A war in the American tradition

<em>War on Terror: The Big Picture</em> - The ultimate goal of the attacks on Afghanistan is not the

The Anglo-American attack on Afghanistan crosses new boundaries. It means that America's economic wars are now backed by the perpetual threat of military attack on any country, without legal pretence. It is also the first to endanger populations at home. The ultimate goal is not the capture of a fanatic, which would be no more than a media circus, but the acceleration of western imperial power. That is a truth the modern imperialists and their fellow travellers will not spell out, and which the public in the west, now exposed to a full-scale jihad, has the right to know.

In his zeal, Tony Blair has come closer to an announcement of real intentions than any British leader since Anthony Eden. Not simply the handmaiden of Washington, Blair, in the Victorian verbosity of his extraordinary speech to the Labour Party conference, puts us on notice that imperialism's return journey to respectability is well under way. Hark, the Christian gentleman-bomber's vision of a better world for "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor from the deserts of northern Africa to the slums of Gaza to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan". Hark, his unctuous concern for the "human rights of the suffering women of Afghanistan" as he colludes in bombing them and preventing food reaching their starving children.

Is all this a dark joke? Far from it; as Frank Furedi reminds us in the New Ideology of Imperialism, it is not long ago "that the moral claims of imperialism were seldom questioned in the west. Imperialism and the global expansion of the western powers were represented in unambiguously positive terms as a major contributor to human civilisation". The quest went wrong when it was clear that fascism, with all its ideas of racial and cultural superiority, was imperialism, too, and the word vanished from academic discourse. In the best Stalinist tradition, imperialism no longer existed.

Since the end of the cold war, a new opportunity has arisen. The economic and political crises in the developing world, largely the result of imperialism, such as the blood-letting in the Middle East and the destruction of commodity markets in Africa, now serve as retrospective justification for imperialism. Although the word remains unspeakable, the western intelligentsia, conservatives and liberals alike, today boldly echo Bush and Blair's preferred euphemism, "civilisation". Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the former liberal editor Harold Evans share a word whose true meaning relies on a comparison with those who are uncivilised, inferior and might challenge the "values"of the west, specifically its God-given right to control and plunder the uncivilised.

If there was any doubt that the World Trade Center attacks were the direct result of the ravages of imperialism, Osama Bin Laden, a mutant of imperialism, dispelled it in his videotaped diatribe about Palestine, Iraq and the end of America's inviolacy. Alas, he said nothing about hating modernity and miniskirts, the explanation of those intoxicated and neutered by the supercult of Americanism. An accounting of the sheer scale and continuity and consequences of American imperial violence is our elite's most enduring taboo. Contrary to myth, even the homicidal invasion of Vietnam was regarded by its tactical critics as a "noble cause" into which the United States "stumbled" and became "bogged down". Hollywood has long purged the truth of that atrocity, just as it has shaped, for many of us, the way we perceive contemporary history and the rest of humanity. And now that much of the news itself is Hollywood-inspired, amplified by amazing technology and with its internalised mission to minimise western culpability, it is hardly surprising that many today do not see the trail of blood.

How very appropriate that the bombing of Afghanistan is being conducted, in part, by the same B52 bombers that destroyed much of Indochina 30 years ago. In Cambodia alone, 600,000 people died beneath American bombs, providing the catalyst for the rise of Pol Pot, as CIA files make clear. Once again, newsreaders refer to Diego Garcia without explanation. It is where the B52s refuel. Thirty-five years ago, in high secrecy and in defiance of the United Nations, the British government of Harold Wilson expelled the entire population of the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in order to hand it to the Americans in perpetuity as a nuclear arms dump and a base from which its long-range bombers could police the Middle East. Until the islanders finally won a high court action last year, almost nothing about their imperial dispossession appeared in the British media.

How appropriate that John Negroponte is Bush's ambassador at the United Nations. This week, he delivered America's threat to the world that it may "require" to attack more and more countries. As US ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, Negroponte oversaw American funding of the regime's death squads, known as Battalion 316, that wiped out the democratic opposition, while the CIA ran its "contra" war of terror against neighbouring Nicaragua. Murdering teachers and slitting the throats of midwives were a speciality. This was typical of the terrorism that Latin America has long suffered, with its principal torturers and tyrants trained and financed by the great warrior against "global terrorism", which probably harbours more terrorists and assassins in Florida than any country on earth.

The unread news today is that the "war against terrorism" is being exploited in order to achieve objectives that consolidate American power. These include: the bribing and subjugation of corrupt and vulnerable governments in former Soviet central Asia, crucial for American expansion in the region and exploitation of the last untapped reserves of oil and gas in the world; Nato's occupation of Macedonia, marking a final stage in its colonial odyssey in the Balkans; the expansion of the American arms industry; and the speeding up of trade liberalisation.

What did Blair mean when, in Brighton, he offered the poor "access to our markets so that we practise the free trade that we are so fond of preaching"? He was feigning empathy for most of humanity's sense of grievance and anger: of "feeling left out". So, as the bombs fall, "more inclusion", as the World Trade Organisation puts it, is being offered the poor - that is, more privatisation, more structural adjustment, more theft of resources and markets, more destruction of tariffs. On Monday, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, called a meeting of the voluntary aid agencies to tell them that, "since 11 September, the case is now overwhelming" for the poor to be given "more trade liberation". She might have used the example of those impoverished countries where her cabinet colleague Clare Short's ironically named Department for International Development backs rapacious privatisation campaigns on behalf of British multinational companies, such as those vying to make a killing in a resource as precious as water.

Bush and Blair claim to have "world opinion with us". No, they have elites with them, each with their own agenda: such as Vladimir Putin's crushing of Chechnya, now permissible, and China's rounding up of its dissidents, now permissible. Moreover, with every bomb that falls on Afghanistan and perhaps Iraq to come, Islamic and Arab militancy will grow and draw the battle lines of "a clash of civilisations" that fanatics on both sides have long wanted. In societies represented to us only in caricature, the west's double standards are now understood so clearly that they overwhelm, tragically, the solidarity that ordinary people everywhere felt with the victims of 11 September.

That, and his contribution to the re-emergence of xeno-racism in Britain, is the messianic Blair's singular achievement. His effete, bellicose certainties represent a political and media elite that has never known war. The public, in contrast, has given him no mandate to kill innocent people, such as those Afghans who risked their lives to clear landmines, killed in their beds by American bombs. These acts of murder place Bush and Blair on the same level as those who arranged and incited the twin towers murders. Perhaps never has a prime minister been so out of step with the public mood, which is uneasy, worried and measured about what should be done. Gallup finds that 82 per cent say "military action should only be taken after the identity of the perpetrators was clearly established, even if this process took several months to accomplish".

Among those elite members paid and trusted to speak out, there is a lot of silence. Where are those in parliament who once made their names speaking out, and now shame themselves by saying nothing? Where are the voices of protest from "civil society", especially those who run the increasingly corporatised aid agencies and take the government's handouts and often its line, then declare their "non-political" status when their outspokenness on behalf of the impoverished and bombed might save lives? The tireless Chris Buckley of Christian Aid, and a few others, are honourably excepted. Where are those proponents of academic freedom and political independence, surely one of the jewels of western "civilisation"? Years of promoting the jargon of "liberal realism" and misrepresenting imperialism as crisis management, rather than the cause of the crisis, have taken their toll. Speaking up for international law and the proper pursuit of justice, even diplomacy, and against our terrorism might not be good for one's career. Or as Voltaire put it: "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong." That does not change the fact that it is right.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A nation in panic

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.