Another four words that bring destruction: Come, let us build.

My last post was about the danger of the “Something must be done” mentality.

But experience shows that it is when governments get involved, and think that it is up to them to do whatever it is that must be done, that we should be scared. Why? Because when governments plan great schemes, the result is often exactly the opposite of what we were promised.

In fact, it seems that the last few weeks have shown us more examples than usual of government schemes that have failed miserably.

The War on Fat

Let’s start with the great story about the Wee Dairy in the Isle of Gigha. The island’s primary school was not allowed to use the milk produced by the local dairy, but instead, had to bring milk in from far away – and all because the Wee Dairy’s milk was whole milk instead of semi-skimmed.

A government spokesman said:

“Semi skimmed milk is proven to have the benefits of full-fat milk, including high levels of calcium, with much lower levels of fat. The Scottish Government sets nutritional standards for local authorities to ensure pupils are offered balanced and nutritious food and drink. in schools, this includes guidelines recommending the serving of skimmed or semi skimmed milk only.”

However, the dairy owner was able to point to a study, published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition last year, that showed children who drank whole milk had fewer weight problems than whose who drank skimmed – or, to quote the study itself:

“Whole milk consumption among healthy young children was associated with higher vitamin D stores and lower BMI (Body Mass Index). Longitudinal and interventional studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Something very similar emerged from a major study (involving 135,000 people) published last month in  The Lancet.    It showed total fat and individual types of fat being related to lower total mortality – i.e. death rates.  Each type of fat was associated with significantly reduced mortality risk: 14 percent lower for saturated fat, 19 percent for mono-unsaturated fat, and 20 percent for polyunsaturated fat,” according to the study. Higher saturated fat intake was also linked to a 21 percent decrease in stroke risk.  In other words, eating more fat was associated with living longer.

But this isn’t new. In the 1993, The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute commissioned the largest controlled trial of low-fat diet ever undertaken. In 2006, the results were published (in the Journal of the American Medical Association):

“Following an eating pattern lower in total fat did not significantly reduce the incidence of breast cancer, heart disease, or stroke, and did not reduce the risk of colorectal cancer in healthy postmenopausal women, ….

Among the 48,835 women who participated in the trial, there were no significant differences in the rates of colorectal cancer, heart disease, or stroke between the group who followed a low-fat dietary plan and the comparison group who followed their normal dietary patterns. Although the women in the study who reduced their total fat intake had a 9 percent lower risk of breast cancer than did women who made no dietary changes, the difference was not large enough to be statistically significant — meaning it could have been due to chance.”

So – study after study after study in the last 20 years has show that cutting down in fat consumption is not associated with better health.

What does this have to do with government? Well, it was because of government policy that the school in Gigha wasn’t allowed to give the children whole milk. And, of course governments have, for decades now, felt it was their duty to give dietary advice – including, of course, advice on fat consumption.

Ian Leslie tells the story:

In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. In 1983, the UK government issued advice that closely followed the American example. The most prominent recommendation of both governments was to cut back on saturated fats and cholesterol (this was the first time that the public had been advised to eat less of something, rather than enough of everything).

And the result was?

Look at a graph of postwar obesity rates and it becomes clear that something changed after 1980. In the US, the line rises very gradually until, in the early 1980s, it takes off like an aeroplane. Just 12% of Americans were obese in 1950, 15% in 1980, 35% by 2000. In the UK, the line is flat for decades until the mid-1980s, at which point it also turns towards the sky. Only 6% of Britons were obese in 1980. In the next 20 years that figure more than trebled.

The government felt that something must be done. So it acted to do something it had never done before . And what happened was exactly the opposite of what it intended.

time-Magazine-fat1

In 2014, Time Magazine had a cover story entitled “Ending the war on fat”. It came out almost exactly 30 years after Time‘s front cover featured the beginning of the war. The 1984 cover proclaimed: Cholesterol: And now the bad news . . . . By contrast the message of the 2014 cover was “Eat Butter. Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.

Perhaps the most interesting lines from the article were these: “The war over fat is far from over. Consumer habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on demonizing fat. TV teems with reality shows about losing weight. The aisles are still filled with low-fat snacks. “

Three years later, nothing has changed. And the Scottish government is still keen on keeping whole milk out of schools – despite the fact that the war on fat has been fairly effectively debunked.

The War on Terror

Then there is the “War on Terror“. Sixteen years ago, as a result of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. president George W. Bush first used the term “war on terrorism” on 16 September 2001, and then “war on terror” a few days later in a formal speech to Congress. In the latter speech, George Bush stated, “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” The term was originally used with a particular focus on countries associated with al-Qaeda.

What happened? America (in conjunction with the UK and other allies) literally went to war. They attacked Afghanistan the following month – and proceeded to overthrow the government. This might seem slightly odd, since the government of Afghanistan were not actually involved in planning or carrying out the 9/11 attacks.  However, since the attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda – and since the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was in Afghanistan – and since the Afghan government had responded to the American request to hand him over by saying that they would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks – the Americans invaded.  Even though bin Laden promptly fled to Pakistan, the American forces stayed in Afghanistan, and 16 years later, show no signs of ever leaving. (I tell the story here)

How successful was the invasion and occupation?  Not very.  Afghanistan is still a country at war, and the Taliban today control more territory than at any point since 2002.

Iraq

However, America didn’t stop with Afghanistan. They went on to attack Iraq. This too, seems odd, since not only did the Iraqi government have nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but it had never harboured al-Qaeda (or any other terrorist organisation that was threatening Americans). Indeed, it was a secular government, with no enthusiasm for Islamic extremism. The American government did, at one stage, claim that there was evidence of connections between the Iraqi government and al-Qaeda, but this story was quickly debunked. The fact that the story was debunked made no difference of course; the American government was determined to overthrow the Iraqi government, and so most Americans continued to think that in some way Iraq was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

The result was not only that more Americans died in action in Iraq than were killed in the 9/11 attacks, but thousands of Iraqis died, and Iraq has been in turmoil ever since in an never-ending war between different factions.  Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties so far at around 200,000. Many believe the total number of deaths caused directly and indirectly by the American invasion to be well over half a million. And, while al-Qaeda had no presence at all in Iraq before the American invasion, the chaos in the country created by the invasion allowed them to get a foothold, and an al-Qaeda splinter group called ISIS soon controlled much of the country – making post-invasion Iraq a much more safe haven for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan had been at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

Syria

And then there is Syria. America never actually invaded Syria. But it did get involved. I recently quoted the Dutch scholar, Nikolaos van Dam (whose book, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, came out just over a month ago) saying

“It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results. If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”

But Western influence didn’t just contribute to the death and destruction. It also empowered al-Qaeda. Syria under Bashar Assad, had (like Iraq before the American invasion) a secular government which was hostile to Islamic extremism, and particularly hostile to Salafist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. America, however, declared that Assad must go, and launched an operation called Timber Sycamore to funnel arms and equipment to Syrian rebels. Since al-Qaeda dominated the Syrian rebel groups, the arms basically went to al-Qaeda. As a result, it was U.S. government policy that was largely responsible for having extended al-Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory. 

The really scandalous thing was that not only did western politicians refuse to admit what they had done, but the western media has done its best to make sure people in Britain and America don’t find out. Robert Fisk, veteran Middle East correspondent of the Independent has spoken about this many times, just last week writing:

“Journalists who had arrived in Aleppo with the rebels, en route for the “liberation” of Damascus along the lines of the “liberation” of Tripoli in Libya, justifiably retreated when the warriors of ISIS took to beating, imprisoning and chopping off their heads – but largely without telling us what had happened to the revolution. The “good guys” in our stories, after all, are not supposed to turn into the “bad guys”. Van Dam asks why, in all the later reports on the bombardment by the regime of eastern Aleppo, the world never saw film of the Islamist fighters there, nor their weapons, nor their armed control of the streets. “If you look at the media reports,” he says, “it’s as if the bombs only fell on schools and hospitals.””

The prize for spectacular dishonesty (or delusion) goes to British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. When it became clear last December that al-Qaeda and its allies were going to be finally driven out of Aleppo, he said “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall.”

The good news for Fallon is that al-Qaeda and its allies remain in control of the nearby Idlib province in Syria, which makes it another handy safe haven for terrorists.

Libya

And then there is Libya. A year ago, the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Britain’s military intervention in Libya ago came out. The report found that the result of the French, British and US intervention that took place in 2011, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in north Africa”.

According to the chairman of the committee, Crispin Blunt, “we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.”

In other words, it’s the same story as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The result was exactly the opposite of what we were promised.

And terrorism

As for the situation on the ground in America and Western Europe, violent attacks by politically motivated Muslims, which were very rare before the launch of the war on terrorism, became a lot more common. In the UK, the first attack was on the 7th of July, 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 56 people (including themselves) in London.

Two of the bombers made videotapes describing their reasons for their actions. One included the line

“What have you witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. And until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.”

There is little doubt that Britain was targeted largely because of its foreign policy, and in particular, its actions in the Middle East – or, to put it another way, its involvement in the “war on terrorism”.  

There is also little doubt that the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in several countries in the Middle East in recent years by Western powers, has had the result of making many people – some in the Middle East, some of Middle Eastern background but living in the West – very angry – and also very hostile to Western governments and Western society.1

In other words, the “war on terror”, like the “war on fat”, seems to be achieving exactly the opposite of what it promised.

And, just as it could be said that the “war on fat” was far from over because consumer habits were deeply formed, and entire industries were based on demonizing fat – I think it can be said that the “war on terror” is far from over because political habits are deeply formed, and entire industries are based on playing up the need for military action.

Hearts and Minds

And, while we are on the subject of the war on terror, it is worth remembering that western governments had a lot to say about humanitarian reasons for involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. There was great talk about bringing democracy and freedom to the people of these countries. And it is true that a lot of aid did flow in, especially to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The story from Iraq is not good. Peter van Buren, an American civil servant was sent there in 2009 to work on American government goodwill projects. The title of his book about his experiences – “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” – tells you all you need to know.

The story from Afghanistan is even worse. According to an article published by the Journal of World Affairs in 2013 entitled “The Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan,” the aid has been exactly that, a failure. Since 2002, approximately 100 billion has been appropriated for aid, and “all of that has not brought the United States or Afghanistan a single sustainable institution or program.”

But it’s worse than that. In her 2012 book, When more is less: The International Project in Afghanistan, Astri Suhrke not only says that the resources poured into the country have not actually helped the Afghan people. She also says that the Afghans are often left bewildered and alienated by the work of such groups—or worse, after sufficient alienation, are inspired to join jihad against them.  She concludes

that the objectives of the international project have generally been unmet and that, in particular, the scope of involvement from international players and the grand scale of their financial, military, and political “support” has been not only ineffective but counterproductive

Efforts by the American government, at great expense, to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan achieved nothing at all – and the evidence suggests that once again, we have examples of government programmes that achieved exactly the opposite of what was promised.

Education?

Which raises the question – what about other government programmes?

This month, the BBC covered a story entitled “New curriculum could be ‘disastrous’, says education expert.”  Prof Lindsay Paterson, from the University of Edinburgh, was quoted as saying that the new Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (introduced in Scotland’s schools in 2010) lacked “academic rigour” and was “dumbing down” education, and that it could widen the attainment gap, not close it.

The Scottish government, of course, insisted CfE was “strong, bold and effective”.

I don’t know what the truth is. But, as the BBC report says “the government’s studies on literacy and numeracy do suggest that things are not getting any better and may in some ways be getting worse.” And it points out that “Last year’s international PISA rankings caused concern placing Scotland as “average” in all three categories for the first time ever.” 

Scotland PISA_crop

Looking at the graph, I’d say that’s an understatement.

The point is that it is not as if the Scottish Government doesn’t care, or isn’t trying. It does care. It is putting a lot of effort – and money – into education. And yet, once again, what we have an example of a government programme achieving exactly opposite of what was promised.

Healthcare?

And then there is government healthcare. One of the biggest advances made by government in healthcare anywhere in the world recently was the introduction of the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) in America.

It is only in its early days, and is much appreciated by many people. But will it actually cause Americans to have better health? Of course we don’t know yet, and perhaps we never will, but early results indicate that, oddly enough, it might actually be hurting rather than helping.

Robert Murphy, an economist who is a Christian (and who strikes me as a very honest person) wrote an article a few months ago entitled “Did Obamacare Really Save Lives?

He begins, “One of the popular objections to the GOP proposals to reform health insurance markets is that the Affordable Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) saved thousands of lives per year, and hence that tinkering with ObamaCare will literally kill lots of people.”   However (he continues) “Believe it or not, the data suggest that if anything, ObamaCare actually caused more Americans to die.”

If you are interested, you can look at the article, and the research that it links to. But the gist is that in the year after the ACA insurance coverage took effect, the age-adjusted mortality rate (which tends to fall over time) went up. But the really interesting thing is that not all states in America fully adopted the ACA – and that it was in the states that more fully adopted Obamacare that the death rate went up. In those that didn’t, it went down.

Could this be yet another thing that the government has done that has actually achieved the opposite of what was promised? It’s too early to know, since data is only available for one year, but it will be interesting to see what the data shows next year.

So what?

So – we have governments

  • giving advice on diet,
  • telling schools what milk they can serve,
  • attacking countries thousands of miles from their borders (that have not attacked them) in an effort to stop politically motivated crimes,
  • spending billions on infrastructure projects in foreign countries that they have attacked in an effort to buy goodwill,
  • telling schools and teachers what they should be teaching, and
  • making detailed rules about forcing people to buy health insurance and telling health insurance companies exactly what they can and cannot do. 

Apart from the facts that these schemes by governments so often seem to be counterproductive, and that politicians seem to be totally unwilling to admit (even to themselves) that their grand schemes are counterproductive, two things strike me.  

The first is that when I read the Bible, none of these things seem like the things that governments are supposed to do.  The second is that when I look at human history, it is pretty clear that none of these things were things that governments would dream of doing for most of human history.  Even 150 years ago, governments never would have thought of doing these things.  

Of course, a lot of this is simply about what people are like.  We often think that we can, if we really put our mind to it, do things, and then find that those things turn out not to be so easy. And so I think again of the ancient Biblical Proverbs: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:9) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (19:21).  

Self-confidence is a problem many of us have.  But self-confidence is particularly problematical, when we are confident that we have the ability to make a real difference in the lives of other people, or in the groups and organisations that we are involved in.  When we believe that, our self-confidence often turns out to be badly misplaced.  Hence the apostle Paul encourages Christians to mind their own business (I Thessalonians 4:11), and he speaks about the danger of people being busybodies (I Timothy 5:13).  

But when you have not just self-confidence and the busy-body tendency, but also lots of people coming together to achieve something, you have another danger – the danger not just of being over-optimistic, but of being utopian.   We think that if people come together and organise, they can build great things. And of course they can – to some extent. But utopian visions are usually unrealistic, and social engineering does not have as good as track record as mechanical or civil engineering.

So this isn’t just about self-confidence and human pride. It is also about government – about the belief that people coming together and organizing can shape society.

And so I am reminded again of the account of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – a story about people coming together to achieve great things – and how it all fell apart.

It begins with unity, and a great plan:

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

It ends with the plan in tatters, and the unity gone, and the people scattered:

“And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”

One of the implications seems to be that confidence in human ability to come together with great schemes – and in particular, utopian schemes – is something we should be sceptical about.  

So it’s not just the words “something should be done” that should scare us.  There are other calls to action that we should also be wary about.  And, it seems to me that the words “come, let us build” are another four words that often go before destruction.


1. Within a day of writing, another (and closely related) example of government action that is likely to be counterproductive popped up – this this time from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent.

Government initiatives like the “Prevent” campaign are an irrelevance where they are not counterproductive. They purport to identify and expose signs of domestic Islamic radicalism (though nobody knows what these are), but in practice they are a form of collective punishment of the three million British Muslims, serving only to alienate many and push a tiny minority towards sympathy for Isis and al-Qaeda-linked movements.

 

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Four words that bring destruction: “Something must be done!”

Nikolaos van Dam is a Dutch scholar, who served for many years in his country’s diplomatic service – including several in Syria. He is the author of three books in Syria, the most recent of which, Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, came out just over a month ago.

Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent, published an article last week about van Dam, his book, and the situation in Syria. It’s well worth reading. This bit jumped out at me:

It is better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing with terrible results,” he told me a few days ago. “But Western democracies feel they have to do something If there had not been any Western influence, there would have been a tenth of the violence, the country would not be in rubble, so many would not have died, you would not have had so many refugees.”

It is worth reading that again. And again. Until you take it in. And especially the words “Western democracies feel they have to do something . . .

He is of course correct – on both counts. Western influence did make the violence in Syria much worse – see Gareth Porter’s articles here and here. As Porter explains, U.S. government policy “has been largely responsible for having extended al-Qaeda’s power across a significant part of Syrian territory. ”

Indeed, Western influence, interference, and intervention have also brought death and destruction to Iraq and Libya (see my post about the British Parliamentary Report). It was not as if Syria, or Libya, or Iraq had actually attacked any Western country, or even threatened any Western (or other) country. It was that Western political leaders felt that the situation in those countries was bad, and felt that they really ought to do something to help.

And notice that van Dam doesn’t just say “Western countries” or “Western governments”; he says “Western democracies feel they have to do something . . . .” Yes, on one level the fact that the Western countries that interfered in Syria, Iraq, and Libya were democracies is totally irrelevant – non-democratic countries (like, of course, Saudi Arabia) often interfere in the affairs of other countries.

But there is something about democracy that does encourage the “something must be done” mentality. Popular pressure from voters encourages it.  Why?  Because whenever something terrible happens, people don’t just grieve. They ask themselves how the event could have been avoided.  And that often leads to people saying things like “This must never be allowed to happen again”. Which of course means “something must be done” – which means “the government has to do something.” So politicians swing into action. And what they do often does not have the effect intended. Indeed, it sometimes achieves pretty much the opposite of what was intended. See, for example, the whole matter of fat in diet, which I wrote about last year – and I see that a recent study in the Lancet gives further support to what I wrote.

What seems right

And so, in his final paragraph, Fisk writes:

“Van Dam’s expertise shows all too painfully how ignorance and stupidity governed the reflexes of Western politicians who preferred moral correctness to the realities of finding a solution . . .”

It is an interesting thought. What Western politicians consider to be morally correct apparently included pouring arms into Syria, even when they should have realised that those weapons would go to Islamic extremist thugs – just as moral correctness includes dropping bombs on countries all over the Middle East that have never attacked them.

As the Bible says (Proverbs 18:12) “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

We are back to the hubris and self-confidence of politicians. Boris Johnson recently commented “We were way over-optimistic about what would happen when we got rid of Gaddafi. We thought that the elections in 2014 would be a solution, when actually they made things worse.” He is to be congratulated in admitting that the Western governments were wrong, and that what they did achieved the opposite of what was intended.

But the problem was not simply optimism. It was optimism about about the wisdom of politicians and their ability to achieve what they intend. And that hubris and self-confidence is not just a trait of politicians. It is a human trait.

Hundreds of years ago, Thomas à Kempis wrote “Man proposes, but God disposes.” But the ancient Biblical Proverbs say much the same thing: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (16:9) and “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” (19:21)

Which is why, of course, we should not put too much confidence in great schemes and promises of politicians, who are skilled at using great words about what they will achieve, but often don’t know what they are talking about. Or, as the psalmist put it (Psalm 146:3): “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”

One of Ronald Reagan’s best jokes was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.””

It was funny at the time.

40 years later, looking at what American government has managed to do in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, it doesn’t seem so funny any more. Rather, it is scarily true.

Hurricane Harvey in Texas vs war, famine, and disease in Yemen

Storm Harvey has brought real suffering to people in Texas. 33 dead so far. And a lot of coverage on TV and the papers.

Meanwhile, a lot less visible on TV and the papers – but faithfully kept before readers of The American Conservative by their writer Daniel Larison –  Yemen has experienced an estimated 16,200 deaths, many of them children and other civilians.  (The picture above – taken from a recent article in the New York Times, entitled “The Photos the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Don’t Want You to See”  shows Buthaina (or Bouthaina), a girl believed to be 4 or 5 who was the only survivor in her family of a bombing last week by the Saudi coalition that killed 14 people.)

And . . . it is now in the grip of a cholera epidemic, with an estimated 500,000 victims.

And . . . there is widespread malnutrition.

And . . . it has seen its cities demolished by years of bombing by Saudi Arabia.

And . . . the Saudi-led coalition war and blockade are the chief causes for famine and cholera crises in Yemen. The blockade is a major reason why both crises are as severe as they are, and it is why it is so difficult to combat both of those crises.

Why do we hear so little?  One of the main reasons is that Saudi Arabia makes every effort to ensure that journalists are kept out – as (to quote Larison) “part of the [Saudi-led] coalition’s effort to conceal its crimes and hide the disastrous effects of their war from the rest of the world.”*

And . . . (and this is the important part) the U.S. and Britain have backed the bombing campaign and blockade from the very start, and that support has remained constant despite ample evidence of coalition war crimes and the enormous suffering that the intervention has caused and continues to cause.

Will there be consequences?  There almost certainly will be.  Larison: “Our government has made us the enemy of tens of millions of innocent Yemenis who have never done anything to us.”

Some of you will have noticed that I keep writing about this.   This is my 8th post on the subject of Yemen.  And I have been pointing out the same thing over and over again.  Over a year ago, I wrote:

According to CNBC, “U.N. investigators say that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen, or approximately 2,000 deaths. They said that Saudi forces have killed twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen.”

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, said Sunday that coalition strikes over the weekend had targeted schools and hospitals, in breach of international law.

According to Reuters, “The U.N. report on children and armed conflict – released last Thursday – said the [Saudi-led] coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year, killing 510 and wounding 667, and half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

According to Medecins Sans Frontiers “Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. The coalition forces are armed by states including the USA and UK.” Note the word “targeting”. MSF seems to be saying that Saudi Arabia is deliberately attacking schools.

And from the Red Cross: “The International Committee of the Red Cross says Saudi war planes have targeted hospitals in Yemen, killing staff and wounding patients.”

Why do I do keep writing about Yemen?  Well, it seems to me that it is an important story.  Much more important than most of the trivia that fills the news.  And nobody seems to realise what is going on.

And also because the Bible says (Proverbs 31:8) “\Open your mouth for the voiceless, for the justice of all who are destitute.”

I reckon that describes the people of Yemen far too well.

 

* Note:

That is not the whole story of why so little news comes out of Yemen.    Iona Craig (winner of the 2016 Orwell Prize for journalism and the 2014 Martha Gellhorn Prize for investigative journalism), who has visited Yemen several times and done a lot of first class reporting of what is going on there, writes:

“Yes, it’s extremely hard to get into Yemen. But it is possible. Getting travel costs and expenses covered as a freelancer is much harder.  In my experience, greater barrier to covering Yemen than Saudi coalition is media organisations unwilling to cover expenses.  I rely on donations or grants to get to Yemen. Media organisations have never covered my costs to get there. Not in seven years.  And I can guarantee my travel budget is a small fraction of what BBC, CNN et al pay to get there.  Yemeni friends make it possible with warm hearts, comfy floors and home cooking. I wouldn’t travel 3,000 miles around Yemen any other way.  “

And then there is the way the media report Yemen . . .

But there is another problem.  Even the news that does come out of Yemen is often reported in a way that seems designed to keep people in the dark, according to Ben Norton, in an article yesterday at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) entitled “How Media Obscure US/Saudi Responsibility for Killing Yemeni Civilians.”  He writes:

“A coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, with minor support from several other Middle Eastern nations, has relentlessly bombed Yemen since March 2015. This August, the coalition ramped up the ferocity of its airstrikes, killing dozens of civilians.

On August 23, the US/Saudi coalition bombed a hotel near Yemen’s capital Sanaa, killing 41 people, 33 of whom—80 percent—were civilians, according to the United Nations.

Then on August 25, the coalition bombed homes in Sanaa, massacring a dozen civilians, including eight members of the same family.

Major Western media outlets have, however, obscured the responsibility Saudi Arabia, and its US and European supporters, bear for launching these airstrikes.

There are no other parties presently bombing Yemen, so media cannot feign ignorance as to who is responsible for the attacks. But reports on the bloody US/Saudi coalition airstrikes were nonetheless rife with ambiguous and downright misleading language.”

His complaints are basically that headlines about deaths in air strikes rarely mention Saudi Arabia, headlines sometimes speak of Yemeni air strikes, when the air strikes are never carried out by Yemenis, and that stories often give the impression that air strikes on civilian targets are Saudi mistakes, when there is a lot of evidence that they are deliberate.

He writes:

“Media frequently obfuscate and downplay the culpability for bombing when the US and its allies are responsible.

When the US bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in October 2015, killing dozens of civilians, media scrambled to craft almost laughable euphemisms. FAIR (10/5/15) documented at the time how news outlets used circuitous headlines like “US Is Blamed After Bombs Hit Afghan Hospital.” Also seen in the August 23 NPR report cited above, this brand of misleading, ambiguous rhetoric is the “officer-involved shooting” of war reporting.

On the other hand, the responsibility of US enemies for killing civilians is rarely if ever obscured.

It is instructive to compare Western media coverage of Yemen to that of Syria . . . .”

In fact, Norton reckons that calling the war in Yemen a “civil war” is misleading, on the grounds that the reality is that “the conflict is actually a foreign war on Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their US and European sponsors.”   And there is also the uncomfortable fact that in reality, “if the US wanted the war in Yemen to end, it would end overnight. The “Saudi-led” coalition is only led by Saudi Arabia in name.”

Is he right?  It is interesting to look at recent BBC reports about Saudi bombings.  It turns out that Norton is spot-on.  An article about Bouthaina says nothing about who dropped the bomb.  The only mention of Saudi Arabia is in the middle of the article, and reads, “Since 2015, Saudi-led forces have been fighting Houthi rebels, who control northern Yemen including Sanaa.” .

There are two linked BBC stories about Saudi bombings.  Neither mention Saudi Arabia in the headlines.  One, entitled “Yemen war: Air strike on hotel outside Sanaa ‘leaves 30 dead‘” does mention Saudi Arabia in the opening sentence of the report: “At least 30 people have been killed in a Saudi-led coalition air strike on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, local medics and an aid group say.”

The other, entitled “Yemen war: Children dead after Sanaa air strike”  when it does mention Saudi Arabia in the text, suggests that there is uncertainty about who dropped the bomb:

“At least nine people, including children, have been killed after an air strike hit a residential area of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.  Witnesses said two buildings in the south of the city, which is controlled by Houthi rebels, had been destroyed.  Saudi-led forces have been fighting Shia Houthis – backed by Iran – for the last two years.  Thousands of civilians have died. The country is on the brink of famine and facing a cholera outbreak. The planes, thought to be from the Saudi-led Arab coalition which backs Yemen’s government, hit the buildings in the southern district of Faj Attan, according to AFP.”

By the way, the article does not point out that: 1) The part of under the control of the “government” only contains about 20% of the population.  2) It is questionable whether the government has popular support among Yemenis.  3) And it is actually a government in exile, since the president actually resides in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.  4) The “president”, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, was overthrown in an uprising in 2015, resigned, then fled the capital and proclaimed himself president again.

Afghanistan: The longest war, and the sad truth about democracy

This week, Donald Trump made his long awaited statement about Afghanistan. But nobody I know was actually waiting for it – because nobody talks much about Afghanistan, and nobody cares much about Afghanistan – except a few foreign policy aficionados. And hence most people know very little about it.

And yet, the story of America’s involvement is interesting – not least because, at 16 years, it is the longest war America has fought in its history, and shows no sign of ending. (Yes, I realise that for those of us in Europe, looking back over hundreds of years of history, 16 years for a war is nothing, but for America, it is – or at least should be – something big.)

The lessons of history

Several people have compared America’s involvement in Afghanistan to its involvement in Vietnam, including Rod Dreher, who refers to comments by Mark Bowden, author of a recently published book about the American defeat in Vietnam at the Battle of Hue in 1968. Dreher says that according to Bowden,

that there were plenty of reasons specific to Vietnam and its history why this war was unwinnable. The American leadership could not conceive that the United States, the most powerful military in the world, could be beaten by local guerrillas. Bowden calls it “a triumph of ideology over reality in Washington, this anti-communist ideology which completely ignored the realities of Southeast Asia and Vietnam’s history and what actually was happening there.”

He says the same thing is happening today in Afghanistan. I think he’s right, except now, we, the American people, have no excuse for putting up with it. We have lived through Vietnam. We have lived through the debacle of Iraq. And yet — and yet! — we will allow Washington to send thousands more American soldiers to fight and die in a war we cannot win.

afghanistan graveyard of empires

And history suggests that it is not just a matter of learning from Vietnam. Afghanistan has been called the Graveyard of Empires, and it has often been said that although it was invaded by Alexander the Great, the Turks, the Mongols, the British, and the Soviet Union, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.

And, rather memorably, when the Soviet Union tried (1979-1989), the American response was to arm the Islamist extremists called the Mujahideen, celebrated as brave freedom fighters by Hollywood in the film Rambo III in 1988. (And of course America has been involved in arming Islamic extremists much more recently than that, including, yes, al-Qaeda in Syria.)

Indeed, there seems to be widespread opinion that America cannot win this war, and many people think that America has nothing to gain by staying. Indeed, the Taliban, who were removed from power by the American led invasion in 2001, actually control more of the country today than at any time over the past 15 years.

afghan map b_crop

How it all started

The invasion came about because of the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001 – in which over 3,000 people were killed. The attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was soon traced to Afghanistan. America demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda. The Taliban responded that they would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, but added: “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country”.

America refused the Taliban offer, invaded the country, and have been there ever since (even though bin Laden fled to Pakistan).

Now, it seems to me very, very questionable whether the Taliban’s refusal to unconditionally hand over Bin Laden was sufficient grounds for an invasion. And the conditions they suggested were not totally ridiculous. If every country that refused to extradite a wanted criminal was invaded by the country that demanded the extradition, the world would be a somewhat more dangerous place.  The American government could have at least tried to negotiate.  But it didn’t.

And yet despite that, there is no doubt that the vast majority of Americans believed that their government was justified, and supported the invasion.

Democracy

Indeed, one suspects that most Americans actually wanted the invasion to take place, and that one of the main reasons that the Bush administration was eager to invade was because of public feeling. America was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, and people were angry. They wanted action. George Bush couldn’t just do nothing. Failure to take strong decisive action would have been politically disastrous. And, under the circumstances, invading Afghanistan was probably, politically speaking, the smartest thing to do.

In 2004, Afghanistan had democratic elections. Many people saw this as good, with democracy as the first step along the road to a better, freer, future.

But what really happened seems to be that democracy actually came to Afghanistan in 2001. That is, American democracy came to Afghanistan. The American feeling that something must be done, which in practice meant a desire for justice, which in reality often meant a desire for blood – meant that the armed forces of America (and the UK), acting on behalf of the baying mob (i.e. the American electorate), arrived. National pride had been insulted, and must be avenged.

And therein lies the problem with democracy. The electorate may be mistaken in what they want.  What they want may be very foolish.  Indeed, it may be profoundly evil.  And democracy certainly doesn’t solve all problems.   Western military interventions in the past 20 years brought democratic elections to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Before the western interventions, those countries had their problems – but since the elections they have known little but turmoil and war.

The first fully democratic elections in Egypt, which took place 2012, were won by the Muslim Brotherhood – and the resulting government had the worst record for freedom of religion of any recent government in Egypt.

And even in Europe, democratic elections do not necessarily produce good outcomes. Germany in the 1930s had fully democratic elections. And the choices that the people made in them were not just unwise – they were a strong indication that there is something deeply flawed about human nature.

Democracy has become one of our great modern idols.  People in the west speak of democracy as if it is sacred. It isn’t. It is just a way of making decisions – particularly political decisions. And, as Marvin Simkin wrote, 25 years ago, “Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch.”

But over 1000 years ago, Alcuin of York, a theologian, said much the same thing: “Those who always say ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God’ should not be listened to, for the uproar of the crowd is always close to madness.”

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, and democracy is probably better than most (or even all) of the alternatives. But there are plenty of times when electorates will make decisions that are so foolish that they verge on madness, and Simkin was certainly correct in his view that voters often think and act like hungry wolves.

As for the voice of the people not being the voice of God – well, that is certainly correct, as any reading of the Bible will show. In the Old Testament, the children of Israel repeatedly grumbled against God in the wilderness in the time of Moses; in the New Testament the crowd in city after city wanted to kill the apostle Paul. In the Bible, what the people wanted was often completely wrong.

And the same is true in the modern world.

And so, in 2001, the American armed forces invaded Afghanistan.  Today, almost 16 years later, they are still there. There is no reason for them to remain – other than the fact that it would look rather embarrassing to leave. And no president (so far) is willing to be the one who admits that, and allows the troops to go home. And so it seems that we can expect the longest war to get longer still, and probably continue indefinitely.

Charlottesville: Is Trump right?

The top headline at Huffington Post screamed: “GOING BIGLY ON BIGOTRY: Trump Blames Alt Left For Charlottesville Violence In Craziest Press Conference.”

The Guardian was much more restrained, but the perspective was similar: “Republicans denounce bigotry after Donald Trump’s latest Charlottesville remarks.”

Furthermore, the Guardian described his press conference as ‘extraordinary’. And an opinion piece in it was entitled “The President of the United States is now a neo-Nazi sympathiser.”

Trump was criticised left, right and centre, according to the BBC’s report Charlottesville: What made Trump remarks so offensive? It ended with a short paragraph which asked the question “Has anyone come out in favour of his words?” and gave the answer “Yes, a small fraction, most notably former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and the spokeswoman of the Republican National Committee.

After that, one hesitates to stick one’s head above the parapet. Yet, strangely enough, I think Donald Trump has got it about right.

What happened

It all began with a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organised under the banner “Unite the Right”. The purpose was to protest the decision of Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of American Civil War general Robert E Lee from a public park in the city. In the words of Jason Kessler, one if its organisers, “We’re trying to do a pro-white demonstration,” Kessler said. “We’re trying to show that folks can stand up for white people.” Hundreds of people joined the rally, though they were outnumbered by counter-protestors. Clashes between protesters and counter-protesters culminated in a man driving a car into a crowd of counterproposal, killing one of them – Heather Heyer – and injuring 19 other people.

Donald Trump appeared on TV and made a statement, in which he said

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump. Not Barack Obama. It’s been going on for a long, long time. The hate and the division must stop right now. We have to come together as Americans with love for our nation.”

His comments echoed an earlier Tweet that “ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!”

As a result, Trump was widely criticised because he had spoken of “many sides” – without explicitly condemning the white extremist groups involved in the rally.

In other words, Trump had given the impression that hatred, bigotry, and violence was equally shared by different sides, whereas his critics took the view that the blame lay almost entirely with one side. He later issued a statement, undoubtedly as a result of the criticism, in which he said “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists.” Which, I think is pretty obviously true.

Then last night, he spoke again, and, more or less, reverted to the “many sides” position of the first statement, and said:

When you say the ‘alt-right’, define alt-right to me. You define it. What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, . . . as you say, the ‘alt-right’, do they have any semblance of guilt? They do. What about the fact that they came charging swinging, they had clubs in their hands. Do they have any problem? I think that they do. As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. . . . That was a horrible day. I will tell you something. I watch the shots very closely. You had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say that right now. You had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. 

Which is basically why I thought Trump actually got it right first time.

Actually, it takes two to tango

To start with, I don’t have any sympathy for the views of the KKK, neo-Nazis, or white supremacists – nor for the actions of the protesters at Charlottesville. I think that they were wrong to organise the rally, and that the organisers of the rally bear much of the responsibility for the violence – and Heather Heyer’s death.

However, I don’t believe it ends there, much as many people would like to think that it does. If the counter-protest had not taken place, the violence – including the death and the injuries – would not have taken place. Indeed, it is clear that many of the counter-protesters came to Charlottesville intent of violence.

But even if all the counter-protesters were committed to non-violence, I think they were still mistaken in their action. There was absolutely no necessity for the counter-protest. Indeed, it seems to me that the correct response to the Unite the Right rally was probably to completely ignore it. Why take seriously a tiny group of people who represent nobody? Yes, there may have been a few hundred people there, but they travelled for miles, from an area with a population of millions. By all means take their views seriously – but why act as if a tiny number of rather sad individuals are somehow important? The KKK is a small, despised organisation, and neo-Nazism is a totally insignificant political force. But somehow, these tiny, irrelevant groups seem to have a lot of people utterly spooked. (On this subject, this short video by an African-American lady is spot-on. She reckons that the blame for the panic lies largely with . . . you guessed it . . . the media.)

A better way

charlottesville davis

In fact, there is something else that people can do. A Christian Blues musician in America, Daryl Davis, has an unusual approach. In his spare time, he befriends white supremacists. Lots of them. Hundreds. He goes to where they live. Meets them at their rallies. Dines with them in their homes. He has been meeting with white supremacists for three decades. He never tries to convert the Klansmen. He simply becomes friends with them and they give up the KKK on their own.

It’s a wonderful thing when you see a light bulb pop on in their heads or they call you and tell you they are quitting. I never set out to convert anyone in the Klan. I just set out to get an answer to my question: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” I simply gave them a chance to get to know me and treat them the way I want to be treated. They come to their own conclusion that this ideology is no longer for them. I am often the impetus for coming to that conclusion and I’m very happy that some positivity has come out of my meetings and friendships with them.

Davis has been criticised by fellow blacks:

Some black people who have not heard me interviewed or read my book jump to conclusions and prejudge me … I’ve been called Uncle Tom. I’ve been called an Oreo.

I had one guy from an NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other, saying, “you know, we’ve worked hard to get ten steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you’re putting us twenty steps back.”

I pull out my robes and hoods and say, “look, this is what I’ve done to put a dent in racism. I’ve got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who’ve given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?” And then they shut up.

The politicians

It goes beyond that. I don’t expect anything in the way of responsible behaviour from the Unite the Right protesters; and I suppose that one shouldn’t expect a huge amount of responsible behaviour from the individuals who took part in the counter-protest. But I would expect a little more from the members of the Charlottesville City Council. If they had not decided to remove the statue of Robert E Lee, which had stood in Charlottesville since 1924 without doing much harm, none of this would have happened. Those who voted to remove the statue – instead of leaving well enough alone – also share responsibility for the violence.

But at every stage, somewhat did something that angered someone else, and the tension was ratcheted up, and finally spilled over into violence. And then everyone involved rushed to blame someone else. And nobody that I have heard of said “Well, I guess I am partly responsible.”

Self-righteousness

Self-righteousness exists in all of us. And the Bible tells us that Jesus was not slow to address it:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.'” (Luke 18:10-12)

We don’t tend to appreciate the illustration today, since most people tend to think of Pharisees as being nasty people. What we hear, when we hear that parable, is not what the people of Jesus’ day would been heard. The Pharisees were, in the eyes of society, good, virtuous people – and very much respected. The tax collectors were seen as corrupt. And the way that society saw them was actually pretty accurate. In terms of the way they behaved the Pharisees were good people – like the sort of people who would be members of Charlottesville City Council – and the tax collectors were, on the whole, scoundrels – like the sort of people who would be Unite the Right protesters

But we find it so difficult to see ourselves as Pharisees.

Which is why Jesus said on another occasion,

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:41-42)

Basically, it is our natural tendency to demonise our opponents, and to whitewash and excuse our own behaviour. Of course, in this case, there can be little doubt that the main responsibility for the violence belongs with those involved with the Unite the Right rally. But those who voted to remove the statue should have taken account of the fact that their action would upset some people, including some people who were prone to violence. There was a recklessness in what they did. Had they not decided to remove the statue, Heather Heyer would be alive today.

In that, by the way, there is nothing unusual. Politicians often take action with very little thought of the possible consequences. As a result, a lot of decisions taken by politicians end up achieving the opposite of what was intended. Failure to learn that lesson, and to think these things through carefully, is not just reckless, but, like reckless driving, is not acceptable. You may not have meant any harm, but if you cause harm through recklessness, you bear at least part of the blame.

Trump the Nazi?

What about the accusation that Trump is a neo-Nazi sympathiser – or at least soft on Neo-Nazism?

The simple response to that is that it is clearly total nonsense. Trump’s own statements on Charlottesville, make that clear. But there is another thing that makes it obvious that Trump has not sympathies in that direction. In 1999, Trump launched an attack on Pat Buchanan, saying among other things,’Look, he’s a Hitler lover. . . . ‘I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”

What Trump said about Buchanan strikes me as being complete nonsense, and to his credit, Trump did apologise to Buchanan a few years later. But I see no evidence that Trump’s basic views on prejudice against blacks, gays, and Jews have changed in the last 18 years. Trump can be faulted for many things. But being a neo-Nazi sympathiser? No. It seems to me that Trump’s views on neo-Nazism are probably much the same as those of Heather Heyer.

Very fine people

And yet, one thing that Trump said about Charlottesville was rightly criticised.

Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists. By any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E Lee, and you take a look at it, many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. So this week it’s Robert E Lee, I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down, I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You all, you really do have to ask yourself where does it stop … You had some bad people in that group, but you also had very fine people on both sides.

Those final words are astonishing. As Congressman Julian Amash tweeted, “Very fine people” do not participate in rallies with groups chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans and displaying vile symbols of hate.”

meme charlottesville 2

I agree with Amash. I think that while both the protesters and the counter-protester were a pretty mixed bag, with some very violent people on each side – it also seems to me that many of the counter-protesters were decent, well-behaved individuals who meant well, whereas anybody who chose to take part in the Unite the Right rally had serious problems, and that Trump’s comment that some of them were “very fine people” is truly bizarre.

Which is why I didn’t say that I thought Donald Trump has got it right, but said that I thought he got it about right.

But that does not make Trump a neo-Nazi apologist or sympathiser. For a start, it seems to me that Trump’s idea of what constitutes a very fine person would not be mine. He and I have very different views about what is right and what is wrong. Not to put to fine a point on it, I suspect that Trump would set the bar for “very fine” pretty low.

But more importantly, I think that it is fair to say that Trump routinely says things that are so wildly exaggerated that that they can’t be taken too seriously. He doesn’t exactly choose his words with care. And I think that is what is going on here. In this case, he probably means that some of the people involved in the Unite the Right march were fairly harmless, law-abiding citizens.

The statue in question

Let’s get back to the root cause of the problem: the Lee statue. The statue has been there for about 100 years without causing any problems. But in the last few months, there has been a move to take down statues in public places associated with the Confederate side in the American Civil War. This move was sparked by the shooting of 9 people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylan Roof, a young white man who had posted photos of himself on the internet posing with emblems associated with white supremacy and with photos of the Confederate battle flag.

Why, exactly, people feel that the statues need to be removed varies. Some people may think that the statues contribute to racial tension (though it seems to me that removing them probably stirs up more tension than just leaving them alone.) Others see them as intrinsically evil, and having no place in a decent society – a perspective that seems to me to be remarkably similar to that of the Taliban.

meme charlottesville

Be that as it may, I guess that if one is going to say that some responsibility for the violence lies not only with with those individuals who acted violently, but also with the organisers of the march, the organisers of the counter-protest, and the Charlottesville City Council, then one could also say that some blame must also be shared by those who put up the statue in the first place.

We learn from Wikipedia that the man responsible was Paul Goodloe McIntire, who commissioned the statue. Apparently,

McIntire was a generous philanthropist. Virginia historian Virginius Dabney notes that he gave nearly $750,000 to the University of Virginia in named gifts, in addition to gifts to the city of Charlottesville and other anonymous donations, and that by 1942 he had given away so much of his fortune that he “was struggling to live within his annuity of $6,000.” He is best remembered for his $200,000 gift establishing a school of commerce and economics, today the McIntire School of Commerce.

However, he now has the blood of Heather Heyer on his hands. After all, he didn’t have to commission that statue. Charlottesville didn’t need it. It was utterly pointless.

And, that, it seems to me, is the tragedy of this whole episode. Just as the statue was ultimately pointless, trivial, and unnecessary – so was the decision to remove it. And so was the decision to protest against its removal, and counter-protest against the protesters The whole saga is a testimony to human silliness. People got worked up about something utterly trivial, and a young woman died. And America has been talking about it all week.

(Meanwhile, almost nobody in America seems to be getting worked up about the fact that America has been aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia’s killing spree in Yemen. But that’s another story.)

Lee the racist?

lee

And then there is Robert E Lee himself, the man in the statue. Anybody who knows anything about Lee knows that he had a reputation for being one of the most honourable figures in 19th century American history, and someone who was not exactly enthusiastic about slavery.

In a letter to his wife, written a few years before the Civil War, he wrote: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Indeed, I am unaware of any statement made by Lee which shows him to hold particularly racist views.

On the other hand, if one goes through the statements of Abraham Lincoln, who, I suspect, is regarded as a hero by most of the counter-protesters, one finds such things as

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgement, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favour of the race to which I belong having the superior position”?

and

“Our republican system was meant for a homogeneous people. As long as blacks continue to live with the whites they constitute a threat to the national life. Family life may also collapse and the increase of mixed breed bastards may some day challenge the supremacy of the white man.”

The heart of the matter

And with Lee and Lincoln, I think we are getting to the heart of the matter. Lee was a soldier – a man of battles. Lincoln was a politician – a man who is remembered for being the American President during the civil war. And the truth of the matter is that while there are times when soldiers start wars, or when their political influence may lead to war, the general pattern is that wars are started by politicians.

Many people have a fatalistic view of history, and believe that its conflicts were inevitable. And in particular, they think that the American Civil War was inevitable, and the only way to end slavery in America. My suspicion is that if Britain (and the rest of the western world) was able to end slavery peacefully, that it was not beyond the wit of America to do the same. Indeed, I suspect that political stubbornness and refusal to compromise, combined with clumsiness, led America into an entirely avoidable war, and the unnecessary violent deaths of over 600,000 people.

Basically, there was a ratcheting up of tension, which in the end spilled over into outright war. Both sides refused to back down. Both sides believed that they had to respond to the moves of the other side. Both sides believed that they had to be talk tough, to be tough, and to not back down.

And, it seems to me, that was basically what happened in Charlottesville. The city council started it. They meant well, but what they did was not only unnecessary, but also provocative. The organisers of the protest felt the need to respond, and to respond with a show of strength. They didn’t need to respond at all, of course, and certainly not in the way that they responded, but they wanted to. The organisers of the counter-protest likewise felt the need to respond strongly. Again, they didn’t need to do anything of the kind, and it would have been better for everyone if they hadn’t – but, it was a case of “We can’t just allow this to happen! Something must be done!” And the blood flowed. Fortunately only one person died.

People thought that what was needed was action – in other words, escalation. In actual fact, what was needed was de-escalation.

Which brings us back to the Bible – this time to the Book of Proverbs (30:33). For as churning cream produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces strife.” And even if the stirring up of anger is entirely unintentional, the anger that it stirs up and the strife it produces is just as real.

Or, if one turns back a few pages (Proverbs 15:1) “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” The problem is that soft answer is seen as exactly that: soft. And softness is seen in politics as fatal.

I think that there are a few lessons here – about politics and diplomacy and words. And I don’t think they just apply to Charlottesville, and the many sides there. I think they apply to relations between nations. Including, for example, America’s relations with Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea.

Syria, chemical weapons, Seymour Hersh, and the utter dishonesty of the western media

1968 – My Lai

On 16th March, 1968, near the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai, at least 300 (and probably over 500) unarmed Vietnamese civilians – men, women, and children – were massacred by American troops.

It took over a year for the story to make the news. That is not to say that nothing was reported. Two days after it happened, The Stars and Stripes, an American military newspaper, published a laudatory piece, entitled “U.S. troops Surrounds Red, Kill 128”. The following month, The Trident, the newsletter of the American Army’s 11th Infantry Brigade, reported that “The most punishing operations undertaken by the brigade in Operation Muscatine’s area involved three separate raids into the village and vicinity of My Lai, which cost the VC (Viet Cong) 276 killed.” In short, the U.S. Army covered up the story.

1969 – The story comes out

But information began to leak out, and on the 5th September 1969, an officer was charged with premeditated murder, and a vague press release concerning the charges was distributed. Consequently, a report on NBC on 10th September 10 mentioned the murder of a number of civilians in South Vietnam.

As a result, a soldier decided to disobey the Army’s order to withhold the information from the media. He approached a reporter who chose not to handle the scoop. Another reporter uncovered the story on his own but also decided to put it on hold. Two major national news press outlets—The New York Times and The Washington Post, received some tips with partial information but did not act on them.

On the 22nd of October someone contacted a journalist called Seymour Hersh, who investigated it. He initially tried to sell the story to Life and Look magazines; both turned it down. Hersh then went to the small Washington News Service, which sent it to 50 major American newspapers, and 30 of them accepted it for publication.

And the truth was out.

2009 – Observer profile of Seymour Hersh

Seymour Hersh, however didn’t stop there. An article in The Observer, published in 2009, was entitled “The man who knows too much”, which tells us that “It was Hersh who first revealed the full extent” of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American forces at Abu Ghraib, and in Hersh’s book, Chain of Command, “it became clear that Abu Ghraib was not an “isolated incident” but, rather, a concerted attempt by the government and the military leadership to circumvent the Geneva Conventions in order to extract intelligence and quell the Iraqi insurgency.'” (Needless to say, the Pentagon denied much of what Hersh reported.)

Perhaps the most significant part of the article is this:

“What really gets Hersh going – he seems genuinely bewildered by it – is the complicit meekness, the virtual collapse, in fact, of the American press since 9/11. In particular, he disdains its failure to question the ‘evidence’ surrounding Saddam’s so-called weapons of mass destruction. ‘When I see the New York Times now, it’s so shocking to me.”

Notice that the American press largely failed to question the ‘evidence” concerning allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). That suggests one of two things – a press that was gullible and naive – or a press that was basically aligned with the government’s agenda.

Interestingly, the same can be said for western media coverage of the fall of Gadaffi in Libya. The 2016 Foreign Affairs Committee report, quoting Amnesty International, said:

“much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge. ”

As I commented in a previous post:

“It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments? “

Seymour Hersh’s comments about the Western media in 2009 seem to dovetail with Amnesty International’s observations a few years later. Most of the media in America and Britain seem to be remarkably unwilling to question the government’s actions in the Middle East.

And that, I think, is worth noticing.

The other thing that I think needs to be noticed is that with My Lai, Saddam’s WMDs, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners – the American government, and, in particular, the American military, have shown consistently that they cannot be believed. Seymour Hersh, by contrast, proved to be a reliable source.

2014 – Hersh on Syria (1)

Which brings us to Hersh’s article “The Red Line and the Rat Line“, published in the London Review of Books in April 2014.

In August 2013, two opposition-controlled areas in the suburbs around Damascus, Syria were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin. The Syrian opposition, as well as many governments, and the European Union stated the attack was carried out by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian and Russian governments blamed the opposition for the attack, the Russian government calling the attack a false flag operation by the opposition to draw foreign powers into the civil war on the rebels’ side.

Several countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States debated whether to intervene militarily against Syrian government forces and, two weeks after that attack, the United States Senate filed a resolution to authorize use of military force against the Syrian military in response. However, military intervention was averted when (and this is important) the Syrian government accepted a US – Russian negotiated deal to turn over “every single bit” of its chemical weapons stockpiles for destruction and declared its intention to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Seymour Hersh got to work researching the story, and his article published 6 months later. He reported that British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the attack and analysis at Porton Down demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. Furthermore, British and American intelligence knew that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency had issued a highly classified briefing which stated that al-Nusra (the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, and one of the main rebel groups fighting the Syrian government) maintained a sarin production cell. And there was plenty of strong evidence which suggested that Russia was indeed correct, and that the Gouta attack was a false-flag operation designed to get western governments to attack the Syrian government.

Hersh’s report got remarkably little coverage in the mainstream western media, which seems odd since the Observer / Guardian had published a profile of Hersh 5 years earlier.  The American government issued a denial.

Hersh made a lot of interesting allegations in it, and to this day, it is difficult to know how much will turn out to be true, and how much will not. But it has, on the whole, stood up pretty well.

2017, 4th April – The Khan Shaykhun chemical attack

On 4 April 2017, a chemical attack took place on the town of Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib Governorate of Syria. At the time of the attack, the town was under the control of – yes, you’ve guessed it, al-Nusra – now renamed Tahrir al-Sham. The attack was the deadliest use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war since the Ghouta chemical attack, and at least 74 people were killed, according to the Idlib health authority. As before, most western goverments blamed the Syrian government, and the Syrians denied responsiblity. Three days later, on 7 April, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat Air Base, which U.S. intelligence claimed was the source of the attack.

2017, 6th April – Philip Giraldi

Even before Donald Trump launched the missile attack, doubts were being raised. Philip Giraldi – a retired CIA officer who had worked in the Middle East (and who has a PhD from the University of London), who is, in my opinion, a very credible source – gave an interview, in which he said that the narrative that Assad or Russia did it is a “sham.”

“I am hearing from sources on the ground, in the Middle East, the people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence available are saying that the essential narrative we are all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham. The intelligence confirms pretty much the account the Russians have been giving since last night which is that they hit a warehouse where al Qaida rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear, and people both in the Agency and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he should already have known — but maybe didn’t–and they’re afraid this is moving towards a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict.

These are essentially sources that are right on top of the issue right in the Middle East. They’re people who are stationed there with the military and the Intelligence agencies that are aware and have seen the intelligence And, as I say, they are coming back to contacts over here in the US essentially that they astonished at how this is being played by the administration and by the media and in some cases people are considering going public to stop it. They’re that concerned about it, that upset by what’s going on.

. . . the intelligence indicates that it was not an attack by the Syrian government using chemical weapons… There was an attack but it was with conventional weapons–a bomb– and the bomb ignited the chemicals that were already in place that had been put in there by the terrorist group affiliated with al Qaida.

2017, 17th April – Theodore Postol

Ten days later, further serious doubts were thrown on the official American government story by Theodore Postol, Professor of Science, Technology and National Security Policy in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Postol, like Giraldi, is a very credible source; MIT is the number 5 ranked university in the world, according to Time Higher Education.

Postol studied the evidence, and then said of the White House Intelligence Report,

I have reviewed the document carefully, and I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria at roughly 6 to 7 a.m. on April 4, 2017.

In fact, a main piece of evidence that is cited in the document points to an attack that was executed by individuals on the ground, not from an aircraft, on the morning of April 4. This conclusion is based on an assumption made by the White House when it cited the source of the sarin release and the photographs of that source. My own assessment, is that the source was very likely tampered with or staged, so no serious conclusion could be made from the photographs cited by the White House.

What I can say for sure herein is that what the country is now being told by the White House cannot be true and the fact that this information has been provided in this format raises the most serious questions about the handling of our national security.  

Postol’s contribution got almost no coverage in the mainstream media.  Again, this is slightly curious, because in 2013 the BBC carried a story about Postol, describing him as “a leading US expert on missile defence.”

2017, 25th June – Hersh on Syria (2)

In June, Hersh’s piece, Trump’s Red Line, appeared – in the German daily paper, Die Welt.

In a series of interviews, I learned of the total disconnect between the president and many of his military advisers and intelligence officials, as well as officers on the ground in the region who had an entirely different understanding of the nature of Syria’s attack on Khan Sheikhoun. I was provided with evidence of that disconnect, in the form of transcripts of real-time communications, immediately following the Syrian attack on April 4.

According to a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency,

“Russian and Syrian Air Force officers gave details of the carefully planned flight path to and from Khan Shiekhoun on April 4 directly, in English, to . . . [one of the American AWACS surveillance planes that monitor Russian and Syrian flights once airborne ], which was on patrol near the Turkish border, 60 miles or more to the north. . . .

The Syrian target at Khan Sheikhoun, as shared with the Americans at Doha, was depicted as a two-story cinder-block building in the northern part of town. Russian intelligence, which is shared when necessary with Syria and the U.S. as part of their joint fight against jihadist groups, had established that a high-level meeting of jihadist leaders was to take place in the building, including representatives of Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-affiliated group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The two groups had recently joined forces, and controlled the town and surrounding area.

Russian and Syrian intelligence officials, who coordinate operations closely with the American command posts, made it clear that the planned strike on Khan Sheikhoun was special because of the high-value target. . . . The advance intelligence on the target, as supplied by the Russians, was given the highest possible score inside the American community.

This was not a chemical weapons strike,” the adviser said. “That’s a fairy tale.

The target was struck at 6:55 a.m. on April 4, just before midnight in Washington. A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground.

The internet swung into action within hours, and gruesome photographs of the victims flooded television networks and YouTube.

Within hours of viewing the photos, according to the special adviser who spoke to Hersh,

“Trump instructed the national defense apparatus to plan for retaliation against Syria. “He did this before he talked to anybody about it. The planners then asked the CIA and DIA if there was any evidence that Syria had sarin stored at a nearby airport or somewhere in the area. Their military had to have it somewhere in the area in order to bomb with it.” “The answer was, ‘We have no evidence that Syria had sarin or used it,’” the adviser said. “The CIA also told them that there was no residual delivery for sarin at Sheyrat [the airfield from which the Syrian SU-24 bombers had taken off on April 4] and Assad had no motive to commit political suicide.” Everyone involved, except perhaps the president, also understood that a highly skilled United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, removing what was said to be all chemical weapons from a dozen Syrian chemical weapons depots. . . “

“And yet it was impossible for the experts to persuade the president of this once he had made up his mind. “The president saw the photographs of poisoned little girls and said it was an Assad atrocity,” the senior adviser said. “It’s typical of human nature. You jump to the conclusion you want. Intelligence analysts do not argue with a president. They’re not going to tell the president, ‘if you interpret the data this way, I quit.’” “

2017, 29th June – Scott Ritter

A few days later, Scott Ritter published his thoughts. Ritter had been a US. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, and who had served as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Ritter stated that Iraq possessed no significant weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, and was described by the New York Times “the loudest and most credible skeptic of the Bush administration’s contention that Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.”  Ritter was, of course, to be proven to be correct.

In his article about the Khan Sheikhoun incident, Ritter discussed the two conflicting stories about what actually happened, and came to the conclusion that Hersh’s story was more likely to be correct than that of the White House.  He has expanded on that in a recent interview which can be watched on YouTube.

What do I think?

Well, every bit of evidence coming from the ground (e.g. photographs) comes from al-Qaeda affiliated groups or those approved by them.  In practice, these people have proved to be thugs who have a track record of mistreating Christians and members of other religious minorities.   In other words, the evidence from the ground is pretty much worthless.

And, to repeat myself, “with My Lai, Saddam’s WMDs, and the torture of Iraqi prisoners – the American government, and, in particular, the American military, have shown consistently that they cannot be believed. Seymour Hersh, by contrast, proved to be a reliable source.”

And I reckon the Phil Giraldi is an impeccable source, and that Theodore Postol knows what he is talking about.

And then there is the fact that a United Nations team had spent more than a year in the aftermath of an alleged sarin attack in 2013 by Syria, in an effort to remove all chemical weapons held by the Syrian government.

Everything suggests to me that it is extremely unlikely that there is any truth at all in the White House’s account.

But Khan Sheikhoun and Syria is not what this post is really about . . .

What about the media?

Perhaps the most significant part of Hersh’s June article, however, was not about what happened in Syria or in the corridors of power in America, but about the response – and in particular the response of the media – to Trump’s missile attack on Syria:

“The next few days were his most successful as president. America rallied around its commander in chief, as it always does in times of war. Trump, who had campaigned as someone who advocated making peace with Assad, was bombing Syria 11 weeks after taking office, and was hailed for doing so by Republicans, Democrats and the media alike. One prominent TV anchorman, Brian Williams of MSNBC, used the word “beautiful” to describe the images of the Tomahawks being launched at sea. Speaking on CNN, Fareed Zakaria said: “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” A review of the top 100 American newspapers showed that 39 of them published editorials supporting the bombing in its aftermath, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.”

And curiously, the media in America and the UK gave Hersh’s report very little publicity. And why was the report published in a German newspaper?

John Cook is a British writer and a freelance journalist based in Nazareth, before which he was a staff journalist with the Guardian. He has worked in journalism for over 20 years. In 2011, he received the Martha Gellhorn special award for journalism for his work on the Middle East.

A few days after Hersh’s piece came out, Cook wrote an article about it.

It makes very interesting reading. Here are some of key paragraphs:

“If you wish to understand the degree to which a supposedly free western media are constructing a world of half-truths and deceptions to manipulate their audiences, keeping us uninformed and docile, then there could hardly be a better case study than their treatment of Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

All of these highly competitive, for-profit, scoop-seeking media outlets separately took identical decisions: first to reject Hersh’s latest investigative report, and then to studiously ignore it once it was published in Germany last Sunday. They have continued to maintain an absolute radio silence on his revelations, even as over the past few days they have given a great deal of attention to two stories on the very issue Hersh’s investigation addresses.

. . . the western media were supremely uninterested in the story. Hersh, once considered the journalist’s journalist, went hawking his investigation around the US and UK media to no avail. In the end, he could find a home for his revelations only in Germany, in the publication Welt am Sonntag. “

Glenn Greenwald, another highly respected independent journalist, says much the same as Cook: “Hersh shows how someone is marginalized for dissenting from US orthodoxy despite abundant mainstream credentials.”

Yes, the story is actually the media.

In other words, this is not so much about Syria, or Donald Trump. It is about the western media.

I’ve written on this subject before. Last November, I wrote about how the Barnabas Fund, and Amnesty International, and Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist who writes in the Independent, and has been described as “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today”, spoke of how biased and one-sided most western media coverage of the Middle East is.

I think the case of Seymour Hersh and his recent work on Syria shows that the western media is not just biased and one-sided. Robert Fisk, also writing in the Independent,said:we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years “. But while Fisk, rather gently, simply said “we journalists”, Cook, more accurately I think, wrote: “every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station.

“Journalists” are not quite the same as the media, and they are certainly not the same as the mainstream media. There are thousands of journalists – some more honest than others. They have different perspectives and they say different things. But when it comes to reporting on the allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria – and indeed most things regarding Syria and the Middle East – every single US and UK mainstream newspaper and TV station is saying the same thing.

And they are being blatantly dishonest.

The thing that brought it home to me was the fact that they all know about Hersh’s story, and yet they don’t even mention it. They go out of their way to be silent about it – even though it is vastly more important than most of the stories that they cover.

And if the media are being blatantly dishonest about the Middle East, then they will feel free to be blatantly dishonest about any subject at all.

Those who hate the light

And I am reminded of some words in John’s gospel (John 3:19-20):

“People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” 

Yes, I know that it talking about something quite different. And yet, somehow, it does seem to me to be quite an appropriate comment about the western mainstream media.

First Tim Farron, now Anne Marie Morris

In about 1987, when I was a student at Edinburgh University, one of our lecturers was speaking about some aspect of the history of the Reformation in 16th century Germany. During the course of his lecture, he referred to one of the reformers as “the nigger in the woodpile.” He then paused, realised that it probably wasn’t the wisest expression to use, said something apologetic, and moved on. It was a mildly amusing moment, but nobody batted an eyelid, or said anything about it afterwards. We knew that it was an colloquial expression, and we knew what he meant.

Even in the 1980s, one didn’t say the word “nigger” in polite company. Indeed, as a child in the mid-1960s it was made clear by my parents that it was a word that we didn’t use. For a politician to use the expression in 2017 strikes me as remarkably inept.

But, according to the BBC, that is exactly what Conservative MP Anne Marie Morris did.

“Ms Morris was discussing the impact of Brexit on the UK’s financial services industry at an event organised by the Politeia think tank, which was attended by other MPs. Suggesting that just 7% of financial services would be affected by Brexit, she reportedly said: “Now I am sure there will be many people who will challenge that but my response and my request is look at the detail – it isn’t all doom and gloom.” She went on: “Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal.”

And, as the BBC headline put it, “MP Anne Marie Morris suspended for racist remark.”

What is interesting about this is that she was not actually speaking about race at all, and I would guess that the subject of race didn’t actually enter her mind when she used the expression. To put it another way, she did not say anything racist, and to describe her words as a “racist remark” seems to be stretching the truth to breaking point – at least according to my understanding of the phrase. It would be much more accurate to say that she was suspended for using an offensive word.

Being offensive

Which brings us to the reaction.

“Announcing the suspension, Theresa May said she was “shocked” by the “completely unacceptable” language. “I immediately asked the chief whip to suspend the party whip,” she said in a statement. “Language like this has absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.””

Well, there you go. An MP can be suspended for using bad language in a public meeting. Personally, I think this is silly beyond belief, and a sign that the country, or at least the Prime Minister, has gone raving mad.

However, more to the point, I think what ought to be said is that it looks to me like the crime of Anne Marie Morris is remarkably like the crime of Tim Farron – at least, if it is true (as most people seem to believe) that Farron resigned because of views he held on same-sex relationships. That crime is offending people of a certain group.

Hence, former MP David Laws wrote:

But as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am. And I want a party leader whose respect for human equality comes before outdated and frankly offensive religious views.

Laws was speaking about how he felt – and the use of the word “offensive” tells us that he was offended by certain views that he understood Tim Farron to hold. David Laws was offended not because Tim Farron had offended him personally, but because Tim Farron’s view about a certain group – a group that had suffered because of “prejudice” (a word that Laws used 6 times in his short piece) – were offensive.

And that is exactly the same the same as the crime of Anne Marie Morris. She said something that was offensive, and because it concerned a group that has suffered because of prejudice, she had to be suspended.

I think that it is worth noting that David Laws managed to use the word “outdated” to refer to traditional Christian teaching four times in his piece. The point is that the times are changing. Forty years ago, Farron’s views would not have caused him any political problems, and Morris’s choice of words would not have gotten her suspended.

And, perhaps more to the point, just as it seems pretty clear that Farron holds no hostility at all towards people based on their sexual preferences, there is also not a shred of evidence that Morris holds any hostility to people based on their race.

What should we think?

Three quick comments:

1. When Farron resigned, he said To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.” The reaction of Theresa May indicates suggests that the Conservative Party are also a “progressive liberal party” in 2017 – or at least, Theresa May thinks they should be.

2. In one of my articles about the resignation of Tim Farron I wrote

“. . . nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.

I think that what happened to Anne Marie Morris illustrates that perfectly.

3. I dare say Tim Farron would not like to be compared to Anne Marie Morris, and might argue that his crime was completely different. I also suspect that a lot of Christians in Britain will not appreciate me saying this.

But we need to face up the fact that increasingly, holding to the teaching of the Bible on certain matters is likely to make Christians, to use the Prime Minister’s words, “completely unacceptable” to many people, and mean that we may be seen as having “absolutely no place in politics or in today’s society.”

It seems to me that Christians, more than ever before, need to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Particularly when we are in the midst of politicians.

Saudi Arabia’s appalling behaviour doesn’t stop. The continuing support of the British and American governments is shameful.

Saudi Arabia’s appalling behaviour doesn’t stop. The continuing support of the British and American governments is shameful.

Saudi Arabia continues to be in the news.

1) There is the blockade of Qatar. Saudi and a few other unsavoury Arab governments have imposed a blockade on Qatar – an act which is, in an of itself, extraordinary. They have demanded, among other things that Qatar cease support for various publications – most notable Al Jazeera, most astonishingly, Middle East Eye. Why? To quote Doug Bandow (a respected foreign policy expert, whose 1988 book “Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics“, published by Crossway, remains in print)

“Until recently, life in Qatar was quite pleasant. But then Saudi Arabia, backed by President Donald Trump, who has gone from critic to fan of the ruling royals there, led an effort to isolate its smaller neighbor. With supreme irony, Riyadh, whose people have done more to fund and man terrorist attacks on Americans than any other nation, accused Doha of backing terrorists. “

Al-Jazeera may not be perfect; like most major media organisations it is scarcely impartial; but it still, like the not-quite-perfect BBC, provides a useful service, especially in the context of the Arab world. And, as has been said, the Saudi demand that Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera is the equivalent of the EU demanding that the British government shutting down the BBC.

As for Middle East Eye, it is edited by David Hearst, (former chief foreign leader writer for The Guardian), is not funded by Qatar, is independent of any government or movement, and is highly respected. The Saudi demand that Qatar shut it down is absolutely preposterous.

Have you heard the stern condemnations of Saudi Arabia’s demands coming from Downing Street and the White House? Nor have I.

 

2) Then there’s Yemen. Saudi Arabia invaded two years ago, and since then have repeatedly bombed civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, and funerals. They have also imposed a blockade, ensuring that there are shortages of food and medicine. The result is that children are dying of malnutrition, and (as reported by Daniel Larison)

“Yemen’s cholera epidemic is already the worst in the world, but daily it is growing even worse:

The death toll from a major cholera outbreak in Yemen has risen to 1,500, Nevio Zagaria, the World Health Organisation’s representative in Yemen, said on Saturday, and appealed for more help to put an end to the epidemic.

Last week there were 200,000 cases of cholera in the country, and now there are almost 250,000. In another week, unless things change quickly, there will be even more. Cholera is treatable, but it requires being able to deliver the right medicine in sufficient amounts to the sick, and right now the Saudi-led blockade and the devastation of Yemen’s health care system make that very difficult. Aid agencies are working extremely hard to contain the epidemic, but they are doing so without adequate funding and with scant or no cooperation from the governments with the means to help. The civilian population is now especially vulnerable to preventable diseases like this one because of severe malnutrition caused by years of blockade and war. Because of the damage to the country’s infrastructure, it is difficult for people to find enough clean drinking water. The near-famine conditions make it much easier for disease to spread rapidly, and they make it more likely that the disease will kill many more people than it would have otherwise. These are man-made disasters inflicted on the people of Yemen as the result of deliberate policy choices by their neighboring states and their Western patrons.

The U.S. and other coalition supporters can still try to repair some of the damage they have helped cause, but after more than two years of working to bring about the world’s worst humanitarian crisis it is doubtful that any will make a serious effort.”

 

3) And the latest is that

“A report on the foreign funding of extremism in the UK was given to Downing Street last year, it has been revealed, but Theresa May is still to decide whether to make its findings public.”

Home Office minister Sarah Newton said: “The review into the funding of Islamist extremism in the UK was commissioned by the former prime minister and reported to the home secretary and the prime minister in 2016.

The review has improved the government’s understanding of the nature, scale and sources of funding for Islamist extremism in the UK. Publication of the review is a decision for the prime minister.”

So why has the government not made its finding public? Because it is believed that it points to Saudi Arabia’s involvement in funding and supporting terrorism.

Tim Farron is absolutely right when he says

““It is a scandal that the government are suppressing this report. The only conclusion you can draw is that they are worried about what it actually says. We hear regularly about the Saudi arms deals or ministers going to Riyadh to kowtow before their royal family, but yet, our government won’t release a report that will clearly criticise Saudi Arabia. “All this government seems to care about is cosying up to one of the most extreme, nasty and oppressive regimes in the world. You would think our security would be more important, but it appears not. For that Theresa May should be ashamed of herself.”

Relationships, apparently

It’s not the first time. Back in September, Jeremy Corbyn questioned Theresa May in the House of Commons about British support and said “The British Government continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen, as has been clearly detailed by the UN and other independent agencies.” May replied “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.” I find that statement horrifying and shameful.   The fact that she probably had seen the report into the funding of Islamic extremism in Britain when she made that statement probably makes it worse.

One could go on. The Saudi government practices public beheading of convicted criminals, had close links to the 9/11 hijackers, forbids its citizens from becoming Christians, bans the selling of Bibles, and tolerates no church buildings on its territory.

My view is that this is disgraceful. It seems to me that if most other Middle Eastern countries behaved like Saudi Arabia, the American government would be doing all it could to topple the government. But different rules apply to Saudi Arabia.

Why? It’s about “alliances”. According to the Washington Post,

. . . .When the operation began, support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion, one official said. “There was this great sense of ‘this is the right thing to do,’ ” the official said. . . . Despite repeated strikes on schools and hospitals, officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up a bilateral relationship . . . .”

What we need to remember is that the Saudi government is not an ally of the British or American people. It is an ally of our governments and politicians. Alas, we the people are not entirely without responsibility for our politicians.

The resignation of Tim Farron: 4) The place of Christianity in public life

In my first three articles about the resignation of Tim Farron, I looked successively at

All these things show that Tim Farron faced various problems. Some, undoubtedly related to his own personal qualities – including the matter of whether he had been as wise (and as consistent) as he ought to have been. But he faced a problem which is much more significant – because of what it says about modern culture, and about the future of Christianity in the public square.

Aliens and strangers

The problem is two-fold.

Firstly, it is ideological. The culture is changing. While Christian values used to be, to at least some extent, part of western culture, that is rapidly changing. Christians who hold to the values of the Bible are now aliens and strangers in our culture – pretty much like the Christians in the pagan world of the Roman Empire in the days of the apostles. In a strange sort of way, we find ourselves back in New Testament times.

Anna Strhan is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and, author of a recent book about how conservative evangelicals see themselves fitting into modern Britain – entitled Aliens and Strangers. In a recent blog post on the Tim Farron’s resignation, she tells of how the minister of a church, in a question and answer session after the sermon at a Sunday evening service, stated that the ‘social and political tectonic plates of Britain are shifting radically, as we move from once-Christian – at least nominally – through to post-Christian Britain….’

Tolerance and liberalism

But this is not just about secularisation. There is a second problem: western society’s increasing unwillingness to tolerate views that it finds unpalatable. In particular it does not like beliefs that are seen as criticising or condemning other people or groups of people.

Hence:

  • Bernie Sanders was horrified that someone can believe that those who reject Jesus Christ stand condemned. He feels that is an insult to Muslims, and is therefore Islamophobia.
  • Many have been horrified at Jenny Tonge’s strong criticism of the actions of the Israeli government, and see this as an insult to Jews, and therefore antisemitism.
  • David Laws is horrified at the thought that someone can believe that same-sex relationships are immoral. He sees this as an insult to gays, and therefore homophobia.
  • And apparently there is widespread horror at the belief that abortion amounts to deliberately killing a human being, because this amounts to condemning women who have abortions, and since men cannot have abortions, if you are against abortion, you are a misogynist.

Strhan speaks about Christians feeling that “wider society is not especially liberal” when it comes to their holding to traditional Christian teaching as private beliefs. One could say that it comes down to an increasing unwillingness to tolerate what seems to be intolerance – but I think that Strhan’s use of the phrase “not especially liberal” is much more helpful in the current political context.

What is liberalism?

The question for the Liberal Democrats is “what exactly does it mean to be liberal?” David Laws says “you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, … and speaks about “Tim’s failure to be able to give direct and liberal responses on his own attitudes to homosexuality. ” For Laws, being liberal seems to mean not to disapprove of a person: “as a gay man, I do not wish to be “tolerated”. I wish to be respected for who I am.” He speaks about recognising the equality of all people regardless of “sex, sexuality, race, creed or colour” and concludes “Tolerating irrational prejudice has nothing to do with the liberalism I know and love.”

Ian Dunt (and Tim Farron) see liberalism differently. Speaking of the pressure Farron came over about his own personal views, Dunt  (in an article entitled The illiberal persecution of Tim Farron) says

“After a while, he had to give in and say gay sex wasn’t a sin. The sight of him doing so troubled me deeply. It felt like a witchhunt. And it looked like someone having to renounce a tenets of his faith in order to satisfy modern societal norms.”

“This is not liberalism. Farron is entitled to think gay sex is a sin. That, after all, is in the Bible that he adheres to. He is entitled to think abortion is wrong. What he is not entitled to do is to limit the freedom of others to do these things. Liberalism is not about approval. Liberalism couldn’t give a damn what you approve of. It is the belief that each individual must be free to do whatever they like up until the point where it limits the freedoms of others. As long as he does not plan to stop gay men having sex or women having abortions, Farron can hold whatever spiritual mumbo-jumbo in his head about their actions that he likes. Liberalism is defined by actions, not thoughts.

It is hard to shake the feeling that Farron has essentially been persecuted because of his faith. It is not really his record that is under question. It is that his personal convictions are unsayable among liberals. And that seems to completely miss the point of what liberalism is about. ”

Notice that Dunt is willing to accept a distinction between sexual behaviour and sexual orientation, whereas for Laws, sexual behaviour is part of what you are. Laws thinks in terms of respecting people groups; Dunt thinks in terms of allowing opinions and actions. And, significantly, Dunt speaks about freedoms 6 times in 1000 words, but Laws doesn’t mention freedoms at all in his 600 words.

How should we then live?

For Christians, the message is that we need to get used to being aliens and strangers in our culture. In fact, we need to be comfortable with it – as comfortable as a Christian can be in the present world. This is not our home, and we should not expect the culture that surrounds us to be Christian. If we do expect our culture to be be Christian, we are going to be perpetually disappointed. That was not a mistake the early Christians (living in the pagan Greco-Roman world) made. We need to stop making it. And church leaders need to ensure that Christians to see this, and to enable them engage with their neighbours in ways that help people see the Christian message positively.

That is the message – the crucial lesson that we need to learn from Tim Farron’s resignation. But there is, I think, a practical application – about the nitty gritty of the messy business of Christian political involvement. The story of Tim Farron shows what a messy business it is. It also shows the need for wisdom – particularly for those who get actively involved, but even for those who just vote. (Of course, one could make a case that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics at all, but since that is very much a minority viewpoint, I’ll not address it.)

Liberalism and the golden rule

It seems to me that the main political lesson Christians should take from this is the need to value tolerance – or, if you prefer, ‘liberalism’. Tim Farron ended his resignation statement with a call for tolerance:

“I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”

But he didn’t just use the word tolerance. He also used the word “liberal” – the word that Anna Strhan used when she spoke of evangelicals feeling that wider society is not especially liberal when it came to what they believed. The word “liberal” is used in many different ways, of course, but Strhan is using it in the way the way that Farron and Ian Dunt were using it. This is what Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Daniel would have hoped for in Babylon; it is what the early Christians would have hoped for in the midst of the pagan Roman Empire.  They would have wanted society to have been happy to allow them to believe what they believed – and to respect their right to believe it.

And if we want it for ourselves, then the words of Jesus Christ – that we should do to others what we would like them to do to us – suggest that Christians should forthright in supporting tolerance towards beliefs that we strongly disagree with. In other words, we ought to be, in the best sense of the word, liberal in our politics.

The Resignation of Tim Farron: 3) What it says about the Liberal Democrats and their culture.

In my first article about the resignation of Tim Farron, I considered it as an indication of the growing hostility in western culture to some traditional Christian beliefs. In my second article, I looked at what it told us about Tim Farron as a person.

However there is a third angle that I want to look at. In his resignation statement, he said  To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me.”

I think that is the crucial sentence in his resignation statement. It is crucial because it tells us about what Farron felt – and it was those feelings that led him to resign. But it is interesting because he did not say “To be a leader of a political party in 2017 . . .”; he said “To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017.” In other words, Farron felt that there was something about his party that made his position particularly difficult.

For me, this raises questions about his relationship with individuals in the party. A party, in the end, is made of people. The philosophy of parties drifts, and their policies change – sometimes remarkably quickly. These things are important, but they are fluid. But it is real individuals that a leader has to work with; and his relationship with those colleagues has a big impact about how much pressure he feels under.

I know virtually nothing about the relationship between Farron and his colleagues, and I don’t know much about what they thought of his Christian beliefs. But there are three individuals in the party whose cases throw interesting light on the party and on Farron’s resignation.

The roll of Brian Paddick

The first is Lord Paddick. Many people assume that the event that triggered Farron’s departure was the resignation of Paddick as the Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, since Paddick said “I’ve resigned as Lib Dems Shadow Home Secretary over concerns about the leader’s views on various issues that were highlighted during GE17,” and Farron stepped down within 24 hours.

According to the Independent

Lord Paddick, a former police officer and London Lib Dem Mayoral candidate in 2008 and 2012, did not specify what views he referred to, but during the campaign leader Tim Farron came under heavy scrutiny for his repeatedly refusing to deny that he considered gay sex to be a sin. Lord Paddick is gay, and a practising Christian too. He has been married to his Norwegian husband for eight years, but prior to this spent ten years married to a woman, Mary Stone. “

So, not only did Tim Farron not say what exactly the problem was, but neither did Paddick. And that is not the only thing I find odd about Paddick’s case.

Paddick has said (via twitter) “Tim decided weeks ago to stand down (he didn’t tell me) and the timing of our resignations was pure co-incidence.” Many Lib Dem activists have blamed Paddick for Farron’s resignation and been quite angry at him. However, not only does it seem unlikely that Farron’s resignation was sparked by Paddick’s resignation; it also is not at all clear (at least not to me) that Paddick resigned because of Farron’s views about same-sex relationships – though the Guardian seems certain that he did.

Apparently Paddick wrote an explanation for LibDemVoice, but it was taken down, and he has, so far, declined to post it elsewhere. At any rate, I find Paddick’s resignation slightly puzzling, and am not really surprised that most people assume that he thinks that Farron’s views on sexuality make him unsuitable to be leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The case of David Laws

If Lord Paddick kept his cards close to his chest, the same cannot be said of David Laws, the former Yeovil M.P. Laws, in a highly critical article, wrote

“you cannot be a leader of a liberal party while holding fundamentally illiberal and prejudiced views, which fail to respect our party’s great traditions of promoting equality for all our citizens. . . . Far more importantly, Tim has propagated the dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.”

Laws clearly thinks that it is impossible to hold traditional Christian beliefs about sexual morality and be leader of a liberal party. I think that Laws is talking nonsense. For a start, he speaks about the “the party’s great traditions” – as if it would have been unthinkable at any time in the past for a leader of the Lib Dems or its predecessor parties to hold traditional Christian views on same-sex relationships. But more strangely, his statement that it is a dangerous myth “that our society can respect and embrace people in same sex relationships, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral”, must, if taken to its logical conclusion, means that it is a dangerous myth that our society can respect and embrace people in who are having affairs with other people’s spouses, while believing their activities and character to be in some way immoral.

But it still leaves the question of whether such views were common enough in the party to have caused Farron to feel isolated.

The case of Jenny Tonge

While much attention was focused on Paddick in the aftermath of Farron’s resignation, and a reasonable amount on Laws, it seems to me that the story of Baroness Tonge actually throws much more light on Farron’s departure.

In 2003, Jenny Tonge (at that time MP for Richmond Park), visited the Gaza Strip, and what she saw led her to say of Palestinian suicide bombers: “If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself“. She repeated her comments on Sky News, but added “I do not condone suicide bombers, nobody can condone them“. She made clear that she thought that suicide bombers actions were “appalling and loathsome”, but refused to apologise: “I was just trying to say how, having seen the violence and the humiliation and the provocation that the Palestinian people live under every day and have done since their land was occupied by Israel, I could understand“.

Charles Kennedy, the party leader at the time, said her comments were “completely unacceptable” and “not compatible with Liberal Democrat party policies and principles” and “there can be no justification, under any circumstances for taking innocent lives through terrorism.” He said this despite the fact that Tonge had never suggested that there could be any justification for their actions, and had made it clear that she believed there could not.

Tonge continued to be outspoken about Israeli government policy. In September 2006 she said: “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party“. In response, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell wrote to Tonge commenting that her unacceptable assertion had “clear anti-Semitic connotations”. Tonge responded that her comments “were about the Israeli lobby in politics. They were a big distance from being about Jewishness or anti-Semitism“.

After further outspoken attacks on Israeli government policy in 2012, she was asked by party leader Nick Clegg to apologise for her remarks. She refused to do so and resigned the party whip. I can see where both of them are coming from.

Jenny Tonge had said

“Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there for ever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. . . . Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.”

Nick Clegg responded:

“Jenny Tonge does not speak for the party on Israel and Palestine. Her presence and comments at this event were extremely ill-advised and ill-judged. The tone of the debate at this event was wholly unacceptable and adds nothing to the peace process. The Liberal Democrats are wholehearted supporters of a peaceful two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue.”

Note that this was an honest disagreement about Lib Dem Middle East policy, and about the fact that Tonge was saying things that didn’t fit with party policy, and that were going to cause serious offence to many voters. Nick Clegg felt that as party leader he had to distance the party from her. There was no mention of antisemitism. This was about Middle East policy.

What is strange is the public comments from people that one would not normally look to about Middle East policy who were unhappy with Tonge’s comments:

The chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, said:

“I am appalled at Baroness Tonge’s remarks. They are dangerous, inflammatory and unacceptable. I commend Nick Clegg for his decisive action. Views such as those expressed by Baroness Tonge have no place in civil public discourse.”

The Board of Deputies of British Jews had condemned her remarks. In a statement issued before Tonge’s resignation, the chief executive, Jon Benjamin, said:

“Given her long-standing, pernicious views on Israel, her comment that Israel ‘is not going to be there forever’ is both sinister and abhorrent. There is no place for someone like Jenny Tonge in mainstream political parties in this country and it is time for the Liberal Democrats to act quickly and decisively, once and for all.”

That is odd. I would look to the chief rabbi for comment about Jewish religious teaching. I would expect that the Board of Deputies of British Jews would be interested in the matter of the welfare of Jews in the UK. Why did they feel that they had to comment about Jenny Tonge’s comments about Israeli government policy? Why are they so defensive about the policy of a foreign government?

In October 2016, Tonge finally left the party. While the Guardian said that she “quit the party after she was suspended over alleged antisemitic comments,” the Independent’s account was more accurate, and explains that she was suspended after chairing a meeting at the House of Lords at which a speaker allegedly compared Israel was to ISIS and suggested that Jews were to blame for the Holocaust.  She said:

“I was chairing, I did not make any speeches, I introduced the speakers and in the course of that meeting there was a great rant.  I remember the rant very well but I don’t remember hearing very much of it. It was a rant. I didn’t know what this person said.  You do get ranters at these meetings and I think the best way of dealing with them – if you challenge them they go on and on and on and on – the best way is to just say ‘yes, thank you very much, next speaker’.”

So what did this speaker say?

“Just as the so-called Jewish state in Palestine doesn’t come from Judaism, Muslims will say that this Islamic State in Syria is nothing to do with Islam. . . . It is a perversion of Islam just as Zionism is a perversion of Judaism.”

The speaker later referred to a rabbi as a “heretic”, adding he “made the economic boycott on Germany which antagonised Hitler, over the edge, to then want to systemically kill Jews wherever he could find them as opposed to just make Germany a Jew-free land“.

Baroness Tonge refused to say if, having read the words, she finds them offensive, instead describing the remarks as “incomprehensible”, and said that she would not have intervened to stop or eject the speaker if she had heard him, adding,

“I think I would have said ‘thank you very much, next speaker’. Because that, I know I’ve chaired many meetings, I’m an old lady, if you take issue with something a speaker has said the whole thing escalates. . . . If I had been comprehending or hearing even what that man was saying clearly it might have been different, but I didn’t. . . . The Israeli embassy is offended all the time by anything that is ever said in criticism of the Israeli government and they always translate it as being anti-Semitism, which it is not, it is criticism of the Israeli government.”

She said she “wouldn’t have thought” there was anti-Semitism at the meeting but that she could not speak for every person at the meeting individually, and added “I know that I have never been never have been, never will be anti-Semitic.

Tim Farron’s roll in the case of Jenny Tonge

What was Tim Farron’s roll in all this?

On 11th October, 2016 (two weeks before the meeting in the House of Lords that resulted in Tonge leaving the party), Farron was questioned by the Home Affairs Committee as part of their inquiry into antisemitism.

He was questioned specifically about Baroness Tonge. He said that he had “no desire to … be defensive about [her remarks] and that he considered them to be “unacceptable.” He also emphasised several times that Jenny Tonge did not have the party whip. He was careful not to say that he considered either her or her remarks to be antisemitic, but nor did he deny that they were.

On May 2nd, 2017, Farron, in the course of a speech where he addressed the problem of antisemitism, said: “I believe in liberal outcomes but sometimes you have to be muscular. And that is why I dealt with Jenny Tonge the way I did and why I dealt with David Ward the way I did.

It seems to me that there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Jenny Tonge might be antisemitic. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that she is not. And yet year after year she was accused of it, and her name was associated with it. And while Tim Farron never accused her of being antisemitic, he never publicly defended her from the accusations. And in a meeting in which he addressed the question of antisemitism, he spoke as if Jenny Tonge was part of the problem.

Of course, everything depends on how one defines antisemitism. But according to any standard definition, she most definitely is not. Parliament’s Home Affairs select committee said ” it was not antisemitic “to criticise the government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent”. Neither was it antisemitic “to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.” “

However, by the same token, the question of whether Tim Farron is homophobic depends on one’s definition of homophobia. David Laws never actually said that Farron was homophobic, but in saying that Farron held “illiberal and prejudiced views” he got very close to implying it.

The heart of the matter

And this is where we get to the heart of the matter. While there are difference between what happened to Jenny Tonge and Tim Farron (Farron never appeared to be in conflict with party policy, and went out of his way not to be outspoken) – they are actually very similar. Both were hounded because they were seen as friends of prejudice – prejudice against groups that are generally perceived as “victim” groups. In other words, they had offended against the canons of political correctness. Their offences might not have been seriousness, they might not have technically committed any offences at all, but accusations had been made, and the very hint of antisemitism or homophobia meant that they were not to be trusted.

In other words, nobody went after Tim Farron because he was a Christian. They went after him because he was suspected of not being an orthodox believer in the tenets of political correctness. And in a “progressive liberal party in 2017” there will be no room for those who transgress that orthodoxy.

Or, to put it another way, Farron felt obliged to resign as leader for exactly the same reason that Tonge felt obliged to leave the party.

Which makes it ironic that Farron made no effort to defend Baroness Tonge from the incessant charges of antisemitism.  She seems to have noticed it too, but restricted herself to a short comment on Facebook:

“Nothing becomes Tim Farron more than his passing! He is sticking to his principles (Christian Evangelical).  Maybe he at last understands, that when it comes to Palestinians, I stick to my principles too, supporting human rights and international law. “

I think that I would go a bit further. I am reminded of the famous poem by the German Pastor, Martin Niemöller

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.