The hullabaloo that’s surrounded the 50th anniversary of MLK’s heroic ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ has predictably reduced the man to a civil rights campaigner with a nice line in oratorical flourishes. Obviously he was the twentieth century’s foremost rhetorically pleasing civil rights campaigner, but he was also a fierce critic of economic inequality. Like it does from everyone from George Orwell to Jesus, the mainstream media celebrates the bits of King’s legacy that are acceptable to the present-day political consensus and scraps the rest. Dion Rabouin of the Huffington Post has a good go at rebalancing the coverage by celebrating King the economic radical. But he also casually rubbishes socialism along the way, rattling through the standard American thought process that sees ‘socialism’ as 90% of the way towards ‘Communism’ which in turn is just a byword for initiative-crushing state tyranny. Apart from when it squeezes a hugely varied, adaptable view of the world and how it should be changed into the shoebox of stereotype – and to be fair to Rabouin he’s just reflecting King’s own stated views – it’s a nice article.
Some crimes are so grave that they remain unforgivable decades after the fact. George Orwell wrote Keep the Aspidistra Flying, which must at least be scrabbling around the foothills of the dullest novels ever written.
It’s fairly uncontroversial to argue that Orwell was a far better journalist than he was a novelist. Undoubtedly, it will be Animal Farm and 1984, his pair of bleak but incisive Cold War satires, that will see him on reading lists and curricula for centuries to come. The two books, the latter one especially, account for much if not almost all his long-term cultural impact. The list of chilling neologisms he dreamt up for ’84 – “newspeak”, “doublethink”, “Big Brother” and the like – have snuck into the Oxford English Dictionary and will probably stay there.
But these were deeply political books, and Orwell was undeniably at his best when he was writing about politics. Practically everything he wrote was political in some sense, but his earlier novels were either far less explicit in their social critique like The Clergymen’s Daughter, or bludgeoningly unsubtle with it like Aspidistra. Especially in the case of the latter, their political shortcomings placed much more of a burden on cardboard characterisation, trudging pace and often wincingly bitter tone. Tellingly, he wouldn’t allow either to be reprinted while he was alive. Continue reading
‘Lucky’ began life as the ever-crotchety Thom Yorke’s attempt at a ‘political’ record, bound for a benefit album in aid of children affected by the war in Bosnia. While the track did indeed appear on 1995’s Eno-produced Help Album, its original lyrical intent was quickly abandoned. Yorke’s efforts at sincere, right-on stanzas, the man himself pithily concluded, were ‘bollocks’. Instead, the resulting ditty was an enervated, dead-eyed-in-the-bed-sit ballad hidden in a haze of lyrical obscurantism, with lines about crashing planes and lakeside rescues and snubbing the Head of State. And as with all such Radiohead songs, it’s wrenchingly emotional, burdened with an overwhelming weight of feeling that drags the tempo down to a lethargic plod. Continue reading
Bashar and Asma Al-Assad
Before the events of April 2011, Bashar Al-Assad was, for a dubiously elected autocrat, reasonably popular. It’s grim to think about now, but for a time al-Assad was seen as a reformer, a softer, sharp-suited New Labour dictator. He was PR savvy and had a photogenic, Western-educated, Christian Louboutin-sporting wife. He might have been thoroughly anti-democratic, but up against the mass-murdering Saddams of the Arab world he didn’t seem quite as bad.
Bashar had grown up with no expectation of being Syrian leader and trained as a doctor. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for thirty years, turning the Ba’ath Party from a movement striving for socialism, nationalism, Arab unity and Arab renaissance into an oppressive pseudo-monarchy. But after the oldest Assad boy, Bassel, died unexpectedly in a car crash, his younger brother Bashar was suddenly next in line. When Assad Snr keeled over in June 2000, an election was held to decide his successor. Bashar was the only candidate and won with a blatantly-rigged 97.2% of the vote.
In power, behind the PR savvy, Assad continued what his father started – namely pillaging the economy to enrich his own family. He and his close associates are thought to own between 60-70% of Syria’s assets, and his personal fortune totals $1.5 billion. His wife, effectively his regime’s smiley PR screen, might have done work for UNICEF and campaigned against rural poverty, but she can also happily blow £270,000 on a single internet shopping spree while her husband blows people to bits. Continue reading