Charleston: Symbols and Fell Deeds

charleston confederate flag

Like many of you I woke up on the 18th of June to news of the horrific events in Charleston. What was so shocking about the killings was not just the brutal and callous nature of the acts themselves, something about them seemed remote and surreal, like a revival of atrocities past, which no doubt was what the murderer intended. It reminded me of studying the civil rights movement in my teenage years: lynchings, assassinations and savage beatings. The strangeness was compounded when I saw a photo of Dylan Roof wearing what is, for me and other South Africans, both a distant but familiar symbol: the oranje, wit en blou of the old Apartheid-era flag. I quipped at the time that a deranged American racist associating himself with white South Africans is the ultimate “umm…he’s not with us” moment, but even that gives his conceit too much credit: the notion of that flag having any resonance for the identity of most white South Africans.

An interesting debate has since emerged about the meaning, implications and display of symbols. Unlike the old Confederate flag, of which this lunatic was also apparently quite fond, the old South African flag does not enjoy widespread acceptability in polite society. By and large the only places you will see it displayed are in history museums or among a minority of militant nationalists like the AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging or Afrikaner Resistance Movement) who, despite occasional disproportionate coverage in the foreign (particularly British) media are, in terms of proportionality, the equivalent of mountain survivalist cults in the USA. The significance of symbols is a hot topic here in South Africa following the Rhodes Must Fall debacle in which a group of students lobbied successfully for the removal of a statue of the erstwhile Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, from the University Campus. Despite the seemingly ever-expanding remit of this movement to anything even marginally associated with the colonial era (including, at one point, a World War  memorial and a monument to fallen war horses in my home town of Port Elizabeth) no effort has been necessary to remove that flag from the public square.

As I am not an American, I cannot fully engage with the equivalent debate around the continuing use of the Confederate flag, both among individuals and as part of the state flag of Mississippi, as well as the continuing presence of statues to Confederate generals and other figures from the time. At best I can say it does seem more complicated than Southerners’ attachment to the symbol being a simple expression of their inherent racism in every case. The American Civil war divided a nation, pitted state against state and the confederates were not only fighting for their right to keep slaves (though it would be naïve to suggest that was not a primary political and economic motivator). I can understand how descendants of men who fought on the Confederate side might object to being made to feel ashamed of their ancestor’s part in it, given the complex historical context and provincial loyalties that run through the history of that war.

But where the otherwise culturally significant debate starts to go off-track, is when the actions of a clearly disturbed young man, so horribly bizarre as to appear to have come out of a time-warp, are blamed on the systematic and characteristic racism of an entire vast and diverse nation, or even an entire civilisation. I have seen arguments emerging recently suggesting the fact that Roof has largely been considered a “lone wolf” is indicative of the free pass Western society gives white racist murderers and the society that gives rise to them, a courtesy allegedly not extended to radical Islamist cults (though whoever made that claim clearly did not follow the groundswell of dithering and equivocation that followed the terrorist attacks in France and Scandinavia).

One of the more absurd expressions of this I have seen so far was an article in The Guardian by Lindy West condemning America as a racist society but focusing primarily on a gaff by the clothing retailer Zara. She goes as far as to condemn a T-shirt bearing the slogan “white is the new black” – it should be obvious to anyone even marginally familiar with fashion tropes that anyone decrying this as symptomatic of deeply ingrained racism is actively seeking offence and division. While America is emerging from a racially divisive century, much like South Africa, and still dealing with the consequences of that, to issue a blanket condemnation of the entire society as inherently racist is simply inflammatory rhetoric.

But here is the crux: whether or not this murderer was suffering from a mental illness or was otherwise disturbed (I take leave to doubt he was of entirely sound mind, but that does not excuse his actions) he was a hateful reactionary in the truest sense. Reactionaries crave a return to an imagined glorious past, often pinning the blame for its demise on a particular group. This is the mind-set of neo-Nazis, Islamists or, in South Africa, the AWB. America, like South Africa, is still emerging from its past, but what the ideology of these fanatics does not accurately mirror, is the world as it is now. To claim that actions such as these are reflective of or intrinsic to an entire modern civilisation is to grant them far too much credibility. It is the progress we have made that enrages reactionaries and that is what they wish to reverse.

Featured Image Credit: “The Civil War Art of Mort Kunstler”. Source

The Sadists of Anti-Social Media

Terry Pratchett famously said the collective intelligence of a mob can be gauged by taking its dumbest member and dividing their IQ by the total numbers of mobsters. Of course, this theory was devised to apply to the mobs of a pre-social media age. I shudder to think what kind of mind-bending exponentiality takes hold when this formula is transposed onto the world of Twitter. Like a kind of rhetorical quantum world, the usual rules breakdown in this strange digital realm and strange new dynamics take hold, facilitated largely by the sheer scale of the thing and its arcane algorithmic nature.

Twitter mobs differ from physical mobs in that they benefit from features not strictly found in the physical world. The function of a mob is to allow its members to behave in such a way as they would not (necessarily) behave normally and give into their baser impulses by providing them with the justification of simply being one part of a whole wherein their own actions are reflected by the collective – thus does the collective intelligence and morality of a mob reduce to less than the sum of its parts. The other advantage this conveys is the ability to dehumanise your victims through mob consensus on the righteousness of your actions against them. It is this particular feature that social media is able to bolster to stratospheric proportions. Not only can you easily seek out a like-minded mob quickly and efficiently, you can separate yourself from its actions even further by hiding behind a digital avatar.

This dynamic was observed acutely during the #Shirtstorm fiasco where scientist Matt Taylor was publicly eviscerated by a baying mob of self-righteous so-called ‘progressives’ for the heinous crime of wearing an eccentric shirt which was perceived as sexist (despite having been made for him by a female friend). This case, as well as the more recent backlash against and subsequent dismissal of another scientist, Tim Hunt, highlights another feature of social media: it is a fantastically effective conduit for extreme self-righteousness. From behind that digital wall it is far easier to mobilise your group-thinking gang into a closed circle of confirmation bias, as well as misrepresenting and demonising your opponent without having to address such fallacies in real-time. Ultimately, these exchanges become more personal and replete with ad hominem than real-world exchanges as every response from your intended victim is simply read in light of your own a priori characterisation of their position.

In this way, social media self-righteousness has succeeded in politicising any and every kind of human interaction. Unfortunately, social media is no longer strictly ‘social’, it would be more accurate to describe it as ‘public media’, a collective big brother where conversation is mediated and judged by the hive-mind. This seems to have created a feedback loop wherein the same rules are applied to interactions in the non-digital world, which are then absorbed back into the digital mobocracy, as we saw in the case of Matt Taylor.

The self-righteous impulse itself seems to stem from a bizarre and hypocritical mutation of the principle “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me”. In this new interpretation, unintentional offence is the most egregious (often for the reason that it is characterised as an intentional but covert attempt to subvert whatever values justify the response to it) and warrants a no-holds-barred assault in retaliation. Participants are invited to take part in a sadistic character assassination with the promise and assurance of a moral high-ground. There is a certain kind of person for whom this is too good an offer to pass up.

Technology is only as good or bad as the people who use it and for what purpose. Platforms such as Twitter provide a telling illustration of this, on the one hand allowing the instant spread of information and news where it would otherwise be covered up or concealed, and, on the other hand, revealing unsavoury aspects in many of its users.

Featured Image Credit: “Salem Witch Trials” (date unknown). Source: Uncommon Sense Media

Being Bullied as a Teenager Shaped My Moral Outlook

loneliness persecution

I have been thinking recently about what it is that informs my convictions. Many people I know do not feel as strongly as I do about a whole range of things and sometimes, I’m sure, get frustrated and wish I would just give it a rest (and often I can sympathise!). But experiences shape us and sometimes even negative experiences can shape us for the better.

I make no secret of the fact that when I first moved to England I was bullied at school. It wasn’t because I went to a rough school in an unpleasant area or anything of that sort; it was an expensive private school in Solihull (in point of fact, my experience improved tremendously when I moved to a free grammar school for my last two years of high school). No, it was just a bad school populated by a lot of nasty kids.

I have never thought to write about it previously as it always felt way too self-indulgent but these memories came to mind recently when I watched the 2011 documentary, Bully, on the problems facing schools in the United States and the ineffectual or non-existent efforts by teachers or authorities to do anything significant to address it – there were many parallels with my own past. Parents tried to intervene but felt helpless, bullied students withdrew into themselves and tried to hide the problems, bullies acted with impunity and knew what to say to teachers to manipulate the situation and teachers refused to take any decisive action (a caveat: I have many friends who are teachers and have had many fantastic ones myself who have made a great impact on my life, I have the utmost respect for the profession, though in both this case and my own experience at this particular school they fell spectacularly short of their responsibilities).

I realised that the best thing I can do for others still living through that situation would be to share my own experience, how I survived it and how I have tried to channel it and take something positive from it.

It provides an instructive example of how political correctness does not necessarily encourage good behaviour

In my own case the issue was an enduring one because nothing was done about it (as is so often the case). I suspect that part of the problem is that, while many good schools exist in the UK (including the one I attended some years later) the bad ones are allowed to fester because teachers become paralysed by the prevailing politically correct climate, particularly towards children and young people. At that time it seemed like every week some new story emerged in the tabloids about a teacher getting in trouble for having the temerity to discipline a child (I recall one being sued for writing ‘prat’ on a child’s forehead with a felt pen). It provides an instructive example of how political correctness does not necessarily encourage good behaviour; in fact one of the things I was bullied for was merely being South African. On one occasion after a particularly asinine documentary was shown on British television about ‘South Africa’ (in fact they had merely sought out a small pocket of the most crazed nationalist goons they could find – rather like making a documentary about the USA and filming it exclusively in the mountain stronghold of a KKK survivalist cult) I came in to school to find my locker daubed with swastikas and various other obscenities, later in the day this escalated to getting my head slammed into the concrete of the playground.

Things got out of control on a number of occasions to the extent that teachers got involved but it never progressed further than them sitting down with us to have a nice chat about why we weren’t getting along (a situation in which any experienced bully knows exactly what to say). In fact, so easy was it to manipulate that system that, as a joke, a bully actually managed to get me into trouble for retaliating with my own colourful words. I don’t recall a single punitive measure ever being taken no matter how bad it got. One of my few friends at the time (to whom I am grateful to this day) even lost his patience with this ineffectualness and confronted the deputy headmaster in the corridor to give him a piece of his mind for his failure to take any kind of decisive action. But, ultimately, nothing was done. I suppose it is a natural response to want retribution of some kind but that is one of the outcomes bullies, of all kinds, not just in the classroom, want; they seek to dehumanise, to make their victims as twisted as they are.

I won’t deny that it has left its mark on me; to say I emerged from the experience unscathed would be disingenuous. But the fact remains that, in many ways, being bullied prepares you for the real world a lot better than being a bully. It sharpens one’s moral compass, inspires passion and conviction and puts adversity into perspective. My contempt for bullies has had a strong impact on my moral and political views. It informs my distaste for groupthink, belligerent orthodoxy, moral relativism, arrogance, and self-righteousness and it encourages empathy and compassion.

So if by chance someone reading this is going through the same thing, I hope you can take heart from the knowledge that this can be survived and, in fact, can make you stronger and that you will, more than likely, find the world a kinder place than your tormentors will.

 

Out of the night that covers me,

   Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

   For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance

   I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

   My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

   Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

   Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

 

It matters not how strait the gate,

   How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

   I am the captain of my soul.

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Featured Image Credit: Loneliness (1880) by Hans Thoma. Source: Wiki Art

The Rainbow Nation Myth

the rainbow nation myth

I have always been optimistic about the future of South Africa (sometimes boldly, sometimes more cautiously) and this optimism has consistently been buoyed by my admiration for my fellow South Africans. We are a resilient bunch, to say the least; we have been through the historical ringer over the last 200 years and the changes wrought in my own lifetime have been incredible to witness. As a young country we have also not yet lost that patriotic fervour which is often replaced with cynicism in more established first world countries, made all the more precious by the fact that we can celebrate it under one flag regardless of our colour or community. Particularly, I have been impressed by the younger generation; their openness, their ambitions for our country and their colour-blindness has given me great hope for the future. The last few weeks, however, have been the first time in a while that my faith has been, while certainly not derailed, shaken. This spirit of nationhood to which I refer is part and parcel of the Rainbow Nation concept, which, has of late, increasingly been denigrated by a vocal minority as a myth or, worse, a ruse of the white establishment to keep people of colour in bondage.

The ongoing statue debates have been increasingly framed in explicitly racial terms and I feel unwelcome, as a white person, to comment on it. The whole idea, contextualised within a form of black consciousness, has become racially exclusivist by definition. I have heard a number of statements amounting to, “this is not about you, stay out of it.”

I respectfully decline the kind offer to keep my mouth shut while I am accused of being a participant in a grand racial conspiracy, even though it may earn me a few of the tautological cultural slurs and accusations of white supremacist motivations that are becoming so familiar in this debate.

Even white people sympathetic to the goals of the movement have their intentions questioned – the concept of the “white liberal” has come in for a great deal of criticism from the movement of late. SRC President, Ramabina Mahapa, in a statement saturated with racially divisive rhetoric (but containing little to nothing in the way of practical solutions to addressing the ongoing challenges we face in South Africa) said of white liberals that “subconsciously they share the same set of values and desire to protect their privileges” or worse “Whites have not even begun to see blacks as equals and as being capable of thinking for themselves”. If someone accuses me of not seeing black people as equals, all I can really say in my defence is “actually that’s not true” which, if my motives are in question by virtue (or in this case, inherent villainy) of my skin colour, can simply be dismissed as the deviousness to be expected from a member of the intrinsically untrustworthy white community. This is just another example of unfalsifiable racial rhetoric that silences even the most well-meaning sentiments of the white community and breeds suspicion and hatred.

As a white person I acknowledge that there is a lot of work still to be done, that the economic injustices of Apartheid do not simply go away overnight. I have no desire to live in a heavily-armed laager or a fortress walled by hedges of bitter almond as the first settlers once did. I am a human being first and a South African second and I may be white but I am and always will be an African, and no amount of unpleasant cultural invective about “whiteness” is going to change that. I decline to be told that I am a foreigner in my own country.

It is very positive to see young people in this country rallying behind a cause but disheartening to see it descend into racial identity politics – a self-evidently sinister road to go down. Aside from the unpleasant Zanu PF-esque connotations, it misses so much of the big picture. It is unsurprising to see this movement emerging from the campus of a university. Having spent four years on a university campus myself I know all too well how living in a world of theory can separate people from real-world cause and effect. I have heard next to nothing in the way of real practical ideas to address the problems of our country but plenty of vague post-structuralist theoretical clutter about consciousness-raising and symbolism, and a blame game attributing every problem in this country today to structures of white supremacy, from government corruption to the recent xenophobic violence in KwaMashu and Umlazi, following King Goodwill Zwelithini’s statement that foreigners must “pack their bags and go home”.

The Rainbow Nation is not a “myth” and it would be foolish in the extreme to throw away a jewel richer than all our crown. The idea of the Rainbow Nation as an end point after which everything will be easy, the rolling credits at the end of Invictus – that is the myth. In reality it is a guiding principle to keep us united as we struggle to make this country as great as it can be and the work is never done. This is the call for eternal vigilance echoed in Nelson Mandela’s choice of autobiography title – that “Long Walk” is far from over but we will trip and stumble unless we can walk it together.

 

Featured Image Credit: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Pieter Brugel the Elder. Source: Wiki Art

Rhodes Must Fall: Where Does It End?

rhodes must fall

My greatest concern about the ongoing debate ignited by the Rhodes Must Fall movement has always been one of degree rather than kind. The removal of this particular statue as a self-contained event is fairly inconsequential to me, but the wider implications are not: where do we draw the line? Where does it stop?

This concern has been reinforced by the recent spread of vandalism to a range of other historical monuments and sites, including a Second World War memorial and a statue commemorating horses that served in the second South African War (a touching monument that I remember well from my childhood in Port Elizabeth). According to the EFF who took responsibility for this act of vandalism:

“The toppling of colonial statues is part of EFF’s signal, which indicates rejection of the economic system that has been imposed on us by foreigner settlers. [sic]”

But here is the problem. Colonialism, for better a worse, is a part of South Africa’s history. We cannot escape from it without tearing down our entire identity (and this goes not just for white people). It is very hard to find anything of historical significance that is not in some way related to the colonial past. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this impulse results in a Khmer Rouge style “year zero” approach to history and knowledge, tearing down or erasing any aspect of history no longer embraced by the ideological zeitgeist. It started with a statue of Cecil Rhodes, it now includes a memorial to those who died in the First and Second World Wars, presumably because many of the nations involved had offshore colonies at the time. Where to next?

The columnist Tom Eaton wrote some time ago about the notion of the Second World War as a “white man’s war” and repudiates it by identifying the comprehensive and terrifying plans the Nazis had for Africa. But there is something more; the notion of Africans as isolated non-participants in the wider world is infantilising. It perpetuates patriarchal attitudes towards Africans fostered in the time of men such as Rhodes – an attitude some seem happy to internalise. It is this twisted form of African isolationism that animates the architects of the Zimbabwean nightmare. Is that what the EFF and others are so determined to replicate? Robert Mugabe has got a tremendous amount of mileage out of blaming the ruinous effects of his tyranny on “colonialist” Britain and “The West”.

There is a terribly polarising element to all this from both sides, a separation of undesirable history from ideological narrative. I wrote previously about how this gives a potential free pass to our current corrupt leadership and allows them to lay the blame for their failures on the sins of the past, but what does it mean for our future leaders if we continue down this path? Politicians need to be held to account not given encouragement to shirk their duties by scape-goating their failures on historical events.

History is indeed written by the victors, but destroyed by vandals and re-written by tyrants.

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Must Rhodes Fall? How Should I Know? I’m Just Another White Guy

Rhodes Must Fall

I have really tried to stay out of the debate around whether the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the former Prime minister of the Cape Colony, famous for expanding British imperial interests in the region, should be removed from the campus of Cape Town University. There are a number of reasons for this and the debate has also, in my view, deteriorated somewhat. But, if I am truly honest with myself, there is another reason I have stayed out of it: I don’t feel, as a white South African, welcome to comment on it unless I happen to agree that the statue should be removed.

The highly racialized language being employed by those in favour of the statue’s removal is at least contextually understandable given South Africa’s history and the fact that achieving true equality between communities remains an ongoing project. That being said I get the sense that it is becoming more and more inflammatory in order to rhetorically bludgeon people into agreement.

Observing the debates raging on social media, I would expect one of the following responses if I expressed a view that the statue should remain:

  • “You approve of the actions of Cecil Rhodes and are therefore a racist by association.”
  • “You can’t understand the legacy of pain that still inflicts people of colour because you are white.”
  • “You are just afraid of losing your white privilege.”
  • “You just want black people to ‘get over it.’”

The problem with these points is that they are firstly unfalsifiable, and, secondly, instantly stimulate the fear of being thought prejudiced, that most liberal white people live with (whether or not they admit it). It also creates a kind of exclusivity whereby if you disagree you are outside the circle, unable to understand the motivations and concerns of the movement because of your own racial background (however if you agree you are quite welcome to join the fold).

One of the most recent high profile white figures to comment on the debate in favour of the statue remaining where it is, was radio personality, Gareth Cliff, who took the attitude that it is a misplaced priority to remove historical monuments because of their historical connotations:

“How are we to claim the Pyramids, The Acropolis, The Forum, the Great Wall of China, and Great Zimbabwe as part of our human story if we pretend they weren’t built by the sweat of slaves and the grinding oppression of the slave-owners? To hide the statues and spare a generation three times removed from the event is to do those sufferers an injustice. If a statue hurts you that much, you’re giving too much power to the statue.”

The response of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement was to dismiss him as “another privileged white guy commenting on the Rhodes statue” – I suppose that is going to be the category I now fall into.

I have some sympathy with the difficulty the “Rhodes Must Fall” supporters have with arguments that state something to the effect of “there are bigger problems to address”. Yes of course there are, but students do have a say in what symbols are represented on their campus. I don’t doubt the good intentions of many people who are appalled by Rhodes’ colonial legacy, but in the intervening weeks the movement has taken on a rather unattractive tinge of opportunistic drum-banging.

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Also ReadIt’s Easier To Fight Dead White Guys Than To Challenge Real Power

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There are also some double standards at play here. Every time I look at a debate on social media around the subject, somebody raises a comparison to Hitler (yes Godwin’s Law has reached Sub-Saharan Africa) to the effect of “You wouldn’t be saying this about a statue of Hitler in Germany would you?” Possibly not, but what does anyone have to say about the images of King Shaka and the fact that the airport in KwaZulu Natal is named after him? This example has come up a lot and my initial instinctive reaction was, “well that’s different” but the more I thought about it the more I had trouble seeing how.

For those of you not familiar with South African history, Shaka was the founder of the great Zulu kingdom, military genius, brutal tyrant and the architect of the Mfecane (the Scattering) in which less powerful tribes across the region were slaughtered, displaced and forced from their land by Shaka and his Ndebele counterpart, Mzilikazi. In South African culture, Shaka is an accepted part of our historical tapestry for better or worse and he is sometimes seen as a something of a symbol of African empowerment, perhaps because he was a successful imperialist who happened not to be white. Although Shaka’s people ultimately fought against mine, I consider him part of my heritage alongside them, such does history shape our identity, and would want neither his image removed nor the name of his airport changed. Of course, one could make the argument that I might not feel the same if he had prevailed over my ancestors, though prevail he did (and worse) over the many other tribes living in Southern Africa at the time.

I can pontificate on why the whole debate, on both sides, makes me uncomfortable, be it my natural disinclination to defend imperialism, or my dislike of some of the more vitriolic and bandwagon-jumping elements within the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. But these are really satellite issues. I suppose, at bottom, as a student of history, I just find something ugly and destructive in the urge to tear down artefacts, especially those that, for better or worse, represent our history, and, therefore, how we got to where we are now. The Afrikaners had as much reason to hate Cecil Rhodes as anyone after the horrors inflicted upon them during the Boer War – the conflict in which the British invented concentration camps to deal with the problem of Boer civilians and adopted the now-infamous “Scorched Earth” strategy. The Apartheid’s Afrikaner nationalists were well-known for their animosity towards the British (and to some extent, English-speaking South Africans), but they left the statue right where it was.

I managed to resist the urge to write anything about this until I saw the movement expanding elsewhere with vandalism of other historical statues such as those depicting King George V, Jan Smuts, and two war memorials. Thus there is now a question of degree: where do we draw the line? When does the destruction of symbols become the erasure of history?

The misplaced priorities point, in this regard, applies not just to how resources could be better deployed to more serious problems (an argument which, again, I agree is somewhat limited) but to the potential free pass we are giving our leaders. Without wishing to stray too far down an Orwellian tangent, in the novel Animal Farm, the former Farmer and the exiled pig Snowball are blamed for everything to distract the other animals from the problems of the present and those responsible for them. It has shades of President Zuma’s absurd attribution of South Africa’s ongoing problems to Jan van Riebeek’s arrival in the Cape or the spectre of the Apartheid legacy, which can be summoned at any politically expedient moment.

In an article defending the removal of the statue, journalist Eusebius McKaiser refers to the practice of “mythmaking” in South Africa and how it is inherently dangerous to take refuge in our myths about the Rainbow Nation because it fails to address the core issues. While I have difficulty disagreeing with him on this point, I worry that this movement is just another form of mythmaking which may prove a gift to our corrupt leaders, a source of conflict and distraction.

I may be wrong and I hope I am. But what do I know? I’m just another white guy.

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ISIS and the Murder of History

Many people the world over have been rightly appalled by the most recent atrocity of the Islamic State, which this time involved the destruction of sites of historical significance; a deviation from their usual modus operandi of increasingly savage and creative murders. It is worth understanding exactly what makes this crime despicable enough to be condemned alongside human suffering.

Many people, I have noticed, hedge their outrage at the bulldozing of ancient Assyrian artefacts with caveats such as “it might seem strange to be upset by this when so many people are being killed but…” In the face of such a pornographically murderous track record as that accumulated by IS this is certainly understandable. Monuments of stone and ancient artworks are not conscious; they cannot suffer pain or terror at their imminent death, as so many of IS’s innocent victims have. Yet, still, there is something sublimely shocking about it. If we are to acknowledge this to its full extent we should first recognise that it comes from a different place to our natural disgust towards cruelty or our empathy for those in pain – in a way it is a more complex and uniquely human emotion. Even animals can experience empathy, disgust at cruelty, or solidarity with their fellow creatures, but they are unable to appreciate inanimate beauty and the tragedy inherent in the loss of it.

It is worth reflecting on the cultures that have attempted this before and, thus, where this action tends to ultimately lead. The Taliban, prior to their more explicitly terroristic involvement with Al Qaeda, famously shelled the beautiful Buddhist monuments of Bamiyan and, then too, the world sat back and watched them do it. It is interesting to imagine what a different course history might have taken if we had stepped in to prevent them from that act of desecration and made a stand to protect our common property (possibly even adding “and we know what you are up to”).

Other movements such as Nazism have attempted to take control of history by selectively destroying aspects of it and appropriating others. They famously incorporated aspects of Catholicism into the (rather unsuccessful) “Nazi Church” and developed a bizarre alternative history and cosmology based on ancient Nordic blood-myths and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories.

But this is not simply about destroying religiously incompatible idols or creating a supportive historical narrative, but wiping the slate of history clean. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, an ostensibly secular movement (leader worship and bizarre mystical undertones notwithstanding) are perhaps the most well-known example of a movement that wanted to end history, to start again from “year zero” and raise a generation of devoted fanatics who have and never would know any different. IS are attempting the same thing at this very moment. The teaching of philosophy, world history, sport, fiction (with the exception of the Quran, which they take as literal truth), science and art all of which are considered incompatible with their ideology are forbidden. Children are instead being taught only two things: literalist Islam and the violent means to enforce it. If they succeed they will have raised a generation who know nothing else. It is hard to imagine such a life or how these people could possibly be reasoned with if they come of age in those circumstances. Whereas the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a new historical narrative, IS are concerned only with the end game, their movement is obsessively eschatological and most concerned with, not just retroactively destroying history, but bringing on the apocalypse.

That being said, no sensible person really believes they will achieve this, so our revulsion at their destructive acts speaks to something deeper.

The Assyrian civilisation, the remains of which IS are in the process of grinding into rubble, is one of the oldest in recorded history, indeed it is itself responsible, at least in large part, for initiating the historical record by inventing and spreading the written word (at least one of the earliest examples as far as we know and the first to be widely distributed through trade). Ironically, when we see an ancient Assyrian frieze documenting an event contemporary to the time it was created, we are looking not only at history but at our earliest desire to document it, our first realisation that we, as a species, have and are products of our history. While our history (usually in the more short-term) often divides us, in the broader sense, the birds-eye-view of “deep time” binds us together as a species. We are not simply individual tribes living only for the present moment, clashing, allying, interbreeding and going our separate ways as the moment dictates, we are the human race. That sense of history and the artefacts that inspire it are the common heritage and property of all mankind. Every passing moment of our history has led us to where we are now and every passing moment from now is a chance to change it. It is that understanding which lies at the core of the Enlightenment and of human humility and solidarity that IS wish to destroy and why, as civilised people, we find such desecration so devastating and repulsive.

Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823) by Francisco Goya. Source: Wiki Art

If You Don’t Stand For Something, You’ll Fall For Anything

In my last piece, I discussed the problem of the newly coined “Voldemort Effect” and how socially constrained language can hinder a civilisation’s ability to confront a threat. While it is actually a fairly simple task to unpack the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the politically correct mind-set it is, ultimately, bolstered by the fear of becoming a social outcast.

The unscrupulous inevitably use this as a weapon to silence debate. We saw this very clearly in recent days when the odious Asim Qureshi of CAGE not only refused to answer a straightforward question (on both Channel 4 News with Jon Snow and BBC This Week with Andrew Neil) about his views on Sharia and the brutal actions of so-called “beautiful young man” (Qureshi’s description) Mohammed Emwazi (the terrorist murderer formally known as “Jihadi John”), choosing instead to change the subject to his grievances with Tony Blair, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, and accusing Jon Snow of Islamophobia just for asking the question. Blaming the actions of terrorists on Western society and shutting down discussion by playing the Islamophobia card have become such clichéd tactics now and yet they remain quite effective. You need only watch Russell Brand’s disjointed rant blaming the rise of ISIS on the failure of consumerism (among other bizarre tangents) to see the crippling effect this has on liberals.

Asim Qureshi of CAGE on This Week

Part of the problem decent liberals face in casting off this kind of orthodoxy is that, as I mentioned last week, there is sometimes a perception that, by abandoning political correctness, you are embracing its perceived opposite: bigotry, intolerance and prejudice. The motif often associated with this is the right-wing taxi driver/pub landlord type ranting about “political correctness gone mad”. But this is another rhetorical bullying tactic and simply not true. By choosing to assess situations honestly and case-by-case on the basis of your own values you are simply choosing not to be cowed by fear into dishonesty and hypocrisy. I suspect one of the reasons the “right-wing” motif rushes into the vacuum in this case is that, astonishingly, many people feel lost when confronted with having to replace this distorted liberal orthodoxy with another consistent value system. The reason this is astonishing to me is that we already have that value system built into the fabric of our society, a value system nowadays too often overlooked, dismissed or denigrated.

Whatever happened to The Enlightenment?

It is not always enough simply to be against something, to take a moral and political stance you often need a clear idea of what you are defending and I get the distinct impression that many in the West have lost sight of this. Standing up for your society and your civilisation does not mean having to automatically resort to jingoism (though I am certainly in favour of patriotism when it is not shackled to nationalistic exclusivity), it can simply mean standing up for the values that allow you to live a free and fulfilling life. Indeed, the values that allow those you disagree with to speak and which oblige you to defend their right to do so. This is what it means to believe in the Enlightenment.

It is this position that allows conclusions to be reached based on principles rather than orthodoxy. This is my own distinction for want of better terms (others may disagree with my use of language). Orthodoxy (by which I refer in this case to political correctness as) has a priori positions on different matters and does not adapt to circumstance and motive, it simply proclaims and insists. It manages to combine the worst features of casuistry and rigid dogma, being both morally relativistic but also ideologically dogmatic and inflexible. Principle, by contrast, is absolutely firm and consistent but can apply its moral and rational framework to different situations to reach honest and self-critical conclusions on a case-by-case basis. Further, in the context of the Enlightenment, moral principles are universal and inclusive in stark contrast to the aforementioned relativistic and cynical view of morality. If we really must insist on ascribing some underlying cause for the recruitment to extremist groups among Westerners, this would be it – that religious fundamentalism offers them something they are not finding in the West; a universalist sense of “morality” (perverse and sadomasochistic though it may be).

Once you can identify the worthlessness of the socially orthodox position, it is really quite simple to move on from it. It is easier and more logically consistent, if you believe in liberal values to apply the Enlightenment test to any situation (rather than trying to recall what the a priori socially acceptable position on this particular issue is); you need only ask “what is the pro-enlightenment and anti-totalitarian position here?” (which encompasses many of the other Enlightenment values such as freedom of expression, speech and association, universalism and secularism).

With this comes the freedom to condemn, without the dithering relativism and constant hedging demanded of us by people like the aforementioned Qureshi and embraced by people like Brand, the actions of mass murderers, religious fanatics, and racist tyrants who are and should be an affront to any decent human being.

Featured Image Credit: Pallas Athena (1898) by Gustav Klimt Source: Wiki Art

How the Policing of Language Prevents Us From Confronting a Real Threat

The Voldemort Effect

I have been following with great interest, and for some time now, the career of Muslim reformer and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz. For those not familiar with him, he is a former convicted Islamic extremist turned reformer (though still a practising Muslim) and is, without a doubt, one of the most clear-headed thinkers on the subject of extremism. In the very insightful panel discussion embedded below, he uses the term “The Voldemort Effect” (from the Harry Potter character who “shall not be named”) to describe the Western liberal hesitancy to call out Islamism and Islamic extremism for what it is; the most dangerous manifestation of the politically correct tendency to euphemise and obfuscate. I may discuss, in a later piece, how this predisposition came about (a much more complex question) but I believe the most important project at this moment in time is to address how people who have been raised in this kind of fear-mongering mentality, can overcome it, or at least the first step in doing so.

“The Voldemort Effect” is to my mind a very important (if slightly comical) term to be aware of going forward, as we face increasing threats from extremism. It is a tendency that has to be named and identified before it can be overcome. It is important for a mental flag to be planted so that people are able to identify when they are falling victim to it. Europe is enduring a spiralling pattern of violence by religious extremists that many (particularly on the left) refuse to recognise as a pattern, preferring instead to cite “a few crazy individuals” for each incident, without acknowledging that they are connected. The problem, as one of Maajid’s Jewish co-panelists pointed out, is that majorities in liberal societies are very uncomfortable recognising threats when they come from minority communities who they see as deserving of their protection.

Tellingly, liberals have no problem stressing the threat of the rise of far-right and Nazi movements in Europe. Perhaps this is simply because these groups pose more of a “manageable” threat both politically (nobody is going to accuse you of bigotry for calling out a Nazi) and actually. This is not simply an assertion but a fact; the majority of attacks against Jews in Europe come from Muslims and not neo-Nazi groups. Despite the fact that the Anders Behring Breivik example is still trotted out ad nauseum, it is clear where the majority of the actual violence against Jews, many of whom have been murdered in recent weeks, is coming from.

“10 Hours of Walking in Paris as a Jew”

The first thing to recognise is the inherent contradiction in the root of this hesitancy: That the refusal to confront and call out extremist elements in one minority community will ultimately erode a free society’s ability to protect other minorities. It should be no secret that many of the victims of this recent resurgent wave of Islamist violence have been members of the European Jewish community. I say it should be no secret but this is a problem that is getting nowhere near enough attention in the liberal press. In fact, what we really see is a failure to confront the assaults against one community for fear of offending the one with which those committing these assaults are associated. This is often disguised as tolerance for anti-Israeli rather than anti-Jewish sentiment, but when you reach the point where Sainsbury’s is pulling kosher products from its shelves for fear of being attacked, the distinction is near enough non-existent. Many Jews are now wondering if they have a place in Europe anymore. And yet you will notice that, while attacks on Jews, statistically, far outweigh attacks on Muslims, more attention gets paid in the press to so-called “Islamophobia” (a term which has been used to conflate race with religion and which has been very effective in drowning out honest debate in a cacophony of racism accusations) than explicitly murderous anti-Semitic attacks. While there is no doubt that prejudice against Muslims exists (though this is distinct from racism) and one can cite examples of violence against Muslims, this pales in comparison to attacks against Jews. Conversely, the emphasis placed on the severity of anti-Semitism in Europe pales in comparison to concern over Islamophobia.

But despite the seemingly modest and well-meaning intention of liberals who adopt this position, as Nawaz points out in the panel discussion, they are doing decent mainstream Muslims no favours. By refusing to name the danger and acknowledge that free societies in the West face an existential threat from Islamism and expansionist Jihad, the door is left wide open to tarnish all Muslims with the same brush. He cites the example of President Obama who, in a recent speech said, “There is an ideology we must face” and refused to go as far as naming it. As Nawaz pointed out, the average American may not make the distinction between Islamism and Islam more generally. This kind of liberal discourse is, without any permission, making extremists the spokespeople for an entire community.

Thus the first step to overcoming the climate of fear created by political correctness is to identify its internal inconsistencies and inherent hypocrisy. Once this has been identified you are free to (Maajid’s words again) “call a spade a spade”. The difficulty with this project is that political correctness has an in-built rhetorical defence mechanism; if you talk of overcoming political correctness, those who are in favour of it (or rather, still under its thrall) tend to claim that you are proposing free reign for racism and intolerance. In actual fact, bigotry, intolerance, racism (and any other undesirable reactionary predisposition you care to name) are contradicted by the very same rational thought process that you adopt to overcome the dishonesty and obscurantism of the politically correct position. Racism and bigotry are inherently reductive and hypocritical and therefore easily vulnerable to the same kind of analysis.

It is necessary, though not sufficient on its own, to be able to draw these kind of distinctions, and identify this kind of deceptive hypocrisy for what it is. Political correctness in the Europe of 2015 is primarily a doctrine of fear and deception cloaked in a veil of courtesy and politeness, and it does no community any favours to distort the reality of the situation we all face.

Mein Kampf and the Tutelage of History

Truth and Freedom of Expression

Some time ago, while on a weekend break in a small country town with some friends, I walked into a shop that advertised “Coffee, Antiques and Militaria” and, after a brief chat, the aged proprietor, an ex-military man himself, offered to show us his collection. Down in his basement was a vast repository of medals, uniforms, documents and weapons and a collection of flags from the various combatant nations of the Second World War, including, as I discovered to my slight shock as I walked into a partially hidden corner of the room, a large Swastika flag. We had already picked up a slightly loopy vibe from the old man and this sight made me all the more wary to be trapped in a basement with him. But as I slowly backed out of the room (avoiding any sudden movements) I spotted a plaque on the entrance recounting the famous quote from the poet and philosopher George Santayana, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes”. I cannot speak for the old man himself but I suddenly recognised the social utility of my own shocked reaction to that symbol. I remembered in that moment why I don’t want my children to grow up not knowing what that flag, that tacky and ostentatious bastardisation of Jainist religious iconography really represents, and the visual lesson it provides.

This anecdote was on my mind recently as I read about Scottish Labour MP, Thomas Docherty’s proposal, ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day of all things, to discuss whether to ban Adolf Hitler’s memoir, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). In his argument, he cites the apparent rising tide of anti-Semitism across Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, innocent shoppers in a kosher supermarket were recently butchered by Islamic extremists with an explicitly anti-Jewish agenda.

But it is for precisely this reason this book, and the dark connotations that we associate with Nazi symbolism, cannot be allowed to fade from the common consciousness. If we try to whitewash these ideas we will merely drive them underground, out of the watchful gaze of decent society.

A Jewish friend of mine argues that Holocaust denial should not be illegal (as it is in Austria where the historian David Irving was arrested for publishing a book questioning its legitimacy) because it is important for these people to heard, argued with and defeated in the public space. This principle recalls the action taken by the American Civil Liberties Union (many of them Jewish themselves) in defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the town of Skokie.

It is important for us, as a just society, to be able to look injustice and hatred squarely in the face and repudiate it on our own terms. If we forget what these symbols and ideas represent, we may also forget their consequences.

Featured Image Credit: Photograph by Imagine Athena of Truth and Falsehood by Alfred Stevens (1867-8), exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum. “In this work Truth tears out the double tongue of Falsehood and pushes aside the mask concealing his grotesque features. His serpent-tails are exposed beneath the drapery.” – Collections, V&A