“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 a comfortable 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.