“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

26 May 2017

On Bullshit - that British foreign policy causes terrorist attacks

The idea that British foreign policy somehow caused Salman Abedi to go and kill children in Manchester is so stupid that on one level it seems offensive to even discuss it.

Yet this idea is strongly present in our public life, promoted by Islamist organisations like CAGE and recycled by countless left-wingers, including – in diluted form – by Jeremy Corbyn in a speech he is to deliver today.

As Corbyn will put it, “That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and held to account for their actions.”

It is a fair point to make that there is a difference between causation and blame. That basic distinction applies also to immigration, for which we can say runaway housing costs and pressure on public services are partly caused by increased numbers of people but this does not mean that incomers are in any way to blame.

The trouble is politically, whereby figures like Corbyn highlighting this link feeds into a widespread narrative that takes foreign policy is the cause, a single cause, rather than a contributing, motivating aspect (or excuse) in some cases. Coupling this with saying that attacks like Manchester are ‘nothing to do with Islam’, you end up with a situation in which terrorists’ religious justifications for doing what they do are discounted, except as a form of determinism, of provocation and response. Their agency is pushed to the margins in favour of an account of causation in which Britain or the West or non-Muslims always appear as subject while Muslims are objects simply doing what the subject causes them to do.

This explanation is a negation of morality and ethics. It also barely qualifies as a truth claim. Indeed, it seems to me that addressing the truth isn’t the point to it. The 'foreign policy' explanation not a lie so much as bullshit, intended to deceive and draw people towards a certain way of seeing the world. It is political.

As Harry Frankfurt put it in his wonderful little essay, ‘On Bullshit’,

“However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity which resists or eludes the demands of disinterested and austere discipline.”

He added, “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth - this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit . . . the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”

People using the ‘British foreign policy’ explanation are playing politics rather than attempting to tell a truth. With sometimes admirable motives, albeit in the process sacrificing concern with the truth, they are attempting to draw attention away from the religion and the religious group and towards something that treats both of those things as victims and as virtuous.

This is also what Islamist politics and Islamist organisations are trying to do of course, though with not such admirable political motives.

It is concerning the way that other major institutions, including large parts of the Labour Party, have fallen into recycling the same bullshit that they do.

24 May 2017

Islamic terror now has an established place in our political life

These days I am often reminded of a scene from the film The Godfather Part II.

Al Pacino’s character Michael Corleone is in Cuba for a meeting of gang and business bosses to divide up the spoils of corrupt deals with the Batista government. Driving around the island he sees a number of Castro rebels being arrested, one of whom breaks away and kills himself and a military police captain with a grenade.

In relating the episode to fellow bosses, Michael says this tells him something about the rebels, that “they can win”. The fact that the rebels were motivated enough to die for their cause showed that they could prevail over a regime that had to pay its people to fight. (One of the other business-crime bosses present by contrast dismisses them as ‘lunatics’. Shortly afterwards the Batista regime crumbles and Fidel Castro takes over.)

In Downing Street yesterday, Theresa May as Prime Minister gave one of those speeches that are becoming familiar to us and also to her and the likes of her. Commentators praised her for finding the right words and showing the right level of resolve. She rounded it off by saying,

“And today, let us remember those who died and let us celebrate those who helped, safe in the knowledge that the terrorists will never win – and our values, our country and our way of life will always prevail.”

I think it’s worthwhile thinking about some of these words and formulations:

  • Safe
  • Knowledge
  • The terrorists will never win
  • Our values, our country and our way of life will always prevail


There’s an awful lot of knowledge being expressed there, and it’s knowledge of the future, which is a self-contradiction, (yet is all over the place in our political life, notoriously in the economic warnings of Project Fear during the EU referendum). We don’t and can’t know these things. We cannot be sure, and we are certainly not safe in the knowledge that everything is going to be OK. Safe is the opposite of what those young concert-goers and their parents turned out to be. Given things now are not OK and have got worse over time, there is every reason to suppose they will not get better in the future.

Claiming to see into the future gives this sort of talk from May and others a cosmic character. It is the sort of talk that a religious leader would use, claiming knowledge of the future and therefore control of it, demanding the flock keep the faith and stay with her.

It’s an assertion of authority. But the resort to prophecy is also part of a pattern and a habit. We have heard it all before from political leaders past and present, home and abroad. Tony Blair was a master at it, and I think it is his example that everyone has been following since.

They have all fallen into the same way of addressing the problem: by invoking this quasi-mystical authority that they know the nature of history and can therefore tell us what to think and how to feel. Moreover, seemingly everyone with a pretension to lead is at it: issuing instructions and making demands, including that those who do not obey their demands are punished (Katie Hopkins seems to have taken this role from Nigel Farage as a sort of folk devil for progressives).

In this way, Islamic terror is now integrated into a system of possibilities and responses for those involved in our political life, from politicians to the police to community and faith leaders and the rest of us in everyday life. The patterns have been established. The responses have been prepared and are ready to employ whenever a new attack occurs.

Meanwhile the sort of people who committed the atrocity in Manchester on Monday night are not going away. They are clearly in it for the long term, and are not lacking in commitment or organisational skills. We may dismiss them as ‘lunatics’, ‘barbarians’ and ‘irrational’, but they have shown an ability to plan and execute complex and demanding military and logistic tasks in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and elsewhere – and now, increasingly, in Europe and even North America.

But what would it mean for them to win and to defeat us and ‘our values, our country and our way of life’? Theresa May and others wouldn’t be saying what she says if it wasn’t now in question.

Obviously, in the near future, there is no chance of jihadists taking over the government or mounting a coup and establishing a Caliphate in Britain or Europe. They do not have the power.

But that is probably not the point. What their actions do is to draw attention to their cause of maximising Islamic power, while re-asserting their antagonism to other sources of power which they see as threatening it (from governments ‘intervening’ in Islamic countries to little girls going to Ariana Grande concerts).

By drawing attention to their conflict, they re-create it, create opposition and thereby eke out a greater role for themselves in defending Muslims and attacking those who threaten Muslims. This role is also taken on by non-violent Islamist representative organisations. Every jihadist attack also brings attention to them and re-states their importance in public life as mediators between Muslim communities, the state and the rest of society.

It therefore gives these softer Islamists political power, leverage and some justification for their claims of victimisation, which in turn brings the forces of the state to their side in a protective role, which is something they want to extend.

Their consistent underlying message is ‘do what we say and this will stop’. Make way to our demands and the situation will come under control. Protect Muslims from attack and the extremists will no longer feel the need to respond. Stop people being nasty to Muslims. Bring in a blasphemy law to protect Islam from attack. Arrest those who criticise Islam. Ban practices which offend us as Muslims, like highly sexualised Ariana Grande songs being performed in school.

These are much softer demands than those for an Islamic Caliphate, but they are demands which wouldn't have much force would it not be for the 'problem' of terrorist attacks and the opposition which they encourage between Muslims and non-Muslims. For Islamists as well as for our politicians, Islamic terrorist attacks play a role.

While we all stand together, united against extremism, we gradually come to accommodations that pass ‘our values’ and the rest not to the extremists, but to those who use them as cover to achieve the same ends of our society and state becoming more Islamic, incrementally and without us barely noticing.

This is what defeat would look like in practice. 

30 March 2017

On Richard Dawkins and Brexit: confusing science with politics

“One fact of life I have learned over the years is that it is possible to be very clever and stupid at the same time.”

Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and diarist of the New Labour years, said that in his latest memoir Hinterland, referring to judges who presided over the notorious miscarriages of justice that unravelled in the 1980s and early 1990s, like the Birmingham Six IRA bombing case which he was involved in.

This line has come to mind several times lately reading the outbursts of some of those who are still livid at the EU referendum result.

Now I don’t have a problem with people who feel strongly about remaining in the EU, just as long as they respect those on the other side as legitimate political opponents who have worthwhile arguments and in this case won a democratic battle fair and square. The trouble with the arch-Remainers that I am thinking of – the Labour MP David Lammy, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the philosopher A.C. Grayling come to mind – is that they each treat their own opinion as absolute, as a form of law which has been broken by an ignorant population that does not know what is good for it. For them, the EU vote came down to one choice: the right thing or the wrong thing - and they knew absolutely which was which.

Into this fray the respected evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has thrown himself with an impressive enthusiasm, issuing some remarkably abrasive tweets and now writing what is perhaps best described as a frothing rant (otherwise known as an article) for the New Statesman, entitled, ‘We need a new party - the European Party’. In this piece we can see, perhaps as clearly as we will ever see, the troubles that scientists (or quasi-scientists like in the social sciences, including economics) can get into when they fail to respect the limits of their science and start using the authority they have in their fields to pronounce on politics.

Dawkins starts off his article by trying to cover himself from this though, saying,

“I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history.”

This is a nice bit of double-think, for it says that he isn’t qualified to decide, but also establishes that he is qualified to say who is, which means he can take for himself the authority of those who have the authority. You just pick up on the arguments of whatever authority you choose in those fields that you decide are relevant and you have the authority too: job done.

Now he has gathered up a nice slug of authority for himself, he can properly let rip in the meat of the article:

“I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.”

It is difficult to counter arguments characterised by a succession of assertions like this, not because they are good arguments, but because you don’t know where to start. But we can see at the core of his arguments this word ‘rational’ – that his arguments and those of people he trusts are rational, while those of others aren’t; some instances of fear are rational, others aren’t.

For him, the EU referendum question was a technical matter to be decided by the relevant experts (the qualification criteria for which he does not explain, but reserves for himself). As he puts it, “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.”

As I have found in reading and listening to other arch-Remainers, Dawkins does not address the actual arguments of his opponents. He does not quote them or take them on based on their core arguments. Rather he makes his appeal by assertion and insult – thereby departing from the scientific method of analysis which he invokes to justify his authority. He rants about the distrust of experts, but does not address how his supposedly infallible economic experts failed miserably with their predictions for the economic consequences of a Brexit vote.

But worse is the way that he brushes over the core arguments of the Leave side, which I supported. For him, the arguments made about democracy, sovereignty and accountability have no relevance. They do not fit into his schema so must be illegitimate for being irrational (as well as being apparently ‘visceral, emotional and xenophobic’ in character). Dawkins confuses science and politics, trying to reduce the latter to the former, relegating politics to a technical discipline in which we have a surface democracy but the real power is wielded by political and economic experts.

To the elitist accusation, he says,

“Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite.”

By this viewpoint, the ultimate ends of politics and of mankind should be put out of our reach as citizens.

Personally, I think it’s marvellous that a majority of us stuck two fingers up at this sort of view in the referendum. For democracy to be meaningful, as democratic society, what we vote about must also be meaningful. We must be able to make change happen, as a political community, with poorer and less educated people having the same basic power as me or you or Richard Dawkins or his elite clerisy.

Change must be possible, otherwise we are simply living in what the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev called ‘managed democracy’, not so far off from the kind that Vladimir Putin runs in Russia as we might like to think.

So, as I have said here before about my own choice, Je ne regrette rien.

23 January 2017

Brexit and the arts: reflections on a BBC Radio 3 discussion

Listening to BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme the other day, I was struck by a discussion they had about Brexit and the arts – and thought it was worth breaking off from my book-writing to reflect on it a little.

The discussion illustrated once more the remarkable hold that ideas and myths associated with ‘the European project’ have taken over the great and the good in Britain. That includes the BBC of course.

As we have come to expect from the Beeb since it was allowed to drop its impressive impartiality during the referendum campaign, the discussion here was remarkably one-sided. All three guests, Cathy Graham of the British Council, composer Gerard McBurney and Emmanuel Hondre of the Philharmonie de Paris, were resolutely anti-Brexit. The only questioning of their consensus came from a short segment of an enjoyable rant from the artist Grayson Perry, railing against the complacency of the arts Establishment for peddling its comfortable ideas and preaching to the converted. 

However, the substance of what Brexit means was for the most part explored only on a plane of abstractions, and Perry's message was assimilated into how ‘we’ need to respond to what a horrible and nasty thing ‘they’ have done to us. Listeners heard from McBurney a fear of how ‘parochialism’ might take over, a wailing about how Leave voters “feel resentful at a world in which ideas flow from one culture to another”, with the strange implication that ideas and people might somehow no longer circulate between these Isles and the rest of the world after Britain leaves the EU.

It was all rather strange. Taking these ideas seriously, you might think that music and ideas and people hadn’t circulated between Britain and the rest of the world before we joined the EU in 1973; as if the arts in Britain were a wasteland before that point and have been some sort of beneficient paradise ever since. It also had me wondering how all these Russian violinists and Chinese viola players and American trumpeters managed to get jobs with British orchestras given that their countries are not in the EU.

But somehow such details didn’t seem to be the point, with the assertions just left hanging, remaining unexplained and unexplored and largely unquestioned by presenter Tom Service (who is generally excellent on this programme and others). It seems that all this was an established consensus (among an Establishment, you might say) – and with established consensus, assumptions are shared and become part of a generally accepted reality, however questionable they are.

Quite clearly, this is what has happened in the arts world. That world, like those of the business and economic elite, mainstream politicians and our major institutions (not least educational), is genuinely baffled by and afraid of the world outside itself. It sees the other half that voted a different way to it as genuinely ‘other’. Existentially, there appear to be two sides which are separate from each other: a new form of a very old class divide.

But that divide is not strictly middle class to working class – and from this Radio 3 discussion I think we could hear some intimations of the lines on which at least one side draws it. The invoking of ‘parochialism’ and ‘provincialism’ by McBurney in particular might be absurd if taken seriously, not least in such a multi-cultural country as Britain, but it points to a slightly different and more substantial political position. That is a political stance of not wanting to be tied down in any way to the land, territory and people of Britain, of not making one’s identity connections on those lines, of subsuming oneself into the much bigger, European entity. This means to a greater or lesser extent sacrificing affiliation to the smaller unit and forsaking the attachment to one’s geographical origins. It is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level, being part of Europe not as a separable part but as indistinguishable from the whole, casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, 'provincial' and ‘nativist’.

This mirrors the political integration of Europe of course: of the drive to sameness, of European citizenship rights trumping those of nation states, of the disintegration of nation states and nationalities within Europe.

Even by getting quite involved in the whole EU referendum thing I still gasp sometimes at the extraordinary hold this story and the myths associated with it have come to have. Indeed I am constantly surprised by how many people – especially those in elite positions in our society – do not just approve of these ideas but are wedded to them as a core part of their own personal identity, one which is utterly different to that of those they oversee from their exalted positions.

It is visceral and emotional and in some ways incoherent (which is the nature of attachment), but it is also indelibly attached to what it is not: the most important aspect of who I am is that I am not like them. As an identity relation, this doesn’t have to manifest itself as being better than them in an absolute sense, but it often does – and certainly does here. There is a potential challenge here for the arts as for politics and the other ‘top’ professions: to show they have something to offer to people they seem to have lost all existential contact with - and often hold in contempt as we have seen from the referendum and its aftermath. This is fundamentally problematic though, for a great many of them are deeply protective of and committed to their separateness and higher status, and of looking down on people.

Thinking of classical music as I do (which is why I was listening to the programme) I couldn’t help associating all this with the modernist music movement. Modernism – especially in its atonal form - often seeks to intellectualise music, to take it beyond tunefulness to a place where it can be judged as other intellectual works are: through the use of concepts, thoughts, brain-power – thereby putting it beyond the reach of those who like music more for its musical qualities and placing its adherents on a pedestal with intellectual, ideological backing to justify it.

To me, one piece of contemporary musical modernism generally sounds pretty much the same as another (generally, awful), whoever produced it and wherever whoever produced it came from. It seems to be part of the same general movement as the wish to disappear into Europe: a process of assimilating and integrating, of losing the connection between ourselves as distinctive beings and the place where we come from: the push of globalisation in other words.

To my mind at least, great works of art are more likely to come from rebelling against this drive than going along with it. In that light, Brexit might itself appear like an artistic statement: one of rebellion and reaction against the people who direct our culture, who tell us what to do and what we should like; an assertion of individuality and distinctiveness. Maybe our Establishments are right to feel threatened by it?