The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

There are many unanswerable questions; “Which came first, the chicken or the egg ?”, or “Do we get the media we deserve or does the media the change public opinion ?”.  While it almost certainly true that no-one will publish  things for which there no existing appetite, it is also true that the media can create appetites which were not there before.

We have been aware, for a long time, of the effects of the media on public opinion and attitudes. Sometimes the changes that the media encourages are benevolent and beneficial. For example the displays of tolerance, and the portrayal of bigots in a bad light,  on television, in films and in other media outlets  has made our society less racist and has led less of us to become bigots. The portrayal of women in active, successful and independent roles has helped counter the aeons of inequality in the opportunities for women and society’s attitudes towards them. In the world of cinema, for example,  the 1961 film Victim helped to start to change our attitudes towards homosexuality and lead us to a less prejudiced and censorious way of thinking.

So we all know that the media can change our attitudes and politics. Every businessman and advertiser knows this when they pay for their bit of media space. Every state know it when it either bans media it disagrees with or when it promotes it own.  The totalitarian states under Hitler, or subsequently under the communists, were  the most active in controlling the media as, they knew, through it they controlled the people.

Perhaps as a consequence of our recognition of the damage that totalitarian states could do through media manipulation we are now more cautious and alert to negative or damaging media interventions. We know that it creates unrealistic views of society in order to manipulate our behaviour. We know that it tries to make us wish to buy things we had not intended to purchase, to want things we didn’t feel we desired, and to need things we were unaware we required.

There has been much written on the harmful effect that advertising,  the fashion industry, celebrity culture and others have on young women through their promotion of unrealistic physical ideals of beauty and the physical form. Similarly there are real concerns about the effects of pornography, and its distorted portrayals of sexual life, on the development of young men.

These are not, however, the things that make me want to flee from modern society. These are obvious and easy to spot and to ignore, or counter. The problem I have is with the unintended consequences of the media’s agenda. The unfortunate result of their inept, but frequent, virtue signalling.

In the world of television dramas, soap operas, theatre, advertising, newspapers and periodicals it is held to be important to promote the diversity agenda. It is a valuable positional good for many people as it is a easy and cheap method to express your good nature and moral credentials. If you want to whiten the brand image of your company, blackened by some scandal of cheap child labour, or chemical dumping, or somesuch, then put out an advert supporting gay marriage. Has your company been found out avoiding paying its tax, but you still want the public to buy your coffee ? Then a high profile support of cultural diversity is what you need. It is just a modern version of the old trick of greenwashing.

The unintended consequence of all of this is a misrepresentation of our society. We are presented with a picture of our society in which a larger group are gay than the 3% who self report as such in surveys, more are of BAME origin than the 13% in the last census, for example. Loving couples in adverts are much more likely to be of mixed races rather than the more prosaic, and more common, same race relationship. In dramas the head of the police team, or the successful politician is likely to be a woman, unfortunately not representing the world as it is, but rather as it is wished to be.

But what is wrong with this ? Surely it will no no more than promote further beneficial change ? I fear that it won’t. It is as much about what is missing as it is about what is said.

What is missing is the white, heterosexual male. If he is in the drama he will be the villain. Indeed, it spoils British crime  drama just now as, no matter how statistically unlikely, you can always guess who the killer will be in the first episode – it is the middle-class male in a suit (You might have guess the black guy, the gang member with the drug problem is a candidate, but no it is the 55 year old solicitor driving the Volvo).  Any traditional character, anyone portrayed as having religious sentiments, will prove to be the moral leper.

Outside the dramas, in the media world of culture and politics the white-male  is the “problem”. A problem that is doubly compounded if the white class male has the misfortune to be working class. White working class males, those who didn’t go to university, seem to the focus for the blame for most things that go wrong in the world. Recently he has been held responsible for Brexit and Trump on either side of the Atlantic.

So what is the outcome of this ? When the world is presented in a way that is quite different to how you know it to be.  When you are not shown as present, as having any part, in the world as it is wanted to be. When you are described as the problem rather than as part of the solution. What do you do ? I think you start to see this aspect of society as alien to you. You start to feel that their lives are far removed from yours. You start to think they must be in some removed group which has interests antithetical to yours. The idea of a “metropolitan elite“, which acts against your interests, seems to be a credible way to make sense of the of the cultural war that you find yourself.

The unintended consequence of these benevolent, but inaccurate, portrayals and this wishful thinking is to push people into reactionary positions and to make them hostile to they very changes you tried to foster. The consequence is that you create the very problem that you thought you already had. We have as people become more tolerate and welcoming over the years. As we become more familiar with our fellows we can only presume that this tendency will continue and improve. Any recent upsurge in bigotry and intolerance is likely to be due to the media’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering.

Voltaire (quoted in the title) was wrong, left alone, people tend to seek out others, they tend to cooperate and form relationships. Our instincts are social, they need to be as we are a social animal. The dangers arise when we are masses goaded or tempted into action. The horrors of our history are the results of the state encouraging us to to think en masse. The killing fields of Cambodia or the ovens of Auschwitz are examples of states altering how peoples think of their friends and neighbours, these nightmares need the individuals’ thoughts to be overridden to be possible. The dangers may be just as great when the results are unintended. Many in the UK and USA should be reconsidering whether their strategies to promote change are having the effects that they wished.

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.

 

 

As well hung for a sheep as a lamb

As well hung for a sheep as a lamb

We are some weeks after the EU referendum and we are still in murky waters. Those who won the referendum are slowly developing a strategy for a future outwith the EU but have been handicapped by the need to select a new leader of the conservative party, to act as Prime Minister, to start the negotiations around Article 50. However, those who lost the referendum, the minority, have not given up yet, despite their petition for a second referendum being soundly rejected by the government [1]. They continue to fight for a reversal and, while some continuing argument is to be expected and reasonable, increasingly they are being counter productive.

The Remainers scaremongering over the economy has not fully settled. There is much gloating and “I told you so” when they seem to take pleasure from seeing the graphs of Sterling’s decline [2,3]and the significant drops in the stock market [4,5]. Despite the rally that occurred on the UK share market and despite the obvious weaknesses that have been shown in the European markets (and the Euro) at the same time they have continued their onslaught. They are indeed right that markets in shares and currency are influenced by factors such as confidence and expressed opinions and by their shouting and doom-mongering they can be expected to make their prophecies come true. It seems worrying, that they appear to be happier being seen to be correct in hindsight than to start to work out how to promote our economy in its new relationships. They seem keener to see people hurt and punished than to help sort out problems that they profess to understand.

However, worse than this effect on the economy, which will only be short term, is the damage that they are doing to our society. They are actively promoting inter-generational discord, encouraging the young to blame the elderly for a blighted future. Unpleasant pieces have suggested that they “blame granny” for “screwing us over again” [6,7]. Hopefully time and experience will stop this rift widening or this wound festering. The young get older and, as a consequence.  more experienced and wiser. They will realise the folly of this these calls to bias the vote towards the young and employed for the anti-democratic step that it would represent.

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But, the most dangerous game that they have played is to falsely fly the racism flag. During the campaign Leave voters were castigated as racists and following the result this has continued [8–10] with reports that Britain is more racist society in the days following Brexit. This flies in the face of the fact that Britain is clearly a less racist country than it was in the past. The heyday for racist parties like the NF and BNP, and more recently EDL, is well past [11]. This is not to say that the problem of racism has been eradicated, it clearly has not as recent events in America and Europe can testify[12,13] . However, racist thought is now clearly on the margins of British political life. Though racists may wish to garner the support of their fellow country men and women their views are considered beyond the pale and thus they have great difficulty in spreading their bile.

However, there are ways we could make this easier. One way would be to devalue the word “racism” itself. At present it is a heinous slur to be thrown at anyone and rightly people shudder when they find racist ideas being promoted. However, if we start to use the term to describe over 17,000,000 people, to describe people worried by the effects of terrorism, or to describe people who fear for the capacity of their local services, and have these fears without animosity to people because of their race, then we will devalue the term. If people are falsely accused of racist intentions they will have to deal with the distress somehow. Some will argue and explain why their concerns are not based on racial prejudice and they will hopefully be successful in this. Others might wonder why they are being so slandered and thus doubt the accuracy or honesty of their accuser. They might think “if they can be wrong about that perhaps they are wrong about what these racists intend”. In this scenario the barrier to thinking the unthinkable is weakened and they may help the racists disseminate their ideas. Further, racists, hearing that the majority of the UK population is racist, could start to feel emboldened and given the succour and push to climb out from under their stones into the sunlight of what they imagine to be an accepting world. This factor, I fear, may underpin some of the recent increased racist violence and vandalism.

It is time for those who wanted to remain in the EU to start to be productive, to engage in politics rather than cry “foul”, to propose strategies rather than cause damage to prove their point, and to stop playing with fire because it is not just their fingers which will get burnt.

 


 

1         Cockburn H. Brexit: Government rejects second EU referendum petition signed by 4.1 million. The Independent. 2016.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-government-rejects-eu-referendum-petition-latest-a7128306.html 

2         Monaghan A. Sterling hits new 31-year low against the dollar. The Guardian. 2016.http://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jul/06/brexit-pound-plunges-to-30-year-lows-as-eu-fears-bite-into-global-markets-again 

3         Sheffield H. Pound sterling could slide below $1.20 because of Brexit, Goldman Sachs warns. The Independent. 2016.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/pound-sterling-dollar-exchange-rate-lows-goldman-sachs-forecast-brexit-eu-referendum-a7122541.html .

4         Chu B. Thought the worst was over for the economy after Brexit? Think again. The Independent. 2016.http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-economy-ftse-value-of-the-pound-is-the-worst-over-think-again-europe-a7120891.html .

5         Wearden G, Fletcher N, Thielman S, et al. Brexit panic wipes $2 trillion off world markets – as it happened. The Guardian. 2016.http://www.theguardian.com/business/live/2016/jun/24/global-markets-ftse-pound-uk-leave-eu-brexit-live-updates .

6         Ridley L. EU Referendum Data Shows Youth ‘Screwed By Votes Of Older Generations’. The Huffington Post. 2016.http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/eu-referendum-results-age-data-young_uk_576cd7d6e4b0232d331dac8f .

7         Helm T. Poll reveals young remain voters reduced to tears by Brexit result. The Guardian. 2016.http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/02/brexit-referendum-voters-survey .

8         Versi M. Brexit has given voice to racism – and too many are complicit | Miqdaad Versi. The Guardian. 2016.http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/27/brexit-racism-eu-referendum-racist-incidents-politicians-media .

9         Moritimer C. Hate crimes surge by 42% in England and Wales since Brexit result. The Independent. 2016.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crime-racism-stats-spike-police-england-wales-eu-referendum-a7126706.html .

10         Norton B. How neoliberalism fuels the racist xenophobia behind Brexit and Donald Trump. Salon. http://www.salon.com/2016/07/01/how_neoliberalism_fuels_the_racist_xenophobia_behind_brexit_and_donald_trump/ .

11         MikeH. The End of the BNP? | www.debater.org.uk. 2016.http://www.debater.org.uk/?p=431 .

12         Noman N. Racism in America Today Is Alive and Well — And These Stats Prove It. Mic. 2016.https://mic.com/articles/140107/racism-in-america-today-is-alive-and-well-and-these-stats-prove-it .

13         Kotkin J. Who’s Racist Now? Europe’s Increasing Intolerance – Forbes. Forbes. 2010.http://www.forbes.com/sites/joelkotkin/2010/10/18/whos-racist-now-europes-increasing-intolerance/ .

Men should weep.

Men should weep.

istvan reiner

I often come across photographs on the internet which unsettle me. However, I do not think any had the effect on me comparable to that of this simple portrait of a young boy. I found it very moving and although I know it may upset others I felt I needed to share it.


It is the portrait of Istvan Reiner, a Hungarian boy, who was born in 1940. His parents, aware of the gathering holocaust did all in their power to try and protect him even going as far as to change their faith and become protestants. It was all to no avail, he and his grandmother were taken to Auschwitz, and there murdered.

When I look at Istvan’s face he is a beautiful young lad with a warm and appealing smile. He has big eyes full of happiness and pleasure. He is playing, pretending to be a bus or train ticket inspector and having fun thinking of his future adult life. It is a face full of promise. In his face I can see my children and my grandchildren playing the same games, I can even see echoes of myself and my brother when we were boys.

It is difficult to comprehend how someone could take this little boy and snuff out his life and future, but they did. It is hard to believe that people looked at his face and saw something terrible and threatening, but they did. It is terrible to think that people looked at Istvan and saw something worthless and in need of disposal, but they did.

Two factors seem to be required to create this special type of horror.

Firstly, it requires that people are able to see others as different and worthless. Common denominators to define this have been race, religion or nationality. Once we start to see people as Jews or Muslims, as Scots or English, or blacks or whites, rather than as people, we take a step on the path to reducing them. Instead of seeing the face of Istvan, a happy young boy, we see a jew boy, a black or an arab – a problem rather than a delight.

Nationalism and racism always carry this risk and they reduce us as people, while at the same time making us think other people are worth less.  By thinking less of humanity, humanity becomes less.

Secondly, it requires a strong state. It requires a state that takes responsibility away form the individual, usually at the same time as taking their freedom and liberty. People working for the state, and following orders, are able to commit the most heinous acts. When normal individuals, like you or I, have our freedom and responsibility removed we can become brutes in the herd. The writings of Hannah Arendt and Eric Hoffer  should warn us of the dangers of totalitarianism, regardless of whether it arises from the left or right side of the political spectrum.

While we try to deal with this wave of nationalism and racism which prevails we should remember Istvan and other like him and remember we are playing with fire. No matter what excuses you give yourself – it’s antizionism not antisemitism, anti-religion not racism, it’s class war not nationalism – you are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Take a second to think again about your antipathy and remember the words of the Burn’s poem  .. ..

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.