slogan that reminds of Kissinger’s dark side is useful.

Kissinger is 97. Born just two years before Thatcher in 1923 (they got on splendidly, the photo above is from their first meeting in 1975)1 obituaries have been in draft form for decades. It has been 44 years since he left government yet he is the globe’s go-to master geopolitical strategist.

Despite serving under two republican presidents he also remains a pan-american icon. Yet when during the 2016 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said that if elected she would consult with Kissinger on foreign policy Bernie Sanders famously said that he would never seek the counsel of “one of the most destructive Secretaries of State in the modern history of this country”.2

Clinton’s opportunistic position contrasted that of Barrack Obama. Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, wrote that at various moments during a series of interviews he conducted with the former president, “I could feel the spectre of Kissinger hanging over the room.” Obama would, he said, talk openly and sorrowfully about American mistakes during the Cold War.

Kissinger became National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973. Thankfully never president though there was a period in 1974 when Nixon was wallowing in Watergate paranoia that Kissinger actually called all of the US’ foreign policy shots. Not least during the crisis that led to the Greek junta’s coup in Cyprus and the subsequent Turkish invasion.

According to Robert K Brigham, professor of History at Vassar College, Kissinger has spent much of his time out of office editing his time in office. No one, says Brigham, has cared more for their legacy than Kissinger. In the same way that he sought to protect US global interests through his policy of ‘Containment” he has sought to contain his own global brand.

It was Churchill who remarked that the past must be left to history “especially as I propose to write that history myself”3. Kissinger has done a great deal of writing. Seminal books, some brilliantly written but one-sided, Kissinger-sided, constructing narratives to suit the strategies he had sought never showing any remorse.

More ominously five years after the end of the Ford administration he put his experience – mostly his access to the US establishment – to full commercial use by setting up Kissinger Associates. The New York based geopolitical consulting firm advised clients on investment opportunities and on, what else, government relations.

Corporations sought to gain favour with the US establishment by having their interests represented by America’s top strategist. Many an American diplomat began or ended their careers at Kissinger Associates4.

Kissinger was no dictator. He did not have any authoritarian aspirations. He was however obsessively ambitious and self-centered and, most significantly, he preferred to act without public scrutiny.

Obituaries will no doubt highlight his euphemistically termed ‘real politic’, his controversial 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the end of the war in Vietnam and will gloss over how he turned a blind eye to despicable crimes conducted by US autocratic proxies. They are likely to refrain from mentioning that he actually encouraged them. Christopher Hitchens was the most prominent journalist to go after Kissinger accusing him of war crimes in his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger5 and calling for a formal legal inquiry. With Hitchens’ premature death in 2011 the Kissinger bandwagon marched on with few intellectuals or journalists left to confront the whitewashing of his legacy.

Hitchens used to berate religions for not offering a convincing account of paradise instead scaring their flocks by vivid representations of hell. Yet he would enjoy quoting the Christian scholar Tertullian who, he said, had decided that among the delights of heaven would be the contemplation of the tortures of the damned.

The historical record is far more important than the silliness of the afterworld. Kissinger’s duplicity and ruthlessness must remain part of this world’s record. It must never be forgotten that the careless pursuit of his personal theories, often in violation of international law, saw thousands of people in Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus and Vietnam die needlessly and thousands more endure, for lack of a better term, a living hell.

  1. UPI, 18 September 1975.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCjQbTEuoDU
  3. Speech House of Commons 23 January 1948
  4. With Henry Kissinger’s withdrawal in 2008 the company was headed by his former partner Thomas McLarty before it was renamed McLarty Associates. https://maglobal.com/
    McLarty had served as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff.
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trial_of_Henry_Kissinger

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AI in the sky

Rene Magritte, The False Mirror, 1929.

The 1982 hit song Eye in the Sky by the British rock band The Alan Parsons Project did not – as it had often been claimed – allude to an Orwellian type of surveillance dystopia. Music geeks have settled on the likelihood that Parsons’ co-writer Eric Woolfson, a keen gambler who spent a lot of time in casinos, had been fascinated with hidden cameras watching his moves. These cameras, still referred to as ‘Eyes in the Sky’ in the industry, monitor suspicious gambling behaviour.

Four decades later, however, the song’s lyrics accurately capture a cold reality well beyond what its writers could have ever considered. Rather unsettlingly they reflect the impact of online digital surveillance processes driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI) that make their own rules and read our minds:

I am the eye in the sky

Looking at you, I can read your mind,

I am the maker of rules, dealing with fools,

I can cheat you blind,

And I don’t need to see anymore to know that I can read your mind. 1


AI-led surveillance is not just about facial recognition and the tracking of our movements in airports or during street protests. Nor is it just about self-drive cars, medicinal breakthroughs or robots taking over.

The digital realm – where we all interact with AI – allows us access to vast amounts of information and media platforms for the dissemination of our personal news and views. But it does so by systematically mining and exploiting what we as users unthinkingly provide – our raw data.

AI uses the information we gleefully submit about ourselves to classify, engage, cajole, persuade, change our behaviour and amplify our biases. It cheats us blind.

Behind casino cameras there are security people staring at monitors. No human eyes monitor the deluge of Facebook likes and shares, Google searches or tweets. Instead, there are predictive analytic processes, themselves devised by myriads of data scientists. These extract and suck in volumes of direct or indirect evidence of relationships of interest and apply so-called learning algorithms to figure out how to link, engage and then manipulate users.

Crucially, just as the cameras belong to the casino owners, these social media algorithms and processes also belong to someone – Big Tech platforms. The Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezoses. Those whom Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes as Surveillance Capitalists2 : “[They] know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us.”

To comprehend the magnitude of the threat it is useful to re-examine the term AI. The word ‘Artificial’ is deliberately camouflaged in a certain techno abstraction rendering it unbelonging and irresponsible. We say ‘Artificial’ as if it is independent, otherworldly.

If, instead, one uses the term Machine Intelligence (MI) one can begin to grasp that the machines physically exist, they are actually located somewhere and that they belong to someone – the Zuckerbergs and Bezoses.

It is important to identify this aspect because it is only then that owners can begin to be held accountable. Besides professor Zuboff’s warnings, there are what USC professor Kate Crawford says are consequences that relate to the natural resources involved to maintain these huge machine and data centres. There’s the incalculable consumption of energy and the pollution they produce; the labour processes that quietly exploit crowds of workers, human – not artificial. All these are on the ground not in ‘Clouds’ in the sky.

Zuckerberg and Bezos don’t care which film you liked, which book you bought, nor which football club or political party you support. But their clients do. Facebook has 3 billion active monthly users and 7 million active advertisers. It sells the data of the first group to the second fairly cheap but many times over. Our constant supply of information is resellable, reconfigurable, malleable gold.

All it wants is for you to keep sharing what you ate and where, what you read, what you bought, what you thought, who you voted for. It “maps out the graph of everything in the world and how it relates to each other”2 and sells that information to companies that then come at you thick and fast. Yet Mark or Jeff won’t allow you to look into their Machines and become quite tetchy when someone from within talks about what is happening inside.

LSE professor Damian Tambini speaks of the loss of human autonomy as a result of this increased capacity of smarter media to control the information available to us, by gathering ever more “granular” data about us. This, he says, has not only changed advertising, it is transforming politics. Democracy, he claims, faces a new vulnerability3. The entire information environment is not just being ‘managed’ for us, it is also being polluted with misinformation. Big Tech are doing the very minimum because they don’t want their business model disrupted.

Unless regulated, things will become darker and messier. The EU which is much better placed than the US and China to act has an obligation to do so quickly and decisively. Ethics, says professor Crawford, are necessary but not sufficient. What you see time and again, she says, is these systems empowering already powerful institutions – corporations, militaries and police4.

Clearly MI is a one-way street and can if regulated properly enable sustainable growth. But it is also important for citizens to become sensitive to – and alarmed by – how its deployment and misuse is beginning to infringe on their fundamental rights and the rule of law.

If you decide to listen to Eye in the Sky on YouTube check which song Machine Intelligence will recommend for you to click on next. Mine popped up the 1985 new wave track by Tears for Fears Everybody wants to rule the World.

1. Eye in the Sky – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6Tz3LlrgTA

2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – Shoshana Zuboff, 2019.

3. The Council of Europe Ministerial Conference Artificial Intelligence – Intelligent Politics held in Cyprus on 10-11 June 2021 explored these issues in depth: https://www.coe.int/en/web/freedom-expression/media2021nicosia

4. Atlas of AI – Kate Crawford, 2021.

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Our Hegelian Union

Making sense of the European Union is not unlike trying to understand the work of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Reading his impenetrable writing can be a dispiriting exercise in self doubt. The only motive is that you feel you must understand him because he has so profoundly shaped western thought. Like Hegel, the European Union’s dull technocratic texts, its labyrinthine operations, the insufferable jargon, the vagueness of its anodyne political statements work on you like an anesthetic. But you must understand it not because it too has been an unprecedented experiment in governance and political thinking but because it affects you.  

Verbosity and originality are not the only elements that bind Hegel and the European Union. The EU’s very existence is predicated on the German philosopher’s most fundamental premise: The reason why we humans are involved in a process of perpetual change is that every complex situation we face is bound to contain within itself conflicting elements which are by nature destabilising, preventing a situation from continuing indefinitely. Hegel argued that it is this dialectical evolution of processes and ideas that constitutes history.

When critics of the EU point to its rows and endless discussions that often digress into deep existential self-examinations (think of the Euro crisis) what they are missing is that, like Hegel’s system, the EU’s awkward rationalisation and techniques of reconciliation capture the very essence of its being.

Where there are rows and late-night European Council negotiations there once would have been military tension. Where there is deadlock there could have been war. Οne could argue that war is itself an ingredient of Hegel’s larger notion of dialectical change. Βut it is the type of synthesis (apo-synthesis would have been more apt) that Europeans have chosen to avoid by collectively swearing allegiance to peace.

Hegel was certain that the unpredictable outcomes of random conflicts do lead somewhere, that there is an goal. According to the British philosopher Bryan Magee1 Hegel considered this goal to be the greater development of the mind towards freedom.

Europe’s enfant terrible, Yanis Varoufakis, himself a devotee of Hegel’s key disciple Karl Marx, would argue that freedom is not what the Troika brought to Greece. Yet, his anti-Europeanism does not go as far as calling for scrapping the Union but for reforming it from within.

And it does need reform – badly. Another attempt will begin this Sunday with the Conference on the Future of Europe2. The state of the world calls for a sense of urgency but past experience suppresses any expectations.

Every pro-European cringes at the Union’s equivocation on key issues of foreign policy and human rights (see Turkey, Russia). We are all embarrassed by how as a beacon of freedom of expression and media pluralism it can tolerate what is happening in Hungary and Poland.

Unfortunately, that is the nature of the beast. Ben Judah wrote recently that the problem with the EU is not that it is a superstate but that it is not a state. That prospect is still far – if not impossible – which means that vetoes are the way member states defend their often conflicting interests. But even here, as the political theorist Luke van Middelaar claims, the veto fosters “not conflict but agreement”. The psychological certainty of being able to block a resolution is what makes consensus possible, he says.

Hegel was a believer in the value of the state and of institutions. He maintained that in every age there is a nation charged with the mission of carrying the world through the phase of the dialectic it has reached. Until Trump it was the United States; everyone now fears it might be China.

In a conversation with Ezra Klein3 the ever-lucid Noam Chomsky was asked about the tension between US – Chinese tensions over geopolitical preeminence; that obsessive fear that America might be losing its global role.

Chomsky argued that no country should have domination of the world; neither the US nor China (the EU was not mentioned at all). He was clear that he didn’t like what is happening in China describing it as “rotten” but then retorted: “So what American values do we impose when we run the world? What American values have we demonstrated in Latin America or Gaza? When we talk about our values, let’s look at what they are … not the rhetoric but what happens.”

Europe’s strength is that it lacks the ruthlessness of the US and China. Its aversion to pursuing that type of preeminence may rise from the conflicting interests of its members states but it runs much deeper in its collective historical pain. It is curtailed by Germany’s guilt and consequent reserve; it is captured by the moment Willy Brandt fell on his knees in Warsaw4 and it is sustained by that moment Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand held hands at Verdun.5

With all its faults the EU remains the only paradigm where mature and maturing states, averse to conflict and aware of their interdependence, have come together voluntarily, recognizing that there is more value in the whole rather than in its parts. They have ceded some sovereignty so as to set up stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for minorities – and, now, crucially, environmental sustainability.

With a confused Britain having walked away with characteristic pomposity, the EU can now begin its slow, bland, calculated reform and to master Hegel’s rationalist model. It will never eliminate friction between its members states. It is also unlikely to ever gain global preeminence. It will for sure continue to frustrate us. And we – its citizens – will continue to misjudge and underestimate it.

1 Bryan Magee, The Great Philosophers, Oxford, 1987

2 https://futureu.europa.eu/pages/about?locale=en

3 The Ezra Klein Show: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/23/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-noam-chomsky.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

4 Photo above, 1970, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial

5 https://europa.eu/european-union/sites/default/files/eu-pioneers/eu-pioneers-kohl-mitterrand_en.pdf

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Three women in Istanbul

I have never been to Istanbul. I am quite certain that I never will. It is a city that conjures two key references for me. The first was my grandfather’s conviction – noble in historical terms but entirely deluded in pragmatic ones – that Constantinople, not Athens, was the true capital of Hellenism, the beating heart of Christendom lost to the Ottomans in 1453. My second rather less political is of Liverpool hoodwinking Milan in 2005 coming back from a three-goal deficit to win the Champions League in one of the best finals ever.

Until very recently I had not been aware of the irony that Istanbul is also where, exactly 10 years ago, 45 states came together to sign the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – the Istanbul Convention as it is known.

Rather unconventionally Turkey, as host, was the first country to ratify this key human rights treaty. Last month its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (once Mayor of the city), announced by decree that he was withdrawing his country from the Convention.

A bizarre move not entirely unexpected given Erdogan’s erratic autocratic behaviour. Robert Ellis, an expert on Turkish affairs, explained it as Erdogan’s attempt to woo Islamic parties and whip up nationalist fervour to counteract his waning popularity in the midst of the country’s spiraling economic troubles.

Who cares and why does it matter? It matters for the sheer absurdity of the move; that a country would take such a conscious decision to move backwards regressing to its dark Ottoman closets. More profoundly it matters for what it will practically mean to women in Turkey and how they might be protected from the volatility that Erdogan’s decree has stirred up.

It also matters with Turkey launching its campaign to attract tourists and with Europeans, tussling for months now like horses at a race track’s starting gates, ready to burst out and travel almost anywhere.

The Go Turkiye advertising campaign from where the still above is taken features three women on a boat in the Bosporus, one flirting with hovering birds and a flapping Turkish flag while a safe Istanbul lurks in the background. It’s all very carefree.

The campaign slogan is Safe in Istanbul, Safe in Turkey. Safe here means Covid-safe. Because when you feel Covid-safe any other type of safety concerns you may have wither away. And if you are Covid-safe in Istanbul, why would you care if the Istanbul Convention was trampled on by the leader of the country you are visiting, in the city where it was signed?

According to the campaigning Turkish writer Elif Shafak three women a day die in the hands of their partners in Turkey. Not the three women in the boat. Probably not women a tourist is likely to be sitting next to – Covid-safe – in any tourist boat. But three other women die every day.

It is well documented that there is a direct relationship between tourism in Turkey and the Erdogan regime. The Turkish economy will increasingly rely on tourism. Given that the EU cannot find the strength to sanction Turkey for all the rest of its considerable transgressions, one hopes that the conscience of the people of the West – not just of feminists – may show the way.

Recently the Persian-American author Roya Hakakian said she found it frustrating that Western feminists did not show more solidarity with the fight against the hijab mandate in Iran. She claimed that their support, especially of Western female leaders, was nonexistent. She was particularly angered when foreign leaders visited Iran and put on the hijab, posing with Iranian dignitaries. “Nothing can cause a greater disappointment to the local women than seeing fellow women who have the power to say No simply abide by unjust laws that Iran’s leadership imposes on them.”

Hypocrisy is inherently woven into diplomacy. In Turkey’s case it is the axis on which its diplomatic strategy is unashamedly built. You’d expect nothing less from a state that denies the Armenian genocide.

Having said that, western diplomacy can be infuriatingly hypocritical too. In fact, Turkey is often the place where that hypocrisy is exposed. Toying with sanctions for years but sustaining Turkey’s membership path for much longer, the European Union has played the game to safeguard its political and trade relations.

As a consequence European dignitaries, however reluctantly, have to visit Turkey (and Iran) and dance the dance with Erdogan (and Rouhani). But, here’s they key, tourists don’t have to.

This year’s Champions League final will again be held in Istanbul. I suspect that had the Women’s Champions League final been scheduled to be held there (it will be played in Gothenburg) the irony would have been too embarrassing for the politically correct UEFA.

Yet, it really shouldn’t make a difference. Men and women should be able to join a concerted tourist boycott of Turkey. It will not help save the three women that will die today but it would show solidarity with the women who are fighting the fight. It would also confirm that unlike their leaders individual Europeans, at their core, are not as hypocritical as Erdogan.

Further reading:

Council of Europe Treaty No 210: https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/210

Reactions in Turkey: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56516462

Elif Shafak: https://www.elifsafak.com.tr/home

Roya Hakakian: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/03/13/looking-back-at-the-land-of-no/

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Omissa Spe*

Academics used to have privileges not enjoyed by the majority of the workforce: job security, flexible hours, access to great libraries, a slower rhythm that afforded them the opportunity to think, create and pass on their knowledge and passion to others. “We wanted to become professors because of the joy of intellectual discovery, the beauty of literary texts and the radical potential of new ideas” Canadian professors Berg and Seeber wrote in their seminal book The Slow Professor, challenging the culture of speed and short-termism that has taken over university life.

Academia hasn’t been slow or sane for a while now. Which is perhaps why Manolis Melissaris abandoned his professorship at the London School of Economics a few years ago to move to Cyprus to pursue his passion to write fiction.

His latest book, Peer Review (Amazon 2020, pp262), is a comic thriller set in an English red brick university. The narrator, Dr Michael West, is a charming outsider, a ‘slow school’ lecturer in Social Anthropology who finds himself at the centre of a fast paced murder mystery that amid faculty meetings, research paper submissions and break downs of heart-broken PhD students negotiates our notions of ethics and justice.

Melissaris has constructed an unlikely crime story that delivers, rather cleverly, a damning verdict on the state of today’s academic establishment exposing its administrative labyrinths, the dizzying futility of conference presentations, the obsession with metrics and targets, and the consequent barbaric competition between academics.

Dr West is part social scientist, part detective, part philosopher, part sharp forensic expert and most entertainingly full-time cynic. When a teasing colleague asks him whether he has taken his cynicism medicine he retorts that he had stopped because his condition is terminal.

“Universities are like monasteries” West claims, “some find shelter in them because they have already achieved serenity in their invariably misguided certainty about what is valuable in life, their intellectual ability, the meaning of the world… others, the relatively noble ones, join academia out of confusion about the world and their own lives…”

But West also claims that academia is harsher than the ‘real world’. “What is that ‘real world’ anyway?” he asks: “People obsessed with their self-interest? Being judged by people patently inferior to you in every way at every corner? Having to bend over backwards to please those who do not deserve to be pleased? Making gains at the expense of others? The ‘real world’ gang wouldn’t last a day in academia.” Possibly a veiled critique of the demoralising culture of corporatization that has taken over education.

After six years at the university Dr West believes his time is up for promotion. His teaching is solid, his peer-reviewed publications are, he tells us, at the very least acceptable, and he feels he has done well as Director of Post Graduate Studies. But the Promotion Committee informs him that his research, though sound, lacks vision.

“The point of research in the social sciences”, the ever cynical West asserts, “is rarely ever to solve problems; it is to invent them”. Which does explain why vision is required. Younger colleagues have jumped the promotion queue. He decides to take matters into his own hands. It is here that Melissaris’ expertise shines.

As a former Professor of the Philosophy of Law having spent hours challenging students to construct abstract philosophical arguments out of real criminal scenarios, he has concocted what on the face of it looks like an implausible crime story. Its paradoxes negotiate concepts of morality, punishment, plagiarism and police corruption all the while tracking the missteps of a disillusioned faculty and the hypocrisy of those operating in the ‘real world.’

Leaving a faculty party at the local pub late one evening West returns to campus and sneaks into his Head of Department’s office with the purpose of ‘adjusting’ the crucial recommendation letter to be sent to the University Promotions Committee. He fails to hear his HoD walk into the office, as it turns out, drunk and slurring. In a state of panic he reaches for a copy of Bronislaw Malinowski’s Crime and Custom in Savage Society which he pretends to have come to borrow. Within seconds his Head of Department is lying on the floor, dead.

We understand that when not murdered, being Head of Department is a kind of bureaucratic hard labour that sucks the life out of professors condemning them to endless meetings and cycles of reporting. The real story begins when it becomes clear that no-one in the department wants the now vacant post.

By this point I begin to think that Melissaris, who spent fifteen years teaching philosophy and criminal law in Manchester, Keele and the LSE might have been offered the opportunity to head some Department prompting him to chuck it all in and descend on Cyprus to pursue fiction writing. Who knows, perhaps it was Brexit.

Whatever the trigger, on the evidence of Peer Review, it appears that the country has done wonders for his creative energy. I can’t help thinking, however, that on arrival Melissaris may have missed the Omissa Spe inscription flashing above the gateway into Cyprus’ real world.

* Abandon All Hope – The inscription at the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is inscribed under the coat of arms adorning the cover of Peer Review.

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Reluctant Politicians

Vaclav Havel is the finest example of the idea that the best people to run government are the people who don’t actually want the power. Frustrated when thrust to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in the early 90s he would admit: “It is almost as though I am an imposter in this job, I feel at any moment as though someone will come and divest me of my office and throw me back to prison…”1.

Reluctant politicians are rare. When they do appear it is usually in circumstances where countries denied of democracy need swift stabilizing action to attain it. Havel was unqualified to be president but as a symbol of dissidence and an admired intellectual he seemed, in that moment, ideal for the task.

These days everybody seems to think they are qualified to be a politician. Ambitious, deluded, often backed by big money and the machinations of new technologies they construct and sustain false impressions of charisma and leadership elbowing out those who are competent and actually dedicated to public service.

The Donald Trump Circus set up tent again this week confirming that there are people who still think that being president essentially involves uttering slogans, tweeting undiplomatic incongruities, trolling enemies and grinning while showing signed documents to camera.

He is the best example of the catastrophic assumption that celebrities with a platform but especially business celebrities can smoothly transition into political leadership.

Combine this with the notion – now fully normalised – that being president is like being a CEO and government is somehow re-framed as a business, the public domain as a market and voters as consumers.

Then comes the fallacy that the market always knows best. Which covertly means it knows what is best for big money not what is best for democracy.

Everyone agrees that democracy is stuck. Many things need to be addressed to fix things. But there’s one key decision that should be easy to arrive at: While every person has the right to vote not every person should be eligible to seek the vote. Democracies have become too lax, too free-market, too democratic for their own good. Sure, everyone has a right to run for the presidency but just as the market sets rules for its traders so should a democracy for its leaders. Criteria must be set for those who seek to run a democracy, especially in systems where presidents rule as monarchs.

And it really doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact it could be rather pedestrian: There are only two full presidential democracies in the western world, the United States and Cyprus [on paper Turkey too but it is borderline western and for the time being not a democracy, and France which is however semi-presidential]. Such systems while adjusting to political culture and constitutional structure could start by setting one fundamental condition: To seek the highest office a candidate would have to have first served in parliament – a full term.

Anyone who wants to sit behind the big desk would have to toil on the benches of the institution that represents the ‘demos.’ They would need to develop a solid understanding not only of how the Legislature works but how it works with the Executive. Politics is one thing but policy-making is quite another. Debating on television is not the same as debating on the parliamentary floor. Candidates must bring evidence of their capacity for policy formulation and leave a public record of how they voted on the policies of others. They would have to debate environmental legislation and ministerial budgets, vote on social rights and international agreements, see how the Executive deviates and how parliament checks and re-calibrates.

For this to work election thresholds would have to be adjusted so that independent parliamentary aspirants can stand a chance without having to capitulate to existing party structures. This would prove the most difficult part of the experiment. But loosening the stranglehold political parties maintain on the system (in the US and Cyprus) is long overdue.

To broaden the game cabinet appointees – even if they have never held a parliamentary seat – could be allowed to pursue the presidency but only if they have served a predetermined minimum number of years in a ministerial post. Ministerial work obliges vigorous collaboration with the parliamentary machinery so this would release them of the duty to serve in parliament.

Admittedly Barack Obama, a single term Senator from Illinois before 2008, said the Senate did not prepare him for what he had to face at the Oval Office but it had been an essential education. Critics will argue that there are serving senators and parliamentarians who are useless and equally dangerous to seek the top job. They would be right. But introducing some standard of prior relevant experience anew would invite closer scrutiny of the motives and aptitude of such characters as well as test their interest in serving the public. Shallow celebrities and pseudo successful business people would be reluctant to work in parliament; they are mostly seduced to desire the top job. A would-be president must be forced to deal with a small constituency before serving the big one. The process would also oblige voters to become more conscious of their parliamentary choices aware that they may have one eye on the presidency.

In the years ahead populism, disinformation and economic hardship will increase the risk of fraudulent messianic candidates. Setting minimum standards would mitigate the chance of landing single-agenda or accidental presidents. A clown like Trump would have been reluctant to run for the House or the Senate. But even if he did not think it beneath him and had done so and won, his weak mental state and strong criminal instincts would have been exposed early.

Making the dishonest or the entirely unsuitable reluctant to enter high politics by forcing them to enter parliament first is only a small step. The upside, rather enticingly, is that sitting parliamentarians might not be too reluctant to adopt it.

1. The European, 11 May 1990.

Photo: Miroslav Zaj – Getty

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Billie’s Anguish

What do you think the world will look like when you’re 80? is not a question one typically asks a 19-year-old. Vanity Fair put it to Billie Eilish and this is the reply they got:

Girl, I’m not going to live until 80, none of us are… Are you kidding me? We have like 10 years left… We’ve got to help the environment. I hope that the world doesn’t say ‘it’s over for you bitches’ and then kill us all.

Untypical pessimism for someone her age. Even stranger when you consider that Eilish has accumulated an obscene number of musical awards, has millions of followers on social media and was invited to address the Democratic National Convention that endorsed Joe Biden.

But if you put aside the oddity of a presidential candidate tagging you on Twitter [Biden wrote in November: “I’ll just say what @billieeilish said: Vote like your life depends on it.”], this musician of unsettling lyrics and mesmerizing sounds, is a very typical 19-year-old.

Typical because it is likely that her pessimism is what defines Generation Z’s collective state of mind. To be 19 today means that in the last five fairly formative years you sat through the Trump wreckage that continues to burn under the crises of immigration, race, the economy and the climate.

More notably it also means that Covid has seriously disrupted your studies suspending your sense of the future. You would be aware too that the economy that will emerge from the pandemic will not easily absorb you. On top of which you’re not sure the climate will sustain you.

It would be a mistake to think that just because Joe Biden got elected and has begun to reverse Trump’s fossil fuel rampage, is reinstating environmental regulations and has rejoined the Paris Agreement that things will get better. We are all very much on the edge of the cliff.

It may seem odd that a generation that we often accuse of residing in the digital realm would be championing nature’s cause and suffering climate anxiety. But it is happening. A new breed of young activists is emerging. The digital habitat is allowing for rare species like Greta Thunberg to flourish into instrumental figures around whom young and old are rallying.

Throwing her support for Thunberg, Eilish recently said she hoped adults “would start listening to us”.

Non-listening adults tend to forget that they too were 19 once. They forget that they too listened to the music of rebellion. Unlike Eilish, however, they weren’t too concerned about getting to 80. Not so much because they thought they wouldn’t achieve octogenarianism but because they scorned the whole idea of adulthood.

Most went by The Who’s mantra “I hope I die before I get old … talkin’ bout my generation1. Some did their best to live by the anthem and a great deal of talent went to waste. Those who stayed on went to Woodstock and Vietnam protests. Then there was the threat of nuclear war and nuclear accidents (both risks still around and oddly underestimated these days). Music began to engage with big causes, Anti-Apartheid, Live Aid. Awareness was raised, pressure increased, money was collected, good things happened, money was wasted, causes were resolved (partly), others were not and were forgotten. Youths became adults and lives went on.

The thing with climate change is that lives might not go on. Eric Steinberger is marginally older than Eilish. As far as I know he doesn’t sing. But he gives talks on climate change and is the founder of Climate Science2 an organization made up of tens of young scientists who are uncompromisingly committed to finding real-life solutions to turn us into a zero-emission society. Not, he says, just to reduce emissions by X percent or in Y years. They want everything done now and forever.

It rings of typical youthful impatience but it isn’t. Because two things are different this time: 1) Youth has Science on its side. Steinberger is essentially facing the facts and working with, and in, Science. Thunberg’s distinctive call is “Listen to the Science”. 2) Eilish, Thunberg, Steinberger et al have the prudence and digital know-how to communicate widely, mobilise quickly and reshape mentalities across generations.

Which is why adult hegemony should give way to them. Adults must not just offer them token seats at the table or invite them to address high visibility events. They must bring them in and seek their help in reaching out to the numbers necessary to bring about change. Our adult bias that youths don’t fully understand the political complexities of (the failing) global market economy must be overcome. They know too well – we all do – that governments are slow and industries are unwilling. They have seen millions of adults willfully send a shameful specimen to the White House. They have watched us fail repeatedly.

Inevitably nature will not allow The Who and their fans to ever know what type of 80-year-olds the youths of today will become. But it is not at all natural that Eilish and her fans should feel that they are unlikely to make it that far. It’s time to listen to her generation.

  1. The Who, My Generation, 1965.
  2. https://climate-science.com

Photo: Vanity Fair