The Ministry of Fear

It isn’t often that I find myself agreeing with John Major, but in the post-Brexit era you often find allies in places where you would expect to find enemies – and vice versa. Certainly I can’t find much to quibble with about Major’s comments yesterday regarding the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe:

‘I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.’

Major is absolutely right, and it says something about the UK’s political class that it should take a former Tory prime minister to say this when there are so many other politicians who should have been have been saying what ought to be obvious to anyone not mesmerised by Ukip and the spectre of the ‘white working class voter.’  One thing is clear though – the British government is most definitely not giving these tendencies ‘short thrift’.

Quite the contrary, and there is no clearer barometer of the government’s willingness to pander to precisely the sentiments that Major denounces than that the British Home Office.   On Saturday the Home Office deportated Irene Clennel, a Singapore-born woman who has been living in the UK for 29 years and married to a British man for 27 of them.

Clennel has two grown-up children and one grandchild, and her husband is ill and needs a carer. But Clennel’s leave to remain had lapsed because of extended visits to Singapore to visit her sick mother, and because her husband’s income doesn’t reach the £18,000 threshold that allows foreign spouses to remain in the country.  So last month Clennel was detained at Dungavel,  and on Saturday she was driven to the airport with £12 in her pocket and no extra clothes,  without even being given the chance to speak to her husband and flown back to Singapore.

The Home Office justified this incredible act of cruelty with the morally inane bureaucratese that it always uses in such cases, that ‘ All applications for leave to remain in the UK are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. We expect those with no legal right to remain in the country to leave.’

When the Home Office behaves like this, and it often does, it tends to be criticised for its ‘insensitivity’ as though such things happen only through some misplaced bureaucratic overzealousness.   It would be interesting, but impossible, to study the individual psychology and motivations of the officials who make such decisions.  And to some extent it would be irrelevant, because such cases are not aberrations, but products of official policy.

No one would expect a government minister or Her Majesty’s officials to clap their hands and say ‘hurrah! One less immigrant!’ about Irene Clennel – not when the English language provides them with so much evasive verbiage about ‘individual merits’ and ‘immigration rules’ to disguise the malignant brutality of such decisions.

But the Clennel deportation is one more consequence of a political agenda whose single overrriding and obsessive objective when it comes to immigration is to remove as many people as possible – whoever they are and wherever they come from – so that the government of the day can boast how ‘tough’ it can be and add another statistic to reassure the public that its ‘concerns’ are being taken seriously.

This is how it’s been for years, but now it’s getting a lot worse, as anti-immigrant phobia rises to a new pitch of strident hysteria.  Already the Home Office has been sending out messages to EU nationals who have been here for decades that they should ‘make preparations to leave’.   Last month the Home Office was granted new powers that enable it to call into question the right of residence of EU nationals who don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance.  And yesterday Amber Rudd – yet another of the seemingly endless hard-faced gargoyles that Tory governments never seem to run out of – declared that ‘freedom of movement as we know it’ is now over.

The full implications of these developments are yet to become clear, but already they have struck fear and confusion into millions of people who now have no idea what is going to happen to them or to their family members, and are now expected to pass through the Home Office’s narrowing portal.   Let no one think that the Home Office does this because it is ‘insensitive’.  It does it because it is told to, by an arrogant, callous, and cynical government that simply does not give a damn about the human consequences of its decisions.

And the government does this in the knowledge that there are people up and down the country who actually want it to behave like this and will reward it with votes when it does.   So in this sense I have to disagree with John Major.  When it comes to ‘destroying civility and decency and understanding’ that is exactly what this monstrous government is doing, with the complicity of the British public.

We have allowed this government to pander to bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. We have allowed it to scapegoat minorities. We have allowed these tendencies to poison our political system to the point when we are increasingly incapable of seeing the men and women who come here as anything more than parasites seeking ‘our benefits.’

Until these attitudes change, we can expect a lot more cases like Irene Clennel in the coming months and years.  Because contrary to what John Major has said, that is the country we are,  and the Home Office is the mirror of who we are.

Reflections on the Bowling Green Massacre

As some readers of this blog will know, for the last four months I’ve been heavily involved in the One Day Without Us campaign,  which came to an end last Monday.  For much of this time my normal life has been on hold and pretty much everything has revolved around the campaign.  This has meant that I haven’t had time for a lot of things, including blogging.  This is a pity, because a lot of things have happened since the campaign first started last October that I would like to have written about. Take the Bowling Green Massacre, which Donald Trump’s disturbingly spooky amanuensis Kellyanne Conway referred to on Feb 2 as a justification for her boss’s ‘Muslim ban.’ Now some of you might argue that I needn’t regret not commenting on something that never happened, and that there isn’t that anyone can say about a non-existent massacre except that the person who referred to it is either a liar or an idiot.

Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that the Bowling Green massacre is more significant than it might appear, and that it represents a new cultural/political threshold.   It isn’t just the fact that Donald Trump and his entourage are liars and fantasists.  That isn’t entirely the novelty it seems to be.  When we talk about our supposedly new era of ‘post-truth’ politics we forget that it wasn’t that long ago when George Bush – aided and abetted by our own prime minister – ignited a war on the basis of ‘smoking guns’ that never existed in order to prevent imminent attacks that were never going to happen and that he and his entourage knew were never going to happen.

So we shouldn’t get too nostalgic for some imaginary good old days when presidents and their counsellors told the truth and the statements they made were submitted to careful rigorous scrutiny.    Nevertheless the Bowling Green massacre is a sign of different times, or perhaps it’s a symptom of a disease that’s simply got worse and worse over the last sixteen years.

After all, even Bush and Blair had to ‘prove’ their case to the public – even if the proof was mostly fabricated, imagined and invented.   But now Trump and his team can tell the most bare-faced idiotic lies repeatedly – virtually on a daily basis – and refer to things that have never happened,  without the need to prove anything or come up with evidence or defend themselves and apologise when they are caught out.

We are in new territory when Trump can say that the White House Mall was packed, even when photographs show that it wasn’t; when Kellyanne Conway can describe his lies as ‘alternative facts’ as if there were some other kind of facts that are as valid as the actual facts; when she can refer to a massacre that never happened and her boss can refer to what happened last night in Sweden even when nothing happened last night in Sweden.

It’s tempting to conclude that these people are merely passing idiots who can be safely laughed at, but that would be a little too comforting.  Trump might not be an intellectual giant but he knows his base.  His lies are not aimed at people who think and assess things carefully before deciding whether they agree or disagree with them.  They are aimed at people who agree with him whatever he says.

Most importantly they are aimed at people who feel the same kind of feelings that he feels; who believe that even if the Bowling Green massacre didn’t happen, it could have happened; that something must have happened in Sweden and that anyone who says otherwise or says anything the president doesn’t like is merely ‘covering up’ or disseminating ‘fake news.’

In this sense, we have entered new territory. The conspiratorial far-right fringe has gone mainstream and emotions are more powerful than thoughts – as long as they are the feelings of rage, hatred, fear, self-pitying victimhood, resentment and bitterness that Trump played upon during his campaign and which brought him to power.

These are the emotions that he continues to reach for every time he lies.  Politically speaking, these are dangerous emotions to play with.  In his great 1995 essay on ‘Ur-Fascism‘ Umberto Eco lists ‘irrationalism’ as one of the recurring intellectual characteristics of fascism.

For Eco, irrationalism is characterised by ‘ the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.  Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.’This is the world of the Bowling Green massacre, and this is the audience that Trump’s lies are aimed at – people who are averse to critical thinking and regard the whole concept of critical analysis as some kind of elite liberal project.   That doesn’t mean that Trumpism is fascism – yet – but his unlikely rise to power suggests that we have entered a cultural and political environment in which some kind of 21st century fascism is possible.

So it’s no good simply ridiculing Trump, Conway or the other liars in his team.  Nor is it enough to simply call them liars.   To counter them requires more than facts or arguments. It requires politicians and political movements capable of arousing and appealing to different emotions and beliefs, based around a different notion of the common good than the malignant and sinister dystopia that is unfolding in front of our eyes.

So far the ‘left’ – in the broadest sense of the word – has failed to do this.   And that is one reason why it is being persistently defeated by demagogues and frauds like Trump who are able to fly with no moral or intellectual compass,  and have no compunction about referring to massacres that never happened because they know that their intended audience doesn’t actually care if they did or not.

Brexit 2017: The Year of the Mogwai

Looking down with a vaguely-superior disdain at the outside world is a long-established Anglo-Saxon pastime.   Over the years we have been taught to use the words ‘very British’ to distinguish the bad things that happen in the world beyond from the better things that happen here.  We talk about ‘very British revolutions’ with a certain smugness.   The notion of something being ‘very British’ conjures up comforting notions of a national character based on gentleness,moderation and an aversion to extremes.  It evokes a nation supposedly moved more by common sense than the hot political passions that cause civil wars and revolutions in less cultured or sophisticated places.

I learned this a long time ago, when I studied O’ Level History and learned how nineteenth century British statesmen grappled with continental instability and the Ottoman ‘sick man of Europe’.  Back then we were very much steeped in the ‘great men’ school of History and we understood that British leaders were greater than most.

We learned that our statesmen were visionaries like George Canning, who ‘ called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old’; that they were sensible, pragmatic and diplomatic men who did not act rashly; who were always wise enough to prevent a serious crisis from getting any worse.

Other countries, we assumed, were not so blessed.  They were led by leaders who weren’t as wise or all-seeing as our own, and that was why we sometimes had to intervene in their affairs and perhaps even take over their countries.

Our ancestors had been forced to deal with the sick man of Europe.  They had taken on ‘the burden of Empire’.  They had intervened in two world wars.  They had been forced to deal with ‘the Irish question’, and the ‘problem of India’ and the dangerous aspirations of the ‘Russian bear’, when all they really wanted was to put their feet up in a Mayfair club or watch a good game of cricket somewhere.

Other leaders wanted power or territory.   Ours were only concerned with ‘the balance of power’ and safeguarding the nation’s interests – interests that we were never taught to question and always assumed were legitimate.  Even our empire was ‘accidental’.

Of course I have long since shed these illusions, or at least I thought I had. Because I still find it impossible to reconcile these schoolboy narratives of British caution and moderation with the mind-boggling combination of malice, idiocy, prejudice, magical thinking and epic incompetence that is dragging the country towards one of the great self-inflicted wounds in its history.

In the last week, lying in a sickbed watching the country speed towards Article 50 like a train heading for a cliff, I’ve often myself thinking of the Joe Dante 80s comedy Gremlins, when a dad purchases a little oriental animal called a mogwai for his son as a present and inadvertently brings forth an army of destructive little monsters that wreak havoc on a small American town.

I can’t help feeling that a similar process is now taking place on a national level as I watch the oafish Boris Johnson turning what was once seen as one of the most serious posts in the British government into a vehicle for his narcissistic buffoonery.  No one can be surprised that his own department is in despair at his inability to read briefings or his willingness to alienate his foreign counterparts, because such an outcome could have been predicted from the moment he got the job.

Which brings us to Theresa May, gremlin-in-chief, who has allowed her personal ambition to put herself in a position when she is painfully and terrifyingly out of her depth. Her party can’t even guarantee the interests of big business – the main purpose of the Tory Party after all – let alone the wider interests of the country.

May is nominally leading the country, even though she only seems to listen to the Brexit gremlins that prance  around her shrieking that we must leave, leave, leave the EU, regardless of how we leave it or what leaving means or whether their exits are even possible.  They include the more thug-like gremlins like Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage, ‘the bad boys of Brexit’ , who clearly don’t care what happens if we leave just as long as we leave.

And posh Jacob Rees-Mogg – a politician who looks more and more like a ghost from the fourteenth century rather than a living person.   And stonecold idiots like Ian Duncan-Smith and Andrea Leadsom – an environment secretary who is so pig-ignorant that she thinks farming has been around ‘since the dawn of mankind’.

Like Brexit secretary David Davis, these gremlins can’t be doing with any negative talk about what might happen, or any fussing about single markets, tariffs, schedules and regulations.  That is namby-pamby, lefty pinko liberal europhile talk and they aren’t having it. They want out and they want it now.  They’re ready to take the ‘economic hit’ that none of them will ever feel.  Because after so many years of continuous suffering they just can’t endure the tyranny of Brussels for a moment longer – now that the green fields of freedom are so near.

The more the pitfalls and negative consequences mount up, the more they put their fingers in their ears and chant ‘la la la la la’.   Or they stamp their feet and shout at  anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear.   So when judges uphold the rule of law and say that parliament should have some scrutiny over the Brexit process, the judges are vilified as traitors, and gremlins across the country  talk of hanging them for treason.  Because just like the gremlins in the movie, some Brexit gremlins initially seem cheeky and mischievously appealing – like Farage or Johnson – but they quickly turn menacing and even homicidal.

In these circumstances, no one can be surprised that a career diplomat like Ivan Rogers is ignored by his own government when he warns of the dangers ahead.   When Rogers resigns and has the cheek to write a resignation letter he is screeched at by the king of the gremlins Nigel Farage that he is just a ‘Europhile’ anyway and the foreign office is full of ’em, dontcha know?  And then the ghastly Theresa Villiers calls Rogers ’emotionally needy.’

Yep, that’s the way to treat your diplomats when they don’t tell you what you want to hear.   According to the version of British history I was once taught, civil servants were ‘mandarins’ who knew how to run the country and the empire and gave wise disinterested counsel to governments.   Given the staggering complexity that the task of leaving the EU involves,  you would have thought that even the most ardent Leaver  would want such men in place to ensure the best possible outcome.   After all, it’s only common sense to want an experienced negotiator to take part in … negotiations, right?

But Gremlin Britain is not a country where logic and common sense applies.  It’s not the country that my teachers told us about. Gremlins only want to see gremlins like themselves in power.   Because otherwise their vacuity is likely to be revealed to the world.   And the more it becomes clear that they have no coherent plan and don’t even understand what they’re doing and don’t even care about the consequences the more they shout down the people who point this out.

Meanwhile the NHS is crumbling away to the point when Red Cross volunteers are now assisting…the NHS as patients die on trolleys in corridors.   And prisons across the country are rioting – the same prisons where Paul Dacre’s Gremlin Times recently said that prisoners were living a life of luxury.

All this is also part of Gremlin Britain- a country where it’s much easier to rise high if you’re willing to destroy things than if you’re willing to build them, where cronies, grifters and zealots are promoted above their  ability while civil servants who actually have ability and experience must step aside.

The historians of the future will have their eyes popping out on stalks when they look back on this incredible mess and try to understand how this was allowed to happen. They will know it wasn’t because someone brought a weird oriental mascot for his son.   Some may Conclude that a combination of post-imperial corruption and decadence led  the British ruling classes inadvertently to apply shotgun to the nation’s collective head  like a boozy squire on a grousehunt, supported by a population that wanted to believe in Santa Claus when it wasn’t even Christmas.

Others might see it as a popular rebellion gone wrong, or another part of the same generalised democratic corrosion that has given us a president who boasts about his ratings on a tv show less than two weeks before taking office

But one thing is clear.  The words ‘very British’ are even meaningless than they were before, and in the future, like Joe Dante’s Gremlins, they may well conjure up horror rather than affectionate amusement

ISIS, Trolls, and the Language of Hate

In a powerful New Year’s video for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Kemal Pervanic, a Bosnian Muslim,  remembers how he ended up being interrogated and tortured in a concentration camp by his favourite teacher during the Yugoslav Wars.    He  asks his viewers to learn the lessons of history, and bear in mind the possibility that such things are not unique to any particular time period:  ‘If you speak to anyone out there right now, they’ll tell you that they’re crazy if you tell them that something like that may happen. But now after I lived through such events, I know that it can happen to anyone.’

It certainly can, especially when the hateful thoughts and fantasies that people carry around in their heads individually are weaponised or become social currency. Consider the New Year’s message from ISIS claiming responsibility for the atrocious Reina nightclub massacre in Istanbul:

‘In continuation of the blessed operations that Islamic State is conducting against the protector of the cross, Turkey, a heroic soldier of the caliphate struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.’

In some translations, ‘apostate holiday’ has been translated as ‘pagan feast’, but it doesn’t actually matter much because these are words that debase those who utter them, and debase humanity itself.  It’s tempting to treat such words with the same appalled disgust that you might give to a serial killer who boasts of his crimes to the media to enhance his profile and mystique.

Morally-speaking this statement is on the same level of gibberish. No one ‘blessed’ the mass murder of random 39 nightclubbers – at least no one with any credibility beyond ISIS’s nightmare netherworld.   Murdering men and women in a nightclub is no more ‘heroic’ than John Wayne Gacy murdering young boys.

A man who has abandoned all known religious and secular traditions of mercy accumulated over centuries of war and conflict can never be a hero – unless he inhabits a moral universe in which all moral codes are inverted and turned upside down.  Going to a nightclub does not constitute an ‘apostate holiday’ or a ‘ pagan feast’ and no one has any moral right to kill people who go to one, whether they are Christians or members of any other group.

This should be obvious, and it is, even to ISIS.  Because ISIS is not mad.  There is always a strategic purpose behind its seemingly barking rantings and its most vile acts. In this case Erdogan is probably right that ISIS wants to destabilise Turkey and demonstrate to the Turkish people that the state that is now making war on ISIS in Syria can no longer protect its own citizens within their own borders.

So on one level the act and the justifying statement is a demonstration of ‘power’.  But the ISIS message is also designed to disguise the disgusting and repellent reality of the acts they purport to describe.  They are maledicta – words of hate – intended to render entire categories of people worthy of extermination.

This is what language can do, when it is used for such purposes, and it has always been thus, whether it was Spanish clerics describing seventeenth century Moriscos as vermin or Hutu radio stations in Rwanda denouncing Tutsi ‘cockroaches.’

Such dehumanising language is not limited to one ‘side’ in the 21st century’s media-drenched conflicts.  Consider these responses to a Channel 4 News report on refugees forced to sleeping in a Croatian cemetery near the Serbian border:

Hey rag head, no we hate Muslims they are cockroach’s (sic). They are evil vile and are the spawn of Satan himself. There will be no peace on earth till these savages are exterminated, just like a cockroach

Animals !! Burn theme (sic) alive , look in the eyes of this people , they animals (sic)

Some of those who posted these comments are Serbs, but others have joined from the English-speaking world:

No respect for the dead even less for the living Muslim scum

Men men Mrs Isis terrorists coming to rape the women of Europe

Disrespectful Muslim zombies

There is no doubt that the massacres carried out by ISIS in Europe over the last two years are intended to invite exactly this kind of response.  ISIS documents have clearly identified whipping up hatred towards Muslims who inhabit ‘the grey zone’ as a strategic goal.  They dream of a global ‘civilisational’ conflict that will leave Muslims nowhere else to turn to but them, and they have many people on the opposite ‘side’ who are only too willing to oblige them.

We like to use the word ‘trolls’ to describe the men and women who make below-the-line comments like the ones I’ve quoted, and there are many more where they came from, and in the last few years they have also been appearing above the line.  One of them has just been elected president of the United States.  Another has just been awarded a $250,000 book contract by Simon & Schuster.

Over here we have women like Katie Hopkins, who calls refugees ‘cockroaches’ in a national newspaper, and has now retweeted a neo-Nazi Twitter account in support of her claim that she is not ‘racist’.   Hopkins has said ‘ I genuinely believe “racist” as a word has been used so much.  I’m sorry for the word racist in a way. I love language.

Nothing I have ever read of Hopkin’s self-aggrandizing trolling suggests that she loves language – or anything at all for that matter.  She would be one more of the sick jokes that the 21st century keeps playing on us, were it not for the fact that she echoes and repeats in a marginally more acceptable from what trolls below the line are also saying.

That is why the mainstream media has fallen over itself to court her, not because she has anything coherent, intelligent or thoughtful to say about anything, but nowadays it seems to matter less and less what people actually saying as long as it attracts enough clicks or produces a minute or two of ‘good television’ or ‘good radio. ‘

Hopkins might think that she is ‘standing up to Islam’ or whatever it is she thinks she’s standing up to, but people like her are the gift to ISIS that keeps on giving, and so are the wretched hatemongers foaming at the mouth about Muslim invasions and ‘rapefugees.’

Perhaps the single most important lesson that we can draw from history is that very few people listen to the lessons of history.  And now, in 2017, it’s incumbent upon all of us, whatever background we come from to try harder, and reach back into our best traditions, not simply in order to ‘tolerate’ each other, but to find our way towards a coexistence that keep marginalise the murderers, the trolls and the haters.

Because if we don’t do this, we will never get out of the mess we’re in, and we will be laying the foundations for a future of endless war and endless violence that will make any kind of coexistence impossible.