Twerking pop stars and errant footballers I can give an opinion on. Syria leaves me stumped

It’s hard not to suspect, from the pitch of their voices, that those who rail against our going in today are the very people who railed against our staying out yesterday

Share

My position on whether we, or anyone else, should intervene in Syria couldn’t be clearer. I absolutely, utterly and definitively don’t know. I like to think I have been consistent in this. I didn’t know what I thought when the Syrian uprising started more than two years ago; didn’t know when the Syrian army stormed the city of Homs; didn’t know after reports of the Houla massacre reached us in May last year; didn’t know when brutal-faced Syrian generals denied all involvement in any massacre; didn’t know when I saw pictures of rebels bearing marked resemblance to clerics we are always trying to deport to Jordan, and don’t know now.

Gas should concentrate the mind – or at least the minds of those on whom it has not been used – should it not? Gas, for God’s sake. Gas, with all its hideous associations for those of us who still remember the 20th century. Isn’t gas the line that can’t be crossed, and once crossed must incur not just our wrath but our strenuous and if necessary armed insistence that it will never be crossed again? Don’t know. Yes but no but.

I am not asking for anyone’s pity, but chief among the pains of writing a newspaper column each week is having to know what you think. No matter that you are more the craven-scrupled Hamlet than the itchy-fingered Fortinbras, a man who can “find quarrel in a straw”, you must lash yourself into opinionated action on the morning that you write, fat the region’s kites with the offal of the villain of the week, understanding that if your thoughts aren’t bloody, they are nothing worth.

Out there at this very moment, in lofts, basements, lean-tos and neglected gardens, a thousand otherwise genial-tempered hacks are rubbing the lamp of intemperate opinion to coax out a view – immoderately enthusiastic or grossly derogatory, it hardly matters which, and the distinction probably won’t be noticed anyway – on celebrity chefs, wayward footballers, twerking pop stars, tattooed nobodies and any one of a thousand comedians whose routine is indistinguishable from the others – a judgement I no sooner make than I withdraw lest you think I have a view on the matter.

But what are such artificially manufactured convictions compared to the certainties the leader of a powerful nation has to delve into himself to find when confronted, not with Jamie Oliver and potato crisps, but Bashar al-Assad and a rocket-load of sarin gas? Who’d be Obama? Damned for every action he takes and damned for every action he doesn’t. It’s hard not to suspect, from the pitch of their voices, that those who rail against our going in today are the very people who railed against our staying out yesterday. Or is it just that dead certainty sounds the same, no matter who you are and what it is you’re being dead certain about?

So what is it we think we know? Or at least – to shrink the field to more manageable proportions of ignorance – what is it we think we know about this region of the world? Let’s start with dictators. We think we are against them. His being a dictator was one reason among many for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. But then we discovered that a dictator sometimes holds together, by virtue of the violence at his disposal, factions that would otherwise do even greater damage to their country than he does. “Iraq was better under Saddam Hussein,” say those who once blamed the West for putting him there in the first place. A dictator, it would appear, like your reflection in a mirror, depends where you’re looking from. And whether Tony Blair is looking over your shoulder.

Some Egyptians, having democratically elected a man who was quick to take on the lineaments of absolutism, now look longingly back to the dictator they already had. Better the despot you know is the thinking of the Russians in relation to Syria. And Russians have some previous when it comes to alternating despots. Maybe we should listen to them from time to time. Since we are all wrong about everything, the more variously wrong voices we attend to the more comprehensively informed about our ignorance we are likely to be.

Having done dictators, let’s deal with democracy. We think we are for it. Let the people choose. That was what Egyptians recently believed. But they forgot that “the people” often choose badly. So when does a free vote that turns out to be a bad vote turn out to be undemocratic? When the side that you are on says it is. Enter the army. We, who know what we think, call any army interference in civil politics “a coup”. Egyptians in favour of “the coup”, and who don’t therefore see it as “a coup”, call it democracy in action.

If I knew what I thought I’d say that was a fair description. Using the army to remove, in the name of democracy, a democratically elected leader who thought he’d been elected to be a dictator, thereby rendering illegal the legality of his election, makes a sort of sense if only in that it makes nonsense of the idea that there can be sense.

What’s happening in Egypt isn’t funny, but no absurdist playwright could have left the language of ideology – the weasel words in which we wrap our beliefs and offer to know what we think – in more disarray.

 

          Yesterday, upon the stair,

          I met a man who wasn’t there.

          He wasn’t there again today

          I wish, I wish he’d go away.

 

But now he’s gone – Mr Certainty, that is – now our Parliament has decided against intervention, I can’t help thinking it’s made the wrong choice. Gas, for God’s sake! No but yes but.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Arts Editor: The Great Character Actors of Football

David Lister
 

What I saw on the night my husband was hit by a car

Rebecca Armstrong
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit