Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.

This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and  Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.

Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other  tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.

Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.

This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings,  inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous  activity by individuals  and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.

Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.

The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.

Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals.  Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions.  Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority.  Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.



The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I have read very little science fiction. 51mski9o2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I recall, when a teenager, reading some futuristic tales but these were usually the those in the intersection between science fiction and dystopian novels, such as Brave New World. I thought, therefore, as part of my New Year’s resolution that I would broaden my reading and dip my toes in the science fiction pond. After a short browse it was clear that Robert A. Heinlein was highly regarded and that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was considered one of his best. Hence it became my first novel of the year.

This prove to be a very wise choice as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It works at many levels. Firstly there is a standard action-adventure story which is fast paced and rewarding. It was no surprise to hear that  the film of the book is in the pipeline and if it remains faithful to the book it should be a success. But more than this it is also a work of science fiction and consequently it discusses broader philosophical points. One of the major themes is the development of sentience by computers and machines, will artificial intelligence cross this divide ?  This is discussed interestingly and also with humour. Indeed, the biggest and most pleasant surprise reading this novel was the amount of comedy it contained. There are many genuinely funny scenes.

Heinlein describes himself as a “rational anarchist” and much of this novel is an exposition of his views. Sometimes this is done by giving his protagonsits moral questions to debate, such as .. ..

‘For example, under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?’


what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”

while in other passages there are fairly straightforward explanations of his views .. ..

“a rational anarchist believes that concepts such as “state” and “society” and “government” have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world …”

However, some of the best explanations of his desire for minarchy are seen in the whimsical advice his revolutionary leader offers to his fellow conspirators :-

‘I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent – the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.’

This is an excellent piece of fiction, provocative, funny and exciting and one you can approach in many different ways. It is well worth anyone’s time and I have no doubt I’ll look back on it as my entry point into a wider range of reading.



Burkini Madness

Burkini Madness

The left-right political axis is of little value when it come to many issues of moral principle. Pragmatism on both sides often usurps moral consistency. The issue of personal liberty, the freedom to think and speak as one wishes, has often been seen as a moral principle that defines one side or the other. But the evidence that this is correct is very poor, both sides tend to support liberty when it supports their cause and suppress it when it is inconvenient.

Historically those on the right stressed duties over rights, and the placed more importance on obedience than on  freedom of thought and word. In the past these issues (subjugation of liberty to king, nation or church) had been the greater threat to peoples’ freedom. This lead to many feeling that it was an issue which delineated the two groups – the left fighting for liberty and change the right reacting to preserve order and the status quo – the progressives trying to expand liberty against the repression of reactionary and conservative forces.

Unfortunetely, however, the principle of liberty has never been high on the left’s agenda.  Trotsky warned of this in 1924 when he said “To be sure, a revolutionary dictatorship means by its very essence strict limitations of freedom.” and Lenin likewise with his pithy statement “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed. ”

Indeed, in  recent years the major threats to issues of freedom and liberty appear to have come from the left-hand side of the political spectrum. Issues of “hate speech”, “hate crimes”, various types of”denial” and silencing people in held to be dprsking from positions of “provilege” have, at times, seriously threatened our ability to be free in our thoughts, words and deeds. It has been particularly distressing to those of us who come from a liberal or left background to watch the left abandon these principles and allow the right to take the moral high-ground.

But the issue of the “burkini” seems to be a return to form for the repressive right. There have been attempts to blame this illiberal ban on ‘aggressive secular forces’. They argue that this is “laïcité” flexing its muscles; putting pressure on all religious groups to protect the secular state. Or it has been argued that this is attempts by the progressive forces to protect women from oppression by the burqa; assisting them in their fight against an islamic patriarchy.

Neither of these motivations are honest or credible. It is clear from the anger in the debate, and the content of the rhetoric, that the focus is on the islamic symbol itself. Not behaviour, not gender, not modesty but symbolic islamic dress. The intention of these local laws was to cause discomfort to those who followed Islam, nothing more and nothing less.

It is understandable that there is anger after the recent terrorist attacks in France and is should be no surprise that beaches of the South of France have become the battle ground following the truck attack in Nice. There is a desire to hurt those who are seen as having hurt us. This is ‘god-sent’ to the racists who now have a seemingly acceptable focus for their hatred and it will prove a fertile recruiting ground for them.

This is the main problem with this type of anger and desire for revenge, it is blind and counter-productive, it punishes the innocent and misses the guilty, it drives more to believe the propaganda of the terrorist and it divides our society when it needs to be strong in the face of attacks on its moral values.

No-one can consider that forcing French muslim women to dress in a manner they feel immodest will improve society nor will it assuage the anger that gave birth to it. We arrive at this travesty of a situation because we have ignored a basic moral principle. We are free to think and act as we will as long as we do not harm any other person. As John Stuart Mill put is “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

This is an inviolate right and not a possession of either the right or the left in politics. Only Libertarians, Liberals and Anarchists give this the focus it deserves. Holding to prionciples such as these guides us past horrible mistakes such as the “burkini ban” and in the past this was widely recognised. Laws to control our behaviour should be rarely used, individuals behave better than states and come to better, more creative, solutions. Indeed even Lenin saw this when he realised “While the State exists there can be no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no State.