28 April 2016

i am not dead and here is some music

i felt it was incumbent on me to mention that, because you could be forgiven for thinking that i'd died, or suffered amnesia, or got taken away by aliens. and i wish i could tell you that this last ten days- the longest break i've had from the blog in years- was because of something groundbreaking, but it's really just been distractions and bad planning on my part. i failed to make time to post for a couple of days, and while i knew that i'd have a family visitor coming and should have scheduled a few posts, i didn't do that, so all of a sudden i was a few days into a dry streak with nothing prepared for my internet down time. in what little time i had to reflect on what a terrible blogger i was being, it did occur to me to post something, but thinky space was at a premium and i didn't think anyone would be really thrill to see a list of lipsticks i've worn this week, or instructions on how to ask someone if they want a sheep in welsh [dych chi eisiau dafad? you can thank me for that later.]

what i've been doing in the last few days, aside from indulging in some epic not blogging, is pretty much the same things that i always do. i've been doing music writey stuff for heathen harvest, working on languages, trying to write [still just trying, but trying more than i have been, which is less than i should be, but it's still something].

when i've had a few minutes here and there, i have managed to spend a little time on soundcloud and bandcamp, so in the absence of having something substantive, interesting or organised to say, here are some interesting tracks i've discovered in my searches.



considering how long i've been around the industrial/ power electronics/ noisy objectionable stuff scene, i'm surprised at how little i know about iron fist of the sun. there's no reason for that and, considering i write about this stuff, there's not even any excuse. this is a track from an ultra-limited cassette that i'm unlikely to ever get my hands on. so i'm just going to listen to this excerpt and feel sorry for myself.



i know pretty much nothing about this group, although i believe that their forthcoming album on zoharum is their proper debut. i got to use a bit of my pre-kindergarten polish looking for information about these guys, but i still couldn't turn up much beyond the fact that they are a polish duo. that's it. i find this track both hypnotic and unsettling and i just love how the dead can dance-esque vocals are electronically perverted as the song goes along.



this entire album sounds incredible. i feel like ant-zen are on a bit of a tear lately in terms of the quality of their releases, branching out beyond what some have come to expect, and at the same time showing something of their long-standing industrial pedigree



something about this reminds me of crackdown-era cabaret voltaire. it's got that slightly 80s electro-funk tinge [groovy rhythm meets robotic synth], but it's clearly a much more updated take on the idea. apparently these sounds come from dutch artist boris post, about whom i was able to find precious little beyond the fact that he has, in fact, released an album under this name before. also, "eindkrak" is a dutch term for the theoretical "big crunch", which is the flipside of the big bang, wherein we will all be crushed together and the universe will disappear. good times.

regular more like space programming will be resumed shortly. the mental health mondays series on personality disorders will continue next monday. i shall soon have something to say about bite beauty's new amuse bouche lipsticks. perhaps there will even be some new writing posted here at some point.

until then, thank you for not abandoning me entirely in my time of dereliction. 

18 April 2016

mental health mondays :: puttin on the schizo

for part two of the mental health mondays look at personality disorders [whaddya mean you didn't read part one?!?!?!?!?], i've decided to take on probably the most frustrating post first. today, we're going to look at the various schizo- disorders and trust me, if your brain doesn't feel addled yet, by the end of this post, it definitely will.

now, there is one important exclusion to be made here, which is that schizophrenia is not one of the aforementioned disorders. what? no, my friends, while there are a host of personality disorders that start with the same letters, schizophrenia isn't included because it's a psychotic disorder. what's the difference? sigh. i was hoping that wouldn't come up. anyway, i'll defer to expert opinion, so here is the definition of schizophrenia given by the mayo clinic:

Schizophrenia is a severe brain disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior.
Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia isn't a split personality or multiple personality. The word "schizophrenia" does mean "split mind," but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.
Schizophrenia is a chronic condition, requiring lifelong treatment.

well that seems fairly specific now, doesn't it. schizophrenia is characterised by hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking and by the abnormal interpretation of reality. i mean, one could debate the exact parameters of abnormality and reality, but let's just set that aside for the moment.

so now, let's look at the mayo clinic's definition of personality disorders:

A personality disorder is a type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and to people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social encounters, work and school.
In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you. And you may blame others for the challenges you face.
Personality disorders usually begin in the teenage years or early adulthood. There are many types of personality disorders. Some types may become less obvious throughout middle age.

ok, so a personality disorder is related mostly to patterns of thinking and behaviour, in particular when it comes to interactions with others. there seems to be something almost sinister about being told that you might not realise that you have a disorder and that you blame others for your challenges, because it is just possible that you're surrounded by dickheads. but leaving that aside, the distinctions seem clear enough, considering that we're dealing with something as complex as the brain. [except the bits about the age of onset of the disorder. schizophrenia is thought to be lifelong most of the time once you have it, but it doesn't usually present until the teenage years or early adulthood. so, exactly like a personality disorder. i know that because it's on the mayo clinic page about schizophrenia symptoms, which comes right after the page with the definition i've quoted above. but it's not like they could have gotten anything else confused, of course.]

prior to 2013 and the publication of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, version 5, psychiatric disorders of all kinds were split into different axes, with personality disorders occupying a separate quadrant of crazy than things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. now, everything is treated as one giant screwed up swimming pool, with more general guidelines about who's in the deep or shallow end.

however, personality disorders as a group still exist within that swimming pool, and within those groups are the schizo-based disorders. i have to admit that this might be a record for how long it's taken me to get to the point.

there are officially two [but kind of three] of these personality disorders: schizoid personality disorder and schizotypal personality disorder. i say "kind of three", because there's also schizoaffective disorder, which is where one has symptoms of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder [either bipolar or depression], but doesn't meet the full criteria for either one individually. in addition, there's also something called schizophreniform disorder, which is when symptoms of schizophrenia manifest for at least one, but less than six months. [at six months, you've crossed the border into actual schizophrenia.] schizophreniform disorder is almost more of a holding pen before you find out whether you'll be treated for a limited duration psychotic episode or full-blown schizophrenia. but it's not a personality disorder, so we'll move on.

schizotypal personality disorder is characterised by suspiciousness with regards to other people, unconventional beliefs or perceptions, odd or eccentric dress style, peculiar patterns of speech, and/ or emotional reactions inappropriate to the situation. in teenagers, the mayo clinic adds that the schizotypal child "may be an underperformer in school or appear socially out of step with peers, and as a result is often bullied or teased".

schizoid personality disorder, on the other hand, is linked to social withdrawal and disinterest or anxiety with regards to other people. people with schizoid personality disorder generally have few friends and aren't very socially adept, often struggling to form deep or long-lasting relationships. they are perceived as independent, or as loners and often have a rich interior life to which they prefer to retreat. schizoid individuals tend to do very well in creative pursuits and in general do better when they are allowed to work alone. many find it difficult to experience pleasure in the "real" world. there is a subgroup of the schizoid set who are referred to as "secret schizoids": these are people who appear to function with more ease in public, but still have the other symptoms of the disorder.

if those definitions seem problematic, it's because they are. even if you start from the belief that these are three points on the same spectrum, it's troubling to associate the eccentric artist who prefers her own thoughts and company with a person in the grips of full-blown psychosis. and, indeed, these definitions, particularly that of schizoid disorder, have been criticized for being laden with cultural bias. most discussions of schizoid personality disorder note that many people who "suffer" from it are completely unaware, because they are high functioning and don't seem troubled by their disordered thought.

schizotypal disorder is hampered by being vague: is it really a good idea to lump eccentric dress style in with occasionally believing that the television is talking to you directly? well, a psychiatrist would say that it's the cumulative effect that's important: no, an offbeat sense of fashion doesn't mean that you have a problem. but walking around downtown in an evening dress in the middle of winter might be a sign of something a little more worrying.

either way, it's a scary thing to be told that you're suffering with something that's in the same ballpark as schizophrenia. what's worse, people with schizotypal disorder are considered to be in danger of developing schizophrenia if their condition is left untreated, which puts a greater pressure on them to seek help.

but wait, it gets worse...

if you're too confused about the differences between schizoid and schizotypal disorder, don't worry, you can have both at once. if you primarily suffer from schizoid disorder, there is a form of it called depersonalised schizoid personality disorder, which includes "schizotypal features". that's where the isolation and alienation of the principal disorder actually starts to make you feel fundamentally detached from the world, as if you were not participating in it at all. but if that's too confusing, the two conditions can be comorbid, which means you get all the fun of both disorders, and all of the confusion about when it's time to call a doctor. [which you might not do, since you might just think you're lovably eccentric, or you might just be lovably eccentric and not need any help and it's the definitions that are wrong.]

schizotypal personality disorder can also shack up with paranoid, avoidant and borderline personality disorders pretty well, and with mood disorders like depression, social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. oh, and if you have it in combination with that last one, it tends to make treating the ocd a lot harder. sorry.

if you haven't yet slammed your head into your desk so hard that you've suffered permanent brain damage, congratulations. i firmly believe that the schizoid/ schizotypal/ schizoaffective/ schizophreniform axis of evil [can an axis have four points? or is that just part of my fantasy world?] is the root of many people's problems with psychiatry. while it may be a given that people who do not conform in certain ways to societal norms are going to face a distinct set of problems dealing with the rest of the world, it is a big leap to say that this means they are broken and need to be psychologically fixed. furthermore, the undeniably vagaries of the associated definitions seem like an attempt to keep any sense of comfort or understanding out of the hands of people who are suffering.

of course, one of the problems with these disorders is that having a "schizophrenia spectrum" is predicated on a solid understanding of schizophrenia, which most psychiatrists will admit they don't have. unlike in economics, the confusion over schizophrenia trickles down throughout its loosely associated family of disorders, until the spectrum seems to go from treating the most critically ill to forcing people to conform to a societal stereotype.

and no, this does not mean i'm trying to say that schizotypal or schizoid or any other schiz- disorders don't exist. i don't have anything like the qualifications to do that and what seems like doublespeak to a non-professional [me] reflects necessary differences in categorization to someone in the field. what i would say is that we all need to be open about the fact that, when it comes to the entire schizophrenia spectrum, we're on extremely tenuous ground. proceed with caution.

p.s. :: the images used here are all poster art created for the 1976 british horror film schizo, which is actually about dissociative identity disorder in which the mind becomes split- into different personalities, or realities, etc. it's a completely unrelated condition, however. it's a mystery how people keep getting these things confused.

p.p.s. :: in case you were curious, the prefix "schizo" comes from the greek "schízein" meaning "to part or split".  

17 April 2016

and sometimes i do filmy stuff

there's no question that dom is the videoking in our household. you can check out the many things he's done, with many different artists here on his vimeo page. [he actually has two new videos premiering this week, because he works harder than i.] words are always going to be my principal form of expression, as if you couldn't tell, but i do occasionally do more visual work, if for no other reason than i get inspired by those closest to me to push my own boundaries.

i've done both found footage pieces and things assembled from bits i've shot live. this isn't a frequent thing for me, but i do sometimes get inspired. the projects are always accessible from the "film & photography" tab above, but i thought i'd repost my itty bitty œuvre here for you:

a sense of longing [oblvious] :: i got the idea of doing this while i was out for a walk trying to clear my head and come up with some writing ideas. i started following a few random people and filming them and was kind of amazed at how close i could get without getting noticed. i fully expected this day to end with me getting my face pummeled into the pavement by someone who didn't appreciate my attempts at artistic expression, but i guess luck was on my side that day. i finished up the shots over the next day or two.

holding the phone upright helped disguise what i was doing, but i also like the "boxed in" look that it gives, even though it's not something you're supposed to do.

and yes, that is me singing at the end. you've been warned.


a sense of longing [oblivious] from Kate MacDonald on Vimeo.

coming storm :: my "political" video. when i was young my parents were fans of older [even for their generation] folk music, so i got to hear a lot of songs by pete seeger and the like. it gave me an appreciation for that raw, down-to-earth, and undeniably american sound, particularly as it was used for protest songs among the rural and working-class left wing of the time.

i got inspired to do this after seeing footage of the 2013 tornado that ripped through oklahoma. a friend suggested that dom should use it for a video, but dom seemed less interested, since he was working on other things. i tried for some time to persuade him, before deciding that i'd do my own damn tornado video. except that i didn't end up using the footage from the oklahoma twister, because it looked too modern juxtaposed with the older film, and the tornado parts aren't even a prominent feature in the final film. oh well.


coming storm from Kate MacDonald on Vimeo.

guilty. guilty. guilty. :: the only film in which i've used actual people who exist in my life [other than myself]. i wanted to film people i knew while they talked about guilt and their experience of it. the filming of it was a fascinating experience, because it is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. i think you can get a sense of that in the body language. nonetheless, i feel like this is the most flawed thing that i've done. the sound on one of the video sessions was inordinately low, because it turns out that a lot of people don't want to shout the things that make them feel guilty to the world.

someday, i'd like to do a sequel to this one, but for now, it is what it is.


guilty. guilty. guilty. from Kate MacDonald on Vimeo.

they were dancers in their dreams :: i was playing around on the found footage amusement park that is archive.org, trying to find a very specific video. it's an obscure trailer for a film that doesn't exist, and i'd used bits of it for a video that i made and then lost before i could publish it, because god hates me. i didn't find that video, or anything like it, but while i was on the site, i got distracted, which is often what happens when i'm looking for things. if i could think straight, i wouldn't be nearly as creative.

i've always been fascinated by the world of dreams, which is where the "backbone" of this film comes from. dreams can be very frightening [i get night terrors, so i get that more than a lot of people], but they can also be very gentle and soothing. the thing that unites them, for me, is this sense that they're all quite fragile, that the world they exist in could shatter at any time, so this was my attempt to recreate that.

trying to recreate the atmosphere of a dream is like trying to explain to someone what an orgasm feels like. it's not possible and you're just doomed to failure. nonetheless, i like this. it might be my personal favourite of the few that i've done.


They Were Dancers in Their Dreams from Kate MacDonald on Vimeo.

do i have plans to do more of these short films? no. but i didn't have any plans to do these four either. what i plan to do and what i end up doing are almost always very different things. i dig these out every now and again to remind myself that there are times where i haven't felt especially creative, but somehow a fissure has opened and something creative has snuck through and manifested itself in an unexpected way. so if nothing else, i hope that they can do the same for any of you who might be stuck in a creative slump.

p.s. :: i asked as many people as i could about using their tracks for these films, but sometimes i just don't know how to find them. so thank you to everyone i didn't contact for not forcing vimeo and youtube to take these down. i use your music because i love you dearly. 

16 April 2016

making faces :: tarted up

sometimes i see something and i immediately know that i need it. it's not the usual "i want to get this", more like "i am meant to possess this object". so it was for me the first time i saw some photos of the tarte "rainforest of the sea" eyeshadow palette. yes, to others, it might have looked like just another neutral palette, but there was something about it that just called to me. you can make your own "sirens" joke there, because i'm not quite sharp enough to come up with one right at the moment.

in order to get this, i went to a sephora in a mall i've been to perhaps twice in my life. my regular sephora didn't have it and it sold out quickly online, and since it was limited, i felt that i had to get it wherever i could. of course, it's come back in stock, so i needn't have been so worried, but hey, what's life without a little adventure, as long as your idea of adventure includes going to a semi-suburban mall?

it didn't take me more than a few seconds of swatching to determine that, yes, this palette was all that to use an expression that no one uses anymore. the powder shadows are so smooth, so finely milled and so pigmented that they feel like cream, or perhaps a little like whatever is used to make colourpop super shock shadows. [fairy juice?] however, these are definitely powders. they apply like silk, blend seamlessly and last extremely well. i'm saying that up front, because it's true of every colour in the palette. there were two that gave me a bit of trouble when it came to getting the colour payoff i wanted [see my notes on the individual shades below], but across the board, i could hardly be happier with my purchase.

there are eight shadows included in the palette, which run from quite light to medium dark. you're not going to get a truly high contrast look out of this palette. the urban decay naked palettes all contain shades that run a bit lighter on one end and darker on the other. "rainforest of the sea" is a slightly softer, everyday kind of look. that's not to say that the colours blend together into a "wash". you can do a bit of a contrast if, like me you like that pale lid with defined crease look. it's just never going to be dramatic.

being neutrals, these shades will respond to the undertone of your skin. on some people, people with warmer complexions [see temptalia], some of the gold shades have a bit of a greenish tint- which is honestly what i was expecting from a palette that invokes both the rainforest and the sea. on me, the golds are gold, but the pink tones in my skin bring a sort of rosiness to some shades- especially the deeper browns. here's a breakdown, shade by shade, based on my experience:

l to r :: sand, mermaid, seashell, wave

sand :: the lightest shade in the palette is a satiny ivory that leans ever so slightly peach on me. if you're a medium skin tone or darker, i'm pretty confident that this would look like a highlight shade, but on me it's just a little too deep. it does look nice in the corners of the eyes if you're using the other shades for a bit of a smoky look, since it's noticeably brighter.

mermaid :: a really original shade among neutrals, a golden tan. it's frosted with gold, but not too heavily, so it won't give a dazzling metallic look, but it will definitely catch the light. in the swatch, you're seeing it in indirect light, where it looks less frosted and more softly lustrous. certainly one of my favourites in a palette that offers a lot of great shades.

seashell :: a well-named colour indeed, because it does look like the pink inside a conch shell. this one was one of only two shades that gave me problems. it's lovely and smooth, but it definitely takes some building to get it to look like it does in the pan. even then, i didn't think it showed quite as pink or warm as it looks.

wave :: this is both the coolest-toned and the most frustrated shade in the palette. it's a medium taupe with a strong lilac undertone, something that should complement the slightly pinker shades and contrast with the golds, but despite the fact that it feels just as creamy and smooth as its roommates, it just doesn't give great colour payoff. i don't understand this at all, but after a few tries, i'm satisfied that it wasn't just a one-off thing. i also found this to be the only shade that faded before the seven-hour mark. i has a sad.

l to r :: abyss, reef, starfish, cove

abyss :: the darkest shade in the palette. it's a plummy deep brown that applies and lasts well, not really frosted but more shimmery than a satin shade. it can be patted on for greater intensity, but it also blends exceptionally well, if you're interested in something that gives a bit of structure with just a hint of colour.

reef :: a rusted brown with warm, red undertones, and a shade that absolutely will not work on a very cool-toned person. shades with copper-bronze tones to them seem to be easy to do well and this one is no exception. it's rich and warm and lasts incredibly well without fading. just stunning.

starfish :: a bit of a chameleon, this one. you can see in the swatch that it can lean almost towards a rose gold, but most of the time it's a medium wheat gold that can even pull a little green. the key is that it's complex enough that it will tend to "borrow" from whatever colours are around it. warmer, redder shades [like "abyss"] will give you the effect you see here. put it next to more neutral colours and you'll get more of a true gold. magical.

cove :: the only matte shade in the palette is a workhorse. it swatches terribly, which i don't understand, because its colour payoff is fantastic in use. i had to build this swatch up to make it visible, but i've had to be very delicate using it, because it can be too much. why does this happen? i've no idea. i call this a workhorse shade because it's the sort of thing that's always going to come in handy. for a warmer smoky eye, it's a fantastic base colour. for giving some dimension, it's great to sculpt along the brow bone. it's a warm tan with a hint of apricot orange and, again, it's going to be unfriendly on very cool complexions, but if it suits you, you can expect to be using it a lot.

and there we have it. i'm just as enamoured with the palette as i thought i would be and, though it is another neutral palette, it has some unique shades. "mermaid" and "starfish" are probably the ones that are hardest to match, but even "sand" is a little different than a lot of highlight-type shades, a little deeper and richer. and, as i mentioned above, while the distance from lightest to darkest is less than you might normally get, it's still more than enough to be able to get several different looks. here's a few that i've tried so far:

warm and smoky




this is what i alluded to earlier about cove being a nice base shade. i've applied it all over the lid, then layered reef and abyss in the inner and outer angles. this is also a good example of how blend-friendly abyss is. i wanted more of a gradient look, but i also wanted to emphasize the angles of my eyes, because they can look sort of flat without. i applied abyss, but then used reef to smoke it out and leave more of a hint of the darker shade. i used sand in the inner corners of my eyes, which looks brighter because it's next to the deeper browns.

i have charlotte tilbury "love is the drug" and becca "pearl" on my cheeks. not quite certain on the lipstick...

cool-ish




this is pretty much as cool-toned as you can get with this palette, which is still definitely more neutral than cool. [it looks cooler in these photos because i'm wearing a navy blue eyeliner.]i applied sand all over the lid, then added mermaid to the inner and outer edges. i put wave in the upper crease and along the browbone and yes, it looks nice here, but that's just a few minutes after it's been applied. it didn't stand up to a day's wear as well as its roommates.

i decided to wear the only other tarte product in my collection- their cheek stain in flushed, a lovely berry shade- and hourglass diffused light over the top. the lipstick is armani rouge ecstasy in garconne fatale.

golden




i think this one shows the colours at their best. again, i have sand all over the lid, with starfish and mermaid blended into an arc through the crease. you could wear this look basically anyway, since it's subtle enough for even a conservative office, but has a beautiful gleam [that lasts!] appropriate for a night out or, if you're invited to one, a red carpet.

i'm not quite sure what's going on on my cheeks in this look, but the lipstick is guerlain rouge g in gracy.

the palette is limited [although many of the other rainforest of the sea products- the skin care and the foundation/ concealer] are permanent additions. at this point, i wouldn't hesitate too long before ordering/ buying, because it is sold out in a lot of locations already. if you're even remotely tempted by what you see, i can pretty much guarantee that you won't be disappointed. dive in.

[the top photo is from tarte. the rest are mine.]

p.s. :: there are actual rainforests of the sea! there's an ancient, almost perfectly preserved cypress forest in the gulf of mexico. there are several around the south and east coasts of england, including a giant oak forest just a few hundred yards off the norwich coast. on a less happy note, the warming of the oceans and the thinning of polar ice caps has caused an explosion of phytoplankton growth in antarctica, which nasa scientists have described as being a type of rainforest. 

13 April 2016

worldwide wednesdays :: how things got screwed up in syria

it's been five long years of a civil war in syria that doesn't seem particularly close to being resolved. over four million refugees, with more fleeing all the time, a complex web of factions within the country and interested/ interfering foreign nations combined with the destructive charge of islamic state has left much of the west extremely confused as to what's going on and what the best options are in terms of supporting, arming or attacking the groups involved. in fact, referring to a civil war in syria is a misnomer at this point, since the delicate balance that has held the post-wwii boundaries of the nations of west asia is crashing down virtually everywhere. syria was just the first domino. [side note :: a lot of people would argue that iraq was actually the first "domino", but up until syria went into meltdown, the chaos of iraq was contained. iraq was tremendously weakened by decades of sanctions in the wake of a disastrous war in the early 90s, a period that had crucially left it with no international allies. syria, long linked with the soviet union/ russia and iran, was a much more pressing concern. the destabilization of syria also calls into question the legitimacy of many modern middle eastern states, but we'll get to that shortly.]

a friend sent me a horrifying, educational diagram of who's fighting whom in syria and the broader middle east right now. i couldn't find the exact one, but i did find this one, which i like because its shape helps to communicate the truth of the absolute military circle jerk that is happening right now.



so now that you've stared at that long enough that your eyes are bleeding, let's talk a little bit about why syria is such a particular problem.

first of all, syria suffers from the same problem as all middle eastern states, which is that its boundaries were drawn pretty randomly by european colonial powers who either didn't know or didn't care about geographic ethnic divisions. by the twentieth century, syria had been held by the ottoman empire for over three hundred years. that wasn't an odd state of affairs for the territory, which had been occupied by various foreign powers since the time of the roman empire. however, the post-wwi takeover by the french, as part of the sykes-picot agreement, wasn't especially welcome. [side note :: the sykes-picot agreement was one of the two great historical cock-ups perpetrated by sir henry mcmahon. you can read about them both here.

when they entered the wwi to fight the ottoman turks, syria did so under the impression [because it's what they'd been told] that they'd come out of the enterprise as a free state. instead, they came out of it as a french colony and with only a tiny part of their state still in tact, because up until that time, the territory known as syria had included lebanon, israel, jordan, much of iraq and part of turkey. an uprising in 1925 was put down by the french inside a year and the general elections that produced an independent government and a constitution in 1928 were duly ignored. the french allowed the syrians little power over their own affairs, a situation which persisted until wwii. when france fell, syria was briefly put under the rule of the vichy regime, but the british were able to repel the axis power in 1941. of course, that meant that the british were suddenly running things.

ancient ruins in palmyra, before they were bombed in 2013
syria did finally gain independence in 1946, although it was never allowed to renegotiate its own borders, which left it as a rather confused spot on the map. and while it was still trying to establish a government that was acceptable to its own people, it was presented with a spectacle that must have been, given the history of the area, horrifying: western powers created the state of israel. remember that for centuries, that territory had been part of syria. it was filled with arabs [who, like the syrians, aren't ethnically arab but semitic, but they're called arabs because they've long spoken arabic as their mother tongue]. and there were the old colonial powers just handing over the territory like it belonged to them, acting like syria had no say in the matter whatsoever. [side note :: the creation of the state of israel and its historical legitimacy is a huge argument for another time. what i've given here is the syrian perspective.]

syria responded to the new state by invading it and attacking jewish settlements. the government claimed it was necessary to protect the palestinians who lived there, but the decision was something of a disaster. not only did it place syria in opposition to the western powers, but they were defeated and the campaign, for which the people blamed their leaders. in 1949, a coup d'état felled the government, which was followed by two more coups the same year and eventually the establishment of a dictatorship. that lasted until 1954, when a military coup ousted the dictator and heralded a long period where power rested more with the military than with the government.

in 1956, israel invaded egypt, and syria, clearly sensing that their hated neighbour could just as easily send their armies north, allied itself with the soviet union to gain their protection. that alliance persists to this day with russia. syria gets much of its military hardware from russia and russia maintains its only foreign military base outside of the former soviet states in syria. the united states, the united kingdom and their allies have since labeled syria as a threat and even twenty-five years after the end of the cold war, this state of affairs has persisted. [side note :: in fact, israel did threaten to invade syria in 1967, then went to war against several neighbouring arab states. syria lost a valuable chunk of its land as a result, and the resetting of the borders to their pre-1967 configuration has been an extremely contentious point in peace negotiations in the region ever since.]

this is a bullet point history of syria's early years as a nation, but i think it makes the point clearly enough: the process by which syria gained statehood was fraught with a sense of betrayal and with chronic instability.

syria today
you could be forgiven for not knowing this, because from 1970 until the outbreak of the current war, syria was a model of stability, the sort of stability that can only be borne of state repression. it was in 1970 that hafez al-assad, then the defense minister, staged a coup, the final one to date. his presidency is likely to be debated forever. he established a staunchly secular government, and fought hard against religious groups like the muslim brotherhood, who wanted a greater role for islam in the state. in retrospect, many might say that the presence of a secular strongman in power qualified as a "lesser evil", but at the same time, assad was ruthless in suppressing opposition. determined to put an end to a six year struggle with the muslim brotherhood, assad ordered his army to attack the city of hama, a crucial base for the rebels. and attack they did. the syrian army smashed the city to its foundations, killing virtually anything that moved. estimates of the number of dead range from ten to forty thousand, the vast majority of whom were civilians. after numerous deadly attacks on soldiers and two assassination attempts on assad himself, the president and emphatically shown that he held the upper hand.

the elder assad died in office in 2000 and was swiftly replaced by his son, bashir. bashir carried the all-important support of the military and though at first seemed inclined to relax some of his father's restrictions, turned sharply in the opposite direction after a short time in office. of course, it could be argued that there were reasons for that. remember how syria got started? well there was never any reason to think that things had improved below the surface. in fact, assad was probably well aware that after decades of the lid being locked down with brutal force on the national pressure cooker, things could turn much, much worse.

the assads, after all, came from a muslim sect known as the alawites, who comprise about 3% of the population of syria. that's an estimate, because the syrian government stopped asking questions about religion on their official census when hafez al-assad gained power. ostensibly, this was because the government wanted to show that the government wasn't getting involved with people's religion, because it was a private matter. however, it also had the effect of disguising the fact that the alawites were a tiny, tiny minority in a country that was over 70% sunni muslim. and the assads wanted to keep that quiet because, despite their commitment to secularism, positions of power have been filled by a lot of alawites and whereas the sunnis have remained largely disenfranchised. [for that matter, it's estimated that there are about three times as many kurds as alawites in syria, with the population concentrated in the north, near the border with turkey. the kurdish people deserve a worldwide wednesdays post of their own and, what do you know, there is one.]

a roman mosaic in syria, possibly destroyed
unfortunately, junior assad doesn't seem to have appreciated that times have changed and, when syria had its own arab spring uprisings in the wake of successful popular revolts in tunisia and egypt, he decided to make an example exactly as his father had in hama decades earlier. only worse. in 1982, the cold war was still in full swing, which meant that the exchange of information between soviet-allied countries and those who sided with the united states and nato was infrequent and unreliable. initial reports of the attack on hama estimated the dead at around one thousand. it's doubtful that there would have been international intervention even if the facts had been known and publicized, but it certainly made the incident seem less important and assad seem less bloodthirsty. [something that might have come into play when george h. w. bush decided to temporarily set aside differences with the regime in order to secure their support for the first gulf war.]

in putting down his own popular uprising, bashir al-assad found his horrific tactics instantly broadcast all over the world and the backlash was fierce. russia, still loyal [and depending more than ever on the sale of military goods to bolster their slack economy], could block the united nations from taking any action, but not much else. even the assad's longtime ally iran seemed a little less than enthusiastic about expressing support. at first, the overwhelming cry in the west was to arm the rebels against assad, who was clearly a monster. but then it turned out that one of the chief groups fighting assad was isis, which stopped that dead in its tracks. since then, american politicians have insisted that there must be someone they could support without causing more problems, but it's become increasingly obvious that there isn't. the one option that republicans have been floating is arming the kurds, but that sets them up for a very delicate balancing act with erstwhile ally turkey, for whom the kurds are terrorists. [side note :: in fact, america has also branded the kurds as terrorists, but have recently chosen to apply a much narrower interpretation of exactly what that means. officially, the kurdistan workers party in turkey is still a terrorist group, but america does not consider kurds in either syria or iraq to be terrorists. of course, the kurds are the same group in all three countries, which is sort of the point of their political struggle.]

a dictator from a minority group declaring a secular state in a deeply muslim country who repressed great portions of the population, while at the same time creating a country with a flourishing, educated middle class and taking advantage of the politics of the cold war to entrench his position, in whose absence a country whose boundaries have always been artificial has fallen into bloody and often sectarian violence. if you think that sounds familiar, you're right: it is pretty much the exact same story as that of syria's neighbour, iraq under saddam hussein. the only difference is that syria's strife began with an internal uprising, whereas hussein's iraq was decimated by an american military attack and a decade of ruinous sanctions. in the end, the ugly question is the same: can you stand by in good conscience while the devil you know hammers down on thousands of innocent people? can you risk having one more failed state in the middle east? is it even possible to stuff the islamic state djinn back into the bottle?

as the forces of isis barreled over the border between iraq and syria, they made a point of symbolically smashing a wall between them, to show that they did not acknowledge the legitimacy of the division. difficult though it may be to accept, the terrorist group isn't wrong about this. the divisions created between modern middle eastern states created nations that require a ruthless autocrat to maintain. but the other option would seem to be to stay at arm's' length and hope that rationality and self-interest eventually trumps the vitriol. 
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