A Propagandist Rides to War

As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:

In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.

The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.

‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’

Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.

Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.

Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.

Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.

For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.

The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.

The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.

For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.

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From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the Islamist

When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?

Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.

This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.

Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.

John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.

This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:

On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.

At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.

Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.

If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.

It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.

Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.

There’s my test. Take it.


“You’re so dangerous and it’s so exciting.” (On UUK)

Another stupid, misleading article by Myriam Francois-Cerrah:

Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.

“Do anything controversial, however bad, and I’ll support it. Because I like disagreeing with things.” And who said careerists were vacuous?

Francois-Cerrah has either not read UUK’s guidance, which she so readily explains to us, or she has so subsumed herself into the inferiority complex of the Muslim community that she feels that she must throw herself behind its most reactionary – and unrepresentative – elements. It’s either ignorant or dishonest.

Firstly, take a look at what UUK actually said:

Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely- held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.

In other words, for men and women to choose to sit next to one another in a public gathering is an attack on the speaker’s “genuinely-held religious beliefs”; if you do not abandon your rights when you are instructed, you are being an odious, inward-looking and regressive troublemaker. Indeed, Omar Ali appeared on Channel 4 News to celebrate the victory of religious bigotry as being that “we live in a liberal society.”

One has to wonder whether he has completely misunderstood the meaning of liberalism – which, to its credit, were such frivolities as the emancipation of women – or whether the political Islamic pressure groups have finally understood the virtues of their alliance with the far-left.

But to Francois-Cerrah:

It is Universities UK which is calling for bans; here, on the right of individuals to express their beliefs in the physical (not merely “spiritual”) equality of the two sexes. That is an assault on freedom of expression. No one is saying that deluded victims of indoctrination – male or female – may not voluntarily segregate themselves at a mosque or Agatha Christie-esque dinner party. But I will not allow you to force me to sit where I do not wish to sit.

1) Grow up.

2) This is why we need socialism and not this stupid wishy-washy liberal attitude to things.


Stop abusing Voltaire.

I forget why – something probably riled me on Twitter – but I was thinking about that quote widely, if erroneously, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It makes for a very poor argument. We can do much better. Hardly one to whom hubris was unknown, Voltaire would nevertheless, on the back of his truer if more ironic comment – that “a witting saying proves nothing” – have known how flippant that dictum is; why it has become the most lubricated quote on liberal matters completely eludes me.

Firstly, how many people say things that they really believe? To me it doesn’t matter; arguments don’t change. But there is a problem in “Voltaire’s” suggestion, perhaps reminiscent of Milton’s statement in Areopagitica that the vocalising of injustices may undo them, that an individual’s emotional engagement matters. It’s very easy to understate another person’s intellectual integrity, however high-minded you might be of your own. It allows, for example, the religious to prioritise their “genuinely-held beliefs” (as that semi-literate report from Universities UK put it) over secularists, whose views apparently lack divine sanction.

Matters of deeply-held beliefs shouldn’t matter, but when this part of the quote is challenged it leads on to part two:

Will you really fight to the death to say something of which you disapprove? A few minutes on Twitter, with all the virtual safeguards afforded to the cowardly guttersnipe intelligentsia, and their bitterness, provides a rough glance into what people think when they are without their social mannerisms and inhibitions. They (or we, I guess) hide behind keyboards because we want people to know that they are wrong, and they must, at once, alter their views. I for one, I suspect like most others, do not tweet out of a desperate urge to laud pillocks and their faceless avatars.

It is necessary, in other words, to be a political masochist in order to defend freedom of expression. And I am not sure whether it is a positive or negative corollary that this means most people will not, by instinct, want everyone to say what they want. So the statement entirely fails to convince; freedom of expression is all about legal safeguards, not the curious system of liberal fealty that Voltaire supposedly cherished.

No, no. This over-worn cliche – however succinct – is weak; detach it from Voltaire and throw it away. In our fight for pithy principles I’d much rather turn to my favourite heroine; the greatest rebellion against the classical view of human liberty – see Dryden’s stale remark that “slaves are made citizens by turning round” – was dreamt in a single line by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom,” she said, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”

There.

Now stop filling Voltaire’s mouth with garbage.


So Students Are “Separate But Equal”

Remember the Laurence Krauss debate at University College London last year? He refused to cooperate with the organisers once he realised that the audience in front of him was segregated by sex. Fortunately, that story concluded with the Islamic group responsible being banned from hosting any further events at UCL; the university staff seem to have come down on the right side.

But apparently it’s much more widespread than we thought:

Student Rights event monitoring programme enables an in-depth analysis of this issue, with 180 events logged in the period March 2012 to March 2013 investigated for evidence of segregation;
46 of these events (25.5%) at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender, or implied that this would be the case, with six of these cancelled before taking place;

So what is this bullshit?

Universities UK (UUK) has issued guidance on external speakers saying that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as “both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”

UUK add that universities should bear in mind that “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system” and that if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

We, the undersigned, condemn the endorsement of gender apartheid by Universities UK. Any form of segregation, whether by race, sex or otherwise is discriminatory. Separate is never equal and segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal. By justifying segregation, Universities UK sides with Islamist values at the expense of the many Muslims and others who oppose sex apartheid and demand equality between women and men.

The guidance must be immediately rescinded and sex segregation at universities must come to an end.

Separate but equal? I mean, wasn’t Rosa Parks just as comfortable at the back of the bus?

Universities UK can’t even be spat out for being a group of poseur anti-establishment lefty sorts allying themselves with the Islamist far right. No, this is a sordid collection of university officials, most of whom old and unelected with a constant urge to remind us continually of both of those facts. It has no actual authority; but its “guidance” makes for a useful template for perturbed managerial staff (the current President is the Vice-Chancellor at Bristol) concerned about their “multicultural” reputation. Never mind the fact that most Muslims wouldn’t approve of this.

Sign the petition!


Foucault’s Fantasies

When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only: what are the facts, and what does the truth of the facts bear out?
Bertrand Russell’s advice to the future.

While the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini was murdering those in whose name he had stolen the revolution, there were some Westerners who could think only of praise. The labour councils that had rallied against the Shah had been newly subsumed into the state machinery under the principle of velayat-e faqih – the “guardianship of the jurisprudent” – which in this case meant a capitalist system minded by religious medievalists; under a banner of “separate but equal” had been erected sexual apartheid; homosexuals were simply executed. Corpses hung from cranes.

To my knowledge, Michel Foucault never retracted a single word of the article with which he had heralded in the looming regime’s “political spirituality” in 1978, perhaps the most mundane covenant ever to have graced the halls of revolutionary history:

When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.

It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.

In response, Claudie and Jacques Broyelle

called upon Foucault to admit that his thinking on Iran had been “in error.” Foucault’s response, published two days later, was in fact a non-response. He would not respond, he wrote, “because throughout ‘my life’ I have never taken part in polemics. I have no intention of beginning now.” He wrote further, “I am ‘summoned to acknowledge my errors’.” He hinted that it was the Broyelles who were engaging in thought control by the manner in which they had called him to account.

For some academics, it may indeed be a valorous pursuit to avoid the emotive charges of their opponents. Polemics can misrepresent hard-won and valuable intellectual approaches as sloppy scholarship, for some simply not worth the ephemeral visit into the public sphere. But this is not at all the case for Foucault; his post-structuralism, and its fantastical pretensions, lay behind both his political conclusions and the aloof posterity with which he met his rivals. A perfect method to explore this is through the state of intellectual decadence into which he sent the otherwise entirely innocuous discipline of “gender history”.

Gender history appeared to be a terribly useful innovation for feminism; its horizons were broadened and its subject was nuanced, favourable to the realisation that it was nonsensical and ahistorical to consider the oppression of women without their relationship to men, and to the societies in which they lived and died. Yet its prospects faced an early trauma: Joan Scott, enamoured by the size of Foucault’s vocabulary, delighted in the chaotic  wordplay she inaugurated into the discipline in 1986. For post-structuralists, cultural discourse takes priority in our understanding of gender, modelled on Foucault’s concept of “power” as dispersed and thereby subjective in every instance; and since every interpretation is inevitably different, the experiences of individual women are inherently unknowable. The central point, therefore, is that in order to emancipate women, society’s common language of oppression must be identified and transformed. There was even a hint at solidarity implicit in the curious suggestion that democratic and authoritarian regimes share “flawed master narratives”.

But Scott’s feminist objective to “emancipate” women had absolutely nothing grounded in the real world. Her reaction to “essentialised” women’s consciousness took the other extreme. Foucault’s denial of objective truth abandoned empiricism with a flick of the hand; and if no historical writing can support itself in material evidence, then everything may have an equally legitimate claim to pseudo-truth if the odd decontextualized line from a diary or speech can be thrown to its defence. This is why Foucault considered the murderous and misogynistic Iranian Counter-Revolution so laudable; the dilute methodology of post-structuralism is far more likely to degrade women than it is to uncover the roots of their oppression. Certainly, there is no way of knowing when they do.

This utter frivolity – being the randomness of thought that grips the intellect once material reality is said to be illusory to it – saturated many “histories” that proclaimed grand narratives of sexuality and the body. No text can fully subsume an experience. It ignores, after all, the individual’s social geographical variances and, of especial note here, their personal reactions to sexual biology, while condemning the illiterate to historical silence. Illustrations to comprehend the transformation of “the body” ameliorate only the last of these deficiencies. Fletcher’s Gender, Sex & Subordation in England, 1500-1800 (1990), unlike Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her (1996) of the same period, entirely dismisses any consideration of the empirical analysis of ordinary lives made of such fruitful use by Hufton in order to make sense of the accompanying religious discourse. Indeed, a source frequently cited by Fletcher is Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex, a tale of the gendered perception of sex which ends with a rather telling paradox: “But basically the content of talk about sexual difference is unfettered by fact, and is as free as mind’s play.”

In complete tune with this, Scott asserts that the welfare state reinforces “paternalistic” masculinity – in spite of such “facts” that both men and women have equal access and that women can be elected to exercise responsibility over it. For comparison’s sake, the second volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which he analysed Greek practice, was an ambitious venture given the author did not speak even the ancient language on which he played so much stress in cultural formation; indeed, in the process of writing he elected to remedy his ignorance of Roman and Greek culture by travelling to California. Post-structural gender theory is the flipside of crude Marxism. “Symbols” alone, although indeed experienced in the eye of the subject can only, when studied independent of circumstance, reflect the eye of the historian. Such authorial pretensions to feminist politics were, in other words, the culmination of many years of wasted scholarship.

Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist chums were more than fantastical zombies, a little too allured by the intellectual decadence of Western academia. More, even, than futile were their approaches: they were and remain today actively regressive in the study both of truth and the material realities upon which it depends. Neither women, nor homosexuals, nor the labouring people of Iran will be free for so long as their chains are denied and their words are suffocated by those pretending to care for them. This is the approach, in other words, that allies the far left to the extreme, murderous right.

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George Orwell Betrayed

Worth sharing:

This week in London, the annual George Orwell Lecture was given by the Islamist writer Tariq Ramadan. Where is one to start?

George Orwell was against religious censorship. Tariq Ramadan campaigned successfully to cancel a production of Voltaire’s play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete in Geneva.

Orwell was a rational man. When Ramadan taught at the College de Saussure he argued in favour of Islamic biology over Darwin.

Orwell risked his life fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists. Ramadan is a coward when it comes to fighting fascism. In November 2003, on French television, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Ramadan to condemn the practice of stoning women. He would not. Ramadan squirmed: “I have called for — because I know my position is a minority one within the Muslim world today — a moratorium so that there can be a real debate between Muslims.”

Orwell opposed state control and religious indoctrination. Ramadan would like the former to impose the latter. He wants Muslim parents to control the content of state school programmes according to “Islamic values”.

The organisers of the Orwell Lectures ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves. Don’t care about the above? Or, do they find Ramadan’s tongue-twisting political language blurring discourse so merrily that the most blatant distinctions between the two men no longer appear to matter?

Certainly, though, priorities are amiss. Forget Ramadan. If you wish to examine why Orwell still matters, you need only hear the final line of Bertolt Brecht’s parody of Hitler’s rise and fall, Arturo Ui: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Be it Islamism, NSA or the hysterical out-cries of the reactionary far left, challenges will not be resolved by reactionary celebrities. The Orwell Lecturers should try harder to find new voices:

I hope that Dr Borkenau will write a longer and better book on approximately the same subject. The present one, in spite of some brilliant passages, seems to have been hastily written and has faults of arrangement. Nevertheless Dr Borkenau is one of the most valuable gifts that Hitler has made to England. In a period when nearly all books on current politics have been compounded of lies, or folly, or both, his has been one of the few sane voices heard in the land, and long may it continue.

It’s not just bad politics, it’s lazy.