American Tribalism

It’s a powerful audio essay, but crushingly, Sullivan offers no roadmap for how America might resolve the crisis

By chance, I heard Andrew Sullivan’s radio essay about Donald Trump and tribalism in America on BBC Radio 4 yesterday evening.

Following the shock presidential election result last year, I had heard many of the insights that Sullivan set out in the monologue.  But the particular format of this piece, coupled with Sullivan’s great writing, makes it a particularly powerful iteration.

Crushingly, Sullivan offers no road-map for how this American (and therefore, global) crisis might be reversed, other than the hope that another ‘Lincoln’ might appear to save the country from itself. But isn’t a faith in saviours what has put America into this position in the first place? Obama and Trump are very different characters, but both took on a definite totemic status for their supporters. What is needed, it seems to me, is for the resolution to take place not within a single unifying figurehead at the top, but with a million acts of reconciliation among the citizenry. And we’re all out of ideas for how to bring that about. There is a chance things might get worse before they get better.

A Point Of View episodes are available indefinitely as a podcast. Visit the BBC website to listen again.

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

On Punching White Supremacists

During an interview with ABC News, Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, was punched by a protestor.

The video of the assult was widely shared online, with many people applauding the act.

I wrote a few Tweets in response to this:

A few po-faced tweets about that footage doing the rounds of someone punching a Nazi # I’m sorry folks, but punching a white supremacist while he’s on TV *is* a form of censorship and a free speech violation # If you think that this kind of thing is exempt from our values of free speech, then you don’t understand free speech #

Doesn’t matter that a private citizen, not the government, was doing the violence. Sure, Spencer can’t sue anyone under 1st amendment… # The person doing the punching is still a censor and against free speech. #

Next, it doesn’t matter that Spencer probably wouldn’t grant free speech rights (or indeed other human rights) to others. # That supremacists & religious fundamentalists deny others their human rights is neither here nor there. It doesn’t negate their rights #

We should give Nazis and supremacists free speech rights because we are better than them. # Punching a white supremacist is to be condemned because, well, it’s just the sort of thing a white supremacist would do. # If the reverse happened, & a nazi punched an interviewee who supported the #WomensMarch we’d rightly condemn it as Trump inspired hate #

But most importantly, who gets punched in other countries when they speak their mind? # In China, the person who gets punched is the pro-democracy activist, not the white supremacist. # In Russia, the person who gets punched is the LGBT activist, not the White supremacist #

The experience of Peter Tatchell, who was beaten up in Moscow, is relevant here.

In Saudi, the person who gets punched is the liberal blogger and the women’s rights activist, not the White supremacist # In Turkey, the person who get’s punched is the Kurdish nationalist, not the White supremacist #

It’s an open question whether ABC should have bothered to interview Spencer at all. I’m sympathetic to the ‘normalisation’ complaint # If I was the editor I would have avoided broadcasting his views. # On the other hand, there is an argument that it’s better to air and even encourage bad views in order to discredit them #

I’m reminded of this Little Atoms piece by Jamie Bartlett, arguing for free speech for its own sake:

For Mill it wasn’t enough to express an opinion: the true liberal had an obligation to test it, to actively seek out the alternative view, to grill it, interrogate it, to argue it out. And that is where today’s liberal falls short, preferring to close alternatives off rather than open them up. Freedom of expression is chaotic and dynamic – not easy and timid.

More tweets:

It should also be standard practice to give a voice to someone who will refute the racist. More free speech. #

But, I say again, it’s not right and it’s against free speech to excuse a white supremacist getting punched on live TV. #

Ooh, I forgot one. Racists have a habit of twisting attempts to censor/shut them up as proof that their ideas are radical and important… # So this Spencer fellow will now portray himself as a free speech martyr and will seek to discredit antifas as being inherently censorious. #

In fact, I see he has been doing just that on his personal Periscope feed.

Since posting this, I’ve read some powerful and persuasive arguments that support the punching of white supremacists.

The first is that the situation is already violent. The fascists’ modus operandi is inherently violent and they have already ‘taken the first swing’ as @knitmeapony put it.

Now I think there is distinction between actual physical violence and concepts such as ‘microagressions’, mental distress, and ‘illocutionary acts’. There is an important legal debate to be had over when or if speech acts can be termed ‘violence’. 

However, such debates are utterly infuriating for activists, who experience the violence of the far right first hand. This week a member of the alt.right actually murdered an anti-facist protestor in Seattle. The inherent violence of such groups is not in question. Why indulge in legal parlour games?

In U.S law sets an extremely high bar for state censorship. The relevant case is Brandenburg v. Ohio in which the Supreme Court held that for speech to be prohibited, it must incite imminent violence. With such a demanding criteria before the state will intervene, those bearing the brunt of fascist abuse and violence find they cannot wait for their government to protect them. If the government will not even prosecute calls for genocide (which what Mr Brandenburg had done at a KKK rally, and what Richard Spencer has done in the past) then, say the activists, we need to take matters into our own hands.

My attention was also drawn to an interesting thread, arguing that violence against some peope can be justified, because their views sit outside democratic discourse. This tweet thread from @meakoopa is worth seeting out in full.

I just finished a PhD diss abt “reason” in relation to the public sphere so w apologies I might risk a short thread re: punching nazis – # – bc there is an unstated self-evident logic that I feel like might be clarifying. Feel free to mute or unfollow or w/e # 

every liberal democracy realizes early on there are some positions which must prima facie be aggressively excluded from public discourse # u can’t even articulate WHY they are unreasonable bc to articulate WHY they are unreasonable is to itself open the possibility of reason. # this is why u can’t allow “just hypothetical” questions abt whether Jews or blacks, as Spencer posits, are innately inferior/destroyable. # 

Nazi theorists like Carl Schmitt VERY QUICKLY diagnosed this weakness in liberal democracies – # U can collapse a democracy by insisting the democracy had a right to end itself: Hindenburg to Hitler, “the peaceful transition of power.” # Intolerance cannot be tolerated, bc this corrosive effect means the law can be co-opted by, and so protective of, fascism. # Fascism wriggles into democracies by insisting on right to be heard, achieves critical mass, then dissolves the organs that installed it. # WHICH MEANS the stronger it becomes, it cannot be sufficiently combatted with reason. Bc “reason” becomes the state’s tool to enforce. # The Overton Window becomes weaponized – as we are seeing in @KellyannePolls and @seanspicer‘s “alternative facts.” The state decides. #

I wrote a little bit about the Overton Window here.

Liberalism literally cannot see this – its insistence on rule of law, not genocideal lust, is what turned the German people into good Nazis. # some positions must be excluded from discourse. Some positions you do not listen to – u can only punch. # A society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay. Those voices must be excluded. # 

TL;DR – punching a nazi is actually a supreme act of democracy bc it will not tolerate a direct affront of a fellow citizen’s citizenship. # 

the term to interrogate in “should you punch a nazi?” is SHOULD – what is the status of that “should”? Legally: no; ethically: fuck yes. # 

All of American history is an exercise in one debate: “who is the ‘we’ who are the people?” # (the thing that used to solve this debate – “God decides what is reasonable” – is not on the table anymore, and was always a deferral of Q) # 

(if you’re looking to read more, a slim, elegantly articulated place to start is Horkheimer’s ECLIPSE OF REASON): https://t.co/wzVmtno252 #

I do not think that punching anyone can be a ‘supreme act of democracy’ but this is powerful: ‘a society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay.’

Imagine Your Well Meaning Policy in the Tiny Hands of Donald Trump  

One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power.
An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).


Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t.

This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state.

Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole.

Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly.

But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state.

While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties.

So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws.

None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.

Marshall’s Faith in the Rule of Law, and Snyder’s Guide to Resisting the Erosion of Democracy

Since my ramble last week about the different ways in which Donald Trump could break America, I have been drawn to articles which seem to be saying the same thing, only better.

Ian Millhiser’s piece ‘Democrats will botch The resistance against Trump‘ is an good example. He catalogues the ways in which democracy itself might be undermined by a president and a ruling party intent on consolidating their power. Millhiser also notes the terrible conundrum liberals face, which is that ahrence to the Rule of Law can often award power to those who are eager to undermine the Rule of Law!

We have brought a sheet of parchment and a set of abstract principles to a knife fight. We’re going to get cut.

The pedant in me wants to point out that it’s also possible to get cut by paper… but the point is important.  The article also cites the example of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who made the point that adherence to rules is crucial.

Justice Marshall taught Kagan that “it was the very existence of rules — along with the judiciary’s felt obligation to adhere to them — that best protected unpopular parties.” A liberal who casts aside the rule of law today because the cause seems just will have no ground to stand on tomorrow when the strong arm of the state is brought to bear against them.

Millhiser also links to an important post by historian Timothy Snyder, setting out a 20-point guide to defending democracy against a Trump presidency.  The list sets out the ways in which democracy can be eroded and how dictators gather power to themselves. More importantly, it also offers ways to resist.  We need to be mindful of the way politicians try to bend language and redefine what words mean (see, for example, how Republicans will try to claim a ‘mandate’ when they have none). And we should be particularly savvy and calm when some kind of terrorist atrocity occurs, as one inevitably will. 

Those in the legal profession and in law enforcement have a particular rôle to play.  Judges, lawyers and gun-carrying police officers need a strong sense of professional ethics and have faith in those principles.  

One practical thing the rest of we can and should do now is to draw attention to the different kinds of Every Day Resistance that Snyder suggests. A large part of the task is a mental one: refusing to buy in to the framing that powerful people seek to impose on any given situation.  It is a also a challenge of communication: using the platforms at our disposal to push back against shoddy thinking in the media and against the lazy non sequuntur of those in power, even if the stakes seem relatively small (that’s something I try to do with this blog).  Happily, modern technology has made us well equipped to do this.  There has been much chat recently about how social media puts us inside an opinion ‘bubble’, but remain optimistic that it can also fortify us against the mental trickery that demagogues and propagandists would play upon us, and embolden everyone to resist at moments when they must. 

Trying To Taxonomize Trump’s Terribleness

Some of his flaws are a threat to the people, and some of his flaws are a threat to the Republic. Americans must learn to tell the difference.

As even his supporters and those who voted for him know, President-Elect Donald Trump has many flaws. The election is still a recent event, and so we still consider each of these flaws as reasons why someone might decline to vote for him. Everything is mentally catalogued simply as Reasons Why He Should Not Be President.

However, now he is going to be president (I don’t think the recounts will stop this from happening) I think it is worth sketching out a slightly better taxonomy of the Terrible Things About Trump, because the different types of awfulness and wrong-doing he exhibits have different implications for politics and the country. America is the oldest modern democracy and the exemplar for the rest of the world, so what happens in the USA concerns the rest of the planet too. Continue reading “Trying To Taxonomize Trump’s Terribleness”

Empathising With Trump Voters

What, I wonder, does true Red State literature look like?

On 9th November, the morning after the U.S. Presidential election, my friend Mark posted this to Facebook.

This morning makes me understand what it must feel like for those people who look at the political landscape, look at the establishment, look at the leader and say, ‘I don’t recognise this; it doesn’t speak to me; it doesn’t represent my situation. It doesn’t represent anyone I know.’ It’s a feeling of despair and dislocation. It’s the same feeling that makes people crave something different. Choose anything that’s different. Even a man like Donald Trump.

In the week since the election there have been thousands of op-eds and ‘hot-takes’ published on why Trump won the electoral college and the mindset of his voters.  But surprisingly, I have not seen this particular sentiment—empathising directly with how such people are feeling—anywhere else.  At least, not expressed so clearly. Continue reading “Empathising With Trump Voters”

Brexit Plus Plus? Here’s What Happen’s Next, America

Americans would do well to remember that the surprise ‘Leave’ vote in the UK on 23 June was not the culmination of a chaotic political period, but the beginning of one.

The day before the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump declared that the result would be poll-defying “Brexit Plus Plus” election upset.

He was sort of right, in that he pulled off a surprise electoral college victory (although, since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote Mr Trump’s ‘plus plus’ suffix might be said to be inaccurate).

Americans would do well to remember that the surprise ‘Leave’ vote in the UK on 23 June was not the culmination of a chaotic political period, but the beginning of one.   Continue reading “Brexit Plus Plus? Here’s What Happen’s Next, America”