It’s good to talk (about the burka)

By Nora Mulready

This is a cross-post, reproduced by kind permission of the author, from the original.

Every human being has the right to wear what they want. That includes people who choose to wear the burka or the niqab. However, to portray the debate about the burka and niqab as one solely or even predominantly about the individual choices of grown women is to miss the far more fundamental question at the heart of this debate. What are the values we are prepared to see morally normalised in British society? The burka and niqab are the physical manifestation of the belief that women should not be seen in public, and that we must cover every inch of our bodies & hair if we are to step outside. Regardless of the individual choices, (where they are choices), made by women, are we happy as a society to let such a regressive idea of how women should live go publicly unchallenged? I’m sorry, but I cannot believe that we should so casually throw away hard won gender equality at the altar of religious sensitivity.

Many people have suggested that ‘white men’, or even all non-burka/niqab-wearing Muslims, should stay out of this debate, that it is not their place to comment. This is a matter for the women and the women only. This is utterly wrong. Britain is a society where people from a huge range of backgrounds, cultures and personal beliefs live together, side by side, and, in most part, we do so in a cohesive and harmonious way. We have celebrated the idea that we are diverse yet united for a very long time. This has been rooted in the belief that we are fundamentally one society, where we all have equal rights and an equal stake in what happens. The question of whether, as a society, we are prepared to either tacitly or explicitly support the view that women should not be seen in public is a profound philosophical debate and everyone – male, female, Muslim and non-Muslim – is fully entitled to participate in this discussion. The values we choose to publicly uphold, as a collective, shared society, impact on us all.

There is an unfortunate tendency in Britain of mainstream politicians, particularly on the left, opting out of public discussions about regressive, and even abusive, cultural or religious practices on the basis that it is somehow not their place to comment. The mindset of cultural relativism, “it’s their culture”, continues to shut down important discussions about child veiling in state primary schools and the puritan curriculum taught in deeply conservative religious schools, just as it used to shut down important conversations about forced marriage and FGM, long after they began to percolate the consciousness of mainstream British society. Nimko Ali, FGM campaigner and survivor, recently wrote on twitter, “the act of FGM as painful as it was for me was never as painful as the dismissal of my experience as culture when I know it was abuse and a violation of my human rights.” By largely shying away from public discussions on these topics, hugely important conversations, which should have been happening in the mainstream of British politics were, and are, pushed to the fringes. Political capital is then made out of these issues by extremists, who use the silence of mainstream politicians to push the ideas that 1. people are no longer allowed to speak openly in British society, and 2. that entire communities can be demonised. In the long run, staying silent does not help create a better, kinder, more inclusive society. It only breeds resentment, tensions, anger and extremism.

This must be remembered now. Although triggered by the deliberately unpleasant “post box” and “bank-robber” comments by Boris Johnson, the debate currently happening about the burka and niqab is a good thing. There is clearly an appetite for the conversation in the country, so let’s have it. Bring the discussion out into the open, and into the mainstream, take the debate out of the hands of extremists on all sides. This discussion is not about challenging the clothing choices of individual women, it is about whether there is a moral imperative – or even, at least, a moral right – in a free, democratic and secular country to challenge the normalisation of the idea that women should not be seen in public, for whatever reason. In a shared society, it is only through genuine, sincere and open discussion, in which everyone – everyone – from burka/niqab-wearing Muslim women to “white men” – has a right to participate, that we have a hope of both upholding important principles and, somehow, finding a shared way through. It’s good to talk (about the burka).

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The Third Law of Politics

By Jake Wilde

I. A different kind of politics, apparently

After so many decades spent spewing speeches, motions, pamphlets, newspapers and online columns into the world, only to have them relentlessly ignored by everybody but themselves, it’s little wonder that those currently in charge of the Labour Party should be so full of vengeance. For the crime of not taking them seriously when they occupied the dark fringes of political landscape, our punishments are to be many and varied.

For now, without any real power, they are having to limit themselves to complaining about hats and conducting purges of the party. Their method is the usual one, laying down a complex set of rules that must not be broken but are only applicable to those outside the tent. In broad terms this amounts to “If you’re not one of us then what you think is wrong, irrelevant and intolerable.” Thus those who’ve campaigned and worked for the party for many years, under many different leaderships, can be and are discarded, as all eventually will fall foul of the unwritten rule of “not one of us”.

There’s no nuance behind the politics of vengeance being readied for the country should real power fall into their hands. Despite the rhetoric of collectivism, policies are decided by the small group at the centre under John McDonnell, and then distributed to the lower ranks not for discussion, but enthusiastic endorsement. There’s nothing particularly left wing about this, it’s just how authoritarian regimes operate. It’s on the first page of the manual.

On the second page is the most important rule after that: “Don’t tell everyone what you’re really going to do.” Jeremy Paxman was on to this in the 2017 election. His botched attempt to make Corbyn confess that the manifesto was a sham probably still haunts him, but if there’s one thing Corbyn is good at its lying about what he really thinks. Any man who can claim he’s not antisemitic while working for the planet’s most antisemitic regime has some front, and Corbyn is as adroit at deception as any con man.

It’s been the revelation of his leadership, far more so than the overstated impact upon the so-called youth vote. In truth the ranks of the Labour Party have been swelled not by hundreds of thousands of newly inspired teenagers, but by the middle aged, middle classes who previously spent their time on the fringes and, in all too many cases, under rocks. Labour is now a party creaking with conspiracy theorists, antisemites, Islamists and armchair revolutionaries, all of whom have found a home they never thought would exist for them – in one of Britain’s major parties.

Labour claims to have six tests on Brexit, but has only one rule: “Don’t get the blame”. This has applied from the start, hence the non-committal approach during the referendum, and the comical attempts to ride two horses with one arse since. You’d be hard pressed now to remember Labour’s official position during the referendum and, in the 2017 election, polls showed that Labour had managed to convince both ardent Leavers and Remainers that the party supported each of their viewpoints. Duplicity on such a scale is rare, and to be commended if you like that sort of thing.

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II. The Myth of the English Socialist Dream

For many years the UK civil service has resisted attempts, generally by the right, at politicisation. Margaret Thatcher so regularly complained about civil servants thwarting her efforts to radically change the UK’s economic and political structures that for most of the early 80s it seemed only a matter of time before a US-style system was introduced. This desire to remove the blockers in the civil service is currently being taken up by the Brexiteers and it will be shared by the Labour Party should their current leadership get into power.

Whether it’s the courts making the “wrong” decision, the police “taking sides” or civil servants being “obstructive”, the truth is that the institutions are there to ensure democracy means more than just absolute power for the temporary occupants of the executive. In simple terms western society has built structures to stop anyone from doing anything too nuts, or from pointing ominously at the crowds at their backs.

Thus politicians that promise radical change are, generally, hawking a fantasy. The Labour manifesto of 2017 was not about winning a general election. It was about retaining control of the party. It was a sentimental appeal to Labour members, supporters and voters, pushing emotional buttons so as to bolster support after defeat. I call this fantasy the English Socialist Dream, the fiction most commonly pushed by Corbyn at his rallies.

I’ve come to the view that the majority of so-called ordinary members of the Labour Party – the ones who aren’t entrists and have backed Corbyn twice now – have bought into a vision of socialism that predates even the Second World War, even before Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World.

Corbyn talks relentlessly in niceisms; that all our problems can be solved if everything is just nicer and that the state has a key role in being the nicest of all. The state will provide nice railways, nice energy, nice foreign policy, nice policing, nice immigration, nice housing, nice healthcare and so on. There’s no need to worry, the state will look after everything. Yes of course it’s all costed, now just stop asking questions, take your soma and support Jeremy.

Brave New World is about how a utopia is in fact dystopian because the people in it no longer ask questions. Rather than having Big Brother relentlessly controlling information, Huxley envisaged a world of “painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus”, said Christopher Hitchens when comparing Huxley’s vision with Orwell’s 1984:
“For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.”

And so we’re told now that there is nothing to be learnt from history about Labour’s planned economic programme, that no-one should have any sense of foreboding about the party’s treatment of Jewish members, activists and MPs, and that any past associations that the leadership had with terrorists are irrelevant (or even, preposterously, positive). Do not delve too deeply – there is nothing to be learnt by forensic examination.

In just the same way as Tony Benn never asked his famous Five Questions of Tariq Aziz over tea, you do not need to know the details behind Corbyn’s support of the mass murder of white South Africans during the apartheid years. Nor how his support for the violent expression of Irish nationalism has been transformed into an alternative history of a neutral, bilateral support for the peace process, to the bemusement even of former IRA commanders.

You knew, everybody knew, that those numbers in the manifesto didn’t add up. They didn’t even come close. We also all know that confidence, that most valuable of commodities, would evaporate with John McDonnell at the helm of the economy. And all of those spending plans would be just sand flowing through his helpless fingers as the wealth and income he needed to tax took flight. You knew, when Paxman pushed Corbyn on why all the things he believed in were not in the manifesto, that his genial smile was a clever trick, an in-joke between the Labour leader and his supporters. Corbyn was never going to admit it and he didn’t need to because his followers knew the game he was playing.

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III. Antisemitism in the blood

Corbynism, if such a term can be used, relies less on an intellectual analysis of the faults in society and proffering a rational set of proposals to remedy said faults, than on identifying the villains and telling everyone you’re going to punish them. That Corbyn should be the leader of dim-witted punishment politics will come as no surprise to those that have followed his career. But it’s simply no different to scapegoating. That scapegoating is traditionally the preserve of the far right doesn’t seem to matter to Labour Party members these days, they’ve found a leader who will tell them who is to blame, who needs to be punished and that once that’s done everything will be better. This is one of the reasons why Labour has an antisemitism problem, because Jews have a long-standing role as scapegoats, stretching back millennia. Perhaps this is also why Corbyn protests that he isn’t antisemitic – because he doesn’t limit his scapegoating to Jews.

Corbyn’s own views represent the strand of thought that led him and others to form the Stop The War coalition ten days after 9/11. This group of people, who decided they needed a specific vehicle to oppose whatever the United States’ response to the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, are united by a hatred of the West, of liberal democracy, of capitalism and of what they see as the forces that prevent the working class from rising up and creating a socialist utopia.

It should not be surprising that antisemitism is an important part of Stop The War’s DNA. Numerous different antisemitic conspiracy theories have been promulgated through Stop The War, some so abhorrent they were even cleansed from their website when Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Some of those deleted posts were just simple racism, others offered justification for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. However they all have one thing in common, they have Corbyn’s approval. He was a founder, a member of the steering committee from the start, and chair from 2011 until 2015.

This is the reason why antisemitism is innate to Corbynism. There’s not a single Corbynista who doesn’t believe, on some level, that the United States deserved to be attacked on that terrible September morning. Not one who doesn’t think it was the consequence of United States’ own foreign policy, and of its support for Israel. When this is inherent in a political belief structure, atrocities such as 9/11 become political exchanges, not acts of mass murder.

This is why I argue that the hardcore Corbynites are best described as the alt-left. Polytechnic revolutionaries with an NVQ in Political Theory and avatars of their favourite mass murderers, they know Corbyn and McDonnell support terrorism and they’re delighted by that. They know there’s an ongoing war against the wrong kind of Jews and uppity women, because it’s them waging it.

They’re often described as masters of social media, but this just means that they have taken the traditional bullying techniques of the unpleasant left and adapted them for use online. Melts, gammon, pile-ons; it’s not exactly sophisticated. One of the advantages for these social misfits was that they could hide their real identities, their awkwardness, and their losing personalities in the online world that they create, but they have started to believe their own propaganda.

They now demand a more prominent place on broadcast media, especially television, and I fully support that. The demise of the National Front can be directly traced back to the moment Nick Griffin, bulbous-eyed and sweating, babbled incoherently through Question Time. Revealed for who he truly was, the impartial BBC did more to fight fascism in that one night than thousands of nights of furious clicking by the alt-Left. Live TV will do for them just as it did for Griffin, but there is no escaping the fact that they are representative of the party, and popular with the membership.DgNnra7UYAAl0fH.jpg

IV. When did things go bad, exactly?

Over the last two years I’ve written about why I joined the Labour party, my sense of pride at being a member of a party that took record numbers of children out of poverty, introduced the minimum wage, and liberated the victims of tyranny and genocide. I’ve written about how the alt-left came to unite around a man who has achieved nothing in a thirty year career as a politician, precisely because he’s achieved nothing. Corbyn’s the closest thing there is to a blank canvas on the far left, upon which all manner of cranky versions of “socialism” can be projected, including the mythical version beloved by long-standing members. This blog is an archive of the torment that I and others have been through as we have tried to rationalise our choices, be they to leave, stay, come back, or leave again.

I have now reached the point where I cannot foresee being able to vote Labour, let alone rejoin the party that had achieved so much during my twenties and thirties. A party that is determined to renounce and denounce its own achievements with more fervour than anyone, and that espouses views that hitherto seemed to be forever confined to the darkest fringes. Labour has a membership that yearns for a Britain that never existed, and never must, and is a party that we now know has harboured a dark secret for years, a secret tolerance for antisemitism.

So I understand why people wish to stay in Labour and fight from within, but this is misplaced and mistaken. They are the human shields of politics, helping to prevent a fatal strike against a party that only retains them for their collateral usefulness.

Up until now the two parts of the centre left community has been viewed as merely differing on strategy. Those who’ve chosen to stay in Labour believe the party can eventually be restored once they wrestle back control from the far left. That the damage during the period that started in September 2015 and will end god-knows-when can be repaired. That, eventually, the majority of the membership will see the error of their ways. And then there’s the rest of us, who think that’s as deluded as hell. Even if the far left could be defeated from here would they wouldn’t be expelled, they’d be accommodated, while the membership would continue to yearn for the fantasy Corbyn offers.

The signs that Labour’s problems run deeper were there long before Corbyn was elected. From the incomprehensibly widespread belief that the likes of Tony Benn represented Labour’s conscience, to the day that Ed Miliband condemned thousands upon thousands of Syrian people to die. People like you and me, who just wanted freedom and democracy. I am ashamed I did not leave the Labour Party on that day.

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What the last two and half years have shown me is that the majority of Labour Party members have an unacceptable hierarchy of values. That they are prepared to sacrifice fundamental human rights for dogma, core values of liberal democracy for a mythical socialist dream. Labour is not a party that should be saved.

V. Nemesis

The worst thing about political homelessness is the lack of a sense of community. While it’s better, electorally, for your community to be as large as possible, it’s size is less important than its existence. Without it you can’t be sure if it’s just you that thinks such things.

I know that just being anti-the-far-left isn’t enough. Back in the early 2000s I formed a faction to oppose the far left leadership of my trade union. We were, in the main, left-of-centre Labour Party members, united by our opposition to the ruling faction that, unusually, consisted of both the Socialist Party and the SWP, as well as handful from the then tiny Bennite wing of Labour. The Socialist Party were very much in charge, but that didn’t stop John McDonnell, a regular visitor to NEC meetings and annual conference, fawning over them, more critical of his own party and his own colleagues than actual electoral opponents. While we found it easy to define what we weren’t (i.e. “them”) and what we were against, it was much harder to fashion a coherent policy platform to show what we were in favour of.

The same is undoubtedly true of us who oppose the current leadership and direction of the Labour Party and, lest there be any doubt, of the Conservative Party too. We know what we’re against, but unifying around an alternative proves elusive. I’ll illustrate what I mean by using Brexit as probably the best current example.

It’s reasonable to assume that the purpose of a second referendum is to overturn the result of the first, but what then? To attempt to answer that question would cause an unravelling of the curent, very broad, alliance of EU enthusiasts and Brexitsceptics. I voted Remain, but the issue of what it might mean to remain troubled me in 2016 as well. Briefly, my personal view of the EU is that it is at its best in three broad ways.

Firstly, when being a trading bloc for goods and services. Secondly, and as a group of nations rather than as an entity in itself, as a champion for liberal democracy and human rights. Thirdly, as a guarantor of security, both between individual EU countries and from those outside.

Where I think the EU goes wrong is in holding that labour should be treated as a commodity in the same way as goods and services. In much the same way as the single currency, the consequence is a democratic deficit that effectively transfers power to unelected bodies, whether they be employers or banks. I believe strongly in enlargement but equally strongly oppose a more federal Europe.

There are tremendous positive benefits in welcoming countries with young democracies into the EU, primarily for the people who live in them. In order to be admitted those countries have to prove their commitment to robust democratic structures, such as an independent judiciary, police and armed forces. The spread of democracy by peaceful means is the EU’s greatest achievement.

However I think that the internal democracy of the EU is a sham, that powers should be repatriated to national governments and parliaments, the EU Parliament abolished and scrutiny of the EU Commission performed directly by the governments of member states.

I am under no illusions that any of that will ever happen. Nor will my views particularly find favour with either Remainers or Leavers, but I use them to demonstrate that there are no purely binary options when thinking about our relationship with the EU. For some the EU, in any form, will always be unacceptable, for others nothing less than full integration will do. As John Rentoul observed last week, “all the noise is being made by those who want to be completely in or completely out”. What noise would a new centre ground party make?

One of the lessons of history is that Newton’s Third Law applies to politics as well. For every political philosophy there is an opposite force, for every type of leader there is a nemesis. Jeremy Corbyn becoming the leader of the Labour Party was undoubtedly a consequence of the reaction against previous leaders of the party, and there will be someone who emerges as a reaction to him. Equally there will be a reaction against Corbynism. But the opposite force to Corbynism is not another extremist view, such as a British form of Trumpism, but the liberal centre. 

A broader centre now exists in British politics, defined not by our attitudes to the EU, or Washington or Moscow, or who runs the railways, but by the more fundamental values of freedom of speech, equality, tolerance, liberal democracy and human rights. The very principles that are under threat from Corbynism. This is why the next leader need not be from within the Labour Party. More important is their ability to build consensus across the centre, to champion those values that we hold in common, to be able to convince us of what is possible and what is not, to, for example, answer the Brexit question satisfactorily. In the meantime those fundamental values are what sets us apart from the modern Labour Party and we should use them to start to define ourselves, to be Corbynism’s opposite force. We don’t need to wait for a leader to emerge to start to do that.

 

 

 

Featured image – Nemesis, by Gheorghe Tattarescu (1853)

Celebrating a century of anti-totalitarianism

By Oscar Clarke

This year is the hundredth since the victory of the totalitarian idea in Russia. And there is little to be thankful for about the world that was called into being by Lenin a century ago. The Revolution promised salvation, and a large part of the European intelligentsia embraced it with a religious fervour. It produced leader-worship, famine and slavery, all the while hunting heretics with an assiduity which renders the Papal inquisition inappropriately tame as an historical comparison.

But there is, nevertheless, something to be celebrated in the sanguinary centenary of Bolshevism, which becomes apparent when I glance at my bookshelf. There I see Koestler, Serge, Borkenau and Silone, the four writers to whom Orwell referred when he coined the term “the concentration camp novel” to summarise the literature of nineteen thirties Europe. I also see Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, Sebastian Haffner and Victor Klemperer, Kanan Makiya and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. To wit, I see a whole genre of literature – anti-totalitarianism – that also got started in 1917, which produced some of the most indispensible works of the last century.

Had the Russian Civil War gone the other way, something doctrinally akin to Nazism might have emerged instead. For the White Russians, like Hitler, saw murdering Jews as a war aim. They were among the first true believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by which theory Bolshevism – like capitalism before it – was simply a tool in the Jewish plan for world domination. It was White Russian emigres who brought the conspiracy theory, in the early nineteen-twenties, to Germany, where they also introduced political murder: Vladimir Nabokov – father of the novelist of the same name – was shot three months before Walther Rathenau.

Following a fascist triumph in Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and the other old Bolsheviks would have emigrated instead, perhaps to Vienna, where they once fraternised in the same cafes as a destitute Hitler. But more likely to Germany, homeland of Marx, Hegel and capital H History, especially if the Revolution of 1919 had brought the Communists to power there.

Such a counterfactual history would make for an intriguing novel. The author might proceed through the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, trying to divine how the twentieth century would have been altered by a fascist Russia and a communist Germany. But when, to get a feel for his subject matter, he came to study the literature of the period, he would likely be met by a revelation: history might not have diverged much at all from its actual course. For fascism and communism were two sides of the same coin.

One source for this lesson, composed around the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, would have been Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. At the beginning of the novel, Rubashov, a victim of the Moscow trials, is having a nightmare about his arrest, years earlier, by the Gestapo. In the dream, he is awoken and forced to dress, but he can’t quite manage to do so, because his body is overcome by the paralysis which nightmares often afflict us with in their most fearful moments.

Meanwhile, two men are banging on his door. Only this time they are not there on Hitler’s behalf, but on Stalin’s. In the final moments of Rubashov’s dream, someone pulls a plug and he hears water running down the pipes behind the wall. He wakes and has time to recover his sense of irony as he observes the portrait of Stalin hanging above his bed, then Stalin’s men break through his door to play the same roles as the Gestapo men in the dream. This time, Rubashov is able to dress, but somebody pulls a plug and water comes cascading down the pipes behind his wall.

The two totalitarian regimes had become mirrors of one another. In the final semi-lucid moments of his life, at the end of the novel, this truth dawns upon Rubashov. After receiving a shot in the back of the neck, his dream recurs:

Outside, someone was knocking on the front door, he dreamed that they were coming to arrest him; but in what country was he?

Whose colour portrait was hanging over his bed and looking at him?

Was it No.1 or was it the other – he with ironic smile or he with the glassy gaze?

A shapeless figure bent over him, he smelt the fresh leather of the revolver belt; but what insignia did the figure wear on the sleeves and shoulder-straps of its uniform – and in whose name did it raise the dark pistol barrel?

The two totalitarianisms were not only united by their penchant for political liquidations, but by their attempts to submit truth to their dogmas. It was Franz Borkenau’s book, Spanish Cockpit, which was at the centre of the famous rift between Orwell and the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin. Borkenau had been an agent of the German Communist Party, but had left after learning the lesson that Orwell would learn in Spain: that Stalin was actually keen to prevent revolutions abroad (he preferred Hitlers and Francos). Orwell had been asked to review the book for the magazine, and he praised its honesty. But this honesty offended the Stalinist orthodoxy of the time. Martin rejected the review, explaining that “it implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong”.

In Orwell’s postscript to Homage to Catalonia, he wrote:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie… and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Spain had taught Orwell about the most frightening aspect of totalitarianism, its disavowal of the concept of truth. Just as, in Germany, truth was what Hitler thought and Goebbels announced, truth in British newspapers, in the name of solidarity with the Russian Revolution, was what Stalin decreed. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, co-founder and proprietor of the Left Book Club, and a conspicuous “fellow traveller”, rejected Homage to Catalonia.

In The Totalitarian Enemy, Borkenau compared Hitlerism and Stalinism explicitly. He picked up on a more obscure feature of totalitarianism, which will be familiar today to anyone who has spent any time perusing the English language magazine of the Islamic State, Dabiq, named in honour of the town where IS prophesy their victory in a final, apocalyptic battle with the unbelievers. This feature is messianism. With the revolutionary sects of the middle-ages, the anabaptists and the French revolutionaries, the totalitarianisms shared “the idea that some complete salvation could be worked on this earth through an accumulation of atrocities.”

Hitler actually talked of the Third Reich lasting for one thousand years, just as Revelations promises the millennial reign of Christ. Trotsky, meanwhile, posited that a “man of the future” would be born when the Revolution had completed its work. In his memoir, Victor Serge recorded the following exchange between a Stalinist and a left oppositionist, which demonstrated the callousness by which the believers in this future sought to attain it:

“you can’t make an omelette,” says the Stalinist, “without breaking eggs.”

“I see your broken eggs”, comes the reply, “now where is this omelette.”

In antiquity, Borkenau observed, “there is no evidence that there ever arose… the idea that spiritual or material salvation could be won through the destruction of all higher civilization by inspired fanatics.” In the history of the Judeo-Christian world, by contrast, this idea has recurred again and again. Another of the great foes of totalitarianism, Albert Camus, left his readers to consider that thought, by concluding his allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, The Plague, thus:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

 

The Free Speech Backlash

By Jake Wilde

The British public want something different from their politics. Over the last three elections they have sent the message: We don’t really want any of you.

On paper Cameron should have won a clear victory in both 2010 and 2015, and May should have romped home in June. Yet on each occasion the margin of Tory victory was slender at best. At some point the Conservative Party must surely reflect upon their anti-Midas touch, and they must do so before they make another mistake that threatens the security and prosperity of the country. The outcomes of Cameron’s unnecessary referendum and May’s unnecessary election should be enough to deter the Tories from further foolishness, but that doesn’t mean it will. Boris continues to lurk, promising a further degradation of how we talk to and behave with each other.

Labour, despite hoovering up every crank and zealot to their left, have succeeded only in proving that it is possible to do badly and still convince yourself you did well, as long as your expectations are that of tinpot revolutionaries, not a serious party of government. The outcome of last month’s election is that the Labour Party is now firmly in the grip of the far left, with the party’s response to Chuka Umunna’s attempts to find some common ground with the majority of Labour voters underlining how little the far left have changed over the decades. The applauding of Corbyn, the non-response to the bullying of Luciana Berger, Keir Starmer’s preposterous six tests – whatever the Labour moderates’ plan is, it’s clearly so cunning that I’m starting to suspect it involves a fox.

One of the reasons for the public wanting change is the degradation of our political discourse. Over the last few years, and especially over the last twelve months or so, the way people talk to each other, at each other, is bordering on dystopian. Orwell famously offered a vision of the future that was “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. The implication was that the boot symbolised the state, but most of us these days recognise the boot as the internet, stamping on our faces through social media and fake or propagandised news.

Daniel Van Boom, CNET Sydney’s Asia News Editor, wrote recently about the effect of Mean World Syndrome on our online interactions as part of an interesting series of articles on internet hate for CNET. His basic hypothesis, which I entirely agree with, is that it is nigh on impossible to hold a reasoned and reasonable discussion on the internet with someone who disagrees with you and that it’s not surprising that this has now spilled over into the real world. He uses recent well-known examples from North America, such as Ben Shapiro on ‘safe spaces’, Christina Hoff Sommers on ‘feminist myths’ and Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College, but all of us have enough of our experiences to draw upon, whether that’s attending a Constituency Labour Party AGM, the discomfort at discovering a relative’s real reason for voting for Brexit, or just venturing too far away from the cat gifs. It’s a good article but the offered solution is to appeal to reason, which is where we came in. In a world in which the extremes are dominant and riot police are required because of someone’s words it seems unlikely that appealing to people’s better nature will succeed. However there is a general sense that something must change, and either we the people do it, or the state does it.

The current inquiry into the abuse of parliamentary candidates could go in two possible directions. The first is that the evidence is shrugged off as ‘part of the job’, or that there’s a descent into a hierarchy of victimhood, or whataboutery, or worse, that the details are devoured with prurient glee. The second is that the details of the abuse are so shocking, so unacceptable, that society turns upon the abusers. At some point reason dictates that we, as a society, will reach the moment where the demand for action becomes overwhelming. When even BBC reporters need bodyguards we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Could it be this, could this be the tipping point?

If so, what is it that we ought to be hoping for?

One possible outcome sees a tightening of the law, where the burden of proof over intent to harm is reduced, where rights to online privacy are eroded, with routine criminalisation for online abuse and custodial sentences for those on demonstrations that turn violent. We might also see the state join in with the practice of no-platforming, or force broadcasters to do so. This would be a mistake, a hugely counter-productive mistake.

Christopher Hitchens described himself as a First Amendment absolutist, a position I share. Hitchens said, “That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”

A better outcome is to have a society that values freedom of speech, protects it absolutely, discards the ridiculous notion of hate speech and gives people ownership of the discourse in their society. As US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Have the debate in the open, not in dark corners. I want to know what views you hold because only then can I truly decide if I want to listen to you. Just as the debate over the EU referendum revealed those who hold racially prejudiced views so has Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party revealed the extent of antisemitism on the left. It is horrifying, but I’m glad I know. For not only does this sunlight identify those who hold those horrifying views but also those who make excuses for them.

Only one response will widen the centre ground and push the extremists back to obscurity. Some will wish to use their freedom of speech to spread messages of hatred, be that about other races, religions, sexual orientations or political views. Some will want to bully, to intimidate, to silence their opposition. These people are a tiny minority. If we act collectively we can drown them out, push them back to the edges, and then consign them to their rightful location under a rock.

The important principle is that freedom of speech is protected. We have no need to be afraid of the hatemongers if, collectively, we are clear that their bullying, their discriminatory language, their support of tyrants, and their opposition to our liberal democratic values is rejected by society at large.

We can draw a distinction between those expressing their views and those seeking to encourage criminal or even terrorist behaviour. Directing others to commit criminal acts, or making direct threats to an individual or group are criminal acts. It does not matter whether they are performed online or face to face. These are not exercises in free speech and our laws can cope with them already.

If we build a consensus about a new standard of acceptable conduct for citizens, a standard that we would be happy to be held to ourselves and thus would reasonably expect others to be held to as well, then we can solve the problem. Not restriction through legal instrument, but through personal choice. We can, we must, challenge the extremists wherever and whenever we find them, whoever they are. 

We know that society’s attitudes evolve and that evolution can, of itself, have a corresponding effect on behaviour. Some such behaviours, such as seat belt use, not drink driving and the reduction in smoking, may have started with legislation but have been made effective by us, by society. Others, such as our attitude towards marriage equality, blasphemy and deference, have changed primarily through our exposure to a broader range of human interaction, and understanding that difference shouldn’t be feared, opposed or fought against. Others still, such as domestic violence or child abuse, have moved from unspoken normality to universal condemnation. As a society we need to similarly transform our attitudes towards the political hatemongers, rejecting them, ostracising them and signalling that such behaviour is unacceptable.

Just as so many activities and practices that used to be acceptable are no longer then let us do the same with public, political abuse. As Justice Brandeis put it, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” The consequence of us doing so will be a new politics, a revival of traditional British liberalism, and genuine political choice in the centre ground.

Free speech is the antidote to Trump

Eyes up in Britain

benjamin_franklin_freedom_of_speech_quote Benjamin Franklin got it right. By DonkeyHotey; CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The polarising president is a threat to truth itself. Beating him requires a renewed commitment to the most fundamental western value of all.

We can see where this is going. Donald Trump has promised a crackdown on media companies which cover him unfavourably. He tweeted an attack on the New York Times while soldiers he commanded were taking part in a failed raid in Yemen. He held a press conference where he berated the media for more than an hour.

His and his cronies’ lies have become ‘alternative facts’. His spokeswoman has cited a non-existent massacre as justification for his most controversial policy. He has lashed out at the intelligence agencies and begun a review which threatens their independence.

This wannabe autocrat is not just a threat to a 240-year-old republic founded on small-l liberal values…

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Extremism on campus: Islamist narratives are going unchallenged

By Layo

This a cross-post from Layo’s Medium account, kindly reproduced with permission.

In the “deepest circle of hell”, ISIS have entered. Last month ISIS seized the refugee camp of Yarmouk outside of Damascus. Public executions, shootings and beheadings have followed. 5,000 people have tried to flee their homes since ISIS stormed the camp, but have no place to go. There are fears that 18,000 inside the besieged camp could be massacred. When you stare down the barrel of a Jihadist’s gun, your refugee status counts for nothing. Any Christians, Shia, Homosexuals, Atheists, all that is Kafir, risk being murdered or enslaved in Yarmouk.

After four years of the Syrian Civil War we have become accustomed to the barbarism and horrors committed by ISIS. Their horrors have been broadcast on our TV screens and brought to our nearby shores. Yet ISIS do not stand alone. They are one face, one faction, of a violent totalitarian movement; from Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, to Boko Haram in Nigeria via the Taliban in Afghanistan; the rise of ISIS must be seen within the context of a jihad insurgency that is now global.

World leaders denounce these terrorists and decry their ‘death cults’. We send war planes and drones to bomb them as we send Special Forces to take out their hierarchy. But as thousands leave Europe to join these groups, little seems to have changed. Islamism, the ideology that drives these terror groups cannot be bombed out of existence. This ideology, its ideas, and how they’re promoted, must too be challenged.

As Maajid Nawaz argues: ‘Recognizing this as an insurgency affects entirely how we react to it…. counter-insurgency rests on the assumption that the enemy has significant enough levels of support within the communities it aims to survive among’. And we must understand and challenge why this is the case. Why, for example, have more British Muslims joined ISIS than the British Army Reserves? We must understand the deeply rooted issues that make individuals vulnerable to extremism — social exclusion, institutionalized racism and a feeling of disconnect from British society. But if we do this, while ignoring the ideology that drives extremism, we are bound to fail.

ISIS’s 100,000 foot soldiers were not born evil, nor was their radicalisation ever inevitable. The experience of racial or religious harassment and discrimination isolates communities and individuals, and makes them susceptible to extremism. However there still needs the purveyors of an ideology to manipulates these genuine grievances, and indoctrinate the vulnerable. It is the ideology, that pushes an angry, alienated kid, to embrace violent extremes — be this neo-Nazism or Islamism. Disenfranchisement doesn’t inevitably lead to extremism; that simplistic argument would be absurd. But a disenfranchised individual makes ripe pickings for a charismatic recruiter to the cause. They can channel and feed their grievances, and give the disaffected a new identity through ideology.

In 2011, a review of the Prevent strategy by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism identified higher education as one of primary sectors that is vulnerable to radicalisation. In a damning report, it found that there has been a ‘culture conducive to the promotion of non-violent extremism has developed on a number of UK university campuses’.

The report went on to say: “there is unambiguous evidence to indicate that some extremist organisations … target specific universities and colleges … with the objective of radicalising and recruiting students”. Moreover, “[that] extremist preachers from this country and from overseas […] have also sought to repeatedly reach out to selected universities and to Muslim students”.

To combat this, the NUS currently ‘No-platforms’ six extremist organisations. These organisations are banned from attending or speaking at any NUS function or conference, and for standing for election to any NUS position. These 6 include three far-right groups; British National Party, English Defence League, National Action, and three Islamist organisation, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Muslim Public Affairs Committee and Al-Muhajiroun.

The report by the Home Affairs Select Committee stated that those who ‘distrust Parliament and who see a conflict between being British and their own cultural identity’ are susceptible to radicalisation. It is clear that there are speakers appearing that our University who are promoting the divisive narrative that Islam is incompatible with Western secular democracy, and facing little challenge or counter-narratives.

Despite the new legal duty facing universities, too many institutions are still allowing events featuring extreme or intolerant speakers to go ahead without ensuring adequate challenge. Between the start of 2012 and the end of 2014, there were 400 incidents of extremist speakers at our universities.

Hamza Tzortzis is a senior member of Islamic Education and Research Academy (ISRA) and is a regular speaker at British universities. He has close links to banned Hizb ut-Tahrir. He has said:

“We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom. We see under the Khilafa (caliphate), when people used to engage in a positive way, this idea of freedom was redundant, it was unnecessary, because the society understood under the education system of the Khilafa state, and under the political framework of Islam, that people must engage with each other in a positive and productive way to produce results, as the Qur’an says, to get to know one another”

Our universities are meant to be a ‘safe space’ according to the NUS. This ideas of ‘safe spaces’ has facilitated a culture of censorship that has embedded itself within our student unions. Many universities now have an outright ban on ‘transphobic material’, as well as having vague restrictions on ‘offensive’ dress and conduct. Human rights campaigners and secularists have been banned for offending religious sensitivities. Feminists have face black-listing for daring to say that trans-sexual woman are not ‘real women’.

So when our student community recoil in disgust at the government’s plans to ban “non-violent” Islamist extremists from speaking on campuses, we must feel uneasy. These students and academics, so happy to censor everything from offensive pop songs to ‘page three’ — will fight tooth and nail for the rights of religious reactionaries to preach unopposed their prejudices about women, Jews, homosexuals, and apostates. In the 6 month period from September 2015 and January 2016 we have had speakers on campuses who have promoted sectarian violence, hatred of gays and hatred of Jews.

While many of the Islamist speakers who are appearing on our campuses may not directly argue for Jihad, they do routinely offer apologia for terrorism and violence. A prominent example is CAGE, an advocacy group who work closely with high-profile figures within the NUS. Qureshi an executive director of CAGE, was recorded in 2006 as saying: “When we see the examples of our brothers and sisters, fighting in Chechnya, Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, then we know where the example lies … We know that it is incumbent upon all of us to support the jihad of our brothers and sisters in these countries when they are facing the oppression of the West”. Last year Qureshi described the now deceased executioner and propagandist ‘Jihadi John’ as a ‘beautiful young man’.

According to an article on CAGE‘s website the Bring Back Our Girls campaign is a “colonial trope” and criticism of Boko Haram is about “demonising Islam”.Proud feminists and NUS members regularly sit alongside CAGE to denounce the government’s anti-extremism programme.

The ideas promoted by CAGE — that Muslims generally (rather than individuals holding extreme views) are under attack; that the authorities are untrustworthy; and that the threats of extremism and terrorism from non-Muslims are greater than the threats from Islamist extremism and terrorism; these ideas have a lot of currency among sections of the Left. Once these Leftists are able to turn a blind eye to CAGE and their allies’ views on women’s rights, homosexuality and Jews; sharing a platform with them comes quite naturally.

When a CAGE spokesperson says to Muslim audience members: “each and every one of us is a terror suspect, it may not be now, it may have been yesterday, but we certainly will be tomorrow, the way things are heading” — We must question whether this rhetoric is divisive or constructive? Does it feed into the picture, used by Islamists, to promote a grievance narrative that the West is at war with Islam?

When the student Left align themselves with Islamists and offer them an unchallenged platform; they are betraying the very principles that they claim to uphold. When extremists are presented as ‘mainstream’ and ‘moderate’ voices of Islam, we betray liberal reformist Muslims; feminist Muslims; gay Muslims; dissenting Muslims; and minority sects that suffer more from religious fundamentalism than we can ever imagine. They are minority within minority, persecuted within theocracy, white-washed by us.

Just a few months ago, the University of Kingston held an event entitled “The Rise of Islamophobia’” One of speakers on the panel, Bashir Ibrahim, claimed the government was seeking to engineer a ‘Government sanctioned Islam” and that the security services’ “modus operandi” was harassing Muslims, using Mohammed Emwazi (Jihadi John) and Michael Adebolajo (Lee Rigby’s murderer) as examples. These tropes are commonplace. In December, Muhammad Dilwar Hussain visited University College London and claimed that there is “a full on ideological/cultural war is being waged on Islam and Muslims” and described reformist critics as “drunken liberal garbage”.

This narrative, that ‘’Islam is under attack and we must defend it” is central to radicalisation, extremism and terrorism. In terrorism, it is used to promote violence; in extremism is it used to promote values that are antithetical to human rights norms; in radicalisation, it is used exploit vulnerable people and recruit them to the cause.

Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee Charles Farr has stated that the government are deeply concerned about people “who are speaking regularly against core UK values and whose ideology incidentally is also shared by terrorist organisations”. There little doubt that CAGE fall into this group. The Preventing Prevent lobby, seeks to undermine counter-extremism work by fitting it to the broader Islamist narrative has gained traction within the student movement.

As a report from the Quilliam anti-extremist think-tank point out. ‘The Islamist narrative has been normalised in the United Kingdom, and other European countries, over the last two decades due to the influence of non-violent Islamist organisations’.

The normalisation of these narrative show no sign of abating. The controversial new President of the NUS Malia Bouattia won on part by campaigning on a ‘Preventing Prevent’ ticket and unsurprisingly has been endorsed by CAGE. In a written response to critics who have questioned her over alleged anti-Semitism, she publicly attacked the organisations who have been investigating radicalisation and extremism on campuses. When challenged, she has accused her critics of being driven by nothing more than anti-Muslim bigotry.

Those who speak out against Islamism in our universities often face false accusation of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and ‘neo-colonialism’. Human rights campaigns such as Peter Tatchell and Maryam Namazie have faced McCarthyite smears. While anti-fascist organisations like Hope not Hate have been attacked by the Left, for speaking out against Islamism and Islamic sectarianism.

We find ourselves in a situation where the Left is caught in ‘double bind’; on one hand speaking out against prejudice towards Muslims and the excesses of the state in the ‘war on terror’, and the need to oppose the ideas, beliefs and actions of religious reactionaries, Islamists and jihadi apologist. We can do both and we must do both.

There are clear failings with the Government’s Prevent agenda and British Muslims are increasingly marginalised and alienated. But when we take these extremists as the legitimate voice of Muslim opinion, as we do on so many university campuses, we’re doing great harm. We legitimise their corrosive narrative that there is an unbridgeable divide between the ideas of Islam and Western liberalism.

What stands before us is far-right political movement based on a fundamentalist and reactionary interpretation of Islamic doctrine. What groups like Cage sustain and apologise for, is a totalitarian ideology. The ideology cannot be separated from its violent interpretation. The ideas peddled on our campus are not separate from the atrocities committed abroad in the name of Jihad.

Islamic State’s outlined in their own magazine Dabiq, their aim to eliminate what it calls the “grey zone,” the middle ground between Islamist theocrats and anti-Muslim bigots, so that everyone is forced to pick sides. In this way, Islamic State hopes to turn non-Muslims against Muslims. We cannot let the likes of CAGE drive this narrative. Let’s fight for this ‘middle ground’ where liberalism lives and thrives.

No wonder the Taliban rallied around the cry, “Throw reason to the dogs” — rational debate, reason, these the enemies of tyranny. The values of the Enlightenment are theocracy’s greatest fear. We must combat Islamism’s politicised manipulation of the Islamic faith through rational enquiry and critique. The least we can do is open up their platforms to critical voices and challenge their ideas. Combating Islamism on campus should go hand in hand with fighting for free speech on campus.

We won’t defeat the ideologies of fascism and Islamism through blanket censorship. We defeat these ideas by exposing their fallacies and undermining their arguments through open debate and criticisms. Islamists and their fellow-travellers on the far-Left will attempt to shut down this discussion, but we cannot let this happen. Let’s promote progressive voices and open up debate on our universities. Let’s work with, and reform, the Prevent agenda — let’s change the narrative.

Featured image from East London Lines article “Students NOT Suspects campaign visits Goldsmiths”