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.

Anti-Semitism & the Labour Party

People seem to be very tribal. Travelling the world, it’s hard not to conclude that they’re almost all racist. Not necessarily vindictively so, but often even that. Even among the swelling ranks of Corbyn supporters, denouncing straw-man Conservatives for intolerance and xenophobia, it’s not uncommon to find surprisingly ethnically homogenous friendship groups, and a tendency to avoid substantive conversation — or, even, eye contact — when faced with someone speaking English as a second language.

For much of European history, Jewish communities were a major — if not the principal — target for racism. They’re not any more. They’re certainly not in the UK. Members of the white British Generation X know exactly whom the most nationalist, bigoted, and isolationist elements of society have goaded each other to tease, bully, deprecate, or tyrannise over the past thirty or forty years. And the targets are all more recent immigrant communities.

It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing, for me to say that at school through the 1980s and 1990s, I happily don’t recall a single incident of Jewish schoolfriends being a target for racism. By contrast, then and since, I can’t begin to recall the number of incidents that have left me winded over racism targeted at South Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or East Asian friends, partners, or even strangers.

In the South East of England, I had a harder time for being thin than my Jewish friends had for being Jewish. Other friends had a way harder time for having acne, or for being gay. Without doubt, experiences would have been different, and worse, for Jewish children living in more culturally homogenous enclaves, geographically adjacent to — but socially detached from — other British communities. Mine is an idiosyncratic account but, being the direct experience of over 40 years in provincial England, one that is hard for me to completely dismiss as a test of attitudes outside of particular regional flashpoints.

That there is a specifically anti-Jewish racism penetrating the UK body politic — something different to the racism that depressingly menaces relations between all communities — is a notion I’ve not experienced. That, I must emphatically convey, is not to claim that the crime has not been committed, but rather a confession that I can’t offer myself as witness to it.

That this particular strain of social pathology in endemic within the Labour Party membership — to an order that almost defines it demographically against the Conservative Party membership — seems an even more eccentric idea. It is, at best, a happily anachronistic anxiety. At worst, it’s a political device.

Many of us grew up with no axe to grind in the Middle East, had uninformed parents that were unable to make head nor tail of Middle East politics, and a mainstream media narrative that attributed the woes in Israel to a terrorist called Yasser Arafat, who hijacked planes, bombed civilians, and cackled at his victims’ demise like a cartoon villain.

Those of us that went on to discover that the region had a somewhat more complex past and present, unwittingly also went on to discover a second expanse of unchartered territory: that is, being on the receiving end of accusations of racism. Except not for the name-calling, teasing, or bullying that we’d witnessed on racial lines at school, but: for publicly demurring over Israeli government policy.

And right here is, for any newcomers to this political domain, a baptism of fire: A surprising number of people support security policies in Israel that are so dramatically deleterious to Palestinian civic life that they would be unconscionable in Britain. And yet to criticise those policies, with no agenda beyond challenging a friendly nation to manage criminality with more civility, can put you in a uniquely invidious position. Protesting against issues such as ‘detention without trial’ — uncontroversial if levelled at, say, North Korea — weaves you into a discursive tapestry that, by merely following the path of your conscience, can leave you depicted as the xenophobe.

Ever present in this ethical and political labyrinth is the shadow of the Holocaust, and it’s easy to appreciate why. But the unprecedented, industrial scale of human suffering inflicted upon European Jewry less than a hundred years ago is not, first and foremost, a Jewish tragedy: it’s a human tragedy. Any greater ethnolinguistic affiliation I might have with the British prisoners of war working on the Burma Railway, than I do with Jewish families summarily murdered in Eastern European death camps, counts for nothing when reflecting on their fate. They’re all my cousins, and the horrors they endured rank equal to me — in empathy, in sorrow, in opprobrium, and in fact.

Any other view would be a benign version of the ethnic, cultural, or religious exceptionalism that, in its most malignant form, mandated the atrocities in the first place.

And, given how easy it remains to imagine, in flashpoints across the globe, the word ‘Jew’ being displaced by ‘Yazidi’, or ‘Rohingya’, or even by ‘gay’, the relevance and poignancy of our collective memory of the Holocaust is not set to diminish any time soon.

Ethnocentric fascists in the early 20th Century framed, and then blamed, ‘other people’ for society’s problems in an act of political expediency that won them a mandate, at the cost of millions slain. Each time lobbyists invoke pejoratives reserved for those ideologues — purveyors of among the most evil doctrines ever to have terrorised humanity — to institutions as benign as the modern-day Labour Party, another pillar of the history’s potency collapses.

The misuse of history’s most important lessons by the most conservative elements of Israel’s political defenders, in order to silence its most vocal critics, is squandering one of the most valuable pedagogical assets that humanity owes posterity.

Illustration © 2017 Rikki Hewitt

War Games

There’s a wealth of critical histories of the lives of British subjects during the colonial era. But if any of those histories presents a narrative that suggests the colonial system was primarily an abuse of power, an agent for rapacious politics and economics — or that the empire might have imposed itself upon its subjects at their exclusive cost, for the exclusive benefit of the imperial haute monde — it quickly becomes the subject of controversy. Niall Ferguson fumbles for his mobile to answer a Radio 4 producer, and gets ready for an early morning huff on the Today Programme, applauded by terraces of readers, fans, or otherwise indignant, besmirched listeners.

At the root of their rancour is, essentially, the assumption that the end justifies the means — be that proverbial end either: (a) railways; (b) a globalised economy; (c) political institutions; or (d) some other bequest sufficiently dignified or sexy to warrant trans-generational gratitude.

My principal contention with their contention is not ideological but, rather, the enduring lack of consistency. We see it each time the same constituency unites in a chorus of antipathy towards our political enemies. Reflecting on their own totalitarian past, they celebrate it, boast about it, eulogise and dramatise its most violent proponents, recreate and reminisce in endless lavish dramas for stage and screen, and neutralise its political toxicity by presenting it as an essential part of a process.

A process that, it’s claimed, led via Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and the Bill of Rights, to parliamentary democracy and, ultimately, to universal suffrage.

Faced with the Edwards of their political enemies, however, they pity their system, malign its beneficiaries, and advocate for its victims: first in sententious rhetoric, and later by bombing them.

Contrast, for example, mainstream opinion over the Kim family’s culpability for the North Korean famine with the same constituency’s opinion over the British Government’s culpability for the Bengal famine or, closer to home, the Irish famine. Most interesting is when you garner that opinion from those who openly confess to knowing very little about either. Try it at home! We’re peculiarly, and reliably, more tolerant of our own totalitarianism than others’.

Whilst making sense of whether we’re in the throws of a 21st Century Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s easy for amnesia to set in, in regard to how little we know about life in North Korea. The most interesting insights have been those that have challenged the western public’s received wisdom — with photos of normal people going about their lives in Pyongyang, candid photos of families playing at seaside resorts, or accounts of restaurant and market life on the Vladivostok border. As the growing montage of images of Pyongyang increasingly dispels visions of the dilapidated, Soviet-era basket-case city imagined by the western public, so the story grows of a city reserved for the privileged elite. Yet, housing 2.5m souls, or 10% of the national population, how relatively different is the exclusivity of Pyongyang from that of the affluent residential centres of London, New York, and Hong Kong?

The mainstream media consensus is doing little to enrich or inform public discourse, preferring instead to merely reaffirm poorly informed preconceptions, allowing the readership to nod through the analysis without pausing for thought.

North Korea is now, unambiguously, a nuclear state — so any ambitions, strategies, and actions based around preventing that outcome have failed, and western foreign policy must now be reframed. If there was ever a state for which ‘nuclear deterrent’ wasn’t simply a euphemism, it’s North Korea. Now with three children, Kim’s primary concern will be the continuation of his dynasty, which he well knows will end the day he invades his neighbours. So he will not. If a future smoking gun that triggered World War III on the Korean peninsula has North Korean fingerprints on it, they were put there by the PR agents of Kim’s enemies.

Left alone, the sociopolitical environment in North Korea will evolve, like it will everywhere else — and probably more swiftly in the absence of a foreign invasion force thirty miles across the border. Commentators and policymakers in the west still committed to their unique brand of sententious schizophrenia, which holds that we mustn’t sit idle while North Korean citizens suffer — but must instead send our children to kill theirs — are still living in Kissinger’s Cold War reality distortion field.

When the informational landscape is so sparse, as it is with North Korea, we should be suspicious when the public discourse is filled with more answers than questions. To some, North Korea may be intolerable; to some, it may simply be home; to others, it may be a source of pride. We could say the same of our contemporaries from Edwardian England. And perhaps Song China might have looked on in pity for England’s 13th Century peasants, and mused intervention with their greater social, political, and technological sophistication. How kindly do readers think imperialist Chinese warrior-philanthropists might have been received by England’s Plantagenet subjects?

Through the western cultural lens, the dress, style, language, and tone of North Korea is one-dimensional, tyrannical, eccentric, absurd. North Korea continues to fulfil the stereotype of the Cold War Bond villain. Trump says, in opposition to the new South Korean president’s nascent policy of appeasement, that there’s only one thing that the North Koreans understand — one of the few Trumpian claims considered uncontroversial by the wider public. But, in its anxiety to survive, North Korean policy has exposed the bitter irony of that premise. In the superpower’s unwillingness to relinquish its monopoly on power in the Pacific, there’s only one language that US foreign policy understands. And, with a nuclear deterrent, Kim’s speaking it fluently.

‘Enough is Enough’

Beyond the immediate violence and horror of a terrorist attack, and its wider fallout, the last of its victims is always perspective. It’s designed to be.

For the desperately unfortunate minority directly affected by heinous acts of violence, that perspective might reasonably be unrecoverable. For the more fortunate majority, it’s essential it never slips from our grasp.

It seems that the sub-cerebral response of an alarming range of political figures—if someone’s stabbed, bombed, or shot by some petty criminal-turned suicidal zealot—is to ramp-up public surveillance, erode civil liberties, dismantle civil protections within the criminal justice system, rant about ‘cowardly acts’, and anthropomorphise cities.

I’m unclear whether that’s because certain policymakers perceive an opportunity in the lack of public perspective, or whether they simply lack perspective themselves. In either case, what’s even more worrying is that the public seems to be in a growing state of consensus with them — if not emulation.

Usefully, The Telegraph on Sunday cited some figures from the Global Terrorism Database, which are altogether more helpful than HM Government’s public statements for making sense of recent chaos:

UK Deaths Owing To Terrorism

15-year period Number of Deaths
2000-2015 90
1985-1999 1,094
1970-1984 2,211

To add further perspective, I looked up the Office for National Statistics’ figures on UK homicides, which record 518 murders in the UK in the year ending March, 2015. Of these, 186 victims were women, of which 82 were murdered by their partner or ex-partner. That was, continuing a decade-long trend, the lowest number of homicides in ten years.

So:

  • 2015 saw the lowest number of UK homicides in the late modern era.
  • In 2015, 82 women were murdered by their partner or ex-partner.
  • In the 15 years from 2000-2015, 90 people were murdered in terrorist incidents.

If it’s a question of quantum, heterosexual relationships appear to be a greater threat to public safety than extremist Islam, by a factor of 15.

Shouldn’t we be affording crimes of passion 15 times the disapprobation than we afford a crime of terror? Has the heterosexual community had too little to say on the subject, given the heinous atrocities committed by its members?

With the benefit of perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a minority of nut-jobs who have fallen off the wagon, and park the problem with the criminal justice system. Without perspective, we readily attribute cases of criminal violence to a wider narrative, and seek solutions from law makers, rather than from law enforcement. The threat becomes quantified by column inches, social media real estate, and leveraged by pre-existing prejudices.

The threat of ‘Islamic terrorism’ has been a constant background noise in the informational world of western societies since 2001, and wider debate about the true nature, origins, and threats, is not one I’m suggesting that we mute. But, in the meantime, Khuram Butt’s decision to watch the Champion’s League final, and then embark on a murder-suicide rampage in a hired van, simply must not be used to calibrate civil liberties. And if Abedi’s murder of 23 people in Manchester alters someone’s perceptions of British Muslims, more than Harold Shipman’s murder of over 230 people alters their perceptions of white British GPs, we need to understand why.

Trump/Paris

Ok, so he pulled the trigger.

Or did he?!

Trump wants the withdrawal to be ‘consistent with the Paris accord’, which White House officials have confirmed to mean that the US will remain in the accord until November 2020 — that is to say, throughout Trump’s remaining term of office.

In the meantime: ‘We’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair’.

But the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, cited in the FT, stated that within the accord: ‘The US does not need to negotiate with others to adjust its contributions’.

Trump is pulling the US out. But leaving the US in for the remainder of his term. And he is going to adjust the US’s contributions, by negotiation — which the accord already allowed him to do, without negotiation.

Isn’t this just more Trumpian political theatre, placating his base by muscling to the centre of the global stage and making bombastic public statements, whilst quietly leaving almost all of the existing state machinery largely untouched?