China is a cultural equal, not a student for moral instruction

The title of Gideon Rachman’s Financial Times op-ed, Xi Jinping faces his moment of truth in Hong Kong, is undoubtedly as much aspiration as observation, such is the English-language media’s ideological commitment to denouncing the Chinese system of government.

Colonisation by force to support an illicit drugs trade contributed confoundingly to Hong Kong’s wealth and standing today; but the willingness to forgive and forget our own inscrutable lack of political probity is seldom extended to our competitors in global affairs. Raising millions out of poverty is ‘whataboutery’ if you’re an unloved regime, whilst moral ambiguity in our own policy record seldom prohibits the end from justifying the means.

GDP per capita in mainland China has seen startling growth over the past decade, but remains modest; and there are 1.5bn citizens to provide with security, healthcare, social services, and retirement income — all of which will be more important to them than the media circus of a western election. Perhaps the political innovations of the self-styled free world have something to contribute to that project; perhaps they don’t. Ultimately, it’s for China, and its citizens, to decide.

Foreign observers should chasten their assumptions regarding the extent to which Hong Kong activists’ democratic principles align them against the politics of the motherland. Popular support for one country, two systems, isn’t a strategic compromise for near-independence; citizens of Hong Kong don’t share with their international supporters such a unifying consensus that Xi-ism is fatally flawed.

To the extent that western democratic principles are encoded in the Basic Law, as part of the handover, or remain a broader source of inspiration, there is a soft power in play. That will have to suffice. Supporting activists as a vehicle to frame media narratives around Xi, in terms marked with interminable calumny, suggests a goal other than analysis — and one that risks needlessly extending to the western grassroots the antipathy currently felt by the most hawkish among their leaders towards a credible competitor.

Self-congratulatory narratives in the west help people forget that all governments rule ultimately by consent; and, indeed, varying degrees of authoritarianism are afforded acts in every nation’s founding story — very often the most celebrated ones. It’s right to advocate for suppressed minorities in China, but American observers, by example, might have the humility to recall that the same year the nation was listening to the Beach Boys’ Surfing’ U.S.A., the Governor of Alabama was blocking three African American students from enrolling in a white school. If we’re to embrace that history as part of a process, why the absence of a process that’s permitted to other nations without the cost of moral invalidation?

The columnists and readers maligning the Chinese system of government in putative solidarity with its oppressed subjects in Xinjiang, or on the streets of Hong Kong, may find themselves on the right side of the moral divide more by an accident of their rhetoric, than by its true purpose; better known abroad than our political freedoms is our proclivity to use the language of social justice as a Trojan horse for proclaiming ideological superiority. The avoidance of truly civilisational conflict with a resurgent China will rest, in this nascent phase, on the willingness of European civilisations to cut the didactic bullshit, and treat the emerging superpower as a genuine cultural equal.

Has liberalism outlived its purpose?

Vladimir Putin’s right, in his illuminating interview with the Financial Times last month, to present Donald Trump as more symptom than cause in changes to the political tide. But, whilst there’s a clarity and candour to Putin’s suggestion that the benefits of globalisation in the US have accrued exclusively to the population’s moneyed margins, it’s inadequate alone as a truly generalised account for the growth of populism elsewhere.

Despite broadly favourable outcomes in recent European elections, nativist discourse is in unquestionable ascent beyond the US. From advanced Anglo-Saxon economies with growing inequity in wealth distribution, through impoverished states in South Asia facing food and water insecurity, and on to the social democratic utopias of Northern Europe, with their advanced education systems and cradle-to-grave welfare states, various brands of nationalism are powering through the electoral gears.

The 21st Century strongmen bear limited resemblance to their 20th Century postwar forebears: rather than the top-down imposition of autocracy on a suffering population — through homegrown coup d’état, or one engineered by cynical Nixon Doctrine alliance — the new generation of aspiring dictators is being ushered in from the bottom-up by a global constituency of nativist tribes, increasingly fervent to delineate themselves from one other, and doing so in comically similar language.

The insidious polarisation of grassroots populations threatens a truly global liberal order more than the actions of the cartoon villains they elect. The issues by which people choose to identify themselves are cleaving the body politic in two; while working class nativists and middle class metropolitans compete over attendance numbers at street protests, the allied polemicists of each gather on both sides of the debate and do little to advance it. The internationalists are trapped in a fruitless cycle of exposing populist non sequiturs, blind to the fact that the movement’s adherents had started with the conclusion and worked their way back to the reason.

Hope rests on the return of real politics: informing voters, and persuading them. Eisenhower’s valedictory address referenced the threat of the incipient and cynical alliance between business, the military, and government; the new threat is the subsumption of politics into the public relations and marketing industry of the digital era.

Electioneering now involves merely canvassing public opinion, and then navigating it. The old guard of mainstream corporate media points to the threat of Russian interference, over-reading a minor subplot in a greater odyssey: Politics by the fissile materials of audience segmentation, and the related innovations in marketing intelligence of the digital age, reveal and reinforce the ideological fault lines in the population; the socially radioactive effluence of populism is the true cost of the method.

Hello City

An effusive ‘Hieee!’;
An affected hug-ella, arms promising embrace,
Insincere spirit imposing inhospitable space.
Despite all that you imply,
Of goodwill there’s not a trace
In this preservation of distance,
Throughout the promise of none —
The crypto-aversion of ‘PM me, hun’;
I’d rather be met with a laugh or a sneer,
Than be left bracing my self-effacing
Self
In this ritual with you here.

North Korea is not the only unpredictable partner in the world’s most contentious rapprochement

What will the US promise in return for disarmament? How far can the US be trusted to deliver on those promises? How resilient would any US concession be to a change in administration?

Observers wishing to take their cynicism seriously — over the world’s most contentious rapprochement — will have to read beyond the headlines, which instead focus exclusively on North Korea’s history of duplicity and lapsed promises.

It’s unlikely to be lost on the North Korean team that US foreign policy orthodoxy holds the status quo on the Korean Peninsula to best serve its interests. Behind Trump’s entertainingly vainglorious diplomatic grandstanding is a foreign policy establishment manoeuvring to relieve North Korea of its nuclear armaments — without permitting its allies to consider the pariah state no longer a threat.

Peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula being in the western alliance’s best interests is the logical conclusion of the propaganda, not the politics. In addition to exposing the Pacific Rim to the greatest of evils for economic planning — political change — a unified peninsula liquidates a key asset in the US’s regional investments: its diplomatic pretext for regional military deployments that are more likely apropos of China. US ambitions of continued power projection in the Pacific risk being frustrated by significant changes in Korean politics; indeed, there’s a material possibility of a unified Korea falling entirely outside of the US sphere of influence, given that China is already the principal trading partner both North and South of the 38th parallel.

Trump’s perception of the North Korean nuclear problem, as one that might be solved by a deal, is exposed to being overturned by a future administration that’s more compliant with established foreign policy wisdom. How readily I can imagine nuclear disarmament being later described as only one phase of the reforms required to normalise relations and maintain sanctions relief: that free and fair elections must follow, or military exercises will resume. And, all the while, Kim’s efforts to cry double standards over tolerance of, say, Saudi Arabian autocracy, will be lost in a cacophony of throat-clearing and sententious platitudes by the inexplicably compliant media over here in the free world.

North Korea might play with its promises. But the degree to which it does so may derive from the degree to which we, the western alliance, play with ours.

Me, according to the putative source of Cambridge Analytica’s electioneering sorcery

Only the most disingenuous could partake in the old media world’s shockfest at the new media world’s methods for trying to win elections, by — [sharp intake of breath] — targeting swing voters with emotional narratives rather than hard facts. Given that the principles of election campaigning remain unchanged (a scurrilous orgy of persuasion and deception), recent innovations appear to differ only in their superior targeting.

Beneath the tabloids’ schoolmarm clucking is little else than envy.

In their fervour to deliver the coup de grace to Cambridge Analytica, and with it a chastening blow to an increasingly unloved Facebook, publishers have acted as unpaid PR reps attesting to the efficacy of this ill-famed data-driven wizardry. Well, scandal aside: how good is it?

Given the implied role of The Psychometric Centre at Cambridge University in arming Cambridge Analytica with its toolset — if not its name — it seems fair to assume that the department’s Apply Magic Sauce public demo is based on the same, or closely related, data set. Both originate from the department’s work in correlating social media likes and post content with traditional psychometrics. Given the dearth of profile activity on my Facebook account, I was pleased to see that I could still submit myself to these devilish instruments by an alternative method than providing my Facebook login: pasting 200 words of content, authored by me, into a box and hitting ‘Predict’. Easy. Pasting in my previous blog post, here’s what I got:

  • Age: 31. Your digital footprint suggests that your online behaviour resembles that of a 30-39-year-old.
  • Psychological Gender: Masculine. Your digital footprint suggests that you are the epitome of masculinity.
  • Your digital footprint suggests that you are intellectually curious and appreciative of what you consider beautiful, no matter what others think. You might say that your imagination is vivid and makes you more creative than many others.
  • Your digital footprint suggests that you are random and fun to be around but can also plan and persist when life requires it. It appears that depending on the situation, you can make quick decisions or deliberate for longer if necessary.
  • Your digital footprint suggests that you are similar to people who prefer low-key social occasions, with a few close friends. You might say that it’s not that you are afraid of large parties; they’re just not that fun for you.
  • Your digital footprint suggests that you get along well with others, especially once they have proved themselves to be trustworthy. You seem to have a healthy scepticism about others’ motives, but that doesn’t stop you from considering others to be basically honest and decent.
  • Your digital footprint suggests that you are calm and emotionally stable. You come across as someone who is rarely bothered by things, and when they do get you down the feeling does not persist for very long.
  • Leadership Potential: Your personality is 58% similar to that of a leader.
  • Jungian Personality Type: Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving
  • INTPs are quiet, thoughtful, analytical individuals who don’t mind spending long periods of time on their own, working through problems and forming solutions. INTPs tend to be less at ease in social situations and the “caring professions” although they enjoy the company of those who share their interests. They also tend to be impatient with the bureaucracy, rigid hierarchies, and politics prevalent in many professions, preferring to work informally with others as equals.
  • INTPs’ extraverted intuition often gives them a quick wit, especially with language, and they can defuse the tension in gatherings by comical observations and references. They can be charming, even in their quiet reserve, and are sometimes surprised by the high esteem in which their friends and colleagues hold them.

Whether this stuff’s alarmingly on-point, or specious bullshit borrowing from the rhetorical charlatanism of the astrology pages in weekly magazines, is the enduring question — unsolved by the unravelling scandal. A question not only about the most controversial innovations in the application of big data, but about the discipline of psychology in general.

If our government promotes the rules-based order, it must be governed by it

In an effort to attenuate some of the mystery surrounding the fabled Oxford interview, the university last year moved to further belie perceptions of priggishness by publishing a student guide to the ritual. The article gets its shirt off in the title:

Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Makes sense to explore the way the aspiring student thinks, rather than to test her memory of the national curriculum. But that’s by the bye: I’m more distracted by the new guide’s inaugural question.

Before being asked, intuition had me venting at the punctilious car in front, stopped, 3am, at the red light of a pelican crossing armed by an absent barfly. But, the question being so convincingly articulated — not in a slurred world-to-rights contest, but by the Director of Admissions of the nation’s Crown Jewels of undergraduate learning — I was suddenly unsettled.

A lay curiosity of post-structuralism that emerged during my own undergraduate years left me suspicious of a binary world. The only certainty about anything seemed to be its uncertainty. Day and night, man and woman, child and adult, government and subject — there was suddenly nothing black and white that couldn’t be better described in shades of grey.

And nothing more so than morality — surely the protagonist in the creation myth of our legal system. In the china shop of human ethics, binary attitudes to right and wrong are the proverbial bull.

But law isn’t morality, however interwoven the pair’s respective origin and nature. They belong to different ontological worlds. Morality exists in some metaphysical world, where nothing is binary; law exists in a more physical world, where everything has to be. Law is the cleaver humanity takes to moral continuum, when morality is transmuted from human psyche into human behaviour.

We’re being psychologically devious with ourselves when we then evaluate the rationality of the 3am traffic-light offence in moral terms. Binary artefacts of law are, by both their nature and design, impervious to arguments premised on the spectral nature of morality. So it is that the law, and the legal process, can deviate from our visceral sense of justice — a sense predicated in metaphysical continua — and seem irrational, obtuse, and inhuman.

And this compromise is the very foundation of the global rules-based order, whose proponents in the Anglo-Saxon world have been licking their wounds since 2016, with Britain’s vote against EU membership, and America’s election of Donald Trump, together with the wider west’s growing trend towards populism: the politics of common sense over complex systems. For those who support the rules-based order — and the primacy of law, and international compact, over corrupt whims of charity and favour — the inexpedience of due process is the cost, for which stability, predictability, and equity, are the dividends.

It is Russia’s dissent from the rules-based system, from the putative extrajudicial assassination attempt in Salisbury, that goes to the heart of political disapprobation across the western alliance: Vladimir Putin, they allege, acting arbitrarily, violently, and dangerously, in flagrant disregard of due process at home and abroad, for personal political profit. The essence of totalitarianism.

Within ten days of Sergei and Yulia Skripal’s discovery unconscious on a park bench, a joint statement was issued by France, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom, to say that ‘it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack’ and that ‘there is no plausible alternative explanation’. Trump told reporters that it ‘certainly looks like Russia were behind it’.

Looks like? Highly likely?

I’ve no idea whether Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned requests in parliament for actual evidence of Russian involvement were ideologically motivated — a lingering sympathy of the old communist homeland, for which he’s occasionally accused — but it’s frankly irrelevant. When did it become de rigueur for the proponents of the global rules-based order to deride a request for evidence?

Our leaders must decide whether they’re for rules, inexpedient as they may be, or for caprices. They cannot challenge Russia on its abuse of the former, whilst leveraging the expedience of the latter. If the self-proclaimed leaders of the free world diminish the onus probandi in the judgement of an interstate felony to ‘looks like’, then the global rules-based order risks standing, above all else, for what leftist states across the globe have always claimed it stands for: Bigotry.

Gender & the Holy Spirit

The gender identity debate today strikes me as reminiscent of the 11th Century ecumenical debate over the Filioque. East and West Christianity were irreconcilable over the question of whether the divine identity of the Holy Spirit was that of the Father, rather than the Son, or something in between.

In their rush to excommunicate one another, church leaders lost sight of some key facts about the Holy Spirit. First, that we made it up. And, second, that we also made up the Father, the Son, and the entire concept of divinity.

The prevailing public debate, that we see both in the liberal mainstream press and trending in social media, doesn’t strike me as the last gender identity debate in advanced societies. Having shot its load establishing a more nuanced understanding of rigid gender stereotypes, dominant LGBTQ discourse tends to embrace the resultant spectrum. Sympathetic column inches have been dedicated to the mainstream’s treatment of those minority groups that choose to occupy previously unchartered areas of the spectrum. The focus has centred upon where we are on the spectrum, rather than on the true nature of the spectrum itself.

Future societies might focus instead upon some deeper truths about gender: crucially, that we made it up. Not only ‘gender identity’, but ‘assigned gender’, too, the relative frequency of ambiguous genitalia exposing biological sex as an uncertain dichotomy. That is to say, the biological assumption underpinning the distinction between cisgender and transgender is also unstable — sufficiently so to prohibit biology’s effort to fully withhold its charge from the clutches of the social constructionists.

The gender debate has continued to diversify, from challenging disparities in social power into expanding our understanding of its essence; it is undergoing a transformation from binary opposition to continuum. The elephant in the room remains the question of whether it might one day simply cease to exist.

The medieval European churches served an organisational function for the societies they emerged from. Questions over the true nature of the Holy Spirit had implications for the integrity of the doctrine. Gender has similarly served an organisational function for humanity, but remains an article of faith about our true nature. As successive generations inherited a gendered world, so did they refine the social lens through which we see the world — in ways that exaggerate the gender distinctions established by our forebears.

A surprising number of British men affirm with a nod, safely reassured, when reminded that the men’s 100m world record is 0.91 seconds faster than the women’s. That 0.91 seconds means that ‘men run faster than women’ (love). But any of those guys that couldn’t run more than 50m at full sprint might struggle to explain exactly what relevance the statistical reference has to their own identity. They might also struggle to explain why the supposed beneficial implications of that split-second advantage don’t seem to accrue equally to those of West African descent — who did almost all of the legwork in breaking the 10-second barrier — as they do to ‘men’ more generally.

The nature of these questions has a long heritage in the feminist literary canon, but I wonder how many arbitrary metrics of gender difference derive from innovations founded not merely to establish male precedence, but to establish gender itself.

That growing numbers of people are choosing to wrest control of their gender identity is closer to a Lutheran protest than to atheism. In the brouhaha over how we present ourselves, many on both the liberal and conservative sides of the debate choose not to question whether the gender emperor is actually wearing any clothes. The male and female cultural mainstream has become accustomed to questions of gender identity centring around how they see a gender-fluid minority; in a later reckoning, they may face the greater challenge of tackling the way they see themselves.