26th of July: Soviet Maps, Empty Streets, and Sandwiches

Had forgotten how little fun naming these things was.

Just like in the old days, this list will be available in two formats – a weekly email newsletter, and a weekly blog. I’d like to start strong and get stronger so if you enjoy anything you find this week, or you’ve got fond memories of the halcyon days of like… March, then please pass it on to a friend you love or several people you hate, I’m not fussed where my #numbers come from.

Song of the week is D’Angelo’s Really Love off his last album.

First up, I actually wrote a thing! It’s a slightly rambly piece that stumbles just short of making a point about British defence ambitions but there you go.

Allons-y donc.

  • This piece on Soviet-era maps is fascinating, and contains beautiful reproductions of some of them
  • Sharp critique of Cameron’s speech on ‘extremism’, which actually addressed my own counter-arguments before I had even formulated them
  • UCL have been making headlines recently for their research into the legacies of slavery. This BBC documentary based on the project is excellent 1
  • This poignant essay on what it means to raise a free-spirited black child in a country that seems to punish their existence is heart-breaking
  • So look, I didn’t think I was going to address this one because who knew that taylor swift was actually b a d? but this discussion is actually quite interesting on what the episode can tell us about feminism2
  • Beautiful set of photos of Muslims celebrating Eid. Love the series of selfie ones
  • Nuanced examination of the effects automation could have on fast-food workers in the States, just as their campaign for an increased minimum wage is scoring victories.
  • This is so bizarre and I kind of want to hate the guy, but it’s basically just quite interesting – ‘the man who flies around the world for free’
  • Two superhero-based ones. This Sean Collins look at Hellboy and its approach to the apocalypse is cool, and Austin Walker, here, encapsulates all my thoughts about Batman and the Arkham games and their populations and it’s good.
  • So look this guy is wrong about most of these sandwiches but it’s fairly pleasant writing nonetheless

And that’s that for another week. See you in August x

1: further thoughts. A) It is a nice touch that they interviewed several Caribbean experts instead of just bringing out the English ones again and again B) the effect where they superimpose entries from the archives onto London buildings shouldn’t work but it is so powerful C) Though it is about slavery in the British Empire, not the United States, I couldn’t stop thinking about this wrenching quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me:

“Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world—which is really the only world she can ever know—ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains—whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. […] The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never redeem this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point.”

2: I guess feminism at it exists in the tabloids and the media more than the lived experiences and struggles of women

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Punching Above Our Weight?

Often, complaints and worries about the United Kingdom’s diminished military role in world affairs seem a bit of a stretch. This is, after all, a P5 state, one of a handful of nuclear powers, with the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. Other times, however, you begin to think the delusions stretch to the top.

image from the Guardian

image from the Guardian

Sending eight fighter jets, a handful of spy planes, and a couple of hundred trainers to Iraq is many things. According to Dave, it makes the UK the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS.  What it probably isn’t, however, is an effort on par with one of the most pivotal air wars in history, a moment where the UK faced a literal existential threat. Comparing the war on ISIS, Operation Shader, to the actual Battle of Britain would be absurd. It would sound like a desperate attempt to clothe today’s conflicts in uncontroversial past glories to shield them from criticism. An actual government minister wouldn’t make that comparison.

“Today, with more warnings of threats to our citizens in Tunisia following the horrific events of two weeks ago, I believe we’re fighting a new Battle of Britain.

Once again, against a fascist enemy, an enemy prepared to kill enemies and opponents alike, our RAF are again spearheading our defence in the counter attack targeting the terror menace in Iraq. Flying missions and launching strikes day and night, using precision weapons including Brimstone for surgical strikes.”

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, 16/07/2015

Sigh.

So look, this is kind of very transparent. The coalition strategy in Iraq and Syria is not working as spectacularly as we might have wanted. The USA, which is doing the most, is facing calls to do more, bomb more, send more troops. These calls, as predictable as they are, are at least based on some sort of reality – the USA probably could (but shouldn’t) do loads more, which is just one of the benefits of spending 40% of the world’s entire military budget. Even if this nebulous “do more” weren’t a bit of a non-starter, it isn’t enormously clear how much more the UK could be doing with its limited power projection capacity.

Faced with the awful attack in Tunisia, the need to be seen to be doing more is understandable. Absent this possibility, absurd rhetorical escalation is… also good? Like if pretending we are fighting WW2 again does enough, electorally, to obviate the need for racist and ill-thought out counter-terrorism initiatives then that’d be good, right? Oh.

The only obvious immediate step to take would be authorising the UK to officially join strikes across the Syrian border1 (such at it is). That wouldn’t have much effect but sure. We aren’t doing much, and we’re not likely to do much more, and we probably shouldn’t. Fine.

What I’d like to look at it2 is where this constant demand for us to do more comes from.

As I pointed out earlier, the UK claims to be the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS. The Defence Select Committee, in its call for us to do more, disagrees:

The Secretary of State for the Defence has insisted that the UK operations in Iraq are ‘major’. The Prime Minister implied that the UK contribution was second only to that of the US:

[…]

But, in reality, the UK contribution so far has been—in comparison to actions taken between 2003-06 and even in relation to other coalition partners—surprisingly modest.

The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH)

Numbers are difficult to find, as the UK government announces data weirdly and periodically, but it is very worth noting that the Select Committee cites the Defence Secretary in early December

“In the House on Monday 12 December, the Defence Secretary announced that only 99 air strikes had been carried out since the UK started flying missions.”

Meanwhile, from the French, probably our closest peer in terms of size and capability:

“In total, then, as of the 1st of July 2015, French aviation carried out 964 sorties over Iraq, and made 162 strikes.3

I’m no mathematician, but the numbers here don’t really suggest what the Select Committee imply. The French and British air-strikes started fairly concurrently, across about a week in late September. That leaves the French having conducted about 15-20 a month since September. If in December, after two and a half months, the British had carried out 99, that’s closer to 30 a month. Since then, the Ministry of Defence website appears to indicate about one strike every other day, although some of those entries include more than one mission.

Regardless, if we’re doing similar amounts to France, a country that, depending on who you ask, spends more or less the same as us on defence4 then is there a problem here? Beating the French is a noble pastime if you’re a Top Gear presenter, but unless you want us to compete with the global hegemon in military capacity, which would be silly…

It is, I think, telling, that this was basically the essential justification for the above criticism by the Defence Select Committee:

“This amounted to fewer than one a day. Six days prior, US CENTCOM (which is coordinating strikes) announced that 1,676 strikes have been carried out, meaning that the UK is responsible for just 6% of the strikes carried out so far.”

Basically, “punching above our weight” is a silly ambition. We seem to be punching about as hard as we should be, and that should do. We aren’t going to be able to go toe-to-toe in terms of strike tempo with the US Air Force any time soon because of course we aren’t.

 

Technically there should be another three paragraphs here to make this a more convincing argument but I’ve already gone over a thousand words and I want to play some Civ 5. x

 

1 state of this outcry over the embedded pilots taking part in US missions against ISIS as if a) the border means anything b) we aren’t already bombing them elsewhere c) those pilots are anything other than exchange students. and also I’ve just gotten annoyed about the continued misinterpretation of the 2013 Commons vote on airstrikes on Syria again.

2 talk about burying the lede

« Au total, donc, au 1er juillet 2015, l’aviation française a effectué 964 sorties au-dessus de l’Irak et procédé à 162 frappes »

4 and gets a lot more for it, see my previous work, and also see the fact that the French are conducting missions against ISIS from an actual aircraft carrier

19th of July: Morning Shift

“Gabriel if you were going to choose to bring back this time-consuming weekly endeavour, shouldn’t you have a) given yourself a week’s head-start to start collecting articles and b) chosen a week where you weren’t working Saturday evening and Sunday morning?”

“Who are you, go away.”

Saw the Scorsese Rolling Stones concert with Mum in the Ferney cinema years and years ago and not only does the whole live album around it still hold up but the Buddy Guy cameo remains incredible. Volume on that man.

Just like in the old days, this list will be available in two formats – a weekly email newsletter, and a weekly blog. I’d like to start strong and get stronger so if you enjoy anything you find this week, or you’ve got fond memories of the halcyon days of like… March, then please pass it on to a friend you love or several people you hate, I’m not fussed where my #numbers come from.

A warning – I am basically just rummaging through my history here to find some gems for you all. This will be a short list but I hope that means it’ll be all gold as most of these have stuck with me for weeks.

Interestingly, none of them are even remotely international relations-y, which doesn’t say great things about the calibre and staying power of security writing. Anyway, there’s normally more here.

  • These three pieces should really be read together, so it’s convenient that I’ve had to wait to share them all with you. Black men, British and American, reflect on raising sons and brothers in deeply racist societies. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a breath-taking excerpt from his new book. Gary Younge, in an incredible farewell to America. Carl Anka, technically writing to his brother as he heads to university, but, for my British-university slanting readership, a valuable reminder that this stuff doesn’t stop at the Atlantic. Beautiful, upsetting, powerful writing, off you go.
  • This profile of Nina Simone goes deep and is beautiful and quietly sad
  • By complete coincidence, I read that one on the night-bus home one night, and then the next, read this review of the Amy Winehouse documentary that planted the seeds for a bittersweet week of listening to Amy and reading about her to remind myself of what we lost. This is a great comparison of a few recent music biopics, and this is great on how we obscure female genius.
  • I have only glancing interest in grime and tennis, but these profiles are pretty great – Skepta and Serena Williams.
  • “Oh Gabriel,” you say, “When will you concede that the sea is actually not that bad?” Mate1.
  • More on the fact that the sea and nature generally are Actually Bad – what it will look like when nature slaps the whole Pacific Northwest into the dust. Chilling.
  • Rather beautiful account of how lunch with Jacques Pépin saved an author’s life2
  • Film Crit Hulk wrote about Kanye and I didn’t restart the blog immediately to inform you all of this. Stunned you lot didn’t hunt me down tbh.
  • IDK what to say about this one I don’t know if I’ve just read enough of Tom’s work that I’m inured to it – this one is called “The M&Ms Store in the Age of Minions” and it’s kind of spectacular
  • Reckon this was my favourite response to that irritating-seeming viral video about offline dating (I didn’t watch it, obv.)
  • Vice has gone from being home of “We did this edgy thing and wrote it up in a problematic way” pieces to home of some of my favourite stuff on the Internet, so a quick selection. Tough to choose which Joel Golby piece to give you here as he’s genuinely become my favourite, but I think it has to be this lyrical and transcendent bit of whinging about working in the summer. As to Sam Kriss, struggled a bit here, partly because he’s more dispersed, but went with one on the Tube strike, and one on the spate of “I’m leaving London and for some reason you care” pieces the other week. Finally, this might be my favourite thing possibly ever, really. Absolutely lyrical misery about going out3.

Reckon I’ll leave it at that, lads. Won’t even try and bring back the old “does Gabriel exclusively read men” feature from before because the answer remains “yeah” and I can’t face that right now.

If you’re new, I hope this has been of some value to you and I hope to see you again next week when, I promise, there’ll be some stuff about Greece and Syria and that.

As to the loyal returnees, I’m not promising anything. You know how this works.

Lovely to be back, see you next week. X

1 upsettingly, of course, this story turns out to essentially be one of basic human cruelty towards migrants so it’s no bad thing that banning the sea would end all life on earth

2 IDK I’m duty bound to accept the melodrama

3 hazy memories of reaching 1AM and reading passages of this out loud to my flatmates and demanding they acknowledge its acute truth. it is t o o real.

 

Told you I’d be back

Like a persistent cold or a hangover that refuses to go away for reasons unclear1  I have returned to your inboxes, to your timelines, to your news feeds. This was always going to happen. The genuine distress in the eyes of people who are contractually obliged to be nice to me when they found I was knocking it on the head was too much to bear, really.

Also things are just really kind of bad, aren’t they? I left you and the Tories got in, the Mediterranean became a wide expanse of even grimmer-ness and UCL hurled me into the void of an uncaring universe, unready2 and unwilling.

But.

There has been some really great writing out there. Like properly good to the point of irritating me. Several writers who I had previously shared seem to be entering a real hot streak and it’s great. Writing still looks rough, and I’ve got friends who’ve lost jobs recently which is Bad, but at the same time I see people finding platforms and success and stuff and it’s really encouraging.

And without this reading list, the only way I have to show my appreciation for this art is sweaty little @ replies to them on Twitter in the desperate pursuit of favs which, particularly for female writers, is a grim look.

So it’s coming back. Because amidst all the grimness and despair that is existence there is some beauty Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.

I suspect I’ll stick to the old weekly Sunday publication schedule, but I’ll see how I feel. To kick us off though, what I thought I’d do is just mention some of the writers who provoked this so that you can delve into their backlogs while you’re waiting for a more targeted selection this weekend. Naturally, I haven’t really been keeping up the System so the 19th’s list will be a bit patchier.

Not even going to give you links here, just names. An afternoon spent Googling them and delving through their recent work would be Time Well Spent, promise.

Joel Golby and Sam Kriss, both at Vice and elsewhere, have recently been consistently excellent, both funny and occasionally beautiful. Nicole Cliffe and Mallory Ortberg have taken The Toast from strength to strength and are always very funny (as well as having my favourite relationship on Twitter). Ta-Nehisi Coates has got a book coming out that sounds predictably incredible and has elicited some great profiles of the man himself. Rembert Browne has written some of my favourite pop culture pieces of the past few months.

That’ll do you actually. More to follow whenever I get round to it. Hope you’re all as excited as I am. x

 

definitely nothing to do with sunny weather and cheap tins of Stella no sir not at all

“want a bit more library access and maybe some time to breathe before you have to pay council tax and full travel fares? fuck off”