What’s the punchline? God forbid…
I drew on a cigarette, the smoke swam with the October chill. There is a Syrian joke a barber told me once: “An advisor from the U.N. travels to Syria and says to the people, ‘My country has the most efficient democracy; we know the result of the election on the day after the vote,’ and a Syrian man replies ‘No no, our system is more efficient than yours; we know the result on the day before.'” And every joke has an element of truth.
Butting out and sensing rain, I stepped into a small café. If you go through a narrow passage and up the stairs, which are a kind of ode-to-Escher in and of themselves, this dingy room unfolds itself; slightly claustrophobic, smelling of musty books and damp, some hunched over laptops writing plays they’ll never finish. It reminded me of a bookshop I used to hang around in on a semi-regular basis in my late teens, run by old bohemians/quasi-intellectuals trading stories about Marxism, U.F.O. sightings and occult magic. The owner of this bookshop was slightly stooping with a penetrating gaze. He must have been watching me from afar since I was loitering about so much, and one day he thrust an absolutely ruined copy of On the Heights of Despair into my hands, pages falling out and all that. The place was just chaos; heaps of books and essays everywhere. They had some absolute gems pass through from time to time though; first editions of Lewis’ Childermass and Pound’s Cantos for example. Some essays on Plato from the 19th century and things like that. This faux-salon was quite similar. A real range of people pass through: old Marxist-Leninists from the 60s, writers, students, libertarians, bohemian types, you know, fist in the air and all that — but there’s still energy in the dying gasps of the old-old Left — huddled above this café, “participatin’ in the revolutionary die-alectic,” as this old northern bloke said. He was a sort of distorted reflection of Joe Owens.
A group of us sat around with coffee: one lodger who lived above my room was from Aleppo; another, a sort of ageing socialite and post-modern quasi-philosopher I knew tangentially. I mean, you couldn’t make it up; these people actually believed it, even into their old age. Some of them were big names in their heydays, rubbing shoulders with most of the current shadow cabinet and many of those in Blair’s New Labour — student Leftists of the Trotskyist or even Stalinist flavour. Most modern Leftists have probably never even read Trotsky, but their thoughts are an echo of an echo of an echo of what many of these people, hanging around in London and Paris in 1968, were putting across.
The refugee-lodger was a bourgeois type. He enjoyed reading Shakespeare, but over the months he lived in England, he experienced a slow disillusionment with the West. He found that lead lined the streets, not gold. I had some sympathy with him, really, since I consider myself an outsider in Western modernity. The outsider’s perception is often acute, and not dulled by the palliative of normalcy. He was getting on; maybe fifties, though I never asked. A pessimistic conservative really, though with a Leftist secular strain that, in my estimation, was the cynicism of modern religious leaders.
The frumpy one announced to the room that, “Syria must be taught how to be democratic,” and this was amusing because she supported benign dictatorship in the West, and the eyes of this Syrian-Carlyle flashed, “Democracy!” He slammed his fist on the table, “We don’t want your democracy!” I thought: oh here he goes — and it’s only been ten minutes! And she was rather taken aback I suppose; after all, he’s supposed to be on “her side” isn’t he? And she stammered, “But what about equality?” and the reply was, “We don’t want equality. Men are animals. The masses are content with their family, their harvest, and their God. We don’t want your democracy.” But of course to her this was just confirmation of the need to (in her own words) “enlighten” Syria.
He went on: “I.S.I.S. and the rebels are mercenaries and psychotic teenagers high on drugs — they should be hanged! Hanged!” It was as though someone had fired a gun in her ear. She leapt in the air with shock, totally speechless, “It’s like I’ve left reality!” she said (hear hear…), her voice quavering. And what he said had an element of truth. They are essentially given carte blanche by the West to kill members of the government, supporters of the government, even those marginally sympathetic to the government! Remember how Mussolini and his family were put down? His body dragged through the streets by communist partisans, his face trampled on, urinated on, in a wild frenzy, until he was strung up on meat hooks — all under the supervision of American G.I.s depending on whose account you believe. Remember how Saddam was hanged in a public execution by the Americans? Gaddafi, who was found hiding in a drainpipe at the end, was dragged out by rebels, beaten, sodomised with a bayonet, and shot; and America had a drone’s eye view of that one too, but of course, “this is freedom.” They say these men — Mussolini, Gaddafi, Assad — are monsters; monsters that deserve to be put down and strung up as enemies of the people. Baying for the blood of some foreign head of state in a London or Paris café, and living in the failed state afterwards are two entirely different propositions.
The refugees from these Arab countries that are actually allowed to stay in the U.K. are generally members of the bourgeoisie, contrary to propaganda, and many of these hard-Left groups in the West secretly despise how semi-Westernised Syrians with iPhones have jetted out to Canada or the U.K., abandoning the proletariat. These young Arab women and men, that were soft-Left bourgeois activists in the early days of the Arab Spring, have all vanished. Where are they now? Fighting for the democracy in the chaos they unleashed? No, they’ve all melted away. They were the first ones to leave when the chips were down, and now they’re in France, they’re in Qatar, and so on. It’s interesting to read Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970) and apply it to the Arab Spring actually, and the increasing number of migratory crises that we are seeing around the world. Many of those that stayed were shot by the rebels they supported; “Equality! Freedom! Love!” they’d shout before being beaten over the head with an AK-47. The bourgeois-liberal fools are the first to be shot in any Leftist revolution, and those that couldn’t escape to the comfort of Parisian cafés were faced with the reality produced by their own idiocy and naiveté.
“In the West you have Monarchy and you have the Church,” he began, and that started a tedious quarrel about Left-atheism and the anti-feminist teachings of the Church and then Islam. A man leaned on the table, scratching his beard, “But of course we all must accept that there are no superior or inferior cultures,” he wheezed, “Islam may stone people to death, they may treat women as sub-human, but it is their culture and we have no right to impose our values on them.” The conversation devolved into argument over how moral subjectivity can be objectively asserted; and how Islamic culture is “equally valid,” but on a previous state of development, and how all societies will tend to secular democracies, or communism, and so on. They were tearing themselves to pieces and our Syrian friend watched this with much consternation — too similar to Syria? I left him there and slipped out to have a cigarette. It started to drizzle and I hastened to my lecture.
He left a few days ago to live with family in Turkey. I shook his hand. He left, I expect, never to be seen again.