Killing the worm in ourselves

In ‘Killing the worm in ourselves’ (Boris Kelly, Overland 200), the binaries are, on the one hand, excessive drinking, leading to individual and social harm, spiritual depletion, sexual promiscuity and, on the other, sobriety, leading to individual control, capitalist productivity and a ‘sound … mind and body’.

Cultural materialist Alan Sinfield observed in Cultural Politics: Queer Reading that ‘every inside is defined by its outside. The text cannot be self-sufficient, an ideal whole. Without gaps, silences and absences – that which the text is not – it would not exist; they frame it’.

‘That which the text is not’ in ‘Killing’ is the absence of a third way of consuming alcohol and, by extension, other recreational stimulants.

Kelly mentions the model of ‘a social drinker’. It is unfortunate that he does not expand. In not doing so, he joins the ranks of ‘the wowser’ accompanied by the nose-in-the-air gesture of the reformed drinker.

‘Killing the Worm’ joins the hegemony of conventional thinking on many social issues. It reinforces more middle-class surveillance by health and welfare bureaucracies/community groups/institutions, instructing people on how to live their lives.

Kelly highlights research about the detrimental effects of legal drugs like alcohol. I am not surprised at the paucity of research into the beneficial effects of various stimulants. For example, I could imagine some writers in a deliberate way occasionally using various stimulants as one of a number of writing tools to create imaginative fiction and non-fiction.

It is politically regressive and downright tedious when social theory is used as surveillance, furthering moral rectitude and the non-exploration of alternative life possibilities.

Peter Mitchell


‘The banality of goodism’ (Overland 201) is a worthwhile contribution to the Afghan war debate, but I think the author, Jeff Sparrow, should have disclosed that he was a leader of the defunct International Socialist Organisation, which essentially accepted the Reaganite line that the anti-Soviet mujahideen were ‘freedom fighters’.

Sparrow now tries to square the circle by acknowledging the atrocities and reactionary politics of the mujahideen, which he previously downplayed, while still condemning the pro-Soviet PDPA government for its brutal and undemocratic nature. Missing from his account is that the forces arrayed against the government were not simply ‘rebellious peasants’ but also included foreign Islamic fanatics like Osama bin Laden, and the Cold Warriors of the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

Sparrow also misrepresents the reasons for the Soviet intervention: ‘the Russians worried that, if the PDPA fell, they’d lose control of the region’. In fact, as he acknowledges, the PDPA was by no means a proxy for the USSR, and Soviet ‘control’ was only asserted after intervention. Sparrow parrots the myth that Afghanistan has been a ‘plaything of great powers for a century or more’. Prior to the PDPA coup, on the contrary, Afghanistan was best known as a stop on the ‘hippie trail’. And the British-Russian ‘Great Game’ of the previous century was a sideshow that would have been forgotten if not for Kipling’s Kim. In reality, the USSR was reluctantly drawn into the conflict to protect its southern border from covert American destabilisation. In the process, as Sparrow acknowledges, it defended important social reforms, especially the rights of women.

Sparrow parallels the Soviet and American occupations, but the two situations are quite different. The Americans were pursuing Osama bin Laden (whom Sparrow appears to have forgotten) and singularly failed (armies never being particularly good at hunting fugitives). Unlike the PDPA, Karzai is simply a puppet for the occupiers, and social reforms are not central to his existence (as they were for the PDPA).

To sum up, Sparrow’s argument is a convenient riposte to the liberal-feminist-secularist apologists for the war but it is not a very accurate portrayal of history.

Niall Clugston

Editorial team

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