On Milkshaking

The recent EU parliamentary election campaign saw the birth of a particular form of political expression: milkshaking.

The practice began when a man in Leeds, irate at having to talk to UKIP candidate and race-baiter Tommy Robinson, threw milkshake over him.

Other people started throwing milkshakes at other right wing candidates. Nigel Farage refused to disembark his campaign bus in one location, having been ‘milkshaked’ at a previous stop.

The phenomenon prompted a wave of political discussion, hot-takes ans hang-wringing. Was it akin to ‘punching a Nazi’ or other types of political violence? Or was it in the tradition of that time-honoured tradition of throwing eggs at politicians? Continue reading “On Milkshaking”

Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition

Houses of Parliament at dusk. Photo by yrstruly on Flickr (CC licence)

Lost in the noise, this tweet from Labour Stephen Doughty MP:

https://twitter.com/SDoughtyMP/status/1072550760314007552

Events have over-taken this prospect. The Chair of the 1922 Committee received the required 48 letters on Tuesday, and so on Wednesday Theresa May had to weather a confidence motion from Conservative MPs. The opposition parties are keeping their powder dry on a confidence motion of their own. There is now no vote to avoid by proroguing parliament.

Nevertheless, the very thought of such manoeuvring should give us pause for thought. In the case of this Government and this embattled Prime Minister, the tactic would have surely backfired. While proroguing parliament is procedurally allowed, the British public would have considered it somehow ‘cheating’ and taken a dim view. Meanwhile, Members of the House of Commons would have been angry at having been denied the opportunity to censure the Government before Christmas, and would have returned in the New Year smarting for a confrontation. Continue reading “Proroguing Parliament and the Trampling of Tradition”

Shame and Legacy

In a comment about Donald Trump’s most recent abuse of power, Vanity Fair contributing editor Kurt Eichenwald uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe political legacies: “Cowards are not the people schools are named for.”

Speaking on the Ezra Klein Show podcast this week, former Obama speechwriter John Favreau diagnosed the current American political malaise as being essentially about shame… or the lack of it. He and Klein noted that many of the guard-rails to good, democratic behaviour in politics, especially American politics, depends upon the idea of personal shame. People, even (perhaps especially) politicians, care about what other people think of them, and this moderates their behaviour. Politicians like Barack Obama cared deeply when they were criticised, even if that criticism came from their political opponents. This drives conciliation and compromise with the ‘other side’ and can also foster respect, understanding and bipartisanship. This is what a polity requires to maintain a functional democracy. Continue reading “Shame and Legacy”

The Authoritarian Instinct

Donald Trump

This checklist for ‘surviving an authoritarian regime’, posted in January this year by the Polish journalist Martin Mycielski, is uncanny in its alignment with the first year of the Trump administration.

https://twitter.com/mycielski/status/824105749823574016

Attempts to delegitimise independent media? Check. Creating chaos and constant conflict? Check. Denial of verifiable facts? Check. Fabricated scandals? Check. Continue reading “The Authoritarian Instinct”

American Tribalism

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

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?

Borough Market

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

GCHQ

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.