Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 25.8.21

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza  

The way forward? From the Voz de Galicia yesterday: Renewable energy is becoming an increasingly clear alternative to the unstoppable rise in electricity prices, as electricity, for example, is cheaper when it is windy. But the need to promote new projects in the wind energy sector clashes with social and environmental concerns. In Galicia companies are processing some 200 applications that must pass the filters  of both the Xunta and the central government, but almost 50 of those validated by Madrid have received unfavourable reporst from the Galician government. However, some 30 projects which the Xunta sees as strategic industrial initiatives have received the go-ahead.

I see that Spain in not unique in this regard . . . On Pampelonne beach, a large Italian family set up half a metre away from us, even though it was relatively empty. 

Lenox Napier is back from holiday and ruminates here on Afghanistan and horses.

This, courtesy of my lovely neighbour, is the biggest percebe(goose barnacle) I’ve ever seen. And possibly the most repulsive:-

What I am sure of is that I wouldn’t have enjoyed eating it, despite it now being an expensive delicacy. As opposed to the animal food it used to be.

Europe

A trip round Europe through apps and masks. See the 1st article below.

The USA

Afghanistan is the price of lying about our empire, says this writer. He makes some interesting points about empires:-

The United States does not have to build an empire, but if we’re going to (as we have), then damn it do it right. Half-blind, with both hands tied behind our backs while we lie that we’re the winners for decades, ain’t it. And if we decide that we are not going to have an empire, then let us have an honest debate on what we are willing to do to maintain some semblance of Pax Americana.

if Democrats use this chance to simply try to re-litigate Trump’s treaty, and if Republicans seize this moment merely to attack Biden for the botched withdrawal — for the last page of a 20-year book — they will miss the chance to look clearly at our disease, to work to diagnose and cure what ails us — if it is even curable at all, and it might not be.

Afghanistan

We must learn the lessons of the West’s tragic ‘performance war’ in Afghanistan. Let’s finally acknowledge that what unfolded was not just a bloody, protracted conflict but also a 20-year simulation of a “liberation”, says the alway- provocative Shirelle Jacobs in the 2nd article below.

Social Media 

YouTube has been accused of helping to spread extremist ‘incel’ content by failing to take down a channel which glorifies its misogynistic ideology. The platform is accused of giving a ‘false sense of credibility’ to videos that show ‘adoration’ for men who’ve murdered women because no one has had sex with them.

Quote of the Day 

Much of this book feels like a pitched battle between genuinely useful and unusual advice and the bland lowest-common-denominator mulch-speak of self-help gurus the world over.

English

My said lovely neighbour has accidentally invented the word ‘ungry’ – a combination of ‘angry’ and ‘hungry’, which she says is appropriate, as hunger tends to make her angry. I’m advising the OED.

Finally  . . .

I wrote yesterday of tourism ruining places. Here’s a British example. I used to rock-climb on Snowdon as a young scout. It certainly wasn’t like this back then.

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

THE ARTICLES

A trip round Europe through apps and masks. From German diligence to French enforcement, countries’ pandemic responses put cultural differences back on the map: Hugo Rifkind, The Times

I have been to mainland Europe, and I can report that it is still there. Road signs, baguettes, Alpine lakes, beaches; none of it has gone away. I suppose I knew this already — the foreign pages still mention these places, and why would they lie? — but it doesn’t feel real until you see it for yourself.

Four of us and a dog in a Kia. We came out of the Eurotunnel and on to the wrong side of an empty road and it was like an apocalypse movie, because the French don’t go up there if they can help it (“C’est le nord!” they all shuddered in the 2008 hit French film Welcome To The Sticks) and the Brits weren’t yet coming much either.

When we left, France was still amber plus. Had this continued, we’d have needed Covid tests not only on arrival and return, but also tests on days two, five and eight thereafter. Which, for a family of four, meant wasting almost as much money up your nose as Spandau Ballet.

Our first destination, eight hours of autoroutes and autobahns later, was Konstanz in Germany. Here, unvaccinated kids needed to quarantine, although we were with friends and family and by a lake, so they barely noticed.

They don’t mess around, Germans. Three days in, a friendly city official got in touch to check we knew the rules. Two days later, the four children in the house were given appointment times at the (free) local testing centre of 10.03, 10.04, 10.05 and 10.06, while three adults who needed tests to fly home got 10.07, 10.09 and 10.10. Results came by text in 15 minutes. I’m still not sure what those lazy German medics were doing at 10.08. Just loafing, I expect.

I’m also not sure what would have happened if we hadn’t told them we were there. The law said we should fill out an online form, but with no real borders after Folkestone, how would they ever have known? We had our British car parked outside, so maybe there would have been a knock on the door. For you, my friend, ze holiday is over.

In Germany, you wear masks in shops or when you stand up from a restaurant table, and they’re proper medical ones, too. No trendy fabric. Daily cases are rising, but they’re still only 8 per 100,000 people each day, as compared with 47-ish here and not much less in France.

This makes diligence feel ritualistic, particularly in rural Germany where Covid is a semi-mythical bogeyman, much like Rumpelstiltskin, or some child-eating forest witch of the Brothers Grimm. And yet being German, they still obey all the rules anyway, and expect that you will, too.

From Germany, we went down to the south of France. It’s some drive, that, going through a million tunnels from lush German meadows, through Swiss Alpine peaks, through dusty middle Italy and down to Mediterranean palms, and pandemic or not, Schengen still does its magic. You only know you’re in Italy because the tunnel lights have gone and the driving is terrible, and you only know you’re back into France because the latter gets very marginally better.

They obey the rules in France, too, but with a somehow more palpable resentment. Here, masks were enforced almost everywhere except the beach. You wear them on the street, you put one on when you get out of your car at a motorway service station. You wear them if you’re a wizened old French lady with a boob job, shoulder-barging your way irritably through St Tropez market to buy yet another sequinned kaftan.

In the romantic, cobbled village of Gassin, I saw gendarmerie chiding honeymooners who forgot to put them back on after taking selfies. At a nearby fairground — and I swear this is true — I saw people actually bungee jumping in them. Because obviously plunging towards the ground without a state-mandated thin paper mask over your mouth just wouldn’t be safe at all.

I saw a testing centre in France, too, and that one was a tent with a bored-looking line of people coming out of it, on a terrain de pétanque next to a boulangerie. Was there an accordion playing? Hell, probably.

And while I’m in the business of sweeping national generalisations, I should probably also throw in the large Italian family who set up half a metre away from us on Pampelonne beach, even though it was relatively empty. Or I could tell you about the respective French and German Covid apps, both of which will upload your NHS pass if you really try. The first, TousAntiCovid, is officious and frankly a little bullying, taking advantage of a Frenchman’s willingness to click away his liberté when it’s lunchtime and he wants to get into a restaurant. Meanwhile, the German equivalent, Corona-Warn, is apologetic, and privacy focused, and basically just really, really keen for you to not think it’s the Stasi.

These, I suppose, are the cultural differences that bubble away under all those graphs and charts about what laws apply where, and what differences they make. These are the things that remind you that, while some governments have surely done well, and others badly, there is always more going on.

We came back on Friday, anyway, off those still-deserted Calais freeways into the tunnel, and then out again into the perpetual, grinding gridlock of our southeast. And I wondered, as we crept towards home, what equally stereotypical Covid characteristics would shine out to a Frenchman or a German about us right now, as we tell ourselves and everybody else that our pandemic is over, even when it so glaringly isn’t. Is it optimism? Is it exceptionalism? Is it just blunt chaos? If, of course, they haven’t stopped believing in us altogether. Even though we’re still only a short drive and a cotton bud up the nose away.

2. We must learn the lessons of the West’s tragic ‘performance war’ in Afghanistan. Let us finally acknowledge that what unfolded was not just a bloody, protracted conflict but also a 20-year simulation of a “liberation”:  Sherelle Jacobs, The Telegraph

Are we witnessing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan or the final scenes of a Hollywood film? In the way the tragedy is portrayed, and trite debate it has triggered, it can sometimes feel like the latter. The cameras invite us to become engrossed in the biblical chaos of the closing act. The broadcasters’ eyes rove over desperate refugees as they board flights under a blazing sun, then cuts to those waiting in purgatory outside evacuation facilities. They flit back to the West where an overwhelmed Joe Biden shrugs as ghosts from the past spin their final threads to the media: while George Bush expresses his barbed “sadness”, a tortured Tony Blair lambasts Biden’s “imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘the forever wars’”.

The end scenes in the Afghanistan war are so wretched and chaotic that it is hard to take a step back and examine the bigger picture. But that is exactly what we must do. Particularly as we risk overlooking one pertinent lesson, perhaps the biggest political lesson of our age. This, incidentally, is the exact same lesson that Blair is so desperate to ignore: the dangers of an open-ended conflict against a phenomenon like terror or Islamist extremism, which is impossible to truly control.  

One can endlessly analyse the mistakes of the withdrawal and the inadequacies of Biden. But the big error was made by Bush and Blair towards the start. Their failure to engage in the risks and complexities of an ill-defined mission ultimately resulted in a protracted and futile conflict. It has also led to what I can only describe as an obscene 20-year performance by our political leaders, as they sent young men and women to die on our behalf.

A mission boldly framed in Manichean language about freedom versus the forces of evil was frustrated by dire lack of resources and planning – indeed any sort of realistic plan for achieving its eventual ends. After the initial aim of overthrowing the Taliban was achieved, what followed was a grotesque simulation of an attempt to achieve something rather than an authentic endeavour.  

This may seem like an extreme position to take, given all the blood, sweat and treasure sacrificed. Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the American leadership, at least, never took the fight for freedom in Afghanistan seriously.

Washington’s indulgence of Pakistan, whose borders have functioned as a revolving back-door for the Taliban since the movement was founded in a Pakistani madrassa, was an absurdity. Perhaps this was by the by. After all, by Bush’s own admission, Afghanistan was merely the “opening act” in the War on Terror. One that became deprived of resources once attention shifted to Iraq.

For the first three years of Afghan occupation, the US military was openly hostile to nation-building, viewing it as a distraction from its primary task of waging war on the Taliban. It was only once the latter launched a bloody counter-insurgency three years in that Washington finally acknowledged the importance of a stable government and basic public services.

Even once nation-building became a central part of the mission, beneath the shimmer of development projects and donor conferences, the effort bordered on farcical. So much so that, by some calculations, most of the money was not spent inside the country. Donors, keen to bypass the Afghan government which it believed to be corrupt and “lack capacity”, squandered millions on contracting bureaucracies managed by Western firms outside the country.

Nor was there much sober thinking about how to build a sustainable economy in a war-torn country that has lacked fiscal viability since 1747 when it was part of the Durrani empire, and relied on raids into India to support itself. We leave a country where a quarter of people still lack access to clean water and opium is one of the few credible industries. The money that has found its way to the right places has done little more than reinforce Afghanistan’s status as an aid-based rentier state.

Given all this, and the speed with which the Taliban have taken back control, one is left wondering whether what we have witnessed over the last 20 years has been more spectacle than substance – a pseudo-Western in which modernity battles barbarism in the windswept wilderness. If politicians seeded the story, the media helped write the script. Let’s not forget how American cable television treated the war as a given before a single bomb had been dropped. Or John Simpson’s euphoric declaration in November 2001 that the BBC had “liberated” Kabul after arriving in the abandoned city before Northern Alliance troops.

The failure of the war was not just logistical but also intellectual. The neo-conservatism that inspired Bush and Blair was based on decent but vague Enlightenment ideals about human rights and democracy. Though the academic school had spent years advocating America’s unique role in advancing these ideals across the world prior to 9/11, it had made few attempts to interrogate the specific conditions in which they flourish.

Perhaps that is because the neo-con movement was as visceral as it was intellectual – its faith in America’s heroic purpose was partly a revolt against modern liberal society with its vapid nihilism and refusal to take sides. While there was nothing wrong with that impulse, the camp struggled to move beyond a self-confidence that bordered on spiritual. It remains in denial about how catastrophically its lofty theories collided with gritty reality in Afghanistan.

And so it goes that the West shifts from one war to another – or, rather, one simulation to another. The war on terror may be drawing to a close but there is no end in sight to the war on coronavirus. There are differences: this new unfolding epic has a sci-fi flavour and a fresh heroic quest – absolute Safety has relegated absolute Freedom from cause to victim. Still, much is familiar – the Manichean rhetoric, peddled by world leaders and amplified by broadcast media. The open-ended war on a global phenomenon which risks doing more harm than good. An ever-mutating threat that must be not merely minimised, but eliminated. 

One can only hope that we are not here again in 20 years once the Covid era has passed, too afraid to ask ourselves what it was all for. 

2 comments

  1. Tell your neighbor that the word she invented is slightly wrong. The real word to describe angry and hungry is “hangry.” Whether or not it’s in the OED (more likely, not), I’ve seen it around and describes that emotion aptly.

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