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.

The resignation of Tim Farron: 2) What it tells us about Farron

In my first article on the resignation of Tim Farron I pointed out that a week before Farron resigned, Bernie Sanders, a member of the US Senate, had said that he would vote against approving Russell Vought, Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. He felt that because Vought believes that those who reject Jesus Christ do not know God and stand condemned – in other words, that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation – Vought is not a suitable person to be in high public office.

A week later, Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats, saying “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.”

One event took place in the USA; the other took place in the UK. But it is unthinkable that either could have taken place in either country 50 years ago. Hence the conclusion of my first article: This indicates that the strange resignation of Tim Farron is not just about Tim Farron, or his party, or the British political climate. It is a sign of something that is happening throughout the western world.

However, while it is not just about Tim Farron – it is about Tim Farron as a person, and not simply about Christians in public life. Farron’s resignation statement made this very clear, because it is a very personal statement.

A very personal statement

Among other things, Farron said:

“From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.

Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader.

A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”

A historic resignation statement

I find that moving, honest, and revealing.

It is slightly odd, in that he didn’t actually say why his Christian commitment was problematical, and he didn’t say what it was about his beliefs that had proved difficult. I would like to know more about this – especially because I cannot think of another example of a politician resigning from a position, and saying that it is because it has felt impossible to be both a political leader and a committed Christian. Perhaps, in terms of historic significance and social importance, this may be one of the most notable political events to take place this year – a milestone that will be looked back on.

The question of wisdom

But leaving aside what Farron didn’t say, there is something that he did say that we should notice – something he actually said twice in a short statement: “Sometimes my answers could have been wiser. . . . A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully . . . .

It takes humility to admit one has lacked wisdom, and particularly to say it twice.

I’m sorry to say, however, that I think he is quite right. What are these answers that could have been wiser. I suspect that he is referring to the answers he gave to questions about his views on same-sex relationships. And there were plenty. As Ian Dunt writes

“During the campaign he was asked repeatedly – to the point of mania – if he thought gay sex was a sin. He tried valiantly to avoid the question. This was ostensibly because he didn’t want politicians to have to turn into theologians. But it seemed pretty obvious it was because he did think it was a sin. After all, he was happy saying being gay was not a sin, but took longer to confirm the same for gay sex. This is pretty common from Christians, who tend to condemn the action but not the identity.

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.”

To say that trying to avoid the question is unwise is putting in mildly. Politically, it is foolish because it gives voters the impression that he is evasive and trying to hide something. Most voters want politicians to be open and forthright.

The witness of Christians in public life

From a Christian point of view, it is even worse. If you are a Christian, you should want to be asked about your belief, and you should want to tell the world about them. To give the impression that you find your beliefs embarrassing is, it seems to me, sending a disastrous message. If Christians in politics are going to act like that, it is far better, from a Christian point of view, that Christians stay out of politics and public life. Christians are called to be witnesses to the truth – and, it seems to me, to do so boldly.

As for Farron’s statement in April that he didn’t thing same-sex relationships were wrong, that too was pretty unimpressive. Ian Dunt’s comment that ” it looked like someone having to renounce a tenet of his faith in order to satisfy modern societal norms” suggests that he thinks that Farron may have changed his mind on the matter in response to the pressure he was under – which, in turn, leads one to wonder if Farron has been haunted by that statement ever since, and that it was one of the main reasons he felt he had to resign.

And the April statement is also foolish because, it seems to me, the Bible is absolutely clear that sexual relationship between people of the same sex are sinful. And Farron believes in being faithful to the Bible. In his resignation statement, did not just say “To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, has felt impossible for me”; he said “To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”

This is not the resignation of just any political leader, or even any political leader who is a Christian. It is the resignation of a particular individual, with his own qualities.

Tim Farron comes over as someone who is fallible, even someone whose judgement is questionable. But he also comes over as someone who is humble, who realises that he has made mistakes, and who is sincere.

And I get the distinct impression that he did not resign primarily because there was political pressure on him to resign, but because he felt his integrity as a Christian was being compromised by being in the position he was in. I suspect that even if the Liberal Democrats had done very well in the General Election, and he had solid support within the party, he would probably still have stepped down.

(to be continued)

The Resignation of Tim Farron: 1) Bernie Sanders and the place of Christians in public life

(Note: It seems to me that the resignation of Tim Farron is a highly significant event – more significant, I suspect, than most people realise.  As a result, I will be writing about it at some length, and have decided to split it over a few posts.)

Bernie Sanders and Tim Farron have two things in common.

The first is that both, in their own countries, would be called “Liberal Democrats” – indeed they are both well known enough that someone asked to name a liberal Democrat in America might well have said “Bernie Sanders”, and someone asked to name a Liberal Democrat in the UK might well have said “Tim Farron”.

The second is that this month, within the space of a week, they both managed to hit the headlines on the question of the position of Christians in public life in their countries. And I don’t think that is completely coincidental.

Bernie Sanders and the interrogation of Russell Vought

First, Bernie Sanders, a member of America’s Democratic Party. On the 7th June, the US Senate was having a confirmation hearing for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Emma Green of The Atlantic takes up the story. During that hearing,

“Sanders took issue with a piece Vought wrote in January 2016 about a fight at the nominee’s alma mater, Wheaton College. The Christian school had fired a political-science professor, Larycia Hawkins, for a Facebook post intended to express solidarity with Muslims. Vought disagreed with Hawkins’s post and defended the school in an article “

Sanders repeatedly quoted one passage that he found particularly objectionable:

“Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world,” Sanders told the committee during his introductory remarks. “This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms … we must not go backwards.”

Later, during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, Sanders brought this up again. “Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” he asked Vought.

Absolutely not, Senator,” Vought replied. “I’m a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.”

After a long exchange on tax cuts for the wealthy and other issues directly relevant to Vought’s proposed role in government, this issue—Vought’s beliefs about the exclusivity of his religion—seemed to be the reason why Sanders saw him as an unacceptable candidate for office. “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said. “I will vote no.”


The crucial part of the exchange between Sanders and Vought is as follows:

Sanders: I understand that. I don’t know how many Muslims there are in America. Maybe a couple million. Are you suggesting that all those people stand condemned? What about Jews? Do they stand condemned too?

Vought: Senator, I’m a Christian . . .

Sanders: I understand you are a Christian! But this country are made of people who are not just — I understand that Christianity is the majority religion, but there are other people of different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?

Vought: Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals . . .

Sanders: You think your statement that you put into that publication, they do not know God because they rejected Jesus Christ, His Son, and they stand condemned, do you think that’s respectful of other religions?

Vought: Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ in salvation.

Sanders: I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who this country is supposed to be about.

Emma Green’s comments are, in my view, precisely correct:

Where Sanders saw Islamophobia and intolerance, Vought believed he was stating a basic principle of his belief as an evangelical Christian: that faith in Jesus is the only pathway to salvation. And where Sanders believed he was policing bigotry in public office, others believed he was imposing a religious test. As Russell Moore, the head of the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement, “Even if one were to excuse Senator Sanders for not realizing that all Christians of every age have insisted that faith in Jesus Christ is the only pathway to salvation, it is inconceivable that Senator Sanders would cite religious beliefs as disqualifying an individual for public office.”

However, on the face of it, that is precisely what Bernie Sanders did. He effectively said that anyone who holds to what was a core belief of the early Christians – and what was regarded as standard Christianity in America at the time of the when America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written – is unfit for public office.

The resignation of Tim Farron

Which brings us across the Atlantic to the case of Tim Farron. On the 14th of June – just a week after the exchange between Sanders and Vought – Tim Farron, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party, resigned.

In his resignation statement,  he said

“The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. . . . 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.”

On the face of it, Bernie Sanders would agree. If what Sanders said to Vought is any indication, he would tell Tim Farron, “It is indeed impossible. If you hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, then you should not be in public life.”

Of course, since Sanders spoke of “what this country is about”, perhaps it would be truer to say that Sanders believes Farron should not be in public life in America. But it does seem clear that on this matter, Sanders sees things very differently from Farron.

And it is, indeed, a very interesting co-incidence these two events, both involving “Liberal Democrats”, one on each side of the Atlantic, should happen within a week.

Which indicates that the strange resignation of Tim Farron is not just about Tim Farron, or his party, or the British political climate.  It is a sign of something that is happening throughout the western world.

 

(To be continued).

U.S. policy in Syria is insane

American policy in Syria increasingly looks insane. A Syrian war plane, involved in the Syrian government’s ongoing battle with ISIS in Eastern Syria, was shot down by America – who thought it was a threat to a local militia that America happened to be supporting.

In the light of this, it is worth remembering that 9 months ago, in September 2016, the American-led coalition attacked Syrian forces near Deir ez-Zor who were involved in a battle with ISIS, killing about 100 Syrian soldiers. The coalition claimed it was a mistake. But it’s funny that it is now twice within a year that America has attacked Syrian forces involved in battles with ISIS.

And exactly what authority does America have over Syrian territory anyway?  Not only is Syria not part of the USA, it isn’t even anywhere near the USA.

Basically, American armed forces went into Syria uninvited by the Syrian goverment, shot down a Syrian plane, and then called it “self-defense.”   That’s like someone breaking into your house, and when you challenge them, they shoot you, and then claim they acted in self-defense.

Are any other countries allowed to operate this way?  Or is it simply that might is right?  What would happen if other countries operated this way?

I can’t help this is yet another case where Galatians 6:7 applies: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

To quote Daniel Larison

” . . . the U.S. has no authority to be engaged in hostilities anywhere in Syria, and [its] government certainly has no authority to attack Syrian government forces operating inside their own country in support for anti-regime insurgents . . . .   [Its] Syria policy . . . is also illegal.”

It is hardly surprising that Russia has now said it will treat coalition forces in some parts of Syria as targets.

And why exactly is the UK involved in the American-led coalition?   It seems extremely foolish to me.

But nobody seems to be asking that question.

 

Note: For background information on the situation in Syria see my previous posts on the subject:

The situation in Syria: 1) The Christian community

Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty

Syria 3: Motes, Beams, and Russians

And see also Philip Giraldi’s excellent article “Who is destroying Syria?

 

Putting one’s trust in princes: thoughts on the General Election

The General Election turned out to be a little more interesting than expected. As with the referendum on EU membership and the American presidential election, the result was not quite what was anticipated. Until the exit poll showed that a hung parliament was likely, most people reckoned that the Conservatives would have an overall majority – probably a substantial one. However, it was not to be.

And that has made this election very interesting – for two reasons.

The first is that, once again, almost everybody got it so wrong. But one person, in particular, got it very seriously wrong: Theresa May. When she called the election in April, the Conservatives were almost 20 percentage points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls – the only time in the last 20 years, other than a few months in 2008, when they had such a commanding lead. It must have seemed too good to be true.

Polling for the election_crop

It was. The gap narrowed over the course of the campaign, but even then, the Conservatives still appeared to have a lead of 6 or 7 points on the eve of the election – sufficient to give them a good majority. But when the votes were counted, the Conservative lead over Labour was only 2 points – not enough for them to form a government without the help of another party.

Theresa May turned out to have been seriously mistaken.

The fallibility of the powerful

Of course, she wasn’t the only one who was wrong. One of the reasons she was so confident was because Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was widely thought to be a major electoral liability for the Labour Party. Many people in the Labour Party warned that choosing Corbyn as leader was the road to disaster.

And, in particular, Tony Blair did. In August, 2015, he wrote: “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation.”

I mention Tony Blair for a particular reason. This is not the first time Tony Blair has been badly wrong. He has been wrong about many things, but he will go down in history for being wrong about one thing in particular: weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and the decision to involve Britain in the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It is well worth reading his comments over the months on the subject of WMDs as listed by the BBC here.   Until the publication of the Butler Report in July 2004, Blair was convinced that Iraq had WMDs. Only after its publication did he admit that he was wrong.

What is significant about this is that in the House of Commons vote in 2003 about invading Iraq, Theresa May voted for war while Jeremy Corbyn didn’t. Andrew Marr, interviewing her on the 30th April said

And you have raised again and again the question of Jeremy Corbyn. Can I put it to you that when it came to one of the most important votes that we’ve had in recent times, on the Iraq war. Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he was on the right side, looking at history, and you were on the wrong side. You went into the voting lobbies behind Tony Blair and voted for the Iraq war, which had so many disastrous consequences. And he did the unpopular thing and stood out against it.

Marr called it one of the most important votes we’ve had in recent times. I suspect that’s an understatement. I think it is the most important vote in Parliament in the last 30 years.

But the point is this. Theresa May and Tony Blair have both shown themselves to have the ability to be very seriously wrong. Tony Blair’s mistake in 2003 effectively destroyed Iraq; Theresa May’s decision in April this year looks likely to finish her political career.

But it is not just them. Politicians have a remarkable ability to be wrong. Daniel Hannan’s amusing video “Wrong Then, Wrong Now” (about how most of the British political establishment turned out to be wrong about the Euro) is very instructive. Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment have a track record of being disastrously wrong.

And yet a remarkable number of people in Britain look to the government – which in practice means Prime Ministers, Parliament, and the political establishment – for solutions to the major problems that the country faces.

They need to heed the words of Psalm 146:3: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.

Uncertainty

Which brings me to my second comment about the election.

It seems to me that one of the main reactions to the election is concern about “uncertainty.” A lot of people seem to feel that not knowing exactly who is going to be in government is a cause for anxiety.

I find this strange. We live with great uncertainties all the time. Why is not knowing exactly who will be in government such a big problem?

I think that this is closely related to the fact that many people think that a hung parliament is, per se, problematical. They think that the country needs a “strong” government. And, it seems to me, the reason they believe this is because people look to government for solutions to problems. When people see a problem, many of them ask the question “What is the government going to do about it?”

In other words, there is what we might call a “something must be done” mentality with regard to government – and the reason for that is that people have an almost childlike faith in government to solve problems. They may not believe that a particular government will solve the problem – but they believe that government can solve the problem, and should attempt to do so.

I’m sceptical. I suspect that most social problems do not have political solutions.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that in my opinion, the way so many people look to government to solve the social problems the country is facing is a prime example of trusting in princes.

I’m with the Psalmist:

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
   on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
   the sea, and everything in them—
   the LORD, who remains faithful forever.