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”

This Is About Ethics In Spy Games Journalism

The  Intercept journalist James Risen has published a fascinating retrospective on his time covering intelligence and security for the New York Times. He discusses how many of his stories exposing CIA wrong-doing during the Bush Administration were spiked by editors who nevertheless gave front-page coverage to stories that appeared to confirm the existence of the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the pretext for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He also writes about his court appearances in 2014 and 2015 when the Obama Administration threatened him with imprisonment for not revealing confidential sources in stories about the CIA’s activities in Iran.

NYU Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen says this was “the most important thing published about journalism today.” Risen’s piece made me think of this tweet from the last days of 2017:

Risen’s account of when and why some of his stories were spiked reminded me of the wonderful ‘Road To Damascus‘ episode from Season 2 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. It deals with the story of how the CIA recruited a double-agent, how that fact was leaked to journalist Tim Weiner, and how the reporting of that story in the New York Times probably caused the death of that double-agent. It was one of the most compelling things I listened to in 2017.

The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before

Hideous news from Las Vegas. It’s the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

Reading the coverage and the commentary, I’m reminded of the song ‘Nothing Ever Happens‘ by the Scottish band Del Amitri.

The song is 28 years old now.  Some of the lyrics I find too simplistic, like a sixth former berating the world (“Ignorant people sleep in their beds, like the doped white mice in the college lab”). But in other ways it feels contemporary:

Nothing ever happens / Nothing happens at all / The needle returns to the start of the song and we all sing along like before

Continue reading “The Needle Returns To The Start Of The Song And We All Sing Along Like Before”

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.

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.’

Trying To Taxonomize Trump’s Terribleness

Donald Trump

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”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

Empathising With Trump Voters

Trump supporters

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

Gove and Johnson

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”