Britain


little englanderDan Hodges offers a cornucopia of bad interventionist arguments. “In the wake of Syria,” he writes, Putin “could afford to flex his military muscles with relative impunity.” Note that people who claim that our avoidance of war in Syria emboldened Putin never tell us why he would have been less able to invade Crimea were our troops stationed in Damascus. There would be no more options at our disposal. It is true that the idea that international credibility requires feats of strength makes intuitive sense but there is no evidence that for its actual validity. It offers commentators the chance to exploit old arguments.

Hodges fears that Britain is “in the grip of a…1930s-style isolationism”. Afghanistan and Iraq are now seen as regrettable and Libya is regarded as “an eccentric aberration”. After two major wars in a decade, one of which is still ongoing, a third cannot be described as an “aberration” any more than a glass of beer at the end a week in which one has twice arrived home in an ambulance after a night’s boozing could be described as an “occasional indulgence”.

What interests me more than this parade of fallacies, however, is Hodge’s conclusion. He condemns “the weakness of 2014 isolationist Britain” – the weakness, indeed, “within us all”. I presume that he exempts himself from blame – it is, instead, the supposed little Englanders who grouse about Afghanistan and the EU and are more interested in planning permission than Ukraine that he laments. His complaint joins many bitter and baffled responses to the supposed parochialism of Britons – with their unwillingness to endorse foreign wars or accept multicultural ambitions.

I will not be the kind of populist who denounces criticism of the masses. There is much to criticise. If one is about to wash one’s hands of millions, though, one needs just cause. This seems unfair, and not just as opposition to progressive policies is more than attitudinal. It is true, after all, that Britons tend to be insular; resistant to change; happiest around people like themselves and risk-averse, with a special unwillingness to take risks for strangers. Here is the punchline. This describes almost everybody. Yes, it is a general rule, and true to varying extents, but from the Swiss to Singaporeans to Spike Lee people feel safe with what they know; care about that which is close to them and are fearful of losing both. This is said to neither praise nor blame. It is simply a fact. People can defy these impulses if they so wish but it is silly to pretend that they are new, peculiar or liable to change.

SilkWhen Charles Saatchi took Nigella Lawson to court I joked that it would be hard to conceive of an opponent to the multi-millionaire and art patron that I would not support against him. Taki Theodoracopulos has not disproved this claim. Saatchi took against spiteful remarks in his High Life column and responded with a boast about his cage-fighting prowess. It is sad that a lifetime of observing art has left this man with no more cultivation than a teenage knucklehead.

What a miserable career this strange gentleman has pursued. He made his fortune in one of the ugliest trades around – and not just in selling chocolate bars or shampoo but in promoting tobacco. He and his brother’s adverts were enormously successful in convincing people to draw tar into their lungs.

Having earned his millions, he began to spend them on attention-seeking and attention-wasting art of the kind decomposed by Damien Hirst. Young British Artists, it appears to me, had all the pretension of youths and none of the enthusiasm. Perhaps others have been blessed by the corpses and turds, however, so I shall reserve judgement on their cultural value.

Now, of course, having been pictured with his hand around his wife’s throat, Saatchi dragged her personal life through the courts with a meanness that did not prevent him from citing her disapproval of Mr Theodoracopulos in support of his. One must grant that he is not without gumption.

This, it seems, is as close as we get to a cultural elite: people whose ingenuity in gaming the financial system leads them to believe that their every puerile whim drips with profundity. Much as one might disdain the pop and panel shows that millions enjoy, it is the men who thrust trash into the nation’s face and fashion it on pedestals above us who seem most unpleasant. It surrounds us and can seem to be all that we have to reach for. And, besides, what an awful waste of good champagne.

ChoudaryIt should be clear to anyone with an IQ score above that of the common toad that the freedom of Mr Anjem Choudary must have dubious underpinnings. Me, I suspect that Al-Muhajiroun must be as thick with MI5 informants as a get-together of the Republicans for Green Energy and Animal Liberation society. This does not explain, however, why he is always invited onto the BBC. It attracts eyeballs, I guess, and it makes the headlines, but there is no non-cynical explanation of his presence. All that is achieved is the irritation of Britons and, it’s possible, the recruitment of another angry young Muslim to Choudary’s mob.

You have to give him credit, though: born the son of a Welling market trader he has earned himself the status of minor celebrity. Everyone knows this loudmouthed fanatic, while more earnest theocrats are forced to toil in relative obscurity. Here, then, are a few tips for how he could leverage his fame into an enduring career in the public eye…

1. Be a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother – Yes, the show has undeniably seen better days, but an appearance from Anjem could be just what it needs. Think of that Geordie drone announcing that he told the year’s large-breasted pop star, fashion model or girlfriend of a half-decent footballer that she should hide her face, or declaring that the diary room is an Islamic state.

2. Release his memoirs - It’s a bit late for Christmas, that’s true, but one can’t be a minor celebrity without releasing a selective account of one’s life. I’m sure Anjem could scribble wry anecdotes about times he was almost burned by U.S. flags that went up too quickly comfort, or when he tried shaking Abu Hamza by the wrong hand. All it would need is a punning title - Al Muhautobiography is my suggestion.

3. Film himself twerking – I hear you, Anjem, this might be considered a little haraam, but Gangnam Style is so 2012. Wiggling your backside through one of those long, austere robes would earn you thousands of subscribers on YouTube, who could then be warned to reject their degenerate ways and embrace Islam.

Now, I don’t accept the view that old Anjem’s opinions represent nothing more than those of marginal nutjobs. You could not squeeze a rolling paper between his prescriptions for the ideal state and those of Haddad, Green, Khan or Hakeem. I would love to see these earnest theocrats exposed in the media. Anjem’s wacky Wahhabism, however, which exists in boorish sound bites that turn the fanaticism up to eleven, does not inform reflection but provokes impotent rage that is directed elsewhere once the viewer turns onto a programme about kids born with six ears, or the reader turns to a story about paedos dressed as nuns. His freedom meanwhile, in an age where others face jail for uncouth and hateful speech, symbolises a “War on Terror” that takes different forms on our TV screens and in the shadows. He suits a culture that prizes sensation above thought – and a society of appearances that could mean all manner of things.

poppyI respect people who fear that Poppy Day encourages militarism but I do not share the perspective. It is true that British people glorify members of the armed forces. Its charity has been titled Help for Heroes, which, for all the courage, diligence and selflessness displayed by many soldiers, attributes a necessary virtue to their deeds or motives that is quite unreasonable. Politicians have been exploiting this trend as a means of allowing their wars to obtain nobility by association.

Yet I think disliking Poppy Day because of its exploitation by the government is like opposing Christmas because of John Lewis. Despite the efforts of warmongers, most of the Britons who wear poppies oppose ongoing and future wars. They might respect the troops, even beyond necessity, but they have scant respect for the conflicts they are participating in.

We are not an especially jingoistic people. The problem for leaders who hope to use memories of conflict to promote tomorrow’s wars is that we tend to exalt struggles in which Britons defended themselves: Trafalgar, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. To the extent that there is a national identity it is one that takes pride in our ancestors overcoming aggressors, and against the odds. Even Dunkirk – which could be viewed as a shameful retreat – is held up as a cause for honour. More ambiguous and evenly matched conflicts tend to inspire cynicism more than reverence. When people think of the trenches they think of Sassoon and Owen – and, indeed, of Blackadder Goes Forth.

I will think of men who fought and died for our nation, then; of the fearsome pain and terror that they endured and the importance of ensuring that our compatriots do not have to face such evils in the future. In acknowledging the reality of their struggle we acknowledge the reality of war. Honour the soldiers, and honour the truth.

MilibandThe history of British Marxism is more noble, perhaps, than the histories of such ideologues in other nations but it still contains much that is shameful. Well-off academics and aristocrats denied or defended some of the greatest horrors of the century: from the outright traitors, like Burgess and Blake, to the admirers of tyranny, from Shaw to Pritt, to the Hobsbawmiam handwringers who could wince at cuts and thrusts made by Stalin and Mao but retained an ardent faith in their virtues of their purpose. If it is red-baiting to observe these grim phenomena, it is brown-baiting to analyse the far right.

Still, there was Marxist opposition to the bloodshed. From C.L.R. James to E.P. Thompson, communist theories were softened and reshaped into more democratic forms. One might oppose their aims for class war, and hopes for the dismantling of British institutions, but there are both intellectual and moral differences. Such were their contributions to society, too, given Shaw’s plays, Lessing’s novels, Hobsbawm’s history, James’ cricket, Williams’ criticism and Mullan’s filmmaking that even passionate capitalists would find it hard to deny that Britain has often been enriched by their presence. Certainly, if wishing to destroy the aristocracy; seize the wealth of the affluent and oppose industrial progress make on a hater of Britain, and a wholly malign force, we are forced to consign Orwell to the dustbin of history.

There are grounds on which to dislike Geoffrey Levy’s polemic against Ralph Miliband in The Mail, then. As far as I can tell, though, racism is not among them. He is charged with implying that immigrants have no right to criticise the land that offers them a home, and with some justice. I believe that people should restrain themselves from openly promoting changes to their new abode, as they should take time to appreciate its culture. Levy attacks Miliband on the basis of writings in his diary, though, and as a teenager, which is a cheap shot.

Yet a “classical age-old antisemitic smear about disloyal Jews”? Firstly, Miliband’s ethnicity went unmentioned except in a passing reference to his escape from Hitler. Secondly, can you imagine that if he had been Chinese, Pakistani or Lancastrian and paid homage to Karl Marx The Mail would have been any more forgiving? I do not.

Jonathan Freedland draws attention to a highfalutin line in its defensive editorial, which reads: “We do not maintain, like the jealous God of Deuteronomy, that the iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the sons”. An implicit attack on Judaism? Well, perhaps, but I suspect not. British people who are smart enough to know what Deuteronomy is would think not of the Torah but The Bible. To me, this is a reference to the idea of “the sins of the fathers“, clad in the pomposity befitting of an apologia that includes the words “exposed the poisonous heart” and “felt a duty to lay before our readers”.

If the authorities of the paper were so bigoted as to sneak in such an eccentric reference for anti-semitic purposes it might lead one to ask why they employ Melanie Phillips, Alex Brummer, Geoffrey Levy and the maker of a programme called The War on Britain’s Jews?

I dwell on this point because Roger Cohen of The New York Times has used this controversy to imply that Britain is a home of anti-semitism. For him, The Mail’s article was “laden with stereotypes of the scheming Jew”, and “the fact that it has scarcely been debated as such demonstrates the existence of a problem”. Such a debate has, in fact, been conducted in The Guardian, The Jewish Chronicle, The Daily Mail and elsewhere.

There is, Cohen writes, a “genteel prejudice” that forces Jews to “keep quiet” and “use codes”. I could name some of the proudly Jewish men and women who contribute to our public life but why bother when The Jewish Chronicle publishes an annual list of dozens of them. That is either evidence that Cohen is being over-dramatic or that this publication is terrible with codes. It is true, of course, that anti-semitism exists, but opposition to it is so mainstream that a novel that attempted to satirise it won our foremost prize for literature. The worst stuff happens on the streets, where tribally-minded Muslims and old-school nationalists can pose serious threats to Jewish citizens.

This does not please me. Nor does the fact that our press can be so ugly and opportunistic. Yet I will oppose the notion that little has changed since the days in which Shanks and Webster published The Jewish Peril. Because it has, and because I love my country.

The EconomistAn Economist reviewer is unimpressed with a book that fails to applaud free migration…

It is possible that Britain will prove unable to cope with greater diversity in the future, but one cannot help noticing that the most diverse part of the country—London, which is less than 50% white British—is also by far the richest. It is also rather livelier than the lily-white counties that surround it.

“Lily-white” is an unpleasant term to use, given its exclusionist associations. It is also wrong. Luton, Chelmsford, Cambridge and Oxford, among others, contain significant ethnic minority populations.

“Livelier”, meanwhile, is baffling. To what does it refer? Underground parties in Shoreditch? Film premieres at the West End? Derby day at Stamford Bridge? Rioting? It is true that London is a site of almost unprecedented cultural variety and change, and if one is attracted by such features one should hasten there, but I detect an implicit scorn for places that do not reflect such diversification, and for people who fail to desire it.

For some, there is comfort in familiarity, and disorientation in environments that change at pace and beyond their control. For some, also, there is pleasure in that which is quiet and unobtrusive rather than loud and kaleidoscopic. If the author wishes to provide a list of the artistic, technological and humanitarian achievements that make the cultural landscape of the capital so blatantly superior to those of the home counties I will be intrigued. Otherwise, I think this is the presumptuous elevation of a prejudice to the level of fact.

There is a strain of attitudinal conservatism among the British peoples that faces attack on two fronts: from the left, where it seen as an obstacle in the path of internationalism, and from the right, where it is viewed as tediously retrograde for its failure to give way to the march of globalisation. Its survival is a feat of quiet obduracy.

National PurposelessnessAccording to the Executive Director of the Henry Jackson Society, Britain has lost its status as a “shaper” of events and will now take its place among “third rate nations”. Oh, the shame of it. As awful as it is to lose the dignity and esteem that our nation has acquired from its struggles in Basra and the Helmand Province, we are also forced to join the sad, degrading ranks of miserable little countries like Sweden, Japan, Norway and Switzerland.

Sarcasm aside, it would not disappoint me if the extraordinary vote against the Prime Minister’s plans does represent the death of imperial Britain. Our wars not merely been shameful in their initiation but, in many cases, embarrassing in their execution. Not only does being an imperial power tend to entail destructiveness and exploitation – we aren’t any good at it. Joining these “third rate nations”, who are often more prosperous and peaceful than we are, does not sound unattractive.

I have written before of “national purposelessness”: a humble idea that may be what this country needs. It does not imply that we should not pursue specific aims, in our own interests, with others towards mutually worthwhile ends or, indeed, to improve the world. Rather, it “stands against the idea that we need overarching transformative aims to define ourselves by”, and prioritises “containing effects of various purposeful things that have been done”. It need not be a principle for all time, but for a time when Britain faces dysfunction in its state, unhappiness among its people and yet a peculiarly vivid sense of ambition among its elites. It is a time to breathe; to take stock and to appreciate the change that has been taking place around us.

This does not merely apply to things done outside our borders. Some people write as if we are an endlessly adaptable island of boundless inclusivity. James Bloodworth holds that if we do not intervene in Syria we should invite a million refugees to live here. Britain could “easily absorb” them, he says. There are many adjectives one could apply to the introduction of a million people – of very different cultures, between themselves and compared to our own – to our strange, densely populated state with its high unemployment, housing shortages, crowded schools, internal conflict and anger regarding migration levels but “easy” is not one. Inviting the world may solve individual woes but I believe it will ultimately cause problems here without solving them elsewhere. A peaceful and productive Britain can be of more use to the world, in terms of ideas, resources and human capital, than a conflicted and chaotic one.

Bloodworth also writes, lamenting our failure to intervene, that Syrians “will continue to die until the day Bashar al Assad no longer remains in power”. I see. If Assad falls, then, will Sunnis not seek revenge against Alawites? Will Alawites not struggle to retain what has been theirs? Will the different rebel factions not compete for power? Will the Salafists not kill sinners, heretics and Christians? I have not even mentioned the Kurds or Hezbollah. We find it painfully difficult to understand the world, and anything we do to it should proceed from that knowledge.

Baby namesOne of them more intriguing annual data dumps is the Office of National Statistics’ collection of the most popular baby names in England and Wales. There are a lot of interesting and significant trends that one can follow in studying this data but I am going to take the easier and more entertaining route of exploring the more eccentric parental decisions. There one can observe marginal and epiphenomenal trends that might prove illuminating; even if it is simply of how misguided or sadistic mums and dads can be.

  • 18 boys were named Fenton. I hope for their sakes that by the time they’re old enough to go to school their classmates have forgotten that video.
  • 97 girls were lumbered with the name Princess. This disgusts me, though I do have a perverse admiration for the few audacious souls who went a step further and chose Queen.
  • 3 boys were named Jesus. No pressure, lads. No pressure.
  • 4 girls were named Success. And they’d better live up to it or the irony will be both painful and painfully obvious. The 3 girls who were named Testimony, meawhile, have been given cause to avoid criminal proceedings, because if they end up giving statements in court they will have handed headline writers the easiest days of their lives.
  • 26 boys were named Che and 3 were named Fidel. I am no great admirer of either man but it is strange that Che has been more famous. He ran off and got himself killed in a futile rebellion while Fidel has endured over seven decades; seven popes; eleven presidents and hundreds of attempts on his life. For all one may dislike him, that is incredible. Still, nothing endears one to the masses more than premature death.
  • 4 girls were named Boudica and 3 were named Beyonce. One’s name may not define one’s character, that is true, but if you call your child Boudica I suspect they are unlikely to grow up being shy, retiring and bookish. The pleasure one might take in the fact that this grand old name is ahead of Beyonce might be dampened by the fact that Britney and Rihanna are a long way ahead of them.
  • 3 boys were named Archibold and 3 were named Archiebald. To call someone Archibald in 2012 is idiosyncratic. To use such an obscure variant suggests either that one is making a tiresome attempt to signal one’s uniqueness among parents or that one has bad spelling or pronunciation and the resultant mistake somehow never got amended.

These lists always make me regret the loss of the classics. John, Paul and Rebecca have been tumbling down the list, and even Benjamin appears to be declining. At least these publications allows one to observe the names that, though forgotten by the bulk of public, have stubbornly endured. Should I have a son, he is in real danger of being named Ptolemy.

Tony BlairTony Blair has decided to lecture us on the subject of Islamic extremism. I have said this before, perhaps, but can there be too many people who are less qualified to preach on the subject? He plunged us into a conflict that not only left hundreds of thousands dead and crippled but swelled the ranks and ambitions of jihadists. He kept us locked in a partnership with the depraved theocrats of Saudi Arabia. He maintained migration policies that helped dangerous ideologues to set up home in Britain. He is like a man who knocks a hole through a sea wall and then begins to wax lyrical on the dangers of flooding, and without, mind you, the merest hint of shame or regret.

I have often wondered whether Mr. Blair is a flagrant liar or tragically deluded. Whichever the case might be, it allows him to produce stunning elisions. He reels off examples of Islamic authoritarians and militarists worldwide, going so far as to mention “the Mindanao dispute in the Muslim region of the Philippines”, but avoids referencing Saudi Arabia: acritical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT, and other terrorist groups” and the base from which Wahhabism is spread through the means of clerics, textbooks and religious institutions. It was pathetic enough when Blair was mumbling to Paxman that forced amputations were “their culture, their way of life”; now it is clear that he is either struggling to obscure the truth or pathologically indifferent to it.

Blair sees fit to reassure us that jihadist and theocratic perspectives have nothing to do with Islam. “For those of us who have studied it,” he grandly states, “There is no doubt about its true and peaceful nature”. While I have not “studied” Islam, I think it would be presumptuous and condescending to claim that eminent jurists from Alboacen to Al-Qaradawi just plain misunderstood their faith, never mind their innumerable followers. To assert that offensive jihadism, let alone the marriage of religion and the state, has nought to do with “natural” Islam is to demean the intelligence of vast numbers of its scholars and adherents; as well, of course, as our own.

Blair’s argument is that there is a struggle within Islam: one between “Islamists” and “the modern-minded”. There are conflicting trends within Islam, that is true, but to reduce it to a clear distinction between theocrats and secularists is too erect an ideological fantasy. Blair claims that the latter are “potentially the majority”. Well, they are potentially, inasmuch as they could become one in the future, but if he thinks this is liable to happen soon he is looking at a different set of opinion polls from mine. Which “side”, to use his silly term, was secular and liberal in Egypt, or Libya, or Iraq?

Speaking of Iraq, Blair makes a predictable attempt to justify his invasions. These “long and hard conflicts…have made us wary”, he writes, but “disengaging from this struggle won’t bring us peace”. I am not a total absolutist on the principle disengagement but it seems to me that the West’s part in these struggles, from the U.S. financing of the mujahideen to the “coalition of the willing”’s debilitation of an already bruised Iraq, has tended to exacerbate violence. The abandonment of Blair’s brand of internationalism would not assure our security but it would represent a decent start. The exile of the man himself, meanwhile, would be a step towards the renewal of our culture.

SparkI have no desire to comment on the specific processes by which Adebolajo and Adebowale came to be inspired to commit murder on the streets of Woolwich. There is much that is being speculated or that has yet to be said, and one’s conclusions would be necessarily presumptuous. This, of course, has never held back 99% of opinion commentators, and it sometimes does not restrain me, but for now I will observe and attempt to learn.

Still, the commentary is interesting. Jonathan Freedland argues that we should not consider the motives of terrorists as this “cede[s] [them], and violence itself, too much power”. Discussing the motives of particular terrorists may lend them a perverted glamour, yes, but I am all for the study of trends of violence. My general rule is that if people who would otherwise have been expected to be peaceful are blowing themselves or others up, something must have occurred that has provoked such a collective fever, and if it has the potential to cause so much desensitisation it may well have been a regrettable occurrence. Breivik, then, who Freedland mentions, seems to have been a vicious narcissist who found an outlet for his vicious narcissism. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis suddenly felt that causing violence was a sensible life plan, however, suggests that something had happened to their nation that should not have taken place.

Terry Eagleton is right, then, to say that we should not confuse explaining the motivations of criminals with excusing them. Still, one’s interpretations of their motives can lend them too much nobility. If, as some people have argued or implied, the crimes of terrorists were the results of their being blinded by humanitarian outrage over Western foreign policies one might retain more sympathy for them than if they had, say, been inspired by the wish to defend and further the supremacy of Islam. While I have no doubt that Western invasions  incline people towards jihadist beliefs, the fact that terrorism is prevalent in Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines, none of which are known for their imperial atrocities, lead me to think that Islamic supremacism is a hefty factor.

Speaking of Islamic supremacism: Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS, claims that what he calls “the mainstream British Muslim community”, including the Islamic societies that he represents, are “the barrier to extremism”. (His bolding.) He cites “the great work they do”, from donating gifts to children’s hospitals to raising funds for charities. That is great work. Had he mentioned some other acts of Islamic societies, though, a more complicated picture would have emerged. I speak of…

  • Circulating quotes and videos of notorious jihadist ideologues.
  • Holding sermons in which students were told of the virtues of murdering people for changing their religious beliefs and committing violence in order to spread one’s religion.
  • Joining the intimidation of young Muslims held to have been overly licentious.

Mr. Ali is not functioning as a barrier to extremism but as a wall between us and extremism; thus to obscure it.

BenSix’s one-sentence summary of terrorism, then? Don’t be so aggressive as to lead people towards terrorism in their own countries or so tolerant as to allow them to become terrorists in yours.

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