Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot

Much has been made of the ‘unelectability’ of Jeremy Corbyn, on the grounds that the British people won’t vote for a party led by a self-described socialist.  Apart from a reliance on this apparently being self-evident to the speaker and their presumed audience, this is normally demonstrated by citing Labour’s disastrous result in the 1983 election under Michael Foot.  I’d like to examine three things about this: who is talking about this comparison and why; what actually happened in 1983; and what I feel the genuine likely outcomes are in the event of Corbyn taking the Labour leadership.

Firstly, I’d note that I don’t expect Labour to win the next general election regardless of the outcome of the contest to become leader.  This is not to say that it isn’t a possibility, whether with a small minority, or in a coalition of some kind, but none of the contenders seem to possess whatever spark is necessary to drag their party to greater heights (of course, this quality might become evident at a later date, but nothing says that such people must always be around.  Certainly the nearest we seem to have in the higher echelons of British politics at the moment is Nicola Sturgeon).  It is a truism that governments lose elections, so the matter may be in the hands of Cameron et al, but an effective Opposition should be attempting to force errors, as I shall later observe.

Who and why?

There are two chief groups attempting to talk down Corbyn’s chances as leader, one inside and one outside the party.  The first are generally more obviously entitled to be listened to on the matter, being as they presumably support one of the other candidates; it is only natural for them to talk down the merits of an opponent.  The worrying aspect is any notion of an ABC movement – Anyone But Corbyn.  The grounds being mentioned for this are that Corbyn will ‘tear the party apart’ by being too far to the left, but this is to entirely misplace the blame for such a possibility, as it is they themselves who are threatening to damage the party they pledge their allegiance to.  If Corbyn is duly elected, they should really be able to bite their tongues and get behind the new leader, at least until he has had a fair chance to show what he might achieve.  To do otherwise would be to reject the notion of a democratic party (albeit in the rarefied form that internal Labour elections practice).  Of course, once they have sufficient evidence that Corbyn isn’t going to lead them into government they may feel free to trigger another leadership contest in the prescribed fashion, should they choose.

The second group are broadly Tories, either members of the party, or those whose inclinations lie that way but whose primary allegiance is to their own financial and business interests.  That the first group should be given any credence regarding an internal Labour election is frankly ludicrous.  They clearly want the outcome mostly likely to lead to a Tory victory in the next general election, and will say whatever they think will produce that result.  But it is a trap to think that one can prognosticate on this basis, since some are talking Corbyn down, while the rest are trying (including via the Telegraph’s rather distasteful campaign to interfere in the matter) to push Labour towards a Corbyn victory, on the grounds that he will be the weakest opponent for Cameron or whoever succeeds him.  Quite simply, Labour voters should not be listening to their opposition.

More complicated is the matter of what business and the majority of the mainstream media are up to.  It is perfectly possible that they are working towards multiple goals: a Corbyn victory to – apparently – secure a future Tory government (with the associated low tax rates and regulation they prefer); a victory for any of the other candidates, but one who has been pushed towards adopting policies (particularly economic, again) that will favour their interests, should the Tories contrive to lose the next general election; or even a full schism in the Labour party, thereby apparently securing a Conservative government in perpetuity.  The single thing most likely to head off all of these is a unified Labour party, under whatever leader the members select, and this is where an examination of the party in and up to 1983.

1983 and Michael Foot

The received wisdom, which we should, as always, be extremely sceptical of, is that Michael Foot’s leadership was the cause of one of Labour’s lowest points when they were roundly beaten by Thatcher’s Conservative party.  And this has been attributed, particularly by those making the link to Corbyn, due to the fact that he was the most left-wing of recent Labour leaders.  Of course, whichever way one wants to read depends very much on personal interpretation, but I think it is pretty easy to show that this version of events is at least highly questionable.  Which is not to say that Foot’s position wasn’t a, even the single biggest, factor, but merely to show that things were considerably more complex (which should be enough to undermine the Foot-Corbyn link).

The simplest matter is the simple question of how, if Foot-style socialism is anathema to the British public, his party polled so strongly against Thatcher’s newly elected government?  Of course this also speaks of the weakness of the Tories at the time, before any of the Prime Minister’s signature policies had been accepted.  But it hardly characterises Foot as unelectable.  The fact is that a lot happened in the intermediate period between general elections, and I think that it is these events that provide us with a more plausible series of explanations than something inherent to Foot’s character.

On the government’s side, it managed to win a lot of public support.  Winning a war certainly helps, notwithstanding the way that Churchill managed to get himself booted out in the aftermath of WW2 (which incidentally demonstrates not only the possibility of a truly left-wing party winning the popular vote, but the virtue of having a clear plan – they won not only on the promise of the welfare state, but by convincing that they knew how to bring it into being).  And they also put themselves in a strong position by framing the conflict with organised labour, which had blighted the country through the 70s, as another war that could and must be won.  They were aided in this by the vast majority of the popular press (only the Daily Mirror publicly endorsed Labour) which, then as now, was controlled by a small number of people who were naturally disinclined to support the notion of unions and strike action.  This also forced Labour into making a choice between backing the ‘fifth column’ unions that comprised much of their traditional support, or taking a proto-Blair position that keeping business happy is the best way to secure social goods.

Lastly,  most importantly, and very much tied to the final point above, the Labour party split.  To expect Foot to win a victory when a good portion of the party he led had departed (and let’s not forget that Foot was the ‘compromise candidate’, so it is hard to say what the outcome might have been had one of the other contenders taken the party leadership).  Imagine if, in a post-Cameron Conservative party, their next leader is somebody happy to proclaim the necessity, if not desirability, of remaining in Europe, only to trigger an exodus by a good portion of the party (including several senior figures) to form a new alliance with UKIP.  While this is not exactly equivalent to the circumstances that led to the SDP-Liberal alliance, I hope it does give an idea of the nature of the split.  One could hardly be surprised at a poor Tory showing in the next general election.

In summary, Foot didn’t lose the election purely because he was too left-wing.  There were many factors, and while there were members who felt that that party was too far to the left, this concern pre-dated his leadership.  Given that the departures were of those on the right of the party, it is possible that a leader more to their tastes might have forestalled the split as it occurred, but it is not unreasonable to think that those on the left might have acted in a parallel fashion if they felt that the party had lost touch with its roots.  Certainly, no alternative candidate could have promised the certainty of entering government that would, just over a decade late, allow Blair to pacify the old guard as he launched New Labour.

Corbyn the candidate

The most striking thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals, notwithstanding the picture painted by his opponents both within and without his party is just how moderate they are.  For a self-described socialist in an era where that has, following the USA, become a dirty word (although it has been pleasing to see Bernie Sanders reclaiming the term over there as something reasonable, even desirable), he really doesn’t seem to display a desire to overturn the existing order.  He is not talking about a massive expansion of welfare, but a mere return to the previous status quo before the Tories began their enthusiastic dismantling of systems.  This is not to say that he may not entertain longer-term ambitions in this, but he is clearly aware of what the public will accept for now.  Neither is he suggesting a massive overhaul of taxation.  He has been very careful to only talk of paying fair shares, and to tie talk of the very well-off paying ‘a little’ more to secure the wellbeing of children and the most deprived.  Rather, he has focussed on how much can be done by making the collection of existingly expected revenues more efficient.  And I realise that every potential government likes to talk about efficiency, but some of this is as simple as increasing the staffing and funds available to HMRC.  While I am sure that there is some level at which diminishing returns cut in, it seems both self-evident and under examination true to observe that monies spent here reap an almost automatic increase in tax revenues that can hardly be objected to as the money is already owed.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that cutting resources to HMRC to the extent that has occurred of late can only make sense if viewed in highly ideological terms, i.e. that taxation is inherently bad and inimical to a just and prosperous society.  Anyway, I think that few who take a more objective view will object to the plausibility of the suggestion on Corbyn’s part.

Without wanting to carry out a full analysis of Corbyn’s positions – which I may either save for another day, or leave to those more qualified than I – I think that few of them smack of the extreme left.  This is not to say that he might personally prefer a more socialist party, and indeed government.  But he is smart and pragmatic enough to realise that an offer to return to the recent period of the Blair administrations (if without the foreign adventures, and creep against civil liberties) is both appealing and plausible.  The Tories have only been able to remove and reduce tax credits, benefits, and the like on the grounds that it is necessary for a return to prosperity.  And in this they sow the seeds of their own fall, since their ideology requires them both to proclaim the success of their methods and declare their insufficiency.  They and their immediate supporters will only truly be happy with the complete dismantling of the welfare state.  And I think it is pretty clear that very few member of the British public at large want this.  Moreover, an ever increasing proportion are finding that, despite the proclamations of growth, they aren’t feeling any richer, and in many cases are still worse off than before the financial crisis began in 2008.

In short, I think that Corbyn is electable, although his challenge is to show this is the case in the teeth of concerted opposition and mudslinging by his opponents and the mainstream press.  Even if he loses the party leadership contest, the eventual victor needs to realise that taking on many of his positions is the only way that Labour stand to win a general election, barring a complete collapse from their opponents.  They need to emphasise that – as in the Blair years (and I don’t mean to look at them through rose-tinted glasses, because there were many major problems and the economic gains were largely cyclic, but they were marked – at least until Iraq really took off the sheen – by a general feeling of optimism, in contrast to the pessimism since 2008) it is perfectly possible to combine prosperity with a state that at least aims to provide for all of its citizens.  Against this is the fact that austerity has not done what was promised.  Most people do not feel more wealthy, more secure; London seems to have recovered, but even here much of the affluence is tied to the unsustainable rise of the property market.  The main mark of austerity has instead been the increasing rate of transfer of assets from the poor and middle classes to the very wealthy.  Corbyn has begun, and Labour need under whatever leader they choose, to offer an alternative.  Only by fighting, rather than being coopted into supporting, the notion that There Is No Alternative to continuing austerity, do they argue for their own electability, even existence.  And to ‘admit’ that the current situation is the result of Labour profligacy – it isn’t; it was due to buccaneering bankers and light-touch regulation – is only to hark back to the idea that you cannot trust Labour with the finances.  The way to fight the Conservative proclamation of doom – with the rider that only a harsh Tory government can save us – is not to go along with this narrative, but to announce and explain how things could be better under a Labour administration.  Without this, the question is going to be, as now: what exactly is the Labour party for?

Some thoughts on Greece, debt, and morality

So, in the wake of the Greek referendum result, the haggling continues.  And let’s not ignore the fact that this referendum took place as a negotiation tool.  Whether or not it turns out to be useful probably depends on how public the Greeks can keep the negotiations (their opponents across the table don’t really care about the claimed ‘democratic mandate’, not least because they are, at least theoretically, backed by the support of the other 496 million EU citizens who didn’t get a vote).  In a public arena, it benefits them to be thought of as the underdogs; the Germans in particular have shown a sensitivity to coming across as bullies.

The ground may have shifted somewhat – how much remains to be seen – but this vote was never the make-or-break matter that either side pretended it was.  Of course they had to maintain that it was critical, not least because it’s pretty hard to get people to turn out to the polling stations if they’re being told that their ballots make little or no difference.  These things never end; the Greek government will continue to work to maintain as much control as possible of its domestic finances, and the Troika – on behalf of the creditors – will try and maximise the amount and security of the return on its ‘investment’.

Assuming, at least behind closed doors, that both parties understand that this is merely a business negotiation, it’s more interesting to me to look at how the rest of the world views it.  And it appears either that, egged on by much of the media, this is a matter of morality.  On the one hand, plenty of people take the view that, quite simply, one *must* pay one’s debts.  On the other, that forcing Greece into a continuing spiral of cuts and austerity, as a punitive measure and one that shows no sign of returning them to a secure footing from which they might be able to enjoy solvency, is both cruel and unethical.  I admittedly have more sympathy with the latter group, not least because the past few years of austerity in Greece have failed to produce the promised result.  It appears that neither side have an answer to the financial situation, so I’ll take the one that is less reliant on the general misery of the ordinary Greek people, thank you very much.  Anyway, with that given I’d like to look at the bases for insisting on the debt being repaid (aside from those with a direct interest in the matter, for whom the basis should go without saying).

Why repay debts?

Clearly, most people need to repay debts most of the time, otherwise no system of lending money could work.  Just as linguistic communication relies on the fact that the majority of us tell the truth to the best of our ability, any arrangement of financial communication that relied on constant monitoring and coercion would be practically unworkable.  However the conversational analogy works the other way too: any sensible person maintains some kind of measurement of reliability, and is in the habit of confirming important facts.  This may not be due to outright dishonesty; we are all prone to spreading gossip and information the veracity of which is unknown.  Likewise, we may overestimate our own solvency and ability to repay.

However, while acknowledging that a small number of defaults are unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances, I think most people would still maintain that a debt should be repaid whenever possible.  And when I say ‘whenever’ this usually includes the possibility of extreme discomfort to the debtor (and his or her dependants).  It’s odd how strongly moral the talk around is: debts *must* be repaid or, it is implied, the whole system breaks down.  But just as we can cope with the possibility that some people may not be telling the truth – however unwittingly – we are actually perfectly capable of dealing with defaults.

Initially, I’d demonstrate that the system is perfectly capable of dealing with defaults by observing that pretty much every country has experienced one at some point.  Most several times.  Plenty of observers have gleefully pointed out that Germany, in particular, did several times in the last century.  And in the long term it doesn’t seem to have done them, or their creditor en masse (I’m not disputing that some people will have done very badly at the time) that much harm, as demonstrated by the fact that people and banks continue to lend to them.  More immediately, in the wake of its own banking crisis, Iceland was threatened with being cut off from the world banking system, and ultimately economic destruction, if it failed to make food for its own bad banks.  It refused, and bounced back.  The threats and predictions were fairly rapidly shown to be groundless, little more than hard negotiating tools.

Actually, I’m going to go further and argue that not only are some bad debts inevitable, but they are a necessary part of the system.  This is borne out by the existence of interest; why else is it charged.  Few people can be ignorant of the fact that the rate of interest charged reflects, in large part, the risk that the debt will not be repaid.  But I don’t think they’d be as quick to realise that this is the reason that one expects to receive more than one lent out in the first place.  Of course they might say, Greece or a country in its situation should expect to pay a high rate of interest because of the high risk, but this starts from the basis that creditors would already expect to receive a return on their money.  If one is certain of receiving X amount on their money, then a dubious prospect must offer, say 2X, or more (proportionate to the assesses risk).  Germany can borrow at 1%, where Venezuela must pay 20%, for example.  But even the 1% that Germany pays is based on an amount of risk, however small.  Nowhere is entirely safe.  The fact that *everybody* must pay interest reflects this.  We have grown so used to this that we ignore the fact that money doesn’t actually grow by itself.  It grows because somebody thinks that they can do something else with it while we don’t (or that they can do more with it than we can).  And this is why the possibility of default, and even the necessity of some degree of it, is essential to the financial system.  If nobody ever defaults, why should anybody expect to receive (or pay) interest on their money?

If I have a billion idle pounds and you need it, why shouldn’t I just give it to you?  I ask for 10% interest, but that’s predicated on the fact that I could get 9% elsewhere, with somebody who looks like a safer prospect.  Of course I could just sit on it, leave it under the mattress (assuming that robbery isn’t a concern), but that benefits nobody.  And I think that most people are relatively altruistic: if a friend – i.e. somebody who I don’t consider a risk at all – asks to borrow a tenner from me (which I have spare), I hand it over with no questions asked.  For anybody else I might ask for some kind of collateral or interest, but that is based on risk.  And we all benefit from a world in which the lending of money is not only possible, but common.  Not only might we find ourselves a bit short sometimes, but it allows for economic growth with all of the comforts and possibilities that that affords.

Given this lack of a purely financial justification for arguing against default, it’s unsurprising that we feel the need to fall back on a moral one.  Which isn’t a bad thing, because it’s certainly still true that default should remain relatively rare.  But when appropriate – i.e. when the costs of repaying the debts are too high in either financial or social terms – we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it.

Postscript 1

Of course any specific claims I’ve made about the permissibility of Greece (or any other country) defaulting again are tempered somewhat by the newness of the situation.  The Euro is a new thing, so there are additional potential complications.  But the uncertainty is mirrored – it might ultimately bring down the single currency, but then it might actually strengthen it by allowing all the members to know that there is no inevitability – since neither side knows the future.

Postscript 2

Those with an interest in the connection between morality and debt will no doubt be aware of the commonality, linguistic and otherwise, between religion and finance.  Plenty of people more erudite than I have written on the subject, so I’ll just observe here that the word ‘redemption’ being used in both is merely one of the more prominent exmaples.

On Human Rights Act repeal and preaching to the choir

In the UK, we’ve recently elected a new government, and the result was disappointing for many of us.  The Conservatives have now expressed an intention to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998), on the argued grounds that it protects criminals and terrorists.  To be fair to the Tories, they said they were going to before the election, so it can’t really be argued against on those grounds.  I have seen a number of pieces explaining the complications of repeal, generally talking about how it intersects with other legislation and treaty obligations, so to remove the HRA would require unravelling a Gordian knot.  I shan’t go into such matters, since I’m no expert in the legal niceties, except to observe what happened to the mythical Gordian knot; I’m not sure that Michael Gove won’t just forge ahead with his plan and worry about the consequences afterwards (look at Lords reform for a policy under a previous administration that was started without any idea of an endpoint).

So on the basis that, if they believe that it is the right thing to do, the Conservatives might just go ahead and repeal the Act and damn the consequences, their opponents need to make the case as to why this is the wrong thing to do.  Assuming that Her Majesties Opposition do their job (which may be over-optimistic given the last 5 years, but let’s hope the new Labour leadership is a bit more effective), and given the size of the majority currently held by the Conservatives, this looks like a matter of persuading a relatively small number of MPs, either directly or via their constituents, that to do so would be a mistake.  So far so good.

The problem is that while there are a considerable number of people, in both the traditional and new media, making what appear to be very reasonable cases as to why the HRA should not be repealed, I’m not convinced that those who either support or lean towards repeal will listen to them.  Obviously, this is at least in part because there is a lack of direct communication.  You can write as many letters to the Guardian as you like, and Telegraph readers are going to remain cheerfully oblivious.  This is even more heightened by the gap between the traditional and new media.  I love Twitter, but most of the country (certainly that part over the age of, say, 30) barely registers its existence, let alone considers that it might be the site of serious political discussion.  Of course the reverse is also true, as readers of physical media are probably relatively unaware of how irrelevant it seems to the younger generation.  But aside from the issues specific to particular media, I think the major problem is that the two sides are speaking in different languages.

The broadest issue here is that when the term Human Rights is used, different people hear completely different things.  For those of us who *believe* in Human Rights, their existence and nature is self-evident.  While we might debate their precise constitution, for us the fact is that a) there are certain rights that are common to all of humanity, and b) that these are assigned purely on the basis of being human.  For the other side, this is not the case.  At the extreme, there are plenty of people who do not recognise the existence of rights at all, only privileges.  In this case, ‘rights’ are something awarded in return for certain behaviours: paying one’s taxes, adhering to the law, etc.  Secondly, these rights or privileges may be specifically limited to citizens of a particular territory.  This is not an unreasonable position.  In fact, given the concerns over the repeal over the HRA, it is eminently logical: it appears that the rights we are talking about are created by the HRA and similar legislation.  Where we, as believers in Human Rights, diverge is in insisting that these rights exist regardless of the HRA.  For us, the law only recognises, and administrates for, self-evident facts.

So the challenge for those arguing that the HRA should be maintained, or at very least that those who wish to repeal it need to make a lot clearer what exactly will replace it (because nobody is arguing that it is without flaw), is in speaking in way that their opposite numbers understand.

Speaking across the line

So, having determined that we must talk in way that resonates with those we are trying to win over, we must begin by acknowledging who they are.  The first, small, group is ministers and senior members of the Conservative party who find themselves directly frustrated in their plans by the existence of the act.  I suspect persuasion here is a waste of everybody’s time.  The vast majority of people who support, or at least ambivalent to, appeal have far less personally invested in this happening or, more pertinently, believe this to be the case.

To appeal to this large body of people, I think we must make the case in terms of self interest.  To be clear, this is not to say selfishness, as they are as concerned with the good of those around them as are any of us.  But we must explain how the law benefits (and repeal would injure) people like them.  We’re broadly dealing with tribalism.  There opposition is based on what they believe to be right for their family, friends, and the country at large.

For the above group, the apparent effects of the act can be summarised in two broad categories: it protects and privileges criminals and terrorists, or at least people suspected of being such; it has no positive effects for ‘hard-working’, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens such as themselves.  That the former is, at least partially, the case is unarguable (the protecting part, not the privileging – if it gave rights to the accused that were not general to the population, it would indeed be flawed).  This is part of what it is supposed to do.  The idea that it does not do the latter, though, is attached to the notion that there are two distinct classes of people, which we might just call ‘criminals’ and ‘citizens’.  (by the way, I’m fully aware that I’m doing the dividing thing myself by talking in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but this is merely regarding temporary positions on a single argument, not a lasting classification)

So, I think the case needs to be built, or restated, given the fact that it is self-evident to many, that the division here is false.  That by committing a crime, still less by being accused of one, one does not suddenly move beyond the pale.  That a criminal, a protestor, an asylum seeker, is not in any way a different *sort* of person to any of the rest of us ‘law-abiding’ types.  As long as you can accept, or even self-construct, a narrative where there is the sort of person who this happens to, and the sort of person you are, it’s only a small step to believing that they deserve different treatment.  It’s not as naked as self-interest vs. not caring what happens to others, but the fact remains that we find it hard to empathise with people without a strong personal connection.  And that can be manipulated by those who control the narrative.  I think much of it is actually driven by our need to believe in natural justice.  We know we live in a world where some people are treated badly, and the idea that we are somehow complicit in that is deeply troubling.  So we listen to those who tell us that those who are in trouble must have done something to deserve it.

I think the case that needs to be made to save the HRA is based on asserting its benefits for all of us.  It doesn’t help that if you are, say, a white middle class professional, you do generally get treated well by the authorities if you should happen to come into contact with them.  You think, for the most part, that they are fair.  Your day-to-day experience shows you this.  And if they are fair to you, why wouldn’t they be fair to everyone else?  But while an unchecked state may start by treading on the smallest of us, it will see no reason not to extend the practice.

The case needs to be made that a state and a people that does not respect and protect the least of us, the disadvantaged, the criminals, those who do not have citizenship, does not in the end respect or protect any of us, except maybe those who are rich and powerful enough to buy their own way.  Only by showing that we are all the same, that Human Rights are exactly what they are called, are we going to be able to win over those who see the HRA as unnecessary or even bad.

On responsibility

One form of power in society is the ability to avoid, or at least be selective about, responsibility for one’s actions.  When an ‘ordinary’ person does something wrong, we naturally expect them to apologise, be punished, or otherwise act to correct their mistake.  Even if the event was something out of their personal control, there tends to be sage muttering of things like: ‘actions have consequences’, as if these are bound by the laws of physics rather than malleable societal standards.

The thing that brought this to mind right now is the, just announced, UK Supreme Court ruling on the publication of Prince Charles’s letters to various minister.  Or more specifically, the government’s attempt to block a FoI ruling that allowed their publication.  In particular, the then attorney general”Grieve over-ruled the tribunal, arguing that publication of the letters between September 2004 and April 2005 would “seriously damage” the Prince of Wales’s kingship.”  (  This is what pisses me off.  Firstly a declaration of my republican sympathies – I’m not a supporter of the monarchy, but I think I still understand what it’s for.  And if the status of the monarch is to be damaged by release of this correspondence, then the responsibility clearly lies with the writer.  If the heir to the throne was trying to interfere with what I shall only half-sarcastically refer to as the democratic process, then we should be able to know about it, and if he doesn’t like that then maybe he should keep his mouth shut and do his job as a figurehead.

Of course this is only part of a wider pattern of attempting to conceal access to government.  Fortunately there are people who are happy to expose such matters as just how often Rupert Murdoch and his associates get invited to Downing Street (I assume somewhat less in the aftermath of Coulson).  However, the response to this is to deny that anything of substance occurs at these meetings.  It is suggested that these are merely social events, from which no substantive matters of policy evolve.  Obviously I’m sceptical of that for several reasons: firstly the very idea that one can remain unaffected by those one meets, especially when they include such political operators as Murdoch; and secondly because otherwise why would an American billionaire repeatedly show up for courtesy drinks; and finally because why else are those involved so determined to keep these meetings under wraps?

The attempts to conceal access to government for both the heir to the throne and various wealthy individuals are particularly egregious in that not only do ministers want to keep hidden what was said, but don’t want the public knowing that the meetings (or other contact) have even taken place.  This makes me think of the disingenuousness surrounding various states’ attempts to monitor the private communications of its citizens.  The defence is offered that they are only looking at ‘metadata’, i.e. they don’t read your emails/listen to your calls, only look at who you are talking to.  The idea is that your chat with your mum is private, while the long conversation you had with a known terrorist can be flagged, and then read once the proper legal channels have been followed.  This pretends that nobody can work out why you might have called Dominos at 2330, or what that email from the STI clinic might have related to.  If metadata is so innocent, why try to suppress news of who has been dining with the PM?

Defending the indefensible

Of course the other news item du jour that has prompted a mass waiving or displacement of responsibility is the Clarkson departure (I call it thus because it’s still unclear whether he’s been sacked, not had his contract renewed or, as at least one wag has had it, been reduced to zero hours).  You can argue that Clarkson is a great presenter and entertainer (and I can see that, although I’m much more disappointed at/in James May), or even try to deny that the incident occurred as described.  Which would be a little bizarre as Clarkson himself hasn’t made any attempt to deny what happened, only justify himself.  But if the violence and abuse did go down exactly as described, it’s hard to see how you can blame anybody except Clarkson himself.  From the attempts to place the blame on a BBC conspiracy (an organisation that is still, despite the insistence of its detractors, overwhelmingly run by white, middle-class, conservative male Oxbridge types), to the unconscionable further abuse hurled at the victim of Clarkson’s attack, this is an attempt to deny responsibility on behalf of somebody who has no need for such defence even if it were grounded in fact.  And the fracas provided such clear grounds for dismissal that Clarkson’s opponents haven’t even had to go near his repeated public racism.


Of course, the powerful have always been able to evade responsibility for their actions; to my mind, that is a major part of what power is.  And even in cases where matters do catch up with them to an extent, they are never punished to a significant degree: resigning ministers tend to wander into directorships or sinecures; Clarkson will continue to sell books and will presumably reappear elsewhere on our screen before very long.  But at the other end of the social spectrum there is no such flexibility.  Benefits claimants, despite in the vast, vast, vast majority being in a situation not of their devising, are given no sympathy at all.  The public assumption is that if somebody is unemployed it must because they got themselves fired, or are too lazy, or greedy (which conveniently ignores how difficult it is to live on such limited funds).  If the keyboard warriors and green ink brigade really want something to rant about, maybe they should consider the ease with which the most desperate in society are sanctioned by the system that’s supposed to help them maintain a basic standard of living, and allow them to participate fully in society (including, in most cases, getting back to work in a position that suits their skills and abilities)

The wealthy and powerful are forgiven and shielded for every fuck-up, while the poor and voiceless are hounded for the slightest misdemeanour, oreven totally chance event.  That makes *me* want to punch somebody in the face.

On Freedom of Speech

There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech lately.  There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech since it became a concept.  But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recent spate is that people are talking at cross-purposes, and generally agree on the basic principle, just not how and where it’s applied.  This is not an argument about whether there should be a free press or government monitoring of what people say.  As such, I shall try to be charitable towards those I disagree with, as I think they’re generally well-intentioned but mistaken in their apprehension, rather than malicious.  Or at least most of them: some are awful trolls and haters (I’m not sure if I like the word ‘haters’ in general use:most people don’t hate indiscriminately – they do it directedly and for reasons, good or bad – but it’s about right here).

First, some pedantry.  When people talk about freedom of speech, they mean a whole range of different things, from being able to express an opinion in (what they regard as) private, up to the maintenance of a free press.  And this is the root of much of the disagreement at present.  But when one is talking about freedom of speech as a formal right, it must refer to the state, and nothing more.  The right to speak freely is the right to not have your speech arbitrarily monitored, limited, or controlled by the government.  It doesn’t stop other people from ignoring you or shouting you down.  It doesn’t mean you get to speak in any particular place.  It doesn’t entitle you to say anything you want without consideration for the possible effects.  The classic example is shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room, causing a stampede.  It certain doesn’t entitle you to a platform, or any other means of amplifying your voice over those of others.

This is not to say that many of these things aren’t desirable.  Those with something to say should be heard.  But that comes down to matters of opinion about who should be heard, and who ignored.  What isn’t helpful is people framing any suggestion that a certain individual doesn’t deserve a given platform as censorship.  Especially when that person has access to all sorts of alternatives.  Most people in the world have little outlet (and probably nothing before the advent of the web), so let’s not get distracted by a few high profile people encountering a little resistance at universities.

The limits of free speech

Look, in an ideal world, everybody would have a public voice.  This sort of thing – a blog – is a pretty good approximation.  Of course, most blog content might as well be shouted into a well.  A few friends and family might read it, but unless you hit something zeitgeisty, or have contacts, you have no expectation that it will reach many people.  The thing is that the ‘free speech is everything’ people aren’t focussed on the right to speak, so much as the right to be listened to.  I think they make two major oversights.

The first is in trumpetting a simple multiplicity of views.  The more ideas and opinions we hear, the better.  In an ideal world…maybe.  It’s certainly good to consider contrary opinions, even if they do only lead to us strengthening our own.  Debate is a fine thing.  But to suggest that ignoring any given person  – generally someone the arguer agrees with – is a mistake is itself folly.  There are simply too many voices in the world, and we are all necessarily selective.  You should certainly temper your Fox News with some BBC (and vice versa), but you cannot possibly listen to every single position.  So people are very rarely just saying ‘don’t listen to this person’; rather, they are saying that you should give time to someone else you maybe haven’t considered.  To give a specific example: when a group protested against Germaine Greer speaking at the Cambridge Union, they didn’t just argue that she shouldn’t be listened to (on the grounds of her attitude to, and treatment of, trans* people), but they offered their own event and speakers, Roz Kaveney & Sarah Brown, to provide an alternative.  Oddly, this has been presented by some as ‘no platforming’ despite the fact that both events went ahead.

The second error is in ignoring the fact that speech can have negative consequences.  It is odd that they present it as being neutral, ideas as if they are completely objective prior to their application, when they are so determined as to the good that can be done.  If the world can be changed for the better by a speech, it can just as well be made worse.  We know that some things can be harmful if said in the wrong place and time.  The aforementioned shout of ‘fire’.  The use of abusive language directed at certain people.  This is all about context: a word is neutral when spoken in a vacuum; it is not in any circumstance where it has meaning.

The thing is that virtually all of those calling for more free speech know this.  I doubt many of them want to give neo-Nazis an opportunity to recruit at our institutions of learning (because even *wrong* words have power).  I’m sure they all repudiate hate speech.  But then who decides what hate speech is?  Denial of a genocide?  The suggestion that only white people can be British?  Arguing that women are inherently inferior?  Insisting that sex is purely physiologically determined and fixed at birth, and that trans* people are trying to fool the rest of us?  Of course, where you draw the line is a huge messy argument in itself.  This has long been the debate around the rise of UKIP to apparent ‘legitimacy’, but even Nigel Farage appreciates that there are some things that should not be said in public (even if he’s only kicking people out for reasons of expediency).

It’s odd that the one type of debate the arch free-speechers don’t want to hear is the one about what sort of public debate we should be having.  They like to pretend that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is generally agreed and immovable.

Anti-corporate activity

I have accounts with HSBC, and I’m not feeling too comfortable about it right now.  In the last week or so, there have been a couple of stories that don’t exact leave my bank looking squeaky clean.  To be fair, as far as the Daily Telegraph business goes, I’m far more concerned about the newspaper’s actions – I expect advertisers to try and get coverage that suits them, and journalists should be fighting against this.  But then that’s a point I shall pick up on.  I’m going to refer directly to this case, but most of my points with be general and highly theoretical, as I don’t know the specifics.  I’m a philosopher, not an economist or lawyer.

Of course this is all a bit ridiculous, as it’s hardly a secret that a corporation like HSBC has been involved in ethically questionable stuff for years.  It’d be nice to think that when a company we buy from, or use the services of, does something wrong, we could immediately decide to stop using them.  And to an extent, that is possible.  But it’s complicated by a whole bunch of factors.  For a start, not buying from a particular shop, say, is a lot easier than cutting off a long-term relationship.  And then there’s always the matter of finding somewhere else that isn’t up to the same stuff.  Which in many sectors is easier said than done.  Linking these is how much difficulty it’s going to be for me, balanced against the effect it will have on the companies in question.  I would like to see change, but want to avoid just cutting off my nose to spite my face.

What to do and when?

So, I guess the first point is deciding when it’s time to do something.  I guess this is one of the biggest hurdles, built of inertia and cynicism.  Disengagement with capitalism tout court is just not really viable, at least not without a like-minded community around you, but it feels odd to single out a single company without picking on, say, an arms manufacturer, or a chemical company that is directly poisoning the water supply.  But then that’s the point, I’m not saying I want to get out of HSBC because of one evil thing they’ve done; it’s the whole shebang, amoral at best.  To be fair, against that is the other side of the inertia coin: it’s not like they’ve been great to me.  If I’d made a fortune, it wouldn’t make their behaviour acceptable, but it would at least provide a personal, selfish reason to stay with them.

Anyway, so let’s take it that their crimes are significant enough to outweigh any good they’ve done me.  What then?  I could go into HSBC tomorrow (well maybe not tomorrow, as I’m in the wrong country, but soon) and ask to close my accounts, and I hope it happen pretty quickly.  But then what?  For all sorts of reasons, I can’t really see myself living without a bank at all, at least not for the foreseeable future.  So I need to find a suitable alternative.  A little while back, the obvious place to start would be something like the Cooperative, but they’ve been tainted too.  Still, I’m not sure if they’re beyond redemption, so I need to do some research.  Failing that, I need to do more research to find somebody else.

Obviously, when I say research, it’ll largely be looking at websites that discuss these things, and balancing them against my practicalities, including how much inconvenience I’m prepared to put up with.  The latter is something I came across when trying not to use Amazon any more.  It was fine when in the UK, but getting English language academic literature at short notice in the Netherlands is more difficult.  So I don’t think I’m going to be able to commit to that until I return home to London.  Unfortunately, lecturers aren’t that forgiving of failure to get the texts, however principled the reason is.  And I’m obviously not yet prepared to bugger up my studies.

On the plus side, boycotting Amazon is an established thing, so I’d be adding my action to that of others.  Of course there’s the fact that these others haven’t yet achieved their aims, but somebody has to be the one who pushes things over the limit.  And we know that these things can have an effect – you don’t kill the company off, but you can make them change their policies.  On my return to London, I am going to take a little time to look at where I shop, and commit to being a bit more selective.  It’s a small thing, but I hope a good one.  And, of course, there are various other forms of pressure one can get involved in putting on.

Low expectations

Another factor that feeds the inertia is that most companies are only doing what we expect of them.  We might think of small companies as being, or trying to be, ethical, but once they’re big enough to hire professional managers, that goes out of the window.  In fact, as I understand it, such managers and directors were legally compelled to behave as they do: they could be found negligent or fined if they failed to act in their company’s best interests (which sounds reasonable), in terms of maximising stock price.  While there are certainly issues around this – social responsibility – it can work in the long term.  But it all started to go horribly wrong as the view got ever shorter and shorter – directors running a company in a way that will kill it in 5 years, in order to maximise for the current financial year.  Even very pro-capital types have seen that this is untenable.

In the HSBC/Telegraph case, the accusation is two-fold: first, that HSBC is using its financial clout, through advertising in the paper, to affect the editorial position; and second that the Telegraph is accepting this, and modifying its behaviour in line with the client’s expectations.  Of course the Telegraph denies that this is the case, but how this pans out remains to be seen.  Anyway, there are broadly three ways we can view this apparent transaction: either as a straight up trade for a service, as something more informal akin to a gratuity, or as a bribe (the implication from the coverage being that it looks closest to the latter.

If HSBC is simply paying for favourable coverage, then the transaction would be legitimate, and our concerns, from a social point of view, directed at the system that allows this.  The more laissez-faire position might be simply to complain about the price and the openness – it’s not that either party is doing anything inherently wrong, it’s just that they’re getting a lot of benefit for not much outlay, and they’re doing it in an underhand fashion.  From this point of view, the system is damaged rather than irreparably broken.  Some form of regulation may be needed, but the issue is with this specific case (and possibly many others), rather than with the concept.

At the other extreme, there will be people who look at it as a straight-up bribe.  In this case, there is a clear need for legal action, which will no doubt be messy and expensive, but is entirely justified.  However, the Telegraph is not a public body, so this looks untenable.  We may not like it, but there’s no reason in principle why it should be treated this way.  Notwithstanding the legal details of the particular transaction, it’s hard to say, as things stand, that a private business shouldn’t be able to sell its credibility if it chooses to do so (and its shareholders support the move).

So it looks like we’re somewhere in the middle ground, where you might consider the advertising payments like some form of gratuity.  There’s no formal expectation of return for the money – other than the actual advertising space – but an unspoken, um, thing.  It seems entirely natural that a company should act slightly favourably towards its best customers, if it can be done without breaking the law.  I guess this is because ‘everybody does it’.  So why is this case unacceptable?  The easy solution would be to push it towards one of the prior positions: either to completely legitimise the transaction (thereby opening it to regulation), or to ban it completely.  But I don’t really see either happening.  It suits too many people to have something like this, in that grey area.

So, who’s done wrong?

I think most people will agree that, if this situation pans out in line with the accusations, that the Telegraph had certainly acted in an undesirable fashion, if not an illegal one.  Readers of that particular organ, as well as society at large, see the value of a free press.  Of course, like free speech and the free market, this is always going to have some limits, but freedom of the press is at least something to aspire to.  But this is the ‘easy’ part.  How to solve the problem is much less so, but at least having some parameter makes it viable in principle.

More complicated is the matter of the advertiser, and this is where the problem of low expectation kicks in.  We expect our newspapers to be free-ish, or at least open about their influences.  It’s ‘fine’ that each paper tends to have a party affiliation, as long as we know about it.  And of course we tend to choose our reading material on that basis.  Our expectations of another type of company, especially a financial one, are equally simple: that it do whatever it can – within the law – to maximise its profits.  As long as the wider capitalist system works, this seems fine, as a company’s takings and profits should be broadly derived from two factors: whether it provides the right service, demanded by *the public*, and how efficiently it does so.  This is how the private sector is supposed to work, and is the basic argument for its superiority over the public.  The problem is when we have two conflicting sets of expectations.  We expect a company to behave as specified, but we also expect it to behave with some degree of social responsibility.

And this gets us to how we act to get a result that we want.  The straight-forward way we should act, the way within the capital-based system, is that we withdraw our custom.  If enough of us do so, any well-managed company will modify its behaviour.  After all, the customer is always right.  And we know that this works to an extent.  McDonalds didn’t start sourcing their meat more rigorously, and selling salads, out of the kindness of their hearts.  But it is also extremely limited.

The alternative is a wholesale rearrangement of our social system.  I have no idea how to do this, but I reckon its got to be worth looking into.  We don’t have to accept the status quo just because it’s been like that a long time.  Let’s not make what is essentially the naturalistic fallacy writ large.


I’m  not entirely sure I want to tear down capitalism in toto.  It’s a massively flawed system, and often does a huge amount of harm, but it also allows for much good, if properly regulated. A lot would argue that it’s not that capitalism is bad, just the particular form of it we seem to have evolved of late.  I’m not entirely convinced by this.

At the very least, some consideration of what to put in its place is needed.  A lot of people will shout for communism, but I can’t help recalling how that worked out last time. Which is not to say it should be ruled out, but at the very least the vanguard business needs to be sorted.  Leaders are too easily convinced of their own importance and necessity to not be corrupted.  If we are going to make anything else work, it needs to be built from the ground up.

But I think the biggest problem to overcome is a lack of *imagination*.  Capital has been the dominant system for a considerable amount of time, taking over from militaristic monarchies and aristocracies (I’m aware that it’s been a while since we expected our kings to lead troops into battle, but this was the foundational premise).  I think that at least part of the problem with communism as it panned out is that it found itself working within the same framework.  In the same way that monarchies rested initially upon might, then some kind of traditional claim (which may have been institutionalised as divine right, but was essentially: we should rule because that’s always been the way), communism is built on the same premise as capitalism: that power goes with control of capital and the means of production.  The only difference is that the state claims these, rather than private individuals.  No wonder the same problem remain.
So if we’re going to build a new sort of society, what do we start with?

A response to Mary Beard

Yesterday an open letter was published by the Observer, composed by Beatrix Campbell, and signed by a substantial number of academics, activists, feminists and others.  Although a number of points are made in the letter, the central claim is that there has been a recent trend of restriction of freedom of speech at our universities.

Many people have written responses of varying length to this letter (mine is copied on this site), from articulate criticisms of the individual points to in a few cases, I am sad to say, more personal harassment of some of the signatories (more on this later).  Despite the existence of the latter, the vast majority of what I have read is polite, coherent and well reasoned.  The essence of these is that, firstly, some of the claims made by the letter are manifestly false, and secondly, that the broader situation described is at best misleading of the actual facts.

I shall resist the temptation to elaborate on the content of the original letter more that is necessary, both for reasons of the volume of other responses and because there are others far more qualified than I to speak on specific matters of content.  However I do want to focus on one particular detail of the ever-expanding furore.  One of the signatories who has received the most attention is Mary Beard.  I think that there are a good number of reasons for this: her general popularity and articulate manner, the fact that as a woman of a certain age she elicits more sympathy than certain others, that she has previously been the noted target of online abuse, and that she has not – to the best of my knowledge – been tarnished by direct claims of trans- and whore-phobia (matters of association being considerably more complex to unpick).  As a result, various of the responses to the original letter have identified Prof Beard as the reasonable person to whom their objections can be directed.

Professor Beard has now provided her own thoughts, on her website, and it is on these that I would like to make a few comments.  I’m going to address them personally to Prof Beard.

A response to a response to a response…

1.  You state that you have a long-held view that ‘no-platforming’ unpopular views is counter-productive.  While I understand the general position, this rather depends upon what is meant by ‘unpopular’.  There are, of course, things that people don’t want to hear but really need to (generally anything critical of themselves and their beliefs).  Then again there are those who simply preach hate, and who we do not stand to gain anything from hearing.

You acknowledge that we all draw a line somewhere on the matter of free speech, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be relativist about the matter: some people take permissiveness to an extreme level, while others will attempt to shut down anything outside their comfort zone, and both of these positions are wrong.  There is room for debate over the middle ground, but the essence of the disagreement between you and various of my co-correspondents is that we think that at least some of the examples cited in the open letter fall into the actively harmful beyond any redeeming quality category.

(the most egregious example being the various transphobes.  These people are not trying to negotiate with trans* people about the niceties and etiquette of trans*/cis daily life.  They are arguing that trans* people should not exist.  You cannot debate with somebody who refuses to acknowledge your essential nature, let alone your right to speak on related matters)

2.  You acknowledge that the Smurthwaite business may not be ‘as it has widely been reported’.  This is rather disingenuous.  There has been a sustained campaign of misinformation – beginning with Smurthwaite herself – and before you signed a letter like this, you should have made the effort to acquaint yourself with the basics.  Various people at Goldsmiths have published their view of the matter online, since they’ve not been permitted a national media platform, and it is pretty clear that Kate Smurthwaite exaggerated the situation, at the very least.

3.  You observe that Julie Bindel has been no-platformed by the NUS for several years.  I am afraid that you are mistaken, albeit to a lesser degree, on this matter too.  The LGBT campaign has done so, but not the wider NUS.  I mention this only to highlight the importance of accuracy in your response.  More pertinently it is odd that you fail to acknowledge (or were unaware) that Bindel herself is a keen advocate of ‘no-platforming’.  She and her affiliated organisations commonly refuse to allow trans* activists or active sex workers to speak.  She recently publish a ‘press pack’ for journalists that advised them against speaking to grass-roots sex workers organisations on the spurious grounds that they are a mouthpiece for pimps and the sex industry.  More generally, many feminist conferences fail to provide a platform for either trans* or sex work activists, despite the fact that matters of direct concern to them are commonly debated.  It has become commonplace to see panels on sex work lacking a sex worker, despite the fact that sex worker-led organisations routinely put members forward for these.

4. You appear confused, rather embarrassingly, about the notion of democracy (modern, of course, I wouldn’t presume to inform you on the ancient varieties).  Of course democracy must always be more than simple majority rule, but to suggest that democratically reached decisions made by democratically elected groups (and I realise the uninspiring nature of student politics means that people are commonly elected unopposed, but that is another matter) are undemocratic is strange.  And that they should be externally overruled (and by who?  The faculty?  The vice-chancellor?  The government?) is just perverse.  Democracies get things *wrong*, but it’s not because they’re not democratic enough.

5. You observe the difficulties of signing alongside unconfirmed others.  I sympathise somewhat, but this is the nature of the open letter.  The whole premise is built upon the notion of a group of people coming together from different backgrounds, to express a shared opinion.  You cannot have your cake and eat it: you chose to sign alongside these people in order to make a point, so you can’t complain when some of them turn out to have views which you would not whole-hearted endorse.

6. Having noted the above, you do mention a number of people with whom you are unequivocally happy to share a platform.  You then go on to suggest that anyone disagreeing with them would be a real reactionary.  This is nice rhetoric, but rather overstates their credentials.  Caroline Criado-Perez, for example, may have led a few well-meaning campaigns, but also has a track record of (literally as well as figuratively – I have heard her on the radio) talking over WoC.

7. You observe you think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side.  Oh if only things were so simple.  For a start it is perfectly possible for people on the same side to disagree on certain matters, just as it is possible for enemies to see eye to eye.  More concerningly, this line is itself a method for stifling debate.  The idea that one can’t criticise one’s allies is to ignore the temporary and pragmatic nature of alliance.  At the very least I think it is uncontroversial to observe that (white, cis) gay men have at times left behind the rest of their allies in the LGBT+ community.  And that mainstream feminism has a huge problem acknowledging the experience and expertise of WoC.  There are not two clearly defined sides here.

8. I am sorry that you were upset by the nature of the response to your signing of the letter.  And I think that we can all agree that the individual who messaged you sixty times in one hour is not helping either ‘side’.  But, as you acknowledge, this is nothing on the scale of what many people receive on account of their gender (or indeed other aspect of their identity).  Many of those who wrote back to you, or blogged or tweeted about the matter will expect to be the subject of abuse, threats, doxxing and the like on a daily basis.  And I am afraid that the actions of you and your co-signatories help to legitimise this.  By painting yourselves as the victims, you make those who disagree with you out to be the aggressors, when they are the ones who really lack a platform.

9. Your final point: you can see why a lot of women (and there is a gender issue here) might choose not to put their heads above the parapet, cant you?  It is true that women face being the target of abuse, and that the public arena is dominated by (white) men.  But the fact remains that white, middle-class cis women are still the second most privileged group on the planet.  I don’t want to seem uncharitable, but at least the abuse directed at this demographic gets acknowledged: I am thinking of the recent Guardian front page story ‘Twitter chief takes blame for failure to act on trolls’ (6th of Feb, I think, as for some reason I’m having trouble negotiating the archives), which was illustrated with the pictures of seven white women – including yourself – and Matt Lucas.

The remark also rather glosses over the fact that women can be the source as well as the target of the abuse.  If high-profile white women are afraid to speak because of the negative attention, harassment, and threats from (largely) men, just consider what is like for female sex workers, for example, who face not only that, but the added opprobrium of their fellow women.


Many of the objections to ‘no-platforming’ pretend that it is a stand-alone form of action: a person is invited to speak, under pressure the organisation or society takes a vote, and the invitation is withdrawn.  The person has been ‘silenced’.  This is to take an entirely negative view of the process.  In actual fact, to take the earlier manifestation of the phenomenon, upon withdrawing an invitation to somebody of fascist sympathies, one would expect their place to be taken by a more liberal speaker, even a confirmed anti-fascist.  Similarly, when a campaign is formed against allowing a transphobe to take advantage of a prominent public platform, this will be in combination with a desire to allow actual trans* people to speak about their experiences.

The trouble with being opposed to no-platforming (as a matter of principle) is that it means that while one is openly supporting the right of anyone to be heard, it has the effect of degradation to a ‘state of nature’ where the loudest shout over everybody else.  If there is no active attempt to regulate balance and amplify certain voices, white men – already the receptacles of most public power – will continue to dominate discourse.  Below this will come the expected hierarchy: ‘respectable’ white women, and ‘articulate’ BME males (the above all being cis, of course), before anybody from a more oppressed background even gets a look in.  And this effect will be increased by the, already common, practice of allowing people from these preferred groups to speak for those in the tiers below.

The Novelty of Extremism

Another week, another attack attributed to ‘extremism’.  At least in the West – the rest of the world expects these things far more frequently, to the point where the lack of coverage by the (Western-owned) news media is actually kind of logical: news is defined by novelty.  In this sense, it’s not ‘news’ that another car bomb, attack on a rival sect, or the like , has occurred in Iraq or much of the surrounding region.  Of course it’s pretty fucking important to the people living there, but as far as the West is concerned, this is awful business as usual.

ISIS (or IS, ISIL, etc.) and their ilk have apparently broken through this apathy by apparently raising the brutality to another level.  I’m not entirely convinced by this notion, not least because it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something to do to another human being that hasn’t been done before.  Burning alive?  While not perhaps as common as certain tales about witchfinders might suggest, the practice dates back millennia, was in the playbook of the Catholic church – and others – for centuries, and was still on the statute book of European nations well into the 19th century.  Of course we don’t do it now (at least not as a directly-mandated method of execution – incendiary weapons are still in use), but when you’re in a state of war – something that various of the involved parties seem to agree on, if not the implications of this – you don’t get to choose exactly what methods and techniques are permissible to your opponent.

Rather, the outrage seems to be at the particularly public nature of the crimes.  This again is not, in itself, a novelty: every historical nation appreciated the (apparent) value of making executions public.  The difference here is the nature of publicity.  Rather than making everybody head off to the town square to watch a hanging, we can now sit at home, click on a few links, and be exposed to the horror.  And the nature of the web is such that it is ISIS who are largely in control of this process.  Of course it is the choice of an individual to watch, or to decide that being aware of the crime is sufficient without requiring first-hand viewing.  But the role of the formal media, literally to mediate between the public and the world, has been reduced.

This presents a problem for the media establishment, and thus for the state, of which it is a part.  This is not to suggest that the mainstream media is under direct control in the Soviet style, or even in the more subtle fashion of the BBC (I am not attacking the BBC here , as I think it’s fantastic for all sort of reasons, but the nature of the licence-fee funded system is such that it works under certain constraints).  Nor is this to confuse the state with the government of the day.  But the variations between the press in different countries show how each nation tailors its own media.  In the greatest part this is determined, if unconsciously, by the public, but the powerful are able to steer more deliberately.

Given the fact that they (and by ‘they’ I mean both the mainstream media and the wider state) can’t control the release of these videos, of the wider news of atrocities and killings, they are seemingly left with two options.  Either to ignore them, to try and distract by focussing on other events elsewhere, to make their own bigger, better news.  Or to try and make more out of these horrors in an effort to regain control of the narrative.  You might think of it like their being the driver of a vehicle that has been forced out of control and is skidding.  either they try and fight against it and return to the normal course, or they turn further into the skid (which is apparently what one should do in the actual situation, although I guess it requires a certain level of cool and concentration).  And in the most part it looks like they’ve chosen the latter; these atrocities are a ‘new thing’, and worse than anything we have seen before (and therefore require an equally unprecedented response).

One of the problems with this tactic of escalation is that it’s never enough.  Each new act needs to be (or be seen to be) worse than the last, just to require our attention.  Once one expects novelty, the same just won’t do.  So the tag of extremist needs to be attached to ever more items.  If terrorists are threatening our very way of life, why should the police be bothered about environmentalist activists?  Perhaps these people are also extremists, albeit of a less immediately frightening ilk.  Soon, any person or organisation outside the mainstream risks being branded as extremist.  And this is not entirely inaccurate, if extremism is only ever defined against a notion of the ‘moderate’ that is hyper-conservative.  Which is what seems to be happening over the last few years, with the result that the label of ‘extremist’ has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Placing the blame

The nature of the term extremist is such that it requires more specification.  One could be an extremist knitter, or stamp collector, but this is unlikely to make one a threat to the public.  However an extremist Muslim, or even atheist – as belatedly reported by some in the case of the Chapel Hill shootings – is a different matter.  This could expand to political and other ideologies.  However the effect in all these cases is to definitely locate the individual within a particular group.  Muslims have long been aware of this – the way that every attack is followed by the demands for ‘moderate’ Islam to express its regrets, to apologise, and above all to own the crimes of its extremist adherents.  Much of the response (at least on Twitter, as the mainstream media initially saw a non-event) to the Chapel Hill shootings was to turn this expectation onto atheism.  I entirely understand why this happened, but I’m afraid that two wrongs do not make a right.  There may be cases when a wider group needs to be held responsible for the actions of one of its members, but to cast the net so widely is not only a mistake, but is ultimately extremely negative.

Most obviously this is a Bad Thing in that large numbers who are entirely innocent of the original crime are drawn into its wake.  And this can lead to waves of retaliation and escalation.  One of the saddest aspects of the Charlie Hebdo attack was the moment I realised that not only was the response seemingly inevitable, but that it would only lead to further innocent deaths.  As many in the West, including its leaders (seeing obvious political capital, if you’re feeling cynical) praised the idea of a new issue collecting yet more offensive images related to Islam.  Now I’m not questioning their right to publish these, or weighing it against the offence felt by many Muslims entirely innocent of the shootings, but I knew that this was going to lead to more deaths.  I’m not sure of how these numbered, not least because they didn’t fit the narrative, but at least ten people were reported killed in Niger at protests against the new edition.  Without wanting to go into further detail on this matter, I’d note that the reason I’m broadly against the likes of Charlie Hebdo is that it seems so indiscriminate in its targets: for me, satire is meant to be directed solely at the powerful; kicking those worse off than you is bullying, not free speech.

Anyway, returning from that tangent, I’d suggest the other problem with locating specific extremisms is that it leads to looking for the causes – and hence the place to begin preventative activity – in the wrong place.  If Islamic extremists are responsible for x, then we must go to the mosques.  If an atheist extremist shoots some believers, we must demand that Richard Dawkins explain himself.  And so on.  And this means that we miss, possibly wilfully, any possible common causes, and also significant differences.

We ignore the fact that, even if we do pretend that the Chapel Hill shootings were over a ‘simple’ parking dispute, Craig Hicks appears to have been a singularly angry man in a country that permits such people easy access to lethal weaponry.  And we ignore the backgrounds of those involved involved in attacks such as those in Paris this year, London in 2005, and even 9/11, beyond that they were extremist Muslims.  We may think that we are exculpating other ‘moderate’ Muslims, but in fact we are further locating the blame within their community.  And I’d like to look more closely at this.

In describing someone as an Islamic extremist, we don’t question their belonging to the religion.  Other Muslims may be quick to point out that they can’t be ‘real’ Muslims and commit such crimes, but we all too easily brush this aside as a formula, and one that is really just a variation on No True Scotsman (an informal fallacy, where one modifies an assertion on an ad hoc basis to suit emerging data or claims).  But this is to, crucially, miss the importance of the assertion.  To put it bluntly: many of those involved in ‘Islamic’ terrorist acts are rubbish Muslims.  Plenty of accounts have noted that, contrary to what one has been led to expect, they don’t become especially devout, start attending mosque more frequently, or studying the Koran.  Rather, they drink alcohol, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex.  Now I might regard it as possible to be a Muslim while failing to adhere to every requirement (I’m afraid my knowledge of the specifics is lacking), but I’d be hard pushed to describe these people as devout.

Rather, these behaviours have more in common with gangs and drug dealers.  And wouldn’t you know it, it appears that quite a few of those involved have exactly this sort of history.  A little reading around suggests that it’s far easier to find people already on the edge of society, already engaged in criminal activity, give them a dose of a highly distorted version Islam, and persuade them to focus their already extant rage at disenfranchisement, than it is to get ordinary Muslims to attack anybody.

To cut a long argument short, focussing on Islam (or atheism, or any other broad ideology) in the wake of a terrorist attack by those claiming affiliation is not only counterproductive in various other ways, but it is a complete waste of time as regards trying to identify the cause.  And we won’t prevent further attacks by treating Islam (even if we tip-toe around our point by attempting to differentiate ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ varieties) as the root cause.  Terrorist attacks, for all of the scale and horror, are criminal acts, and share the same broad source: poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, exclusion, and the rage that results from these.  The fact that religion or ideology may help to direct, to choose targets, is to misunderstand its role.

And on that note, I return to the Chapel Hill shootings.  Craig Hicks may have shot three people because they were Muslims.  He may even have done it over a parking dispute (although I would be extremely suspicious of anybody who tried to claim that there was nothing more to it).  But to attribute his actions simply to his professed ideology is to miss the point as much as it is to blame the Charlie Hebdo shootings on Islam; he was as far as we can tell, an angry, angry man with a gun.  And one of those is just waiting for a reason to kill somebody.  Any reason.


Having laid out in my usual roundabout fashion, I guess I’ll offer my idea of a ‘solution’.  Firstly, terrorism is a criminal act or acts.  Nothing more.  The moment we treat it as such, not only do we cede power directly to the terrorists, but we degrade our ability to prevent it happening further.  Secondly, you don’t deal with crime without dealing with the causes of crime.  Of course this sounds worryingly like an early Blair soundbite.  But for me this means, most simply, trying to reduce inequality, and lack of employment, education, and political engagement.



(I’m not going to star out letters in the particular words because I’m not going to pretend that it means they’re neutered somehow by that, I’m not J*remy C***kson or the fucking S*n, to tip the hat to Marina Hyde et al )

Ok, time to weigh in on the matter of whether TERF and SWERF are slurs (spoiler: they’re not).  This argument has been bubbling around for a while, but seems to have come to the surface as a result of a Green Party candidate and spokesperson using the term TERF, leading to a demand for apologies from various persons both in and unconnected with the party.  Some people have even gone so far as to compare it to calling someone a Paki, as if they haven’t already offended enough people.  Pretty much everything here applies equally to SWERF, but I shall come back to that at the end.

This, relating as it does to feminism, obviously falls in the category of things somewhat outside my wheelhouse.  I identify as a feminist and male (I’d prefer that you didn’t call me a male feminist, because it brings up the notion of  the sort of people who could read the excellent Onion piece ‘Man Finally Put In Charge of Struggling Feminist Movement’ unironically.,2338/  But I’m not going to object too much, in line with what I’ll say later, as it is factually true – I am male and a feminist – and it’s not really a hurtful thing to say.  It merely highlights that men need to be careful about how they try to participate in and support what is necessarily a female-led movement).  But I’ll try to keep things general, and I’ll again observe that nobody else is required to read this – I’m writing to practice writing.

What is a slur?

The ‘TERF is a slur’ crowd have been acting as if any term one would rather not be addressed by is automatically a slur.  This is disingenuous at best.  I’d rather you didn’t call me Dave, because it’s not my name.  I’d rather you didn’t call me a Male Feminist, for the reasons I outlined above.  Neither would be a slur.  A real slur can be objected to on two grounds: that it is untrue, and that it has significantly negative historical associations.  The latter is relevant because history determines the meanings of words.  We might like to pretend that words are unambiguously associated with objects/actions/qualities, but where they have come from, and thus how they are used, is essential.

To take the first point, it might be a slur to call someone a criminal, but only if they have not committed the associated crime.  It is pretty offensive to publicly refer to a person as a murderer – and they might sue you for slander or libel – but there wouldn’t really be a good objection if they had wilfully and maliciously killed somebody.

Similarly, any complaint about being called a TERF is undermined if that is, in fact, an accurate description.  A TERF is generally translated to be a trans*-exclusionary radical feminist.  Now as far as I’m aware, nobody being labelled a TERF objects to being called a feminist – this argument is within the feminist movement, and while some people might like them to be excluded, they don’t want this themselves.  The trans*-exclusionary is based on either explicit statements to the effect that trans women are not women – thereby ‘excluding’ them from feminism – or public association with people who have made such statements.  As it turns out, the only remotely questionable term within TERF is radical.  This originates with the label TERF was originally applied to certain self-identified Radical Feminists (i.e. those who see feminism as a struggle to overthrow the power system they call patriarchy).   So, er, you could object to being called a TERF on the grounds that you’re not radical.  But on to the second constituent.

(Note: various alternative suggestions have been made regarding the ‘R’, including that it stands for reactionary, or regressive.  This doesn’t change the thrust of the argument – these may be accurate, in which case it’s hard to see a problem, or not.)

The other thing that is essential to a slur is that it must be have some historical basis for being regarded as offensive.  I might not like being called Dave, but there’s nothing about it that makes it a slur.  I could ask you nicely to not do it, or even stop associating with you, but that’s my call.  Onto the most offensive part of the recent farrago.  Again *content warning for offensive language* Certain of those complaining about being called TERFs have compared the term to ‘Paki’.  I’m not sure what they hope to achieve from this; one is associated with centuries of violence and abuse, and the other… just isn’t.

This reminds me of the witless fools who try to argue that calling somebody of South Asian descent a Paki is no different to calling someone from a certain group of islands in the North Atlantic a Brit.  As if the important part is that they’re both shortened versions of the relevant demonym (we’ll ignore the fact that the former is also indiscriminately applied to Indians, Bangladeshis, etc.).  One is associated with racist violence, the other with mild ribbing about being uptight by Americans and Aussies.  (note how the second of these is again, not offensive).

To return to TERF: nobody has been on the end of violence as the result of being a called a TERF.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody has been on the end of violence as result of being a TERF.  Being excluded from debates yourself because of your insistence on excluding others is not violence.  Intolerance of intolerance is not only not a problem, but necessary to stop everything collapsing in on itself.  Rather, it is TERFs who cause violence against trans* people, ironically by supporting an aspect of the very patriarchal system they profess to oppose.  They will freely claim that gender is a construct designed to oppress [women]*, but then take upon themselves to police that construct, and extend that oppression.

*I’ve bracketed women here because RFs refer to a particular construction of what it is to be a woman, highly dependent on physical features.

As to SWERFs, which have not necessarily been part of the particular argument I was examining, but are seemingly omnipresent in feminist circles these days (and may often be the same people because if you’re going to pick on people at the bottom of the pecking order, hey, you might as well pick on all of them.  Also, for various reasons, trans* people are more likely to be involved in sex work that cis people).  The exact same conditions apply 75% of the way, the only difference being that it’s sex workers they won’t allow to be part of their ‘feminism’.  This is egregious because they generally consider sex work to be a matter of major concern to feminism.  Still, there’s no better way to to approach something that you regard as a problem than by ignoring the very people caught up in the middle of it (and who therefore might be expected to know what they’re talking about).  Anyway, if you refuse to invite feminists who are sex workers – and there’s no reason why the two should be mutually exclusive – to your ‘feminist’ shindig, you’re a SWERF.

Some SWERFs try to defend their position by embracing former sex workers, which they like to  refer to as ‘survivors’ (rather bafflingly, because I’m not sure what this makes active sex workers).  Unsurprisingly, formulating your opinion of a group by only talking to people who have left it creates a pretty skewed impression.  Anyway, this leads them to believe that all sex workers would rather be out, and those who deny this are either suffering under some kind of false consciousness, or are being paid off by some nebulous organisation they call the ‘pimp lobby’.  It also fails to distinguish between people who are trafficked or otherwise directly compelled into the industry, and those who are forced into it by more mundane matters, which is to say because they need/want the money.  For the latter group, it is probably true that in the loosest possible sense they would rather leave sex work, but only in the sense that the vast majority of us would rather like to quit our jobs if only we could afford to.


As a side note I think that gender can also be pretty oppressive to men, particularly those who don’t fit the stereotypical masculine template.  Patriarchy is bad for all of us, apart from the elites who benefit most from the status quo.  This is why we should all be working together to dismantle it.  Which is not to dispute that it’s a hell of a lot worse for women, non-whites, and other ‘minority groups’ (not that either of the former is a minority on a global level).

I beg your pardon – Alan Turing and forgiveness

A year or so ago, it was announced that Alan Turing, codebreaker and computer pioneer, was to receive a royal pardon for his 1952 conviction for gross indecency (specifically being in a homosexual relationship).  Although this was the result of a long campaign, by this time it met with little objection.  Turing has been widely acknowledged as a hero of the Second World War (although I think the pendulum has swung to the point where both his individual contribution, and that of Bletchley Park in general, have become somewhat exaggerated.  But that is a matter for another day), and the activity for which he was condemned has now been legal in the UK for some decades.  So far, so uncontroversial.

No doubt some of those who objected did so because they viewed his sexuality and his relationship, while now legal in the UK, as wrong or sinful.  These people are uninteresting, caught as they are on the wrong side of history.  However, there was another source of complaint: that in singling out Turing, the state was saying either that: a) it’s ok to commit crimes if you’re a hero; or b) you only deserve (posthumous) justice if you’re famous.  The former is an interesting matter – we do already allow all sorts of exemptions from normal rules for people acting in exceptional circumstances (such as the emergency services being able to ignore speed limits in the course of their duty, or those under immediate personal threat) – and could be examined from a utilitarian perspective.  The latter, however, is what has lead to the situation that I read about today.

For a few people, the reaction to reading about the pardoning of one prominent homosexual man was to ask ‘what about the rest?’  The first I read was Ally Fogg’s piece in the Guardian: .  He objected to the fact that Turing was being singled out for this privilege on the grounds of his (justified) fame, and argued that the pardon should be extended to all those convicted of similar crimes.  He noted that they already had the right to have their criminal records removed, since their actions would no longer be considered a crime.  Thus it would seem to be a relative formality and, as he observed, a potentially neat piece of political marketing, to extend the Turing pardon to all those, living and dead, unjustly prosecuted for their sexuality.

A year on, this new campaign has grown and is making its presence felt on social media, led by Benedict Cumberbatch off his playing Turing in The Imitation Game.  It is on this that I want to comment.

My two cents

Firstly, I want to clarify that I regard Alan Turing as a great person (I’m a little uncomfortable with the word ‘hero’), entirely deserving of recognition for his work, and I am sure that Ally Fogg and other associated with the current campaign concur.  If we are to celebrate those who worked against the Nazis and their allies, it is fitting that we go beyond those in a purely military capacity.  Secondly, I regard persecution on the basis of sexuality as a grave error, whether by individuals or the state.  As a pansexual (which is to say approximately bisexual+ for people who recognise that sex and gender are not binary), I am acutely aware that I am privileged to live when I do, when at least I can know that I won’t be pursued by my government for this.  If we could replay history, it would be good to think that we would have behaved differently, exporting 21st century attitudes to an earlier age.  But the editing of history is one of the matters that interests me here.

My first question is what exactly this pardon (either for Turing individually, or for the many thousands of others) entails.  Now I am not a legal expert, so I am going to work on the basis of Wikipedia and some googling (if I were writing a paper, I would certainly do more, but this should suffice for some general musings).  Broadly, a pardon seems to work in one of two fashions, one simpler than the other.  The first, which is certainly the case in the US and some other jurisdictions, is that it consists in forgiveness for an admitted crime, including cancellation of the associated penalty.  The second is vaguer and, crucially, makes no mention of the admission of guilt.

In the first case, we take it that Turing admitted committing the offences with which he was charged – as he did at – the time.  He did what he did, knowing it was illegal, and does not deny breaking the law.  The state, on behalf of the nation, then decides to forgive and cancels the associated penalty (with some difficulty, one thinks, given that the sentence has been carried out and the subject has been dead for some years).  The problem with this is that the crime remains just that, and historically Turing is still a criminal, albeit one who has been ‘forgiven’ for his crime.  This is highlighted by looking at possibly the most prominent such pardon in recent history, that of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford.  In that case, it is generally accepted that Nixon was involved to some extent in both criminal and ethically wrong activity, but he got a pass for some reason (either because Ford was his friend, or because it was in the ‘best interests of the country’, as Ford himself put it).  You can see the similarity if we focus on the Turing pardon alone: he committed a crime, but for various contingent reasons, the state has decided to make an exception to the usual rules.  If the general pardon for crimes relating to homosexuality is granted, it becomes somewhat more complex, but the general situation seems is the same.

In the second case, we don’t begin with the assumption of guilt at all.  Again, Turing plead guilty at the time, but was apparently persuaded to do so on the basis of expediency.  This opens up a whole other can of worms regarding a legal system that encourages people to plead in hope of a lighter sentence: one may believe oneself entirely innocent, but still officially admit a crime to reduce the sentence.  At the very least it should undermine the position of anybody who believes that criminal verdicts necessarily represent the ‘truth’ of the matter.  Justice is not supposed to be about bargaining, it is supposed to be about determining what *actually* happened, before acting upon it.  Regardless, it makes the matter of what the pardon entails considerably murkier.

It would appear that either: we assume that something similar to the US process occurs: Turing and the others did commit a crime, but we have belatedly decided to forgive them; or we are now going to pretend that we can apply modern standards to historical cases, effectively pretending that the whole sorry business never happened because it wouldn’t have been a crime at all in 21st century Britain.  The dilemma is whether to forgive or forget, both of which are more complicated than they may first appear.

Forgiveness looks bad because it takes it that we do still accept that what Turing et al did was wrong, but we have decided that they are worthy of our special treatment.  It is a bit ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’  And this is clearly unsatisfactory for anyone who doesn’t take the previously alluded to position that Turing only deserves his pardon because of his heroism.  Basically, you can’t forgive somebody without continuing to believe that they were wrong.  The fact that you forgive them doesn’t just fail to change this, in a fashion it actually preserves it.

Forgetting is equally tricky, not least because it pretends that we can act upon the past.  It also, by emphasising that this is not about a special exception to a rule, opens up the question of how widely this can be applied.  Now I’m certainly not going to oppose the pardon on a vague ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument, but it does raise the question of whether we should consider pardoning persons convicted of other activities we now no longer regard as crimes.  Women were also the victims of laws we now regard with something between horror and disbelief, so should we pardon those convicted of witchcraft?  For those unaware, there is a long-running campaign for a pardon of the last woman convicted Helen Duncan, sentenced to 9 months in 1944.  From a 21st century position, this also is absurd and should not have happened.  But it did, and nothing we can do can make it otherwise.

And this gets me to the broader matter of state wrongs.  Turing’s prosecution was not isolated.  Nor were those of the thousand of others tried and convicted of similar crimes.  The British state and its justice system have done a lot wrong in the past (as I am sure they do in the present, and will continue to do so, but these are matters that can be addressed more directly (the same are true of every state in history, but let’s keep the focus as tight as is reasonably possible).   As much as national continuity is plausible, the current form bears responsibility for the past.  I realise that this raises flags both in terms of sons bearing the sins of their fathers, and collective blame for individual wrongs, but I am talking about the state, which is not merely a collection of its constituent citizens or subjects, and which continues to exist – in the manner of Theseus’s ship – even as its people are born, live, and die.  Notwithstanding the changes of administration, the state that exists today is the same one that prosecuted Alan Turing and all those others, and it is this state that needs to atone for its wrongs.  Individual British people can then decide how personally it involves them, with the caveat that if you want to enjoy the glory of past military victories (as the current government seems to be doing with WW1), then you also accept that you are associating with a state that jailed people for their private activities.

Forgiveness or apology

Ok, so here’s what I think we should do: pretending that the prosecution of Turing, the thousands of other homosexual men, and the countless others convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes did not occur seems somewhat farcical.  A pardon, framed as it is in terms of forgiveness and clemency, also seems wrong given that it assumes both factual guilt, and the authority of the forgiver to do so.  Rather, the British state should be offering a public and unconditional apology to those it has wronged in the past.  It is the nation that wants forgiveness for its errors, and the gift of this should rest with those it has wronged (or their descendants as representatives).  We could then start thinking about all the others due an apology.


Obviously, it goes without saying that I agree that anybody still living with a recorded conviction for crimes similar to Alan Turing should have it withdrawn.  And I broadly applaud the campaigns spoken about; I entirely agree with their intentions, if not quite their precise goals.