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The Cynicism of Ordinary Men

I have heard from quite a few people, quite often, that America is a sick country. That is is terrible beyond compare and its sins so great they cannot be forgiven. I understand this impulse, there is a kernel of it in my last piece. But upon reflection I think that this sort of historical fatalism reflects a poor understanding of history and an even poorer grasp of moral responsibility.

More often than not, I have heard the condemnation of America from people who seem thoroughly defeated. Their outrage is often framed in terms like these; “What good can come from a country that cages children?”, “How can anyone support this?”. The despair that current events engenders in the minority of people who stay informed is palpable. But from it arises the numbing of the moral nerve that I wrote about last week. The torrent of horrible news and tragic images overwhelms us. And it is a perfectly natural response to disengage, to argue that the country or society that produces these wrongs is so fundamentally broken that it does not warrant our attention or our concern for what becomes of it. A nation so cruel is not worth our efforts, and not worth saving. And beyond that a nation so cruel is beyond any hope of saving at all.

These two arguments are separate but bound together, they loop back, feeding into each other. The second argument is far simpler to dispute and is ultimately just a product of historical ignorance. If there are any lessons to learn from history at all, the first is that radical, monumental change can occur; not in centuries or generations, but in years. But these changes need a brazen, angry and ultimately radical movement. Civil rights were not won by civility, they were won by civil disobedience. No people has freed itself from its oppressors by conversation with them. But resistance of this kind is radical. It is by nature and necessity unconcerned with proper procedure and it is this kind of activism, this kind of politics that tears down walls and repeals unjust laws. It is also this kind of politics that was entirely possible in an America far more unjust than today.

The first argument, that a nation can be so to not be worth the effort it would take to save it, is to me thoroughly immoral. It is a borne from privilege, from the arrogant belief that the collapse of the American-led international order will not affect you. A belief that, I hasten to add, is almost certainly wrong. Political dominance is a zero-sum game, and if American leadership declines, as it has been doing for some time now, it will be replaced. The chief power vying for global and regional dominance at the moment are Russia and China, in eastern Europe and south-east Asia respectively. To say that America is not worth saving is to condemn those threatened and currently oppressed by these twin tyrannies to the loss of their already meagre liberties, to have their rights; to self- determination and representation stripped from them. And ultimately those who make this argument do so because their comfort is worth more than the freedoms of others. Political reform, especially on the scale needed by the United States, is a massive, exhausting and fundamentally disruptive task. Far easier to condemn the whole affair and wash your hands of it.

This argument was played out in the catastrophic American election from which the world is struggling to extricate itself. Those who argued that the systems and institutions of American politics are so corrupt, so broken that there is no reason to vote for either of the two candidates who could win. Far better to vote third-party, to not capitulate to a broken system and thus to send a message to the “political elite”.  This was the argument made by countless people in 2016. You can see variations on these theme in this New York Times story. That the system is flawed and undemocratic is true. But to refuse to vote for the “lesser of two evils” (a phrase frayed by overuse) because you don’t want to sully yourself in making a difficult moral choice is the argument of an egotist, so concerned with moral righteousness that they are willing to neglect their moral duty.

The 2016 election came down to 107,000 people spread out over Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. That amounts to 0.09% of all votes cast in the election. Like so many historical events, the election of Donald Trump was an accident, a culmination of a hundred different factors any one of which, had it been different, could have swung the election to Clinton.

Those who would condemn a nation or the world to authoritarian tragicomedy, who would wash their hands of politics and return to their quiet and comfortable lives working white collar jobs are always very satisfied by their conclusions. As far as they are concerned their intellects have absolved them of the obligation to participate in politics. But in truth their principles are a performance, made to seem high-minded and above the muck of everyday political scraps. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote “aloofness without policy does not imply even the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.” In other words, declaring yourself superior to politics is not a righteous act. It is to submit yourself and your fellows to the whims of the powerful.It is to sever the threads that tie you to your fellow men and women.

Sometime later this week I will also be publishing a piece about how figures in American history dealt with the legacy of the Declaration of Independence, and whether we can learn anything about

 

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A Long Bout of Some Painful Illness

I have in the last few months been so busy with academics, my first year of college, and the general indolence of the ambitious,  that I have allowed this blog to sit idle. I have been writing for classes and for this blog but something has stopped me from publishing anything here. In that time I have been thinking quite a lot about writing and what wanting to write for a living says about someone. I say someone, what I mean is what it says about me. In particular, why it is I want to write.

The thing about writing is that it is a very selfish thing to do. Orwell famously listed “sheer egoism” first in his motivations for writing, before any allusions to beauty or truth. Now, egoism does not necessarily mean arrogance here, although it certainly can. It simply means that the desire to write-and the more selfish desire to make a living writing-is precisely that: a desire. Just as hunger growls and thirst parches, the need to write has a physiological effect on a body. Something tightens in the chest and a mad scramble for the nearest paper, pen, keyboard or crayon. But it is a selfish thing, to want to write. There is no nobility or righteousness to it. For myself, wanting to write is the same as wanting to breathe, to eat, to drink, to sleep. And like all these things, writing seems terribly, desperately inadequate.

To say that times are tough is a cliche bordering on the pointless. It is also true. Politics entangles us all, and we are every day sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of sadism and cruelty. Whatever I write, whether it be an elegant elegy for democracy or a polemic against the stupid and hateful, it all seems inadequate. The world seems to be dragging itself back into the sorts of darkness I had once thought the reserve of history books and derivative dystopias. It not without cause that Orwell also said of writing that
“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Watch this video. It is from the southern border of the country I study in. Listen to it. Read the captions.

That was obtained by ProPublica. It is a recording of audio from 10 children separated from their parents at the American border. The when doesn’t matter, why their parents brought them to America doesn’t matter. Listen to them. They may not speak your language but you can understand them. Their every word is weighed down by the sort of monsters we all recognise. Terror, despair and desperation in each cry and wail. When I went to America for the first time in the autumn of last year it was for much the same reasons as they did. I think I can do better there. I think it is the sort of place I can make something of myself. The most horrible obstacle I faced was a dull immigration line. There is not much to say about this that is not already being said. There has been outcry and outrage and nothing has changed. And even if things do change, some failures are not there to be forgiven.

A few years ago, my parents and I were visiting Poland. My mother has family there,albeit no blood, and for days and days these people who I had never met were generous and kind and loving to us. We went to visit Auschwitz one day. (There is no verb for such an experience; they all reek of holidays and guided tours, I have settled on the most neutral). We went to Auschwitz and walked past bricks against which mothers and fathers had been murdered. Past the demolished remains of human-fuelled furnaces. I vomited in a bin outside one of the exhibits. This one, in fact.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

Those are the shoes that were taken from those sent to Auschwitz. They are in a pile four times my height. In the exhibition next to them are suitcases, next to them are watches, and on and on.

Arizona
Arizona

 

These are from Arizona. They were taken from immigrants and discarded as “non-essential items”. These shoes in particular were collected by a former Customs and Border Protection janitor named Tom Kiefer.

These images, through this small intrusion into my college life, overwhelm me. What good is a blog or a podcast or anything I do in the face of such obvious cruelty?
But the truth is whatever I do, it is necessary as long as it is done. My generation is perhaps the first to be faced with this daily, hourly onslaught. Our parents, politically conscious, intellectually liberal though they were, carried on with their lives, got degrees, got married and got on with it. Many of my peers will no doubt follow the same path. This is not a failing on their part. It is understandable. In many ways it is done for the sake of survival. Being up to date with all the injustice in the world is a recipe  Being close to injustice numbs the moral nerves and dulls our senses of right and wrong, even when all it takes to be reminded is ordinary vision.

There’s an old line, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Orwell that goes “In a time of universal deceit- telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The problem is that this saying assumes too much power on behalf of the truth-teller. The truth is that there is nothing revolutionary about writing and nothing radical about speaking it. It is not and ought not to be done in service of some grander design or principle. Nor should it be done under the expectation that it will effect some great change, or even some small one. I’m not sure why it should be done. But I know that I don’t think I have it in me to get on with my life and not do it. Perhaps it is as simple as that; sheer egoism. The belief that you ought to say and do what you think is right to satisfy your own self-righteousness.

This essay does not have an conclusive ending because this conversation that I am having with myself has not ended. But thanks for reading.

 

 

Laughter from the Body Politic

 

Politics is stupid. It is ridiculous. Absurd. Frustrating. For most of us even at its best, politics is simply boring, at its worst exceptionally depressing.
It is a stark condemnation of the activity, that when our politicians manage to display some semblance of principle or compassion in the face of tragedy, we laud them for overcoming politics.

In the face of such overwhelming disdain, it is easy to see why we turn our dry and dreary governance into fuel for our entertainment. It is simply easier to treat these passionless debates and baffling legislation as parts of a vast national sport, with added pride, pomp and circumstance.

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Trump on Election Night looking slightly queasy at his victory.

The current commander-in-chief of the largest military force in human history (pictured above in the moment of his triumph) is the purest distillation of politics as entertainment.
The former reality-star turned chief executive is hardly in the Oval Office on merit. He is catastrophically ignorant and profoundly unsuitable in morals and temperament to the lower rungs of public service. And yet, he won (with some Slavic aid no doubt) the presidency of the most important country in the world.
Now, once Trump secured the Republican nomination there are a host of practical and pragmatic reasons why he was voted for. They’ve all been dissected  and analyzed to saturation so I shall not discuss them here.
However, the reason Trump was elevated to a position where it was even possible for him to win the nomination is quite simple.

Donald Trump is entertaining.

That is by no means an endorsement of his particular colour of demagoguery, which remains odious and shallower than a common sieve. But it is a recrimination of the political class in America. Lacking charm or wit, they find themselves outplayed by the sort of creature who finds grade-school nicknames to be a dignified weapon in his rhetorical repertoire. And thus they lose. So it goes.

This is not to suggest that left is not guilty of elevating the unworthy to positions of reverence.
Take for example the role of comedy in left of centre discourse.

Over the last two decades, we have all seen the growth of political satire as a main stream of political conversation. Led by Jon Stewart, driven by a defiant irritation against the inadequacies of the Bush administration, The Daily Show ushered in a Golden Age of political comedy, in which many of its alumni reign supreme.
Unfortunately, the left’s warm embrace of easy political comedy and the vindication that a punch-line provides, comes at a cost.
Conservatism in its best forms, requires elitism. The conservative intellectual must be capable and willing to defending the past in both the broad and the specific. This manifests itself in a love of the ‘finer things’, of the bourgeois and the snobby, of Shakespeare, opera and golf (in  rapidly descending order). When conservatism allies itself to populism, as it has in America with Fox News and the petty demagogues of talk radio, it diminishes; shrinking until it exists only to provide an intellectual defense of indefensible politics.

Similarly, when progressives ally with what is an escape into cynicism, sarcasm and outrage, they abandon the very real necessity for the left to be explicitly constructive. Democracy and liberty are fundamentally radical ideas and their ideals remain under construction. To be so distressed by political opposition that we escape its pressures through what is, at the end of the day entertainment, leaves a vacuum ripe for the exploitation of the reactionary and the regressive.

Émile Durkheim

The early French sociologist Émile Durkheim first developed a complex theory of society as an organism, with various institutions acting as organs, fulfilling functions required for living. This was developed further by later writers but the fundamental metaphor is an interesting one to apply to any society.
Obviously in a liberal democracy the heart is the Constitution and the rule of law. In America perhaps the heart is shared with The Declaration of Independence (whose weighty signing was celebrated this week).
The mind may be freedom of thought, or when institutionalized, a free press.
Where does the comedy go though? It does not perform any essential function that is easily detectable. It is in essence no difference than any other art, it exists primarily for us to enjoy.

Free expression is often described as a requirement of a free society. While this sentiment is admirable and understandable I think it may be slightly off base. It is certainly true that any free society must allow free expression and thought, but it is not that expression that forms a free society.
Speech and expression are most important in precisely those in which they are not free. In which they come far too high a price. It is that violently expensive speech that moves masses and topples kings. It is that speech that requires of the speakers a commitment to hanging together, lest they find themselves hanging separately.

To return to the body politic, it seems that free speech has no place among the organs of a free society. It is instead of the breathing, the breath itself of liberty, instead of the heartbeat, the pulse of emancipation.
It is a sign of freedom, and thus we see in the birth of free peoples the loud exhalation in exaltation of dissidents and revolutionaries. In Czechoslovakia. In Georgia. In the Middle East and North Africa.
These breaths of freedom may be stifled by the iron hand or the jackboot, but without them no change is possible.

So when we claim that our cynicism and sarcasm is a suitable response to the transgressions and shortcomings of our politics, that it’s free speech at its finest. I simply ask that we remember those to whom the only path to liberty is through painfully sincere and costly speech.

 

 

 

The Catharsis of Protest

Those of us whose intuitions incline towards liberalism and an understated support for democracy have plenty of reasons to protest, with our societies injustices and institutionalised ignorances growing longer by the headline. Thus, it is difficult to criticize those who do take to the streets in protest. They are, after all, demonstrating as their conscience decrees. However, in our present politics, when the need for civil disobedience and dissidence is paramount; it is more important than ever to understand that not all protests are created equal. Many recent protest movements have been afflicted in varying degrees by the same illness. Often identified by a hashtag, these ‘grassroots’ movements and marches are perennially reactive.
#Black Lives Matter #Occupy Wall Street #Notinmyname and so on.

Occupy Wall Street

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These protests are each fundamentally moral. They are conceived in opposition to racism, to theft and to lynching. These are not crimes of perspective, but of principle. They burn against the very fabric of a free society and so it cannot be wrong to speak out against them.
But in each of these cases, the protests that grew against these crimes were practically futile. Where they have had an effect, they have catalyzed a nebulous ‘awareness’ of the problems we face. Often, they have simply forced otherwise static politicians to offer a conciliatory speech and carry on with their political agenda. This is because despite the scale of the issues at hand, these movements do not understand the nature of effective political protest.

There are two types of political protest. The first is descriptive protest. The movements named above are all largely in this category. Descriptive protest is often a response to a particularly abhorrent example of injustice. The pictures of Junaid Khan were one such example. The videos of Philando Castille and Eric Garner are another.
These images and sounds act as fuel, enraging our moral senses and rousing our consciences to protest, to marches and speeches. In the aggregate however, they do not offer or demand anything material from the State. They restrict themselves to sloganeering and hash-tagging their way through civil discourse. “We are the 99%” is not so much a call to action as it is a claim of solidarity, “Not in my name” is not so much as call to action as it is a demand to be indemnified against the crimes of your fellow citizens. The descriptive protest may also be noted for its emphasis on outrage and ridicule of opposition. For instance, those whose response to Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter” were very rarely met with reasoned argument or persuasion. Instead they were met with condemnation and indelible labels of racism.

The second type of political protest is prescriptive protest. The examples of prescriptive protest movements are rather more resonant through our history. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was largely prescriptive. The LGBT Rights movement in the 21st century was similarly prescriptive. Prescriptive protests are often carried by the same energy of moral outrage; the injustice faced by Rosa Parks and black students spurred the United States towards desegregation, just as the Stonewall Riots led to the inception of the modern LGBT rights movement. Prescriptive protests are identified by their willingness to make use of the same injustices, but pragmatically and in service of specific political goals such as the desegregation of schools or the decriminalisation of sodomy. While this can manifest itself cynically it also produces the most direct results.
They also choose to prioritize persuasion over condemnation. Martin Luther King’s dream of his children living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” is notable for its lack of vitriol towards white America. Similarly, Frederick Douglas’ writing shows that despite what would be absolutely justified hatred of America, the autodidact freed slave retains admiration for the ‘great principles’ of the Declaration of Independence and hope for his captor nations more perfect union.

All protest is in the pursuit of catharsis. The ideal protest will result in a form of national or social catharsis; a popular realisation of the injustices of tradition and orthodoxy. There is no example of completely successful protest, but the examples of prescriptive protest above are as close as I can find. Although far from complete, the progress made in American race relations since the 50’s and in LGBT rights throughout the world in the last 40 years is unprecedented. This is because these movements embraced social catharsis. We need to understand the difference, historically and practically, between these styles of protest. They are by no means mutually exclusive, and often bleed into each other, using the same symbols and rhetoric to bend the moral arc of history towards justice.
But when one form of protest overtakes the other, as it has in many contemporary protest movements, we find ourselves in a civil discourse that is profoundly self-involved.


Political protest cannot exist in isolation, and it cannot succeed without the support of the institutions of democracy, but these institutions also require the support of protest, civil disobedience and dissidence that does not deal in cynicism or derision, but in honest civic engagement in the democratic project. A project that is both universal and profoundly parochial. If we are ever to reach the point that James Baldwin described in The Fire Next Time where we achieve our countries we must ask of ourselves and our peers these uncomfortable questions (among others).
What purpose should protest serve, if not to convince your fellow citizens of injustice? Can a moral minority ever hope to convict the immoral majority through condemnation and derision? What hope is there for a nation to achieve its potential if its liberals and dissidents, who are the drivers of social progress, view all patriotism as vulgar and crass. When protest is more in service of moral absolution than political solution? In short, we must take care to ensure that we do not substitute our own personal moral catharsis from speaking out, from standing up; for the social catharsis we need to create among our peers.

stock-vector-reaching-hands-statue-of-liberty-in-the-national-colors-the-concept-of-the-american-dream-281342447
Protest and civic engagement may seem futile, especially to those of us privileged to look down from our internet towers. It may at times seem impossible to persuade our foes and even undesirable to make the attempt.  Perhaps it is.
But to butcher Robert Browning;
Ah, but that a peoples reach should exceed their grasp, Or what’s a country for? 

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The Revolutions Will Not Be Improvised

Journalists, pundits and the casual observer all had something in common in the wake of the US bombing of the Al-Shayrat airfield in Syria. Especially in the first few hours, before ideology and orthodoxy could set in, none of us knew what to make of it.
Many of Trumps more odiously vocal supporters are outraged. Leading figures of the Alt-Right were quick to condemn the attack and Trump as “just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet.”

They view this as a betrayal of the American isolationism Trump paid lip-service to throughout his presidential campaign.
Many establishment Republicans have praised Trumps actions. Even leading figures in Democratic party initially responded with guarded praise, tempered by the lack of Congressional approval and the hypocrisy of an administration that shuts its doors to victims of the Syrian conflict but uses their suffering to justify military action.

Public response has been predictably incensed. Hysterical declarations of the Third World War were issued, conspiracies that posit that the chemical weapons used in Syria were part of a ‘false-flag’ operation now run rampant through the veins of the internet. In short, we all responded as expected. Except for Trump, whose opposition to American to intervention in Syria has in the last 36 hours been painstakingly documented.

Many have called Trump hypocritical for his yielding to the interventionist foreign policy that Obama had rejected. The truth seems far more dangerous. We have no reason to believe that Trump was disingenuous in his opposition all these years. The volume and consistency of this opposition indicates a genuine, if occasionally incoherent, sentiment.
Indeed, the Trump campaign did push the narrative that voting for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for a war hawk, who would lead America back into the quagmires of the Middle East.
Unfortunately this is not hypocrisy. The Trump administration was, until the use of chemical weapons, making overtures towards re-legitimizing al-Assad.
It seems the crucial factor in this foreign policy reversal is in the videos of Syrian victims of chemical warfare. His description of the attacks was uncharacteristically lucid.

Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

A noble sentiment. One that does seem to require that those opposed to Trump acknowledge that he is not an evil man. Not yet at any rate. He is pompous, narcissistic, vulgar and profoundly ignorant. His psyche seems the closest to a tinpot dictator America has ventured in a very long time. But, despite his rancid proximity to evil, he is no Vladimir Putin. Not yet.

The majority of the positions Trump has adopted thus far have been more or less boilerplate Republican. Under any other president this would have been unfortunate for those Americans whose welfare, subsidies, abortion rights and childcare will be cut, but have little effect on the liberal world order. That Trump seems to have made a major foreign policy decision on impulse should concern us all. Assad using chemical weapons is an arbitrary line to draw, when joint Russo-Syrian forces are routinely bombing schools and hospitals. This new American interventionism of Trumps is propelled purely by public relations and the visceral reactions we all share in seeing children gassed to death. Under any other president, Republican or Democrat, this action would be nearly unanimously praised.

American Ideals
One of the darkest aspects of the Obama years is in his refusal to hold al-Assad to account, even after the now infamous ‘red-line’ on chemical weapons was crossed.
He had the power to limit civilian deaths and de-escalate the Syrian Civil War and in a fit of presidential pique he chose not to, largely because doing so would heavily alienate the Democratic base. In a profile by Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic Obama claimed to be “very proud of this moment”, when he chose to break with the “Washington playbook”.

Obama is frequently described in the press and on television as thoughtful and dignified. He seems in this instance to pride himself on his independence from conventional wisdom.
However, his decision to leave Syrians to the mercy of their tyrant reflects a growing and perhaps even dominant strain of thought among citizens of Western democracies.

This is that they have no business involving themselves in ‘regional conflicts’. Those who argue  for the necessity of intervention in a purely pragmatic sense; to curb Russian or Chinese or Iranian impulses are accused of war-mongering, as was done to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. More worryingly, those who make the far more principled case for Jeffersonian democracy; the intentional expansion of human rights and democratic forms of government, are labelled Western Imperialists.
This line of thinking is best represented in the points and person of Noam Chomsky. It carries with it an antipathy to Western military force that largely stems from the Vietnam War. More often that not it requires citation of the incompetence with which the Iraq war was handled and how that incompetence ‘created ISIS’. Those who paid attention will be quick to point out that Iraq was a significantly more stable country when Barack Obama was inaugurated and that it was not until the US withdrew its forces in 2011 that Jihadists regained their ground. The withdrawal of American troops at its core boils down to a shortfall of popular support and a poverty of political will.

Most citizens of liberal democracies will defend the value of liberty and democratic institutions. If asked in a non-committal sense if they would prefer if the Middle East was more democratic you would be hard pressed to find a mainstream voice arguing against it. The burden of tyranny on the peoples of the Middle East are clear even from our current, detached distance. This much is evident in the short-lived hope many of us felt in the initial stages of the Arab Spring in 2011. Finally these dictators would be overthrown by their peoples. We all know how that ended.
Fundamentally we want people to be free from tyranny. We would just prefer if they managed to make themselves free without bothering us.
This is a dangerously immoral position to hold and it is one that is profoundly ignorant of historical reality.

Our culture and sketchy educations have painted a poor picture of revolution. We think of the success of the Enlightenment and American revolution as having sprung forth, from the hearts and minds of ‘the people’, like Athena from Zeus. In truth, they were complex interactions between pragmatic political actors, some of whom happened to support revolutions. The American revolution, frequently idealized as the archetypal revolution, was largely motivated by the growing abolitionist sentiment in Great Britain. Coupled with tax raises, this moved the Thirteen Colonies to armed rebellion. And rebellion it would have remained were it not for the support of the French Monarchy, who supplied the Colonists with guns and ships and prevented British domination of the American coasts.
If we require a point of contrast; the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, was similiarly motivated by high taxes. It was put down by George Washington himself. This was a local rebellion without the support of a major power, and it was readily crushed.
Revolutions succeed, rebellions fail.

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For decades however, popular culture and media has portrayed the fight for freedom as won by a small group of ‘rag-tag’ rebels. Luke Skywalker in his dinky X-Wing in Star Wars, the high school kids in Red Dawn. All it takes is resistance and rebellion. Grit and righteous determination light the path.
This view, though it makes for some very good films, has very poorly effected our collective understanding of revolutions. They are not spontaneous uprisings, certainly not the successful ones.  Revolutions require sponsors, and allies. The nature of dictatorship and tyranny is inherently totalitarian. In a closed system where the tyrant has the guns, no people’s revolt will ever be successful. For the people of Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, North Korea, China and countless others, they cannot free themselves, however much they may wish to.

Earlier I referred to Jeffersonian democracy as the antidote to the poisonously amoral isolationism of Chomsky and Trump supporters alike.
If we are to defend and uphold liberal democratic ideals at home, we have no excuse beyond necessity to abandon them abroad. If you believe that Western intervention into the Middle East is doomed to failure on practical grounds that is your right and you may indeed be right. But if you claim to oppose that intervention on moral grounds, on ‘principled’  opposition to ‘Western Imperialism’, whatever that fluffy phrase means, you are not viewing the costs of tyranny and dictatorship with a clear mind. Jefferson wrote of an ‘Empire of Liberty’, one committed to the freedoms of thought, speech and association required in free societies. Whatever its faults, and they are many, the application of this Empire of Liberty has never approached the cruelty and malice of the Communist and fascist empires it opposed through the 20th century. It is a grave injustice to those who hope for liberty to even compare it to the theocratic empires that it faces today.

As free societies we failed those brave men and women who stood for their freedom in the Arab Spring. We routinely abandon homosexuals, atheists, women and all freethinkers to the molestation of theocrats and dictators.
There is never a better time to acknowledge our failure and our cowardice. Thankfully the people f these nations are resilient. If we choose to we can, and I believe should, defend and support their rebellious, their dissidents and protesters. And when the revolutions come, if they come, we must ensure that they will not be improvised.

The resemblance of the centre to a mushroom cloud is a large part of what drew me to this.

Beneath Good & Evil

As I write this, more than a quarter of the way around the world, Donald Trump’s presidency is penetrating the history books. There are no ways I can think of to condemn Trump that have not already been tried, no criticisms that have not been made manifold.

If we may cautiously poke whatever bright side exists on this rather tarnished moment in human history, it is in the return by necessity of a critical media. Shameful though it is that many publications and outlets deserted their posts in the warm glow of the election of first black president, the election of Trump seems to have brought at least some journalists back from their stupor.
That said, this also means a rise in pieces such as this one. There is a tendency among writers to portray political tumult as a clash between opposing forces. Inevitably the force with which the author sympathises is the light and its opponent the darkness. The twilight between them is the battlefield, the election campaign and so on.

Our arts are filled with this sort of imagery. It is easy and evocative. It appeals to our most primal instincts. We all know to be afraid of the dark. In its simplicity is its power.
But on this one instance I think it’s necessary to sheath Occam’s Razor for a moment and contemplate a seemingly more complex shorthand for good and evil.

There is a danger to our constant references to villainy of the dark. It separates ‘us’ from evil. There is now a good distance between us and evil; the twilight an effective barrier. When we denounce our foes as members of this shadow we condemn ourselves to the misapprehension of the righteous. We ignore the real origin of evil.
That is not to suggest that there no such thing as genuine darkness. In human terms that darkness is best described as a variety of nihilism(s). The absence of and opposition to the very idea of principle is impossible to combat without, well, combat. We see symptoms of this in those  madmen who shoot into crowds in the US to whom political purpose cannot be attached. We see this in the ignorant jihadist, who doesn’t know why he kills, or for whom, only that he will be rewarded as a martyr. These darkness’ can only ever be fought and fought until its elimination.
To claim that the current surge of popular faith in authority, strength and rage is symptomatic of the same darkness is misguided at best and clearly false as an observation. At worst it blinds us to a very elementary truth. Good and evil are not binary. Darkness is not evil. Light is not good. To stretch a metaphor perhaps too far, if darkness is the domain of the madman then it must be us who occupy the fire. Us. Those who act with some (however misguided) moral purpose.

It is not often discussed how readily and drastically we romanticize humanity. Virtues are ‘human’ and the worst vice ‘inhuman’. Surely it would be a far more sensible claim that both are equally human. Doing so should not be taken as an endorsement of wrongdoing.
If we are to recognize the humanity of evil, then we must also recognize where darkness fails to explain evil. What we think of as evil today: Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China and perhaps Trump’s America, are not forces of darkness but of flame.
Like those revolutionaries and radicals currently in retreat around the world who pursue a variety of Utopias, Trump supporters are very easily spotted by their passion, their now palpable anger at the direction of recent history.

Perhaps then the danger is not in the darkness. Perhaps our future concern ought to be directed at the fire. Because the right (or in fact, wrong) demagogue can seize upon an unattended flame and burn all of our works to the ground. Everything must then be in moderation. Passion and fury are compelling fuels for justice and liberty and all the forces of good. But they can, at the drop of a pretense, fuel every goods opposite.
This acknowledgement is difficult. It requires that we stop demonizing our opposition and attempt to recognize our common humanity. Flawed primates that we are, we are certainly not the best candidates for a civil society, nor will the process of forming one be a peaceful or altogether calm affair. But we cannot abandon it now. We must keep the fires burning so that we may someday learn to control them.

A Letter Re: the Public

I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump. The last year we have been inundated with the man and all the reasons why the subject is sour are not difficult to find. Indeed perhaps that is one of the primary reasons many, myself included, find themselves so dismayed at his victory. Four more years of crudeness, ignorance and frighteningly un-impotent rage can exhaust those who look for more grace in their leaders. But this is not a piece about Trump’s failings. There are enough of those on pages like this.

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This is the sort of thing late night comedy wouldn’t get away with a few years ago.

I want to also draw your attention to the failures of the Democratic party and the American left wing in general. The cursory appeals to a generic better America, the institutional illiberality of their support for Clinton throughout the primaries and the sheer political inbreeding confirmed by the emails show a party dangerously out of touch with the spirit of the age and self-segregated within the gated communities of academia and media into delusion. The nature of the establishment arguments in favour of Clinton seem, especially with the perspective of hindsight, particularly sinister. The language of the ‘presumptive nominee’ lent the entire process a whiff of the banana republic. Those who proselytized to the unconverted voter how much Clinton ‘deserved’ the presidency as if it were some perverse reward for public service must now feel an affinity with every other imbecilic moral prophecy that spouts predetermination as somehow just. That it was ‘her turn’ seemed dogma in certain spheres of thought.
But even this has been said elsewhere in greater depth and detail.

I address this missive to the American voter. Those making merry and those in mourning in what I hope is equal measure.
In 1989 a man wrote an essay called ‘The End of History’. It defines much of the worst excesses of the global left.
The author, Francis Fukuyama argued that;

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

It’s easy to see now just how wrongheaded this thesis is. The details of the book are more nuanced and interesting. But what matters is that the idea above is what permeated the political left, throughout Europe and America. The inevitability of liberal triumph made us complacent. Our belief in the righteousness of our cause induced an intolerance of the ‘wrong’ ideas and of the ‘ignorant’ and ‘stupid’ people that espouse them.
This is the liberalism of my parents’ generation. The liberalism of Angela Merkel, Tony Blair and the Clintons. It is the liberalism that crowned Hillary Clinton and conspired to stonewall Bernie Sanders. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
This liberalism is not healthy. It is a foul reality when the right wing, the successors of McCarthy and Nixon, are those who appear most often in defence of the freedoms of speech and expression whose acquisition and defence were the greatest triumphs of the left. It is the liberalism that the majority in our parents generation have now rebuffed.
The right is no more sympathetic to those liberties than before, theirs’ is the radicalism of the oppressed, no, the principled. But that they are assuredly oppressed is an indictment of the liberal lefts capitulation to the worst impulses of the empowered. We are so convinced of the rectitude of our conviction that we grow contemptibly impatient with dissent.

We can already see this infirmity of principle seeping into the young. We see college students incapable of dealing with challenges to their ideology. So we silence. And censor. So a critic of Islam is an Islamophobe. A critic of Black Lives Matter is a racist. A critic of Hillary Clinton is a misogynist. We are nearing an abundance of intolerance. The right will not respond kindly to the protestations of the left. We have cried wolf, bigot and sexist so often and so loudly that even when it is true the sound of dissent dissolves in the white noise of partisan hackery that is our media.

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“They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”-The late Sir Terry Prachett

The left, Democrats, liberals and progressives are now the political minority around the world. Not because of the ignorance or prejudice of our opponents but because of the frailty of our convictions in the face of convenience. It is easier to smear, to silence, to shame. We should know, the revolutions that gave us the freedoms we enjoy fought against those tactics.

The surge of opinion pieces lamenting democracy and its stupidity is the sort of thing that drives a movement like Trump’s. Our intellectuals and opinion makers show their true colours in these confessions of illiberalism. The ‘elite’, who have demonstrated that accusations that they are out of touch are warranted, because their naive belief in the inviolability of the liberal project has made them careless. The good life of the liberal intellectual in the cities of the nation has made them unwilling to consider challenges to the liberal world order.
But this is only an explanation. Who is to blame for what seems now to be the collapse of that order is irrelevant. The question must be what do we do next.

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The philosopher William James in his book The Principles of Psychology writes;

We cannot control our emotions…. But gradually our will can lead us to the same results by a very simple method: we need only in cold blood act as if the thing in question were real, and keep acting as if it were real, and it will infallibly end by growing into such a connection with our life that it will become real.

James was writing of the nature of belief, but we should assume his words as a mandate to do better. If we allow the sins of our fathers to infect the principles of our conviction we will march a short route to chaos. We must dissent. We must argue. We must protest. And if we succeed we must promise not to abandon the promise of a liberal world as our parents have done. However difficult. However uncomfortable. We cannot simply allow history’s end.
To quote a Republican president of the United States;

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. . . . We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.abraham_lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait

The Hope of Audacity

“Maybe the critics are right. Maybe there’s no escaping our great political divide, an endless clash of armies, and any attempts to alter the rules of engagement are futile. Or maybe the trivialization of politics has reached a point of no return, so that most people see it as just one more diversion, a sport, with politicians our paunch-bellied gladiators and those who bother to pay attention just fans on the sidelines: We paint our faces red or blue and cheer our side and boo their side, and if it takes a late hit or cheap shot to beat the other team, so be it, for winning is all that matters.
But I don’t think so. They are out there, I think to myself, those ordinary citizens who have grown up in the midst of all the political and cultural battles, but who have found a way ,in their own lives at least, to make peace with their neighbors, and themselves…I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point. They don’t always understand the arguments between right and left, conservative and liberal, but they recognize the difference between dogma and common sense, responsibility and irresponsibility, between those things that last and those that are fleeting. They are out there, waiting for Republicans and Democrats to catch up with them.”
― Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope summing up the point of this piece better than this piece itself.


While the majority of the Republican field has abandoned principle in their endorsements of the Republican nominee Who Shall Not Be Named , it remains to be seen whether left leaning Democrats bite the bullet and throw their weight behind a woman who is sharply antithetical to liberal politics and seems just as willing as the Republican nominee to pander in return for power and popularity.

With Hillary Clinton’s newfound status as “presumptive nominee” (a phrase that sounds as appealing as its current subjects) There will be a slew of op-eds and expert opinion that will attempt through means patronising and bordering on blackmail. Pieces like this attempt to shame Sanders supporters into reticence by painting their cohorts as privileged and in many cases sexist and misogynistic. In carefully putting these straws together in a mannish shape and gleefully setting the ensuing construct alight one can easily claim the moral high ground that most commentators seek. This form of political extortion of the electorate is a prime example of the dysfunction of American democracy; where the choice is between a demagogue with a Napoleon complex the size of his Freudian skyscrapers and an amoral political climber as incapable as her competitor of admitting fault. Continue reading “The Hope of Audacity”

Remember the Ladies

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
― Carl Sagan

Recently I have been reading a variety of correspondence between the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. In addition to being an unequivocal wealth of historical insight, the letters are surprisingly effective at humanising figures spoken of by most in the same breath as gods. It is a curious inversion of the laws of optics that the distance of time makes great men legends.
However, it seems that this rather pleasant order is upended with great women the same temporal distance from the present. So I felt the urge to help distribute the history of one such woman and ask for others to follow.
Continue reading “Remember the Ladies”

In Review

In reviewing the events of the last six months, the period of time between the creation of this website and its actual usage, it’s rather difficult to narrow them down to highlights, though no doubt many more experienced websites will and have done so. In this time we’ve seen the popularly inexplicable rise of Donald Trump in American politics beside an increasingly fierce Democratic nomination process , an anxiety inducing swing to the authoritarian right in most of the world and perhaps most importantly a shift towards censorship of difficult ideas in some very unfortunate places. In addition we’ve seen rising controversy over religions place in (ostensibly) secular societies and a great deal of unfortunate backpedaling from positions of principle by those in power. As always the more consistent stories have stood by us; ISIS remains scary, Russia remains labyrinthine in its foreign policy and China looms ever larger over the global stage.

The object of this piece is not to provide a complete summary of the history of the last six months but instead to use them as launching pads for the sort of work I plan to do here.

The rise of Trump seems is couched inextricably from a fundamental failure of the media. As a sample, my first instinct was to write of the Trump “phenomenon”. The failure is not simply one of prediction. It is also of a basic underestimation of the anger hidden beneath the surface of the Republican electorate. But the uplifting of Trump from a common demagogue to a “phenomenon”, while certainly a ratings booster, is in large part responsible for his current stranglehold on political debate.
Trump is the “greatest” illustration of the return of the authoritarian right in the democratic world. And that return is again predicate on a failure of liberalism. Through political liberalism’s largely unconditional embrace of diversity and multiculturalism, especially in the West and the gradual victory of the left in the Culture Wars the right has been forced further right in order to provide any meaningful opposition. By shifting the goal posts so frequently and changing the rules so often leftists initiated a slow awakening of the parts of the American electorate most people would rather not think about; the poor, uneducated majority ethnicity. It is a small wonder that the most ridiculed segment of American society found comfort in the clutches of a demagogue who makes liberal use of racism and bigotry as campaign tactics. That is not to say some of their motivations are entirely without merit however. But we’ll leave that for another piece.

The Indian and Bangladeshi governments seem intent on slipping further back into a pit of religious sectarianism, although with the examples of political discourse the West is providing it’s difficult to blame them.
In the Middle East theocracy and dictatorship remain the status quo, Saudi Arabia continues its perfidious relationship with liberal democracies and the rare bastions of (relative) sanity and secularism like the Iraqi Kurds are so entangled in regional rivalries with an increasingly despotic Turkey that any hope of the establishment of secularism in that cradle of civilization must look far to the future.
Meanwhile Putin’s Russia has continued its serpentine course through current events and bolsters an Iran that must soon deal with a generational shift towards democratic values.

As you can imagine it’s a rather difficult point in history to jump in with opinions and ideas.
Regardless, things will almost certainly get a great deal worse before they get better so one may as well start now. This website will be dedicated to covering the events that surround us, the history that seats us, and the art that guides us. Now that we’re mostly caught up future pieces should hopefully be more in-depth and more interesting.
Until then.