On the offensive

Ken-Livingstone-BBCQT
Ken Livingstone went on Question Time and offended some people last week, which shouldn’t come as a surprise by now. Not only because he has made build a career on offending people, but because when it comes to discussing terrorism, a lot of people seem to think that blazing moral outrage is the only way of ensuring everyone knows Just How Bad They Think Terrorism Is, as if the biggest danger facing us is that we might accidentally become a nation of apologists.

Take the tremendous knee-jerk reaction to Livingstone saying that the 7/7 terrorists ‘gave their lives’ for their beliefs. ‘WHAT???’ responded a twittersphere of caps lock, punctuation-heavy outrage, ‘they didn’t give THEIR lives, they TOOK OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES!!!’

I pointed out to a couple of people that, the truth of the second bit notwithstanding, it is an indisputable fact that the bombers sacrificed their lives too. Nobody’s trying to glorify it, least of all Livingstone, who as Mayor of London responded to the 7/7 bombings with a speech that was roundly applauded as summing up the mood of the city and the nation, and which incidentally used the exact same phrase without attracting any criticism. And why should it? Giving your life is a requirement for a suicide bomber (the clue’s in the name) and if we’re going to understand terrorism we do actually have to get our heads around that terrorists think they have something worth sacrificing themselves for.

One of the Offended People angrily argued that:

You ‘give your life’ if you put yourself in a position where others might kill you or where you kill yourself, NOT when you set out deliberately to kill others.
BraveBritishTommy
So we’re not in fact arguing about whether they ‘gave their lives’ in a literal sense at all, but about the phrase itself – as if you have to earn it through some romantic notion of noble self-sacrifice. That’s understandable – the phrase has religious connotations and associations with remembrance; Danbury Mint make a bronze sculpture of ‘the Brave British Tommy’ who ‘gave his life’ for King and Country, though ironically he probably gave his life considerably less willingly than your average extremist and in fact was pretty much forced by King and Country to give his life so it might be more accurate to say they took it from him, but that sort of sentiment makes people feel awkward at remembrance services. Still, there’s one damning distinction you can make about the 7/7 suicide bombers – their lives were never taken from them.

Except… in a less literal sense they were. Their lives were taken at the point they were indoctrinated into the twisted worldview that convinced them that these atrocities were justified. To think otherwise is to assume that they were born evil and, by extension, to believe that there is no solution to the problem of terrorism – the ‘shit happens’ explanation. Well, this shit doesn’t just happen, and understanding what drives people to extremism lies at the heart of stopping it from happening. That does actually mean looking at extremists with some awareness of context, which the Sun will label ‘sympathy for jihadis’, but which anyone actually looking to find a long term solution would call learning lessons from history.

That’s a distinction that eluded Matt Forde on Question Time. Ken Livingstone’s view that the 7/7 bombings were a direct consequence of Tony Blair’s actions in Iraq is neither illogical or original, but it got Forde worked up into a state of righteous indignation as he accused Livingstone of trying to ‘absolve’ terrorists, fundamentally failing to recognise that seeking explanations is utterly different to pleading absolution, and apportioning blame to a leader who ignored advice an exacerbated an unstable situation doesn’t in any way lesson the blame that lies with the perpetrators.

Plenty of others want to obliterate the shadow of Western foreign policy from our collective act of finger pointing. The aftermath of the Paris attacks saw shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden saying we shouldn’t see terrorist acts as always being a reaction to what the West do, bizarrely adding that it ‘risks infantilising the terrorists’ when ‘they are adults entirely responsible for what they do’ – as if the fact that the terrorists have a choice not to be terrorists means we can’t possibly consider their motives. Should we be careful not to see Cameron’s proposed bombing campaign as a reaction to the Paris attacks, because it risks infantilising him?

Emma Reynolds MP competed to be even more smugly Completely Appalled By Terrorists And Anyone Who Doesn’t Also Direct Their Full Appalledness At Them when she asked if Cameron agreed that ‘full responsibility for the attacks in Paris lies solely with the terrorists and any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West or France’s military intervention in Syria is not only wrong, disgraceful, but also should be condemned?’ earning her that half-pissed sleep talking noise that indicates approval from the Tory benches, even though her tautology-laden question didn’t really have much of a point, except to gently stab the leader of her own party in the back and toady up to David Cameron – who duly replied that the half-pissed sleep talking was an indication of just how right she was, a condescending note of gratitude in his voice.

You bet he was grateful. Nobody stands to gain so much from the outraged objection to ‘any attempt by any organisation to somehow blame the West‘. If his proposed airstrikes in Syria go ahead, it’s an attitude that places him entirely above reproach, whatever the consequences – because even while experts are say bombing will make the situation worse, that airstrikes are playing into the hands of ISIS, and that Cameron’s case for the strikes contains ‘straightforward deceit’, we won’t be allowed to mention any of that if there are repercussions. After a terrorist attack, any such criticism could be shut down as a disgraceful attempt to blame the West, to absolve the terrorists, and to justify their atrocities. So the Prime Minister can do what he likes and blow the consequences, because his critics are all jihadi sympathisers and if a responsible adult becomes an extremist it’s nothing to do with him.

And so the cycle goes on. Cameron blithely talks about ‘learning from the mistakes of Iraq’ without acknowledging any connection between fourteen years of military action in the Middle East and the fact that we’re less secure than ever. When the worst happens, he has a wall of moral outrage to hide behind, the truth that terrorism can never be justified merging with the outright lie that the West can never be blamed.

Unless, perhaps, we’re prepared to offend a few people.

What goes around comes around

David Cameron has already voiced his embarrassment over that Bullingdon club photo. Well, some more photos emerged on Sunday, as well as a story about a thing one person claims photographic evidence also exists for, though if it does it remains mercifully shielded from the public eye. Nevertheless, one imagines there has been more embarrassment in the Cameron household these last couple of days, something the nation has delighted in exploiting with a relentless stream of predictable and mostly not very good pig-based jokes on twitter.

As some have pointed out, we all did stupid things when we were younger (though, I would protest, not that stupid), but the real hypocrisy here is that the story comes from a single uncorroborated and uncertain source in a book written by a disgruntled Tory peer and revealed to the world in the pages of a notoriously capricious ‘news’paper. Essentially, it is revenge porn, albeit in prosaic and most likely fictional form. It’s ironic that Lord Ashcroft’s work is being championed by people who would normally contemplate demeaning pig sex themselves before getting behind the words of either a Tory peer or the Daily Mail.

One person who definitely won’t be talking about ‘hashtag piggate’ is the new leader of the Labour party. Tim Farron couldn’t resist a little dig on twitter (‘I’ve never been more pleased to be a vegetarian’) but Corbyn is still tweeting about railways, and is all set to disappoint those hoping he will ask a crowd sourced pig-based question at PMQs. Because whatever you think of Corbyn, he is making his leadership about real people and real issues, not dubious stories and character attacks. He probably doesn’t give a crap about whether Cameron stuck his thing in a dead pig or not because he’s much more concerned about £4.4bn of tax credit cuts, as heartless an attack on the poor as burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person (something else Cameron did not do at university). Cameron’s alleged porcine student dalliances have no bearing on his ability to do his job, at least compared to How He Is Doing His Job (and since his leadership puts the NHS in jeopardy, threatens to close down the BBC, demonizes the disabled, endangers the environment and continues to pour money into an obsolete defense system before the issue has even been voted on in Parliament, that is very relevant indeed).

This is worth noting because last week we were bombarded with stories about Jeremy Corbyn which, if less visceral than the pig thing, were just as fatuous. Stories about him snubbing England’s Rugby World Cup, or riding a communist bicycle, or having an evil great great grandfather. Only slightly less inane and equally unsubstantiated were stories about his disrespect for servicemen, his sexist shadow cabinet and his love of terrorists, splashed across newspapers as fact and gleefully retweeted by Conservative MPs and supporters ad nauseum. And lest we forget (as if we’re going to be allowed to), the Prime Minister’s first response to the announcement of Labour’s new leader was to brand him a threat to National security, a less specific accusation than the pig thing but as incendiary a claim (Cameron usually reserves such language for talking about ISIS). Is it any wonder that Cameron’s detractors have seized this opportunity to turn the tables? And when such hyperbole are being used by the Tories, who could truly blame Corbyn if started referring to them as a secret pig fucking cabal?

But he won’t. There will be no grainy monochrome scaremongering video from Labour about Cameron and pigs. Corbyn’s questions to the Prime Minister will continue to focus single-mindedly on Conservative policies. It may not be the first time Cameron has been embarrassed about his student days, but it is perhaps not the last time he will have reason to be grateful that Corbyn is a better man than him.

Contempt is not enough

I suppose it was inevitable that the Charlie Hebdo killings would result in an(other) unpleasant swathe of Islamophobia (even though blaming Muslims for terrorism is as logical as blaming everyone in the disc jockey profession for child abuse). I usually read about it second hand, given my general avoidance of comments on the Daily Mail website (not to mention the Daily Mail) and I wasn’t expecting to be confronted by it in Stephen Fry’s blog.

He probably doesn’t see it as Islamophobia, though his phrase ‘reasonable people’s dislike of the faith’ suggests as much. The word he chooses is contempt: whether it is a Christian or Islamic nutter in the news, he tells us, the result is that his contempt for religion increases. Since contempt is what Charlie Hebdo stands for, he sees now as an appropriate time to reiterate his own. (It rather sidelines the issue of freedom of speech, something it is possible to stand up for without either agreeing with or reiterating the thing that was said in the first place.)

I find contempt troubling. Contempt can only exist in the absence of respect or empathy. It is the primary instinct of bullies (and indeed terrorists). I also don’t think it is useful in defining satire, which surely seeks to hold a mirror up to the world and make us confront it: satire doesn’t just mock, it exposes the truth, it asks questions. The enduring quality of The Life of Brian is that it is no mere piss-take but a discourse on faith, and the saddest thing about Malcolm Muggeridge’s smug dismissal of the film was his failure to engage with it, even as John Cleese sat telling him ‘the important thing is that people should be open to the various possibilities and that they should take a critical attitude to them’.

Life_of_Brian

It is equally sad to see a man as erudite as Stephen Fry dismissing Christian and Islamic texts (and presumably all other religious texts by association) as ‘dumb, semi-literate, ill-founded, unreasoned drivel’. It’s as disingenuous a non-argument as Muggeridge’s – moreso, if you consider the wealth of narrative, poetry and history he is dismissing, not to mention that it has inspired. If Anders Behring Breivik and Said and Charif Kouachi increase Fry’s contempt, does he feel it diminish when he hears Bach’s B Minor Mass or sees the roof of the Sistene Chapel? Or is his view of religion informed only by this most selective cross section of Malcolm Muggeridge and the aforementioned deluded pricks?

Because there are plenty of others running food banks or visiting sick and vulnerable people or offering support to those in crippling debt or showing love and bravery in the face of hatred. I know faith is not a prerequisite for any of those activities, but for large numbers of people it is what inspires them. Yes, the same people ought to be able to weather contempt – actually, plenty of us do, though since Fry asks why people are ‘so fucking sensitive about their knowledge’, I would suggest that he of all people should understand how fragile human beings can be when something they care about is laid into (who can forget the haunting sight of Michael Palin on the verge of tears as The Life of Brian is unthinkingly sneered at?).

Life-of-Brian-Palin

Which is why contempt is not good enough. Even, dare I say it, when terrorism is involved, because if we make no attempt to understand the human failing that drives ordinary people to such extremes, if all we can offer is contempt, then it will only breed more contempt. Certainly if we don’t show the Muslim community respect, empathy and understanding, it will feed into an isolation that extremists will exploit in recruiting people to their cause, however deluded.

If that’s what comes out of the attacks in Paris, perhaps Said and Charif Kouachi were not so bowel-shatteringly dumb after all.

Foresight

Leslie Boosey (of Boosey & Hawkes), to Benjamin Britten in 1940:

‘I think the more one is in the United States, the more one becomes impressed with that feeling of limitless opportunity which has been so lacking over here. If only there were a United States of Europe, instead of 20 squabbling countries, what a marvellous place it would be. Who knows, perhaps this is the good that may come out of the present evil…’

How quickly people forget what had to happen to push us towards a more united Europe, and our limitations without it.

"Regrettable."

klinghoffer

The Met have made the shameful announcement that they won’t, after all, be broadcasting their performance of John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer to cinemas across the world. Shameful, in a general sense, because of their failure to stand up for freedom of expression in the arts due to an interest group’s dubious claims that it might ‘ferment anti-Semitism’. (How long before performances of The Merchant of Venice are banned or James Joyce’s Ulysses is pulled off the shelves? Both are more problematic than Klinghoffer in their treatment of Jews, but it’s no solution to pretend that they never happened.) But the Met’s decision is specifically shameful because said interest group has a political agenda in ignoring the complexity and importance of this work.

The Anti-Defamation League claim to exist to ‘protect civil rights for all’ (in this case, then, perhaps ignoring the fact that freedom of expression is a civil right). Their concerns were that the opera could be used ‘as a means to stir up anti-Israel sentiments or as a vehicle to promote anti-Semitism’. That’s quite a leap of logic: the opera is a dramatisation of events in which anti-Semitism played a part, but as librettist Alice Goodman (who not insignificantly was born a Jew) points out, ‘there is nothing anti-Semitic in Klinghoffer apart from one aria, which is sung by an anti-Semitic character and is clearly flagged as such.’ It stretches my credulity to breaking point to imagine neo-Nazi groups adopting a modern aria as some kind of anthem, let alone sitting through an entire opera exploring the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its consequences.

But it is the complexity of the opera’s outlook that is really at the bottom of the ADL ‘concerns’. They quote the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer as saying that the opera attempts to ‘romanticise, rationalise, legitimise and explain’ the murder of their father. The accusation that the events are romanticised doesn’t really stand up to artistic scrutiny (unless you consider opera inherently romantic, in which case you need some Berg in your life), but as for rationalise, I wholeheartedly agree: the whole point is that terrorist acts are not irrational, at least not in the minds of those who commit them. Does it make terrorists more scary if we rationalise what is running through their heads, show what they have in common with us, that they are thinking human beings rather than purely ‘evil’? Yes it does, and rightly so. It is also vital if we are going to understand and tackle the issue of terrorism at its roots. That is a long way from legitimising their actions.

Klinghoffer’s daughters may object to the murder of their father being given an explanation, but writing it off as a meaningless murder is to do him an injustice and to invite the same kind of events to happen again and again. The ADL are unable to see such a nuanced perspective as anything more than ‘implicit justification of terrorism’ (one suspects they haven’t bothered to sit through the opera anyway), but the people at the Met (who surely have) ought to know better: the arts are a vital way of understanding the world we live in and Klinghoffer is one of the most significant recent works on this subject, the reason I suggested many years ago on this blog that every politician ought to be forced to watch it.

By preventing the broadcast of this opera, the Met are preventing engagement with the issues it raises; they are restricting education and discussion. They are bowing to a one-sided political stance and perpetuating an unhelpfully divisive view of a conflict which will only ever be resolved with mutual sympathy and understanding.

And yes, they are also limiting the audience for a Bloody Good Opera.

Went the Day Welby?

The part of Archbishop Justin Welby’s first presidential address to Synod that received the most media attention – sorry, that received any media attention – was, predictably, the bit where he announced a programme targeting homophobic bullying in Anglican schools. His desire to do something about homophobia and its effects is, of course, very welcome. But that whole section of his speech makes me uneasy, sitting as it does amidst thinly veiled bafflement at current attitudes towards sexuality.

Welby expresses surprise at how much the ‘cultural hinterland’ has changed, referring specifically to the Lords debate on gay marriage. ‘Predictable attitudes were no longer there’, he states – which I find strange, because to my mind the attitudes were entirely predictable. There was vast support for a move to give gay people the same rights as everyone else, countered by regretful resistance from Bishops and aging Tories, and Lords Carey and Tebbit claiming that gay marriage would pave the way to polygamy, incest, bestiality and lesbian artificially inseminated Monarchs. Entirely predictable.

What Welby obviously didn’t predict was the first bit – that a majority of people, even in the Lords, would support the bill. It’s strange that he didn’t anticipate that even a teensy bit, given his statement that ‘the majority of the population detests homophobic behaviour’ – but the problem is that his understanding of homophobic behaviour is demonstrably limited. He talks about bullying and shares his concern about homophobia-related suicide (though I notice that it only happens in the USA), and he shares his horror of gay people being executed in Iran, but those are the most explicit examples of the most explicit type of homophobic behaviour (and both explicitly Not Happening In This Country).

Homophobia has far subtler consequences for which I don’t believe there is a statistic, but I’ve seen enough examples to think it’s a big ’un: I’m thinking about people who end up in loveless heterosexual marriages because that is the expectation of the society they have been brought up in, or who end up estranged from their families because they can’t bring their own relationships into their own homes. I’m thinking about people who remain single, who remain celibate or only find the most fleeting approximation of love in brief sexual encounters, because they have been brought up to believe a ‘normal’ relationship is impossible between two people of the same gender. Ordinary people living miserable lives because of homophobia that is entrenched in institutions including (though not limited to) parts of the church.

By that reckoning, any behaviour which perpetuates the sense of homosexuality as incompatible with what-normal-people-with-normal-families-do is homophobic. Welby wouldn’t want to be tarred with that brush, but his speech to the Lords on the gay marriage bill aired that discomfort, first with the old equality-doesn’t-mean-we’re-all-the-same chestnut:

It assumes that the rightful desire for equality – to which I’ve referred supportively – must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different.

…then by retreading historically and scripturally unsound ideas about ‘normal’ marriage and procreation:

The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape with same gender and different gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society – as we’ve already heard – is weakened.

It’s more artfully spun than the Coalition For Marriage campaign, but if you untangle the rhetoric and remove the semantic noodling, you’re left with the same impression: that gay marriage just doesn’t seem right. It suggests a profound unease at the very nature of homosexuality – homophobia in a sense that I would charitably consider to be culturally and sociologically understandable. But to stand up as leader of the Anglican church and vocalise it, to vote against a bill which gay people are pleading for: that is homophobic behaviour.

So, for all that he is gracious enough to acknowledge that ‘sometimes they look at us and see what they don’t like’, Welby has made no commitment to change the attitudes that lie at the heart of the problem. In fact, he states ‘I am not proposing new policy’ – in other words, he will remain eloquently perched on the fence, loving the sinner but still essentially-but-being-careful-not-to-say-it-in-so-many-words hating the sin. It’s a long way from stating that historical behaviour towards homosexuals has been deeply damaging, or apologising for the part the church has played in perpetuating it.

Worse still, it is implied that the main reason for making changes is because that’s the only way anyone is going to take the church seriously these days. ‘We may or may not like it,’ he says (implying, I think, that he doesn’t), ‘but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality’. Which is tantamount to saying ‘now that a clear majority of the population have adopted this wishy-washy liberal approach to sexuality, we ought to bite the bullet and be seen to do the same.’

That is the aspect of the speech I like the least. The idea that the church must reluctantly drag itself into the 21st century to keep up with everyone else makes it seem both irrelevant and pathetic. It would be a nobler position for Welby to stand up and say ‘actually, we’re still just uncomfortable with homosexuality’, but that would be to put words to an attitude he has already admitted is wrong. What the church ought to be doing is leading the revolution, being relevant rather than desperately struggling to look it. Other Christian institutions have shown that it is possible to wholeheartedly embrace homosexuals and gay relationships into their ministry, a recent example being prominent Baptist minister Steve Chalke. Likewise, some of the most heartfelt and touching statements in the gay marriage debate were made by Christians, either in spite of their own beliefs, such as Lord Deben, or because of them, as in the case of Lord Jenkin (an aging Tory, no less), who brilliantly said:

I have come to the firm conclusion that there is nothing to fear in gay marriage and that, indeed, it will be a positive good not just for same-gender unions but for the institution of marriage generally. The effect will be to put right at the centre of marriage the concept of a stable, loving relationship. As a practising Christian, perhaps I may make the point to the Bishops’ Benches, including to the most reverend Primate, that there is every reason why, in time, the Anglican Church should come to accept that, although I recognise that it may take some time. The character of love which marriage reflects—that it is faithful, stable, tough, unselfish and unconditional—is the same character that most Christians see in the love of God. Marriage is therefore holy, not because it is ordained by God, but because it reflects that most important central truth of our religion: the love of God for all of us.

The pity is that such a positive, theologically profound statement did not come from the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. His speech to Synod shows that (in his own words) he has not fully heard this message: until he does, and until we see such unequivocal statements about homosexuality from the Anglican church, an initiative to counter homophobic bullying can only (at best) tackle a symptom of a far deeper problem.