Marx famously observed in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that history repeated itself - first as tragedy and then as farce. This passage came to mind when I read Tariq Ali's piece of invective masquerading as analysis in The Age. Ali's piece also exposed the limitations of Marx's otherwise fitting aphorism. It's not that his indignant exaggerations rise above the level of farce, its just that their tedious repetition across all the recent crises faced by the civilized world put one equally in mind of Ground Hog Day. It's plain that Ali - like so many of his ideological cohorts - now specializes in fact-free declamations. Let's measure a couple of his canards against the facts.
The UN, he tells us is viewed by Iraqis as ‘one of Washington's more ruthless enforcers’ since it supervised the sanctions that, according to UNICEF figures, were directly responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children and a horrific rise in the mortality rate. This is the favourite whopper that was retailed by the Saddam propaganda machine and is tellingly resurrected by Ali. Of course we now know that the food for oil programme was diverted into Saddam’s oil for palaces programme. The tragedy was all Saddam’s own work and only Ali appears unable to recognize this fact. The definitive refutation of this lie is that there was that – despite the sanctions - no starvation in Iraqi Kurdistan when the nasty imperialists – Bush and his "petty mastiff" Blair were "wing tip to wing tip" – ungraciously set upon spoiling the next episode in Saddam’s campaign of genocide against the Kurds. The truth is Saddam cynically starved his own people in order to garner the kind of credulous support he still appears to enjoy from the thankfully dwindling numbers of his apologists and prevaricators like Ali.
But the most bizarre, and for sheer gall, the most incredible claim by Ali is the casting of the Iraqi dead enders, with or without their Islamist allies, as a heroic and doughty "resistance". Ali’s ridiculously titled book the Clash of Fundamentalisms has already made his reputation as the mother (so to speak) of all moral equivalence. The title is in a league of its own – one which makes the old Stalinist line that had Social democrats equated to fascists look positively nuanced.
Like the snake oil salesman whose pitch to the credulous goes so well he just can't help cranking it up, Ali champions the Iraqi "resistance". It is as if, by the mere invocation of the word "resistance", the mass murderers of civilian UN workers can be metamorphosed into their moral antithesis. The slaughter of the leading Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim on Friday and, in the process the destruction visited upon the world's holiest Shia shrine at Najef, shows unambiguously the real character of this "resistance". Anti-imperialist heroes? The words of a bereaved relative spoke the obvious truth - "Neither Muslim, Christian nor Jew can accept such a thing. A dog could not do this". Ali's "resistance" is a resistance as the remnants of the Waffen SS was a resistance - if you want moral equivalence.
But these toxic misrepresentations are not new. What is disappointing but not at all surprising is the fact that Ali appears to be able to leave his past prognostications behind and never be held to account for them. He also deals in something which I would liken to the esoteric and exoteric form of writing so favoured by medieval scholars; the readers of the popular press are only treated to what might be called "Ali lite" while the true believers who bother to research his more "considered" writings, are privy to the full strength version.
Consider the following samples from the May/ June edition of the New Left Review. According to Ali the 2001 assault on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon was "a gift from heaven for the Administration". Ali's fevered paranoid imagination no doubt conjures up Dubya as a socialist realist Dr. Evil shouting, "Thanks to Osama Bin Laden I can now rule the world! Ha ha ha ha."
On a more sober note, Ali pillories Tony Blair for Britain's "bombing Iraq continuously, wing-tip to wing-tip with America". This nasty piece of imperialist interference was, you will remember, to prevent the small matter of yet more genocide - an interference which was warmly welcomed by the Kurds. Pause for just a moment and consider the fate of the Kurds had the US and the UK not established the northern protection zone in Northern Iraq. This was an intervention which even the crankiest critics of intervention were loath to see lifted.
Neither were the recalcitrant Europoeans spared the invective - Chirac is described as "rush[ing] to explain that France would assure smooth passage of US bombers across its airspace" and "Germany's cadaver-green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer" is condemned for stating that his government too sincerely hoped for the "rapid collapse" of resistance to the Anglo-American attack. Even the sainted Kofi Annan is described as the "African Waldheim" and "the dumb-waiter for American aggression". You get the picture.
The apogee of disconnected moral indignation is reached however when Ali pronounces that the "Crusader armies succeeded in making Saddam Hussein a nationalist hero". Is this for real or only post-Osama "irony"?
But the sting quickly turns from absurd to nasty when Ali does a hatchet job on a pre-eminent member of the Iraqi opposition. In a particularly cowardly jibe, Ali attacks as a "quisling, fraudster and mountebank" the courageous Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya whose book Republic Of Fear written - pseudonymously for obvious reasons - in 1989 did so much to alert the world to the nature of Ba'athist horror.
Saddam still holds the record by a country mile for most muslims slaughtered yet has somehow escaped serious opprobrium from the likes of Ali on this score. It has been a charter position of the Saddam apologists that the mass murder of Kurds should take a poor second place to the plight of the Palestinians - a plight much worsened by the mischief-making in which common cause was made by Saddam and the Islamists. In this cause Saddam's dirty work was done by the relentless attacks on Makiya.
While Ali has been touring the world hot-gospelling to the gullible, the hated Makiya has been involved in an altogether more prosaic and more valuable project undertaken by Harvard University documenting the Ba'athist genocide - a topic in which Ali appears to show no interest. As well, Makiya has been a leading participant in developing a democratic secular constitution for the new Iraq.
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