Friday, June 24, 2011

You've Gaddafi joking

Last weekend, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov made a visit to a country with a long record of human rights abuses and a complete lack of democratic government. During his visit, he played a game of chess with the country's political leader.

Hang on. Was that not the photo you were expecting? But I said last weekend. The other chap was the weekend before.

No, last weekend Kirsan was in Vietnam. With its complete absence of democracy. And its very long record of human rights violations.

No-one said a word.

Whatever. Anyway, I wrote a piece about Kirsan's visit to Libya at the time, which I was going to run on Wednesday last week. And I changed my mind, it being, coincidentally, my birthday that day. Politics and war and dictators seemed far too serious for a birthday, so I dropped it, substituted something harmless and went up to the mountains for the day. But it's been nagging at me that there was something I wanted to say. So I'll try and say it now.

One of my persistent, albeit occasional, themes in writing about chess politics and media is the difficulty which the chess world, in Western Europe and North America, has in understanding the point of view of the rest of the world. The reason being, chiefly, that it does not try.

Because it doesn't understand, it doesn't really understand how Kirsan works, not entirely, and understands still less, how he gets away with it. It understands that he's corrupt, that his friends are crooks, that he silences some people and buys others, that the structure he controls is a parody of democracy, of course. That's well understood. But it doesn't understand that, however things may look from here, they may look differently from elsewhere. Specifically, what looks like justified moral outrage, from where we are standing, often looks like selective outrage, not to say hypocrisy, when viewed from elsewhere in the world.

So, Kirsan goes to Libya, in the middle of a war, one of whose causes is the de facto leader of that country, with whom he has a friendly meeting. How could he? we ask. Doesn't he care about who he associates with? we ask. Doesn't he realise how this looks? Do me a favour.

How could he? Because he can.

Doesn't he care who he associates with? Course not. He never has.

Doesn't he realise how it looks? Of course he realises how it looks. But it depends on who's doing the looking. What he probably didn't ask himself, all that much, is how it was going to look to you. Assuming that you are in the West.

This isn't because he's bad, although he surely is. Nor because he's mad, although he probably is not. It's because his constituency isn't you. It isn't, by and large, the West. And this, it seems to me, is the point that nobody was making any effort to see. Or understand.

It's a constituency that's largely located elsewhere and one which may take a different view of Western military campaigns than is normal in the West. One which may not believe that when the West starts bombing somebody to whom they were cuddling up just yesterday, it's because of a deep commitment to human rights. One which may hold a jaundiced opinion of a system of political ethics which barely notices a dictator until it's time to have a war with them - but then, when that war happens, demands that everybody else organises their moral outrage around the same new-found priorities.

Suddenly the same countries whose leaders were queueing up to be photographed with Gaddafi are crying out that Gaddafi's the one person in the world you absolutely can't be photographed with? Some people might be just a little bit sceptical about that. And they might be just a little bit right.

You can see their point of view, can't you. No? You can't? Well, then maybe they can't see yours either. Which is why the West has never been able to cope with people such as Kirsan, or Campomanes, or for that matter João Havelange, all of whom have understood very well how much resentment there is, outside the West, at Western intervention in other countries.

Not that they care, I hasten to add: on the contrary, all the three individuals named in the paragraph above have been good friends not just to dictators, but to corruption on a considerable scale. Kirsan's allies in FIDE consist in good part of the corrupt, the bribed, the paid-for, just as was true of Campomanes before him, just as was true of Havelange in FIFA (and for that matter, of Blatter now). There's nothing principled about Kirsan. Far from it. The man is 100% cynical. Though not necessarily more cynical than the policy of buying dictators one day and bombing them the next.

What I'm driving at is that there's such a thing as public opinion, to which any politician has to play: and that public opinion outside the West is not necessarily the same as public opinion inside it. And hence it's possible for a politician to play on genuine resentments of what is perceived as an arrogant and hypocritical West. And how do we deal with that? By being the arrogant and hypocritical West, and making no effort to understand why other people have a different point of view to ours. (I am painting in very broad strokes, since "we" and "they" represent many millions of people with many millions of opinions, but as a generalisation, I think the picture fits.) One way in which this manifests itself is in the habit of picking and choosing who we decide to support and encourage, and who we decide needs to be bombed, and then making a huge moral noise about it whenever we do the latter.

So, when I read about Kirsan's flight to Tripoli, I wasn't outraged. I just laughed. I laughed at the sheer cynicism of it. But I wasn't outraged. He's just playing to an audience. He's playing to an audience that doesn't see The Most Evil Dictator In The World. It may well see a couple of dictators, and ought to. But it also sees a capital city under bombardment by (for want of a better phrase) the West. It may or may not care how Kirsan looks. But it may also think about how the West looks.

And, you know, I don't see that meeting Gaddafi now is particularly more outrageous than meeting him when most of the photos in this piece were taken. The venality of a government really ought to be measured by their actions. Not by whether somebody's decided to go to war with them. That's the point where you can count me out.

Everybody knew that Gaddafi had a very long history of very serious human rights violations when they were paying him, and taking his money in return. Well, perhaps not everybody in the world knew, but everybody who was taking his money did. And everybody who was paying him.

So I'm kind of reminded of Tartakower's refusal to act against Alekhine, after the war, because of the latter's anti-Semitic articles. You all knew what he was like, said Tartakower, but back then you preferred to accept it. I think I am with Tartakower here.

You know, I've argued before that the same principle applies to Kirsan. People knew, or ought to have known, what he was when he first took over FIDE. But, as I put it then:
People kept their mouths shut and took his tainted money.
Now to be fair, that's the usual standard of ethical due diligence (or any kind of due diligence) obtaining in sport - or, for that matter, in international relations. Tell us about your money, and we'll ask questions later, if we ask them at all. I don't like that, but I understand it. But if that's the game, I'm not going to then turn cartwheels of moral umbrage when people decide they don't want to play any more.

So let's complain, yes, when FIDE presidents make friendly visits to dictators. But let's not reserve our special outrage when it's one on whom we happen to be dropping bombs. That, to me, is what makes a mockery of the whole process of promoting human rights: when it's partially and conveniently applied, and when it's accompanied by war, so that instead of a genuine support for human rights, it just becomes a card that's played in pursuit of an aggressive foreign policy. That's the sort of thing that makes people cynical. It's the sort of thing that's made me cynical. And disinclined to go along with the periodic fits of morality which accompany it.

So - if people want to spread their outrage a little more widely, and look into the use of chess to promote chess in repressive states generally, if people want to make it policy that we should ethically audit hosts, and sponsors, and who the President of FIDE goes to see, then that's something else. How often do questions of human rights come up in relation, for instance, to tournaments in China? If people want to complain about visits to Libya, perhaps there's a case for complaining about visits to Vietnam? Or visits to Sri Lanka or Iran?

I'm not going to be outraged when Kirsan does what half the political leaders in Western Europe did just recently. You be outraged, if you want to. That's OK. There's good reasons. Kirsan is what he is and Gaddafi is what he is. But perhaps other people order their priorities differently. Perhaps I do. Perhaps I'm not going to keep track of who's on the moral outrage list this weekend and who's the beneficiary of constructive engagement. Of whether we're at war with Eastasia or Eurasia.

[Gaddafi photo: The Malaysian Insider]
[Mandela photo: Political Scrapbook]
[Blair photo: Guardian. Via Aaronovitch Watch]
[Berlsuconi, Chirac, Obama photos: NewStatesman]
[This piece represents the view of its author and not of anybody else, individually or collectively. If you disagree with it, a comments box is available.]


Jonathan B said...

What he probably didn't ask himself, all that much, is how it was going to look to you. Assuming that you are in the West.

This isn't because he's bad, although he surely is. Nor because he's mad, although he probably is not. It's because his constituency isn't you.

I think you make good points. I'd just like to add one thing that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else in relation to the Kirsan trip to see Gaddafi.

When the London bid for the 2012 World Championship match collapsed somebody - I think it was Malcolm Pein - said the only strategy FIDE had left was approaching the home country of whoever turned out to be the challenger and hoping they would come up with the cash (like Bulgaria for the Anand - Topalov match).

From that point of view it was rather unfortunate - to say the least - that Kirsan should make a point of going to Libya so soon after the challenger turned out to be Boris Gelfand: home country ... Israel!

FIDE's consituency might not be me, but in terms of getting legitimate sponsorship it is the west. I think Kirsan's pretty much boshed that on the head now.

Of course he could dip his hand into his own pocket again - although it's far from obvious that the money he'll find there is actually his own.

For myself - I'm far from certain a match will actually take place next year. Hopefully, I'll be proved wrong about that

mishanp said...

I think you're partly buying into Gaddafi and Ilyumzhinov's propaganda. Of course they want to represent the situation as NATO (or "the West") against Libya, but there was a civil war and killing before foreign countries got involved. Simply the idea of playing chess as a publicity stunt while your country's in a state of civil war is grotesque.

While you're no doubt right there's public sentiment against the bombing campaign in much of the world (Russia might top that list), I'm not sure it's stronger elsewhere than it is in "the West" itself - i.e. your view is hardly a minority opinion. But the idea that Ilyumzhinov's trying to appeal to that "constituency" is far-fetched. Ilyumzhinov's real constituency is just a handful of officials in countries around the world, who are presumably more interested in bribes than any geo-political issues.

The other point I'd make is that you take moral relativism too far. Yes, Western leaders have dealt with Gaddafi in the past - but still, it's one thing to grit your teeth at a photo op after calculating the benefits outweigh the costs (e.g. apart from the less-defensible oil contracts... Ilyumzhinov quoted Gaddafi as lamenting that he'd been persuaded by western leaders to abandon his nuclear program) - and quite another to let yourself be used for pure propaganda in the middle of a war. I also don't agree that present-day China and Vietnam are comparable pariah states - the world isn't black and white - though again, if one of those countries was in a state of civil war it would of course be absolutely unacceptable to visit as a publicity stunt.

p.s. Ilyumzhinov is now reported as saying he's returning to Libya at the start of July...

ejh said...

I'm not "buying into" anybody's propaganda: how would I? What do you think I do, watch Libyan state television? It's not a channel my satellite subscription covers.

I'm not having any of this "grit your teeth" nonsense. If you deal with them, you don't turn round next day and say it's a pariah state. You just can't flip-flop like that and expect everybody else to go "duh, yeah". And I'm not going to.

As far as "constituency" is concerned - everybody has a public opinion constituency. Otherwise there wouldn't be any such thing as propaganda, and (as I'm sure I don't need to tell you) some of the countries, and individuals, who have been furthest from democracy, have been most concerned to appeal to public opinion. (Were this not true, then Amnesty International, for instance, would be wasting their time, since what they do in relation to political prisoners is draw public attention to them. If dictators didn't care about public opinion, what would be the point?) "Constituency" is a broader term than simply those people whose votes one seeks. And, in Kirsan's case, buys.

It's a wider constituency - and this, I think,is the most important thing - that Kirsan's opponents need to appeal to. Presently, I don't think we do: we just lament how terrible it is. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that I don't think we care very much about chess and chessplayers outside the places where the top players are, the top tournaments are and the sponsorship is. So we don't really care what we look like, to others than ourselves. And I don't agree with that approach.

I don't care so much about not-playing-chess-in-a-civil-war. The principle has much to commend it, but I can just think of too many examples to the contrary. The one that occurs to me most readily, since I'm listening to cricket commentary while I'm typing this, is that there was a very long civil war in Sri Lanka in which a great deal of international cricket was played in that country. Very few people outside the Tamil community had anything critical to say about this, and certainly I never did. Truth is that sport is played in civil wars, and in other wars too, and in those circumstances it necessarily plays a propaganda role. Yet we normally accept it. It might be a very good idea if we didn't: but we do.

At the end of the day I stick to my points that:

1. you can't have a "pariah state" that everybody was only just now going out of their way to deal with, because that's a nonsense; and

2. however anybody else may choose to organise their priorities, I personally am not going to equate a "pariah" with "whoever we're right now at war with". For several reasons, but one of them is because if we do that, a lot of people are going to look at us and think we're hypocrites.

hylen said...

They hate us for our freedoms.