The power of narratives: those myths that people just accept as true

I read three news stories yesterday, all of which had something curious in common. Two (one about the Russians, one about Syria) were fairly normal stories, not exactly out of the ordinary, and widely reported.  The third was unexpected – about the attack on a nightclub in Orlando by an angry Muslim in 2016 – and not so widely reported – but very interesting indeed.

Russia

The first was about Boris Johnson, and concerns the suspected poisoning of former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, who were found unconscious on Sunday.

Despite the fact that we don’t yet know what caused their condition, and the fact that a former MI5 officer could see “no conceivable reason that . . . the Russian state would have been targeting him”,  Boris Johnson decided to fire a warning shot at the Russian governmentand said that “the UK would respond “robustly” to any evidence of Russian involvement. Johnson added that he was not pointing fingers at this stage, but described Russia as “a malign and disruptive force”.

Ah yes, the “Russian menace”. We have heard endless accusations and allegations in the past two years about Russia being involved in all kinds of malign and disruptive behaviour, but I have seen virtually no evidence for any of them. Compared to the amazingly disruptive (and destructive) behaviour of some other countries I could mention, Russia seems pretty tame.

Syria – and narratives

Second, and also from the BBC, we have a story from Syria, about a ‘Chlorine attack’: “Medics in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area of Syria say they have been treating people with breathing problems after a suspected chlorine attack. ”

Yes, it is yet another allegation of a gas attack by Syrian government forces attacking rebel held areas. We have had a remarkable number of these allegations over the last few years, and the evidence suggests that most of these allegations are pretty dubious. (I’ve covered that here and here.)

But despite the lack of evidence of Syrian government use of chemical weapons, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. And, in the same way, despite the lack of evidence of Russian “malign and disruptive” interference in the affairs of other countries, large numbers of people in the west simply assume that these stories are true. Evidence, apparently, is not the important thing. The important thing is ‘what everybody is saying’, and what you keep on hearing. If people hear something often enough, from enough sources, then people will simply accept it – as long as those sources are respectable. There is a some truth in the saying that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. But it is much more true that if every politician and media source seems to be repeating the lie, people will believe it.

These days, people often refer to these things as “narratives” – a storyline that people are pushing. It basically means a theory, a hypothesis, something that people believe, about some matter, often something of current interest, something that people are talking about, or something controversial.

The 2016 Orlando nightclub shootings

And that brings me to the third story that caught my attention – which is the one that I think is really interesting: an article in the Intercept by Graham Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain.  It, unlike the two BBC stories, actually uses the word “narrative”. It reports (and you will note that the third word of the article is “evidence” – a good sign!) – 

“NEWLY RELEASED EVIDENCE today calls into serious doubt many of the most widespread beliefs about the 2016 shooting by Omar Mateen at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people along with Mateen himself. . . . In particular, Mateen went to Pulse only after having scouted other venues that night that were wholly unrelated to the LGBT community, only to find that they were too defended by armed guards and police, and ultimately chose Pulse only after a generic Google search for “Orlando nightclubs” – not “gay clubs” – produced Pulse as the first search result.

. . . numerous myths continue to persist about Mateen’s actions, particularly regarding his motives in why he attacked Pulse. As so often happens in the wake of mass shootings and terror attacks, media narratives emerge early on, when little is known, and never become dislodged from the public’s mind, even as the formal investigation reveals that there is little evidence to support those initial, still-common media claims — or, as is the case here, overwhelming evidence that strongly negates those beliefs.

Perhaps most importantly, Mateen’s alleged motive in choosing Pulse — that he wanted to target and kill LGBTs due to some toxic mix of self-hatred over his own sexual orientation and his fealty to Islam — has been treated as unquestionably true in countless media accounts, statements from public officials, and ultimately in the public mind. But ample evidence now affirmatively casts serious doubt about whether there is any truth to this widely accepted belief about Mateen’s motives in attacking Pulse. While some of this conflicting evidence has been reported in the same media outlets that originally disseminated the narrative that Mateen sought to target the LGBT community, it has been downplayed to the point where few in the public are even aware that the original theories about Mateen’s motives have been undermined.

By repeatedly emphasizing this anti-gay motive, U.S. media reports had the effect, if not the intent, of obscuring what appears to have been Mateen’s overriding, arguably exclusive motive: a desire for retribution and deterrence toward U.S. violence in Muslim countries. This highly dubious “anti-gay” storyline has also created a virtually unanimous climate in Orlando’s community that is demanding the punishment of anyone remotely connected to Mateen . . . .

As is true of most terrorists, Mateen was determined to ensure that the world knew the grievances and causes in whose name he was slaughtering innocent people. . . .

All of [his] statements contain numerous, now-standard grievances about U.S. foreign policy that are commonly cited by Muslims who attack Americans: specifically, the use by the U.S. and its allies of widespread violence against Muslim civilians in the Middle East, and the perceived need to bring violence back to U.S. soil as a means of punishing past violence and deterring future aggression.

Many of Mateen’s statements are filled with the sorts of denunciations of U.S. violence in the region that are typically downplayed, if not outright ignored, when U.S. media examine why radical Muslims attack Americans. Mateen’s statements . . . emphasized one cause: the ongoing killing of Muslim civilians by the U.S.

Critically, what is missing from all of Mateen’s comments — from his online decrees, his talks with police negotiators during the attack, and statements made to his victims and survivors at the club — is glaring and revealing: at no point during the hours of his attack on Pulse did Mateen even mention, let alone rail against, LGBTs. . . .

The same is true of his extensive conversations with law enforcement officials and his Facebook postings . . . “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes,” Mateen wrote on Facebook. “Now taste the Islamic state vengeance. . . . his extensive discussions with police negotiators, . . . focused exclusively on demands that the U.S. . . cease air strikes and the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. “Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people . . . What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. . . .You need to stop the U.S. air strikes. . . . a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, okay?. . . ”

There is no evidence he even knew that Pulse was a gay club. . . . And yet the popular belief persists — often finding its way into official pronouncements, LGBT group materials, and media discussions — that the Pulse shooting represented a deliberate, concerted attack – a “hate crime” – on the LGBT community due to homophobia. . . . it is crucial to understand the truth of what happened, and not to allow a politically valuable narrative . . . to continue to prevail if it is, in fact, false. “

Politically valuable narratives

Note that phrase: ” a politically valuable narrative.” And the narrative, of course, was widely used by politicians.

“Then-candidate Hillary Clinton said during her visit to Orlando that, while an act of terror, the Pulse massacre “was also an act of hate,” adding that “the gunman attacked an LGBT nightclub during Pride Month.” She vowed: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.””

And not just in America. Here in Scotland, back in 2016, the BBC reported 

“A one minute silence is also to be held in the chamber at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday in memory of the shooting victims. The rainbow Pride flag, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, has been flying over the Scottish government’s headquarters.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “The #Pride flag will fly at half mast over @scotgov HQ today in memory of those whose lives were taken in #Orlando. #lovewins”.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who proposed to her partner Jennifer Wilson in May, wrote: “News from Orlando is shocking – people from all around the world stand with the LGBTQ community today.”

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who confirmed she was gay two months ago, tweeted: “Scenes from Orlando utterly heart-breaking. The very freedom to love and dance attacked in the most brutal, destructive and senseless way.”

After President Obama had called the shooting “an act of terror and hate”, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie tweeted: “The President speaks for me. We must stand together against this hate.”

The narrative remains

And Greenwald and Hussain sum this up with an important point:

DESPITE THIS MOUNTAIN of evidence that strongly negates the original media-disseminated themes about Mateen’s life and his likely motive in targeting Pulse, the early myths remain lodged in the public mind and even in contemporary news reports. In part that’s because much of the evidence has remained under seal, in part because subsequent media debunking received a tiny fraction of the attention of the early, aggressively hyped inflammatory theories, and in part because there has been no political advantage to challenging the politically moving and useful narrative that the attack on Pulse was a hate crime against gays

And by the way, it seems to me that the reason that narratives get started is that people who like them and find them useful grab them and use them.  We all have a tendency to believe things that we like, and that suit us.   And if something is useful to people who are powerful and influential – e.g. politicians and media figures – then it is likely to be widely reported, and thus widely believed.

Two significant points

There are two things that need to be pointed out here. First, nobody could accuse Greenwald of having any agenda against the gay community: he is married to another man. Second, not only was there no political advantage to challenging the politically useful narrative about Mateen’s motive, there was much advantage in keeping quiet about his real motive. He was unhappy about the fact that America had, by its actions in the Middle East, killed thousands of innocent men, women, and children, and been responsible for starting wars which killed hundreds of thousands more. And he was probably unhappy that very few Americans were (or are) remotely concerned about this.

And those facts are pretty unpalatable.

I find it worrying that so few Americans – or people in the UK – are remotely concerned over the hundreds of thousands innocent men, women, and children, who have been killed in the Middle East because of the actions of our governments. And yet they are very, very concerned about the few hundred that have been killed in response in Western Europe and America by angry Muslims in recent years.

And it is a response. These attacks pretty well never happened before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We started it. And we, the people, voted in the politicians who did it, and proceeded to re-elect them in 2004 and 2005. We have killed far more innocent Muslims in their countries, than the paltry number of westerners killed by terrorist attacks by Muslims here in the west.

And yet I see very little sign that people are willing to acknowledge that. You certainly don’t get politicians or the media pointing it out – probably because it would not be a popular narrative. Admitting that you are wrong an repenting does not come easily to people.

Will anyone speak?

Greenwald is to be congratulated for highlighting this. For him, of all people, to pen an article that makes uncomfortable reading for the gay community is impressive.

So who should speak up and point out that actually, out nation’s crimes against Muslims are far worse that the crimes of Muslims against us? Who is going to point out that we started it – not them? Who, in countries where people are increasingly speaking out about the evils of Islam, and the dangers of letting in too many Muslim immigrants, will say these unpopular things.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Greenwald, the most appropriate people to do so are those who would be least expected to. Surely it should be those of us who are Christians. Yes, I know about the failings and evils of Islam. Yes, I know about the way Christians are treated in many Muslim lands today. Yes, I think we should speak openly about those things.

But surely Christians, of all people, should be those who believe that admitting that you are wrong, and repentance, are both good things.

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Don Carson on political power, democracy, and human nature

Last week I posted some words of Don Carson on politics, the loss of our Christian heritage, and how to respond, from his lectures on Revelation – which I understand were given in about 1995.

Today, further thoughts from Don Carson on politics. He is speaking here about the fact that over the previous 60 years, there had been a big change in the world view of Americans. “And”, he says, “it’s all come about bit by bit, bit by bit, bit by bit. “

[Today] there is an assumption of human goodness.

When the founding fathers wrote the constitution of this country, whether they were deists or theists, one of the things they believed in formidably, to a man, was that human nature is depraved. And the reason why they wanted a democracy, was so that you could turf the blighters out every so often. They saw democracy as merely a way of not letting too much power get into any one person’s hand for too long, a way finally of stopping too much evil accumulating in one person. They believed what Lord Acton said in Britain the century before: “All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

We don’t believe that today. We so believe in goodness, that as a result, politician after politician after politician from every party and every western democratic nation speaks of “the great wisdom of the ‘x’ people in this country” – in America, ‘American’; in Canada, ‘Canadian’, in Britain, ‘British’, whatever.

The great wisdom of the American people? Thomas Jefferson thought that? You’ve got to be joking. He didn’t think anything of the kind. He just wanted to make sure that all the sinners amongst the American people had a way of getting out corrupt sinners who were powerful at the top. But nobody believes that today. It’s all gone.

His comments are similar to the well-known words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Or, to put it another way, the great thing about democracy is not that it enables people to choose their rulers; it is that it allows them to remove their rulers without bloodshed and revolution.

Removing rulers is at least as important as installing them, because of the very strong human tendency to abuse power. Lord Acton’s dictum is very apt.

The point Carson is making is that we should not trust politicians – and that people like Acton and Thomas Jefferson and the American founding fathers strongly believed that.

And that, it seems to me, is remarkably topical. Why? Because of some widely quoted words from the indictment issued by Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling into the American presidential election.  (See my post on the subject, here.)  It says of one of the organisations indicted:

“By in or around May 2014, the strategy included interfering with the 2016 US. presidential election, with the stated goal of spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

Note those words: spreading distrust towards the candidates.

It seems to me that according to Don Carson – and also, I suppose, to Lord Acton, Thomas Jefferson, and the American founding fathers – that is an entirely proper thing to do. American democracy, if Carson is correct – and I am sure he is – is based on the fact that we should not trust political candidates. These Russians, in other words, were doing exactly what Jefferson and the founding fathers believed should be done. The fact that Mueller believes that this is a problem is an indication of just how far the world view of modern Americans differs from that of the founding fathers.

Far from attacking or seeking to undermine the tradition of American democracy, what these Russians were seeking to do was strengthen it. And, since it is acknowledged that the things that they were saying is generally factually accurate, they were, in fact, performing a very useful service to the American people.

meme-putin-hack

Who could possibly take exception to that?

Well, to use a couple of Carson’s favourite words, I suspect that the “corrupt blighters” wouldn’t like it at all.

Russia and the Mueller indictments: this gets weirder – and possibly more dangerous

Last week, 13 Russians and three Russian companies were charged with interfering in the US 2016 election, in a major development in the FBI investigation. The charges were made by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating alleged Russian meddling.

According to the BBC’s reportthe 13

“posed as Americans, opened financial accounts in their name, spent thousands of dollars a month buying political advertising, purchased US server space in an effort to hide their Russian affiliation, organised and promoted political rallies within the United States, posted political messages on social media accounts that impersonated real US citizens, promoted information that disparaged Hillary Clinton, received money from clients to post on US social media sites, created themed groups on social media on hot-button issues, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, operated with a monthly budget of as much as $1.25m (£890,000), and financed the building of a cage large enough to hold an actress portraying Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform.”

Whew! That’s a lot. Though, to be honest, none of it seems particularly evil.

Anthony Zurcher, the BBC’s man in Washington, adds a some more information:

“They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump. They also used social media, investigators say, to rally support for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.”

Rather oddly, it didn’t end on election day.

“After the election of Donald Trump in or around November 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used false US personas to organise and co-ordinate US political rallies in support of then president-elect Trump, while simultaneously using other false U.S. personas to organise and co-ordinate US political rallies protesting the results of the 2016 US presidential election.

Which has suggested that this is about sowing discord, rather than supporting Trump.

(In fact “56% of “Russian-linked Facebook ads” appeared *after* the election. 25% were seen by no one.”

And, most significantly of all,

“Defendants, together with others known and unknown to the grand jury, knowingly and intentionally conspired to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of State in administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.”

Wow! Conspired to defraud the United States? That sounds serious.

And yet . . .

Having read what the BBC had to say, there were four things that struck me about this:

1) There was no mention of collusion with anyone in Trump’s campaign, or any American.

2) There was nothing about the alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails.

3) There are no indications anywhere in the indictments that any of the Russians involved were acting in any way on behalf of the Russian government.

4) This whole narrative about sowing discord and “‘spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” is just bizarre. Even without any Russians, during any election there is a lot of scepticism about candidates, and about the political system in general (and rightly so – in fact, probably not enough) – and there are plenty of people who actively spread distrust toward other candidates.

And a lot of politicians are promote discord by feeding on an “us versus them” narrative – whether it is going after “the rich” or “foreigners” or “immigrants” or whoever.

And anyway, the really funny thing about this is that it has been widely admitted that the things that the Russians were saying in their Facebook adds were generally factually accurate

Which, of course, is probably a lot more than can be said for the utterances of most of the candidates.

5) And most important, I had a question: What did these Russians do that was so illegal? Well, apparently they pretended to be Americans to open Paypal accounts. Not exactly the end of the world, is it?

But the big one seems to be that foreign citizens expressed opinions about American election campaigns. Author Leonid Bershidsky, who prominently writes for Bloomberg, remarked: “I’m actually surprised I haven’t been indicted. I’m Russian, I was in the U.S. in 2016 and I published columns critical of both Clinton and Trump without registering as a foreign agent.”

The implication of the indictments is that foreign nationals are criminally prohibited from expressing views about a US election, even as private citizens, unless they register as foreign agents.

But there are certain things that the BBC does not tell us – things that make make this very interesting, and raise some rather, . . . er, interesting possibilities.

Which brings me to those three unexpected possibilities.

1) Could FBI and Justice Department officials be put on trial?

That question is raised by former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and is based on comments made last weekend by House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes in a televised interview which received surprisingly little publicity. Adam Schiff, another member of the Intelligence Committee had said that Nunes’ goal was “to put the FBI and DOJ on trial.”

When asked about this, Nunes responded

“If they need to be put on trial, we will put them on trial. The reason Congress exists is to oversee these agencies that we created. . . .DOJ and FBI are not above the law. If they are committing abuse before a secret court getting warrants on American citizens, you’re darn right that we’re going to put them on trial.”

McGovern comments:

“The stakes are very high. Current and former senior officials — and not only from DOJ and FBI, but from other agencies like the CIA and NSA, whom documents and testimony show were involved in providing faulty information to justify a FISA warrant to monitor former Trump campaign official Carter Page — may suddenly find themselves in considerable legal jeopardy. Like, felony territory. . .

A denouement of some kind can be expected in the coming months. Stay tuned.”

In other words, it is possible that criminal charges could be brought against government officials who were investigating the Trump campaign.

2) Was this operation basically commercial, rather than political?

The Mueller indictments mention two of the Russians involved

“opening of accounts under false names at U.S. financial institutions and a digital payments company in order to receive and send money into and out of the United States to support the Organization’s operations in the United States and for self-enrichment. Defendants and their co-conspirators also used the accounts to receive money from real U.S. persons in exchange for posting promotions and advertisements on the organisation – controlled social media pages. Defendants and their co-conspirators typically charged certain U.S. merchants and U.S. social media sites between 25 and 50 U.S. dollars per post for promotional content on their popular false U.S. persona accounts, . . . “

This is important. These Russians were making money and that was part of their aim.

Philip Giraldi comments:

Note particularly the money laundering and for-profit aspects of the Internet Research scheme, something that would be eschewed if it were an actual intelligence operation. There is some speculation that it all might have been what is referred to as a click-bait commercial marketing scheme set up to make money from advertising fees. Also note how small the entire operation was. It focused on limited social media activity while spending an estimated $1 million on the entire venture, with Facebook admitting to a total of $100,000 in total ad buys, only half of which were before the election. It doesn’t smell like a major foreign government intelligence/influence initiative intended to “overthrow democracy.” 

When Giraldi speaks of “some speculation that it all might have been what is referred to as a click-bait commercial marketing scheme set up to make money from advertising fees” he is referring to an article by a German blogger who has looked into this in some detail, and, based on the words of the indicted quoted above, and his own research, concludes:

“There you have it. There was no political point to what the Russian company did. Whatever political slogans one of the company’s sock-puppets posted had only one aim: to increase the number of followers for that sock-puppet. The sole point of creating a diverse army of sock-puppets with large following crowds was to sell the ‘eyeballs’ of the followers to the paying customers of the marketing company. . . .

Again – this had nothing to do with political influence on the election. The sole point of political posts was to create ‘engagement’ and a larger number of followers in each potential social-political segment.

Giraldi says

“Assuming the indictment is accurate, I would agree that the activity of the Internet Research Agency does indeed have some of the hallmarks of a covert action intelligence operation in terms how it used some spying tradecraft to support its organization, targeting and activity. But its employees also displayed considerable amateur behaviour, suggesting that they were not professional spies, supporting the argument that it was not a government intelligence operation or an initiative under Kremlin control. “

Incidentally, note the phrase “Assuming the indictment is accurate”, for Giraldi also comments

“The theme of Russian subversion is repeated throughout the indictment without any compelling evidence to explain how Mueller knows what he asserts to be true, suggesting either that the document would have benefited from a good editor or that whoever drafted it was making things up. “

Hmmmm.

3) Is this leading to war?

Jerrold Nadler, an American member of congress, responded to the Mueller indictments by saying that what Russia had done was the equivalent to the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbour.

NADLER: My reaction to the news is this is absolute proof of what we knew all along and what the president has denied, namely that we were attacked. This is a very serious attack against the United States by a hostile foreign power, an attack against our election process, our entire governing process. We know that the attack is continuing. And that our intelligence agencies tell us that it’s going to certainly continue through the next election. And the president and the Republicans in the House for that matter refuse, refuse to do anything about protecting us from an attack. Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react. That’s the equivalent.

HAYES: It’s a bit of a different thing.

NADLER: No it’s not.

HAYES: They didn’t kill anyone.

NADLER: They didn’t kill anyone but they’re destroying our democratic process.

HAYES: Do you really think it’s on par?

NADLER: Not in the amount of violence, but in the seriousness, it is very much on par. This country exists to have a democratic system with a small d. That’s what the country’s all about. This is an attempt to destroy that.

I must confess, when I hear that kind of talk, I roll my eyes. “Destroying our democratic process? “Is he serious? And never mind the fact that America has regularly interfered in elections in other countries.

And Nadler is not alone in talking like this, as Glenn Greenwald points out in an article entitled “A Consensus Emerges: Russia Committed an “Act of War” on Par With Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Should the U.S. Response Be Similar?

Greenwald is seriously concerned about this. those who keep declaring the U.S. to be “at war” with Russia, and especially those who invoke the worst attacks in U.S. history when doing so, all while refusing to state what they think should be done in response” are “beating the drums of war”, and being “reckless and cowardly.”

This is pretty scary. Even more scary is the fact that last weekend in Munich at the Global Security Conference, America’s National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster said ““As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence [that Russia meddled in the American election] is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain, whereas in the past it was difficult to attribute.”

Considering that there was no evidence at all in the indictments that the Russian government, was involved, McMaster’s statement was at, at best misleading, and at worst, utterly dishonest.

In my opinion, Americans should be scared. Not of Putin or the Russians – but by the fact that someone like Donald Trump is president, and that someone like H.R.McMaster is his national security advisor, and that someone as obviously unhinged as Jerrold Nadler is in congress.


As for the Mueller indictments – well, I may be wrong, but they strike me as being paranoid and xenophobic hysteria.

The indictments, of course, will never be tested in a court of law – because Russia will not be extraditing any of Russians concerned. Mueller knows that. So the ridiculousness of it will never be challenged in court. Accusations have been made, and people will simply believe them. And the narrative about “conspiracy to defraud the United States” and the resulting xenophobia will remain.

And in the end, this whole thing is about foreign policy. In particular, it is about relations between America and Russia. And that is something that is important. Indeed, too important to be tacked on to this post, which is why I hope to come back to it next week.

Don Carson on politics, the loss of our Christian heritage, and how to respond

(Yesterday, I was listening to Don Carson’s eighteenth lecture on Revelation  – given in 2005.  [Edit: The Gospel Coalition gives the date as 2005.  I suspect that this is a mistake, and that they were actually given about 10 years earlier.] This struck me as worth quoting.)

“One of the things that troubles me about American society, . . . I include Canada in this – and Western European Christian society to some extent, but it is stronger here because of America’s particular heritage . . .

There is a great deal of anger on the American right at the moment. Let me just say a little bit about it, because it is troubling. It’s hard to know what to do. If you want to make a lot of money with a Christian book in this country, write a book that says what’s wrong with America listing all the bad things that you possibly can on the left. Demonize the left. It’ll sell like hotcakes on the right.

Do you want to raise money for Focus on the Family, or a whole lot of other institutions that are really good institutions in many ways? If they really want to raise a lot of money in a hurry, let them tell you the worst horror stories of the month. The money flows in.

The reason it does is because there is so much in this society that feels, with a certain amount of justification, that “All those nasties on the left are taking away our heritage. They’re perverting our schools. They’re overthrowing principles of jurisprudence. They’re making the city unsafe.” There is anger. There is anger seething through the whole land.

Contrast that with the first Christians taking the gospel in the Roman Empire. They were nobodies. They didn’t have anybody taking away their heritage. They were out to take over the heritage. They looked around and saw an extremely pluralistic empire, and they said with Caleb, in effect, “Give us this mountain.”

They kept witnessing, kept getting martyred, and so on, and it was a revolution, finally, a spiritual revolution. We can’t do that today, at least we find it very difficult, because we’re so busy being angry all the time that at the end of the day not only do we lose our credibility with people on the left, they start demonizing us back, but we have no energy or compassion left to evangelize.

When you’re busy hating everybody and denouncing everybody and seeking political solutions to everything it’s very difficult to evangelize, isn’t it? It’s very hard to be compassionate, to look on the crowds as though they’re sheep without a shepherd, very hard to look on them like that when they’re taking away my heritage.

Yet, at the same time, because it is a democracy, there are things we ought to be doing to draw the line here and there, even if you understand the laws don’t finally engender justice. They might preserve it for awhile, but finally they’re all broken and you have to change the laws. There are things we ought to be doing. There are faithful things we ought to be doing.

But at the end of the day if you can’t do it with compassion, and gently, and leave the doors open for evangelism, boy, you destroy everything. I think one of the Devil’s tactics with respect to the church on the right today is to make them so hate everybody else that at the end of the day they can’t be believed anywhere, not even in the proclamation of the gospel.”

The strange new world of Trump’s foreign and military policy

The American federal budget has been in the news in the last couple of weeks. And there is one thing about it that is, I think, worth noticing. It is worth noticing because it forms part of a larger picture of the way that military policy, and thus foreign policy – and, in particular, Middle East policy – is going under Trump.

What is happening is, in some ways, not a big departure from what happened under Trump’s predecessors, and thus is not attracting much attention or comment. Most Americans don’t seem to be particularly concerned about it.

I think, however, that they should be. And so, for that matter, should non-Americans.

There are six things that have happened in the past year that I think show us what is going on.

Defence spending

This week, the White House unveiled its 2019 budget proposals. Among its suggestions is defence expenditure of $716, a proposed 13 percent increase on 2017 when the United States spent about $634 billion on defence. Putting this in perspective, this compares with a 3.76% increase in 2017. And, for the record, according to the World Bank, US GDP growth was 2.4% in 2014, 2.6% in 2015, and 1.8% in 2016. The US Defence Budget is already the world’s largest, by a considerable margin – someone recently commented that the US has 5% of the world’s population, but 50% of the world’s military spending.

Military_Expenditure

Donald Trump, speaking to reporters on Monday, said:

“One of the other things I think so important to mention is that, in the budget, we took care of the military like it’s never been taken care of before. In fact, General Mattis called me; he goes, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got everything we wanted.’ I said, that’s right, but we want no excuses. We want you to buy twice, OK?”

Trump’s generals

Along with a commitment to a huge increase in military spending, Donald Trump has got a surprisingly high number of top military men in his administration. Three high-ranking generals are his close aides in the White House: National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly. It all gives the impression that Trump is more enthusiastic than most presidents about the military.

Syria

If Trump’s enthusiasm for military spending and military officers raise eyebrows, they are not nearly so astonishing as the fact that the U.S. recently announced that it will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. I’ll repeat Daniel Larison’s comment:,

To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.

U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted.”

Lebanon

And, while we are on the subject of “deranged”, there is the matter of what happened to Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, in November. The Saudi government asked him to come to Saudi Arabia. When he arrived, the Saudi government basically seized him, and ordered him to go on Television and resign. They then proceeded to hold him for several days, until, apparently under pressure from France, they allowed him to leave. He returned to Lebanon, where he withdrew his resignation.

Saudi Arabia’s behaviour was not just unacceptable, but totally bizarre. It drew pretty well no public condemnation or serious criticism from any western governments.

What is significant is that not only is America a very close ally of Saudi Arabia, but Trump himself has a good relationship with the Saudi leadership, and has spoken very positively about them.

Afghanistan

After all that, Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, as announced last August, seems pretty uncontroversial. 

In his speech, he said his original instinct was to pull US forces out, but had instead decided to stay and “fight to win” to avoid the mistakes made in Iraq. He said he wanted to shift from a time-based approach in Afghanistan to one based on conditions on the ground, adding he would not set deadlines.

But if that sounds uncontroversial, it is laughably unrealistic to think that America can “win” in any meaningful sense in Afghanistan. The policy is about as deranged as the Syria policy or the Saudi attempt to get Hariri to resign.

Trump’s Parade

As noted, Trump seems to have an enthusiasm for things military. And so last week, it was not a huge surprise when it emerged that he had asked the Pentagon to organise a large military parade in Washington DC. He made the request of top military chiefs in late January, after reportedly being impressed by a French Bastille Day parade last year. “It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” he later said. “We’re going to have to try and top it.”

Nonetheless, it is unusual. Military parades in Washington are usually only used to mark victory at the end of a war.

And the significance of all this?

Andrew Bacevich, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University, and a former Colonel in the US Army was asked to comment on the proposal for the parade-without-a-victory. His remarks are well worth thinking about.

“in a weirdly ironic way, perhaps Trump’s proposed parade-without-a-victory captures something important about the present moment in American history. In former times, we organized parades to celebrate wars won. There was a common understanding that the intended outcome of war was victory. Or to put it another way: the purpose of war was to achieve the political objectives that provided the basis for the war. War was to be, as Clausewitz wrote, the continuation of politics by other means.

In the endless wars since 9/11, we have lost sight of that principle. Our wars have become purposeless, a fact that American elites and the American people appear to find acceptable. Having a parade to honor a military that does not win and that the country has consigned to endless campaigning in distant theaters seems somehow oddly appropriate.”

Russia, hysteria, and superstition

On Tuesday, something unusual happened. Two articles by Glenn Greenwald appeared in The Intercept. Any article by Greenwald is a matter of some interest, since he is one of the most perceptive and honest journalists out there. So two on one day is a little special.

Both were on the same subject: Russia – or rather, the Russia hysteria that seems to have gripped a lot of people in the west. And, as I have said before,  I think that this hysteria is one of the most significant things, in terms of politics and world affairs, that is going on at the moment.

The first article was entitled “Dutch Official Admits Lying About Meeting With Putin: Is Fake News Used by Russia or About Russia?

Basically, the story is that,

“While election campaigning two years ago, [Halbe] Zijlstra said that in 2006 he had been at Putin’s dacha when he heard the Kremlin leader speak of plans for a “greater Russia” which would include some of Russia’s neighbors.

I was tucked away back in the room, but I could clearly hear Putin’s answer to the question about what he considered greater Russia,” Zijlstra told a gathering in 2016 of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which heads the new Dutch government.

He said this included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, and, well, Kazakhstan would be ‘nice to have’,” he said in his speech, which was recorded on video.

But on Monday he acknowledged he had never been at the meeting with Putin and had heard of the comments second-hand.

I wasn’t present at the meeting in President Putin’s dacha,” the minister said in statement on Monday.”

(The outcome, by the way, is that Zijlstra resigned yesterday.)

Dubious stories

That is just the beginning of Greenwald’s article. He goes on to point to several other recent stories that have appeared in the western media which have turned out to be highly questionable.

1)  On January 10, 2018, we got “Russian bid to influence Brexit vote detailed in new US Senate Report” (The Guardian).

By contrast, on February 8, 2018, Reuters reported that “Britain says it has not seen any evidence that Russia interfered in British elections, though May has said it has planted fake news stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord and undermine the West. ” Fake News stories? Sowing discord? Western governments and politicians do that all the time!

2) On January 22, 2018 we got (Associated Press) “Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations are pushing a conservative meme related to the investigation of Russian election interference, researchers say.”

The following day, the Daily Beast informed us that “Despite claims the Kremlin is driving a campaign to disclose an anti-FBI memo, a source says an early in-house analysis concludes the hashtag has been mostly pushed by Americans. The online groundswell urging the release of House Republicans’ attacks on the Federal Bureau of Investigation appears thus far to be organically American—not Russian propaganda, a source familiar with Twitter’s internal analysis told The Daily Beast.”

3) On July 4th last year, we got “Germany is expecting Russia to try to influence its general election on Sept. 24, but there are no indications of which party it would seek to back, officials said on Tuesday.”

But just before the election, on the September 21, it was admitted by those who were watching eagerly for signs of Russian interference that they hadn’t managed to spot any.

4) On May 6 last year, a Telegraph headline proclaimed “Russia blamed as Macron campaign blasts ‘massive hacking attack’ ahead of French presidential election.”.

On June 1, however, “The head of the French government’s cyber security agency, which investigated leaks from President Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign, says they found no trace of a notorious Russian hacking group behind the attack.”

And that is in addition to numerous cases “when the U.S. media was forced to retract, or issue humiliating editor’s notes, about stories regarding the “Russian threat” that turned out to be false.”

The serious side of this is that despite the fact that nobody can point to any evidence that Vladimir Putin has any hostile intent toward western countries, or that Russia is any threat to our peace or safety, people in high positions keep speaking as Russia really is a threat to us.

Just last month, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the Army, said that “Britain’s ability to respond to military threats from Russia will be “eroded” without further investment” and added that “Russian hostility could come sooner than expected and Britain must prepare to “fight the war we might have to fight.”

In my humble opinion, that is simply silly. The BBC’s Jonathan Beale comments:

“the likelihood of any direct military confrontation with Russia seems extremely remote. . . General Carter’s intervention is more driven by fears of further deep cuts to the UK’s armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has a black hole in its budget. It is rare for a military chief to make such an obvious and public appeal for more cash. But he’s doing it under the orders of the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. He has sent his generals over the top to put pressure on the chancellor.”

A couple of days later Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that Moscow was spying on energy supplies which, if cut, could cause “total chaos” in the country. The Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov responded that Mr Williamson had “lost his grasp on reason”, and added “The comments were worthy of a Monty Python sketch”, and he accused Mr Williamson of trying to scare the British public in an effort to get more money for the armed forces.

I don’t doubt that he is right – including the bit about it being worthy of Monty Python.

And the lesson of all this?

Greenwald’s concludes

“If there’s any lesson that should unite everyone in the West, it’s that the greatest skepticism is required when it comes to government and media claims about the nature of foreign threats. If we’re going to rejuvenate a Cold War, or submit to greater military spending and government powers in the name of stopping alleged Russian aggression, we should at least ensure that the information on which those campaigns succeed are grounded in fact. Even a casual review of the propaganda spewing forth from Western power centers over the last year leaves little doubt that the exact opposite is happening.”

That is important:  Scepticism is required because we should ensure that information on which decisions are taken is grounded in fact. But the exact opposite is happening.

The Harvard Professor

Which brings us to Greenwald’s other piece.

It concerned Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. In the wake of the crash of a Russian airliner shortly after take-off, he posted a tweet which, in Greenwald’s words, “strongly insinuated that the Russian government may have purposely sabotaged the plane, murdering all of those on board, in order to silence one of the passengers, Sergei Millian, who has been linked to a couple of figures involved in the Trump-Russia investigation.”

What Tribe wrote was

“Among those killed in the tragic plane crash yesterday: Sergei Millian, a Papadopoulis friend who had emailed Kushner and is said to be behind one of the most salacious claims in the dossier on Trump’s involvement with Russia. Probably just coincidence.”

Greenwald writes:

“What’s wrong with Tribe’s claims? Everything. To begin with, Millian was not on that plane. . . . . Tribe apparently saw someone making this claim somewhere on the internet and then, without bothering to check if it was actually true, told his 289,000 followers that it was true, and then constructed a rabid, deranged conspiracy theory around it.”

“Even if Millian had been on the plane, casually suggesting that Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, or some combination of other villains purposely murdered everyone on the plane in order to silence one witness is deranged to the point of being a clinical pathology. That sort of baseless conspiracy-mongering ought to disqualify anyone from serious company for a long time.”

But it almost certainly will have no effect on Tribe’s standing. “

In fact, comments Greenwald,

“The more deranged he gets, the more Tribe — needless to say — becomes not just a social media star . . . , but has also become an MSNBC favorite, as they exploit his credentials and pedigree to depict his madness as some sort of insightful, investigative dot-connecting. That’s because, as I documented this morning, false claims about Russia are now a routine part of the U.S. media diet.”

The outcome of this one was rather different from the first. While the Dutch Foreign minister for forced to resign for his dishonesty, Tribe had a piece published on the opinion page of the New York Times. In other words, Greenwald turned out to be correct when he said “But it almost certainly will have no effect on Tribe’s standing.” Hence Greenwald’s tweet describing the fact that Tribe had a piece on the NYT’s opinion page: “Yesterday, Tribe spouted an utterly deranged (and factually false) conspiracy theory about the Russian jet crash. Today, he’s presented in the NYT as a Trump/Russia expert.

In other words, conspiracy theory has gone mainstream. The sources that one normally accepts as believable have ceased to be.

The three memos

Which brings us to a third recent story – that of the memos. Three memos relating to the federal inquiry into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign have been in the news.

The first is the “Nunes Memo” (by by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes ) – which was released on February 2.

The memo makes a lot of claims (mostly alleging improper behaviour by the FBI) and we don’t yet know how true they are. We will have to wait for answers to the questions it raises.

But two things about it are interesting – two things about what was not in it.

First, there is nothing at all  in it about whether or not Vladimir Putin or the Russian government did anything unusual or improper with regard to the US Presidential election. We are still waiting for any evidence regarding that. Instead, discussion of the Mueller investigation is increasingly dominated by allegations of improper procedure by America’s intelligence agencies, Justice Department, and politicians. And remarkably few of those allegations seem to be about the Trump election campaign.

Second, according to Caitlin Johnstone, ” both the FBI and high-profile Democrats have been claiming that the memo’s unredacted release would pose a national security threat.” However, after the memo was released, it was clear that whatever the truth of the claims in it, nothing in it posed any threat at all to national security.

But how much truth was in it? Well, for that we await the second memo, the Democratic Party’s response to Nunes. But we have not seen it yet. Ironically, the reason is that on February 10, Donald Trump blocked it’s release because of “sensitive passages” that created “concerns for national security”. This seems strange, since the Nunes committee, consisting of both Democrats and Republicans, had voted unanimously to make it public.

There is a third memo, known as the Grassley memo, which was released last week and which has so far received very little coverage, but which some commentators suspect may be more significant than the Nunes Memo.  Like the Nunes memo, it makes serious allegations.

And that is what this whole thing is about. Allegations. Claims. The Dutch foreign minister was basically making allegations. Lawrence Tribe of Harvard was, if not actually making allegations, making suggestions. And then, there are all the allegations about Russian interference in various elections.

When somebody makes an allegation or a claim, and it is serious or controversial, the obvious question is “What is the evidence?”  As Greenwald wrote about Nunes memo, back in January, before its release,

Anyone who is genuinely concerned about the claims being made about eavesdropping abuses should understand why the issue of evidence is so critical. After all, the House, Senate, and FBI investigations into any Trump collusion with Russia have so far proceeded with many startling claims in the media, but to date little hard evidence for the public to judge. Nobody rational should be assuming any claims or assertions from partisan actors about the 2016 election are true without seeing evidence to substantiate those claims.

That is the point.  The issue of evidence is critical.

To date very little hard evidence has emerged. And nobody rational should simply assume that claims by people who might be biased are true – without seeing evidence to substantiate those claims.

Superstition

This is about what we believe. Or, to put it another way, it is about faith. While the words “faith” and “belief” may often be used in slightly different ways in modern English, they really mean the same thing. In ancient Greek – the language the New Testament was written in – the same word is used for both.

And if one simply believes claims and allegations by politicians (or other partisan people) about their rivals or opponents, it seems to me that this does amount to “blind faith” – even superstition. And here, I come back to the words of Arthur Custance that I quoted in November:  “Faith without reason is superstition.” And by “reason”,  he means examining claims and allegations – and, in particular, looking at the evidence.

I think that the Russia hysteria that is affecting large parts of the political classes in a lot of western countries could be called superstition. There is an almost religious refusal to question it. There are some political parties where it seems to be an article of faith that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential election, and so one never hears about prominent members of those parties (or possibly even any members of those parties) questioning the claim. Russian interference is simply assumed to be fact, despite the fact that has often been pointed out that there is pretty well no hard evidence for it – almost a year and half after the claims were first made. Which is astonishing, considering the fact that as of December, $6.7 million had been spent on the Mueller investigation!

A final thought

And there is a thought that strikes me.  Take two claims: the claim that the Russian government “interfered” in the presidential election (whatever the word “interfered” means, and I must confess that “interfering in an election” could be interpreted very widely) – and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after being executed from the Romans.  If you look at the evidence for those two claims, the evidence for the latter looks a lot more impressive.

And yet, bizarrely, that is probably not what most people in the west believe today.

Think about it. The evidence for Jesus rising from the dead, basically consists of claims certain people made – claims that they saw him, met him, talked with him, ate with him, spent several days with him – after his execution.

In this case, one has to ask the question “are those claims credible?”

Yes, they are astonishing. But some astonishing things are true. Might this be one of them?

And that, it turn, leads to the question “Are those witnesses credible?” Would you trust the disciples – like James and John and Simon and Andrew?

And the answer is that I think that they are much more credible as witnesses than the politicians and figures in the intelligence community who are making the claims about Russian interference. For a start, anyone who looks at the utterances of those politicians will find that a lot of them have made wildly exaggerated statements on a fairly regular basis, and often have told outright untruths. (Remember this one?)  Similarly, many of the leaders of America’s intelligence agencies have a pretty poor record for honesty – including those making claims about Russian interference.

On other hand, the disciples of Jesus who proclaimed the resurrection, were people of honesty and integrity – and people who stressed the importance of honesty and integrity. Unlike modern politicians, they had no personal interest, nothing to gain, by the claims they were making. Indeed, making these claims got them thrown into jail, and even executed.

And those claims have been examined, and the evidence has been looked at, by hundreds of thousands of intelligent, educated people over the the past 20 centuries – as I explain here. 

They have stood the test of time.

It seems to me that there is pretty well no doubt about it. If you come to this objectively, with an open mind, and examine the evidence – I believe that you will agree that there is a much stronger case that Jesus rose from the dead, than that Vladimir Putin used illegitimate tactics to influence the result of the American election.

But how many people will look at this with an open mind?  Not many, I fear.

 

Donald Trump and the Holocaust: is there a connection?

This past Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day – being the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The Saturday before that was the first anniversary of Donald Trump taking up office as US President.

I would like to suggest that there may be a connection.

I’ll start with the Trump presidency, and four things that happened this month.

I’ll start with story that got the most press coverage. Under the headline Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants, the BBC reports that in a meeting member of Congress on January 11th, Donald Trump “reportedly lashed out at immigrants in a foul-mouthed Oval Office outburst that a UN spokesman later condemned as “shocking”, “shameful” and “racist”” – apparently referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries using a rude word. The story received a huge amount of press coverage, and Trump was widely criticised.

The second story is about Syria, but it actually comes from Turkey. The BBC reports that “Turkey has urged the US to stop backing the Kurdish YPG in Syria, as it steps up an offensive against the militia.”

This story tells us that Turkey has troops in Syria. That, in itself, is newsworthy. They are not there at the invitation of the Syrian government. What on earth are they doing there?

It also tells us that the US is backing a Kurdish militia in Syria. And it tells us that the group that Turkey are fighting in Syria are being backed by the USA. That is very significant. Two NATO allied are on opposite sides in a war. It will be very interesting to see where this goes.

America’s new Syria policy

And that brings us to our third story – something that BBC report didn’t actually mention (despite the fact that it is closely connected) – about something that happened the previous week.  On the 17th of January, Trump’s secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced that the US will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. Open-ended, of course, means that they could be there 10, 20, or 30 years.

Like the Turkish troops, they are there without the permission of the Syrian government. In other words, they are there illegally. In the words of Senator Chris Murphy,

There is ZERO legal authorization to stay in Syria to fight Iran. If Administration gets away with this, there is no going back – executive branch war making power becomes absolute.

Or, to quote Daniel Larison, speaking rather more bluntly,

To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.

U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted.

Tillerson’s reasons for this policy are included in an interview on The Real News Network of Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton.

They include the fact that America needs to have a presence in Syria to ensure that Assad does not remain in power, as well as a desire to limit the influence of Iran in Syria. In other words, this is not primarily about defeating ISIS or al-Qaeda, for though Tillerson does mention those objectives, they clearly are not the main reason America is in Syria, since the Syrian government (with the help of, among others, Iran, was already doing a pretty good job of fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Tillerson’s comments are full of highly questionable assertions, but one of the things that he says that is true caused me to raise my eyebrows. He speaks of the problems arising from the fact that Syria is a “destabilized nation”. This is highly ironic, since the forces mostly responsible for the destabilization of Syria include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – with blessing and help of the American government. Indeed, in saying that Assad had to be removed from power, Tillerson could be said to be trying to destablise Syria.

Even more ironically, Tillerson said

Ungoverned spaces, especially in conflict zones, are breeding grounds for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The fight against ISIS is not over. There are bands of ISIS fighters who are already beginning to wage an insurgency. We and our allies will hunt them down and kill them or capture them. Similarly, we must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaeda, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria. As in the years before 9/11, al-Qaeda is eager to create a sanctuary to plan and launch attacks on the West.

The irony is that America (together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) was involved in supporting al-Qaeda and its allied militias during the Syrian Civil War.

As Blumenthal says in the interview:

the irony of Tillerson’s comments can’t be understated. The US is, I wouldn’t say exclusively responsible, but largely responsible for the fact that al-Qaeda and its rebranded local affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is in control of the Idlib Governorate. There’s a city Idlib, and then there’s a large area of land that al-Qaeda’s local affiliate substantially controls. And it’s basically gobbled up all of the other Salafi militias, including the Free Syrian Army. We ran a piece at AlterNet by Lindsey Snell, who’s one of the few American reporters who got into Idlib and reported on how heavy weapons were basically being shipped by the US into Idlib, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, was just seizing them from the FSA, and the FSA’s fighters were basically joining Jabhat al-Nusra in droves because they shared its ideology, because they were the best fighters, because they were getting loads and loads of additional support from Qatar.

And he added

This is what enabled the offensive of 2015 to succeed and drive the Syrian Army out of Idlib. It also resulted in the destruction of Idlib’s Christian population, the destruction of its Druze population. These ethnic minorities experienced incredible, terrible, genocide-level hardships at the hands of US. proxies. And all along, Washington was denying the presence of al-Qaeda.

Note that in the Syrian Civil War, America supported the forces that targetted the Christian community for attack. Indeed, in America’s involvement in Iraq and Libya enabled Islamic extremists to gain a foothold, resulting in large number of brutal attacks on Christians, and a large scale exodus of Christians from Iraq. (Numbers of Christians in Libya were tiny.) In fact, in all three countries, America deliberately supported the removal of secular or moderate leaders, and ended up making the position of Christians far worse than it had been before. And interestingly, America worked closely with Saudi Arabia, which has the most draconian laws against Christianity in the entire Middle East.

But if that isn’t bad enough, no matter how bad things were in Syria, Iraq and Libya 20 years ago, before the American government went into action to topple their governments, things are much worse now. They have remained in a state of war ever since.

It is difficult to know how many people in those countries have died, but according to Iraq Body Count, total documented civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion stands at around 200,000 – and total actual deaths may be closer to half a million. In Syria, it is also estimated that total deaths since the outbreak of the civil war stands at about half a million.

Indeed, in 2015, the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) (a Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group) released a study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million.

That is a lot of deaths, and it cannot be denied that a large share of the responsibility (and, if we are being honest, ‘the fault’) for that lies with successive American governments. When George W Bush announced the “war on terror” in 2001, I suspect that few Americans realised that one of the consequences would be millions of deaths in the Middle East, and civil wars that continue to rage 17 years later in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

However, it is even worse than that. Even before 2001, civilians were dying in the Middle East in large numbers because of American policy. As Ben Norton says in the interview referred to above,

“when the US pressured the United Nations to impose one of the most brutal sanctions regimes in history on Iraq in the 1990s after the Gulf War, not only did that lead to the deaths of countless people, including many, many children who needlessly died, and the Clinton administration defended it . . .

(He is, I suspect referring to the interview in 1996 in which Clinton’s Secretary of State, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was asked “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? ” – and repliedI think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”)

Sanctions

And the matter of sanctions brings us to our fourth story from January. Actually, this is just about part of the third story, for it happened on the same occasion. On the 17th, Max Tillerson spoke about sanctions on North Korea, and said ““We are getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.” He said Japan told a conference on North Korea in Vancouver on Tuesday that more than 100 North Korean fishing boats had drifted into its waters and two-thirds of those aboard them had died. “What they learned is that they are being sent out in the winter time because there’s food shortages and they are being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.”

Think about that for a minute. What Tillerson is saying “Our policies are working! People are going hungry and dying as a result of them.” Is there any evidence that the sanctions are helping people in North Korea? No. Is there any evidence that they are leading to more freedom? No. In fact, is there any evidence they are leading to peace? The sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq lead to neither freedom nor peace. They did nothing at all for the people of Iraq. All they did was hurt, destroy, and kill civilians.

In the wake of that story of the dead Korean fishermen, Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who has been on the ground in the Middle East covering wars there for years, published an article on sanctions.

He wrote:

The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.

The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.

I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run out and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.

An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.

An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies.

People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.

However, the most notable thing about Cockburn’s article is the headline: It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are – war crimes.” 

Perhaps he is right. A form of military action that kills children and other civilians in large numbers, but does not actually take action in the field of battle against combatants does, indeed, look suspiciously like a war crime.

The Holocaust

And that brings us to the holocaust. The history of the word “holocaust” is interesting.  It comes from the Greek word for a whole burnt offering, of the kind that Jews would have offered in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. Until the 20th century, it apparently always was used to mean a sacrifice. In the early 1940s, the word was occasionally used to refer to the war itself and its destruction – but in 1944, it started to be used of the destruction inflicted on Jews by the Nazis.

Today, that is the main use of the word. Wikipedia says “The Holocaust . . . was a genocide during World War II in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany . .. systematically murdered some six million European Jews, . . . between 1941 and 1945.

However, if you go to the Holocaust Memorial Day website, you will discover that

“The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) is the charity that promotes and supports Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). 27 January is the day for everyone to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed in Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”

In other words, lumped in together with the Jews killed by the Nazis, are 5 other groups of people – others killed in persecution by Nazis, and people killed in genocides in “Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”

It is an interesting group of genocides. Genocide is defined as

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • killing members of the group

  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

As such, I find the inclusion of what happened in Cambodia as genocide surprising. It was brutal and shocking, for, as the Holocaust Memorial Day website says “Estimates of the number of people murdered range between one and three million. ” But it was not largely about targeting any “national, ethical, racial or religious group” – it was more like wholescale slaughter of anyone that the Khmer Rouge did not like.

But I can see why it was included, for the scale of it was horrendous.

At the other end of the spectrum, what happened in Bosnia that got it included was a massacre in one town. Around 8,000 Muslim men, and boys over 13 years old, were killed in Srebrenica, by Serb forces, simply for being Muslims. By the standards of the last 100 years, that is not a huge number of deaths. There was also, of course, a large amount of “ethnic cleansing” – in which people of various ethnic groups were forced to flee by militia of other ethnic groups – but this is hardly unique in modern days to the Bosnian War.

As I say, what I find fascinating about the Holocaust Memorial Day is the way that it has selected a certain number of events and focused on them – and left others unmentioned.

The number of civilians killed in the Bosnian War is estimated at about 40,000. The number of children killed by sanctions in Iraq – which were going on at the same time – is estimated at about 500,000. If sanctions are, indeed, a war crime, that raises big questions.

Or take the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that they killed between 1 million and 3 million people in Cambodia – about a quarter of the population. That is horrendous.

But is it that much worse than the US carpet bombing of North Korea in the 1950s, which is estimated to have killed 2 million people – about 20% of the population?

Why is mass killing of civilians so much more acceptable if it is done by foreigners in planes dropping bombs?

And if we are talking about total deaths, a headline in Middle East Eye in 2016 announced “Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990,” and goes on to say “Landmark research proves that the US-led ‘war on terror’ has killed as many as 2 million people, but this is a fraction of Western responsibility for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades.”

That is an estimate, of course, but the deaths that have resulted from American foreign policy in the Middle East are largely of Muslims, and there are a lot of them. Could Holocaust Memorial Day one day include, among its list of genocides, the American genocide of Muslims in the Middle East? I think the answer is “if the political climate was right, there is no reason why not.” The mass killings chosen by the people at Holocaust Memorial Day are undoubtedly influenced by political prejudice and fashion.

Donald Trump

And yet under Trump, aggressive American involvement in the Middle East goes on. In his one year in office, the Americans have dropped some 40,000 bombs on the Middle East – compared to 70,000 in George W Bush’s 8 years, and 100,000 in Obama’s 8 years.

Tillerson, like Madeline Albright before him, can explain this involvement using diplomatic language, and make it it all sound very proper and socially acceptable. But as Blumenthal and Norton point out in their interview, if you look behind the rhetoric, the truth about what America is doing in the Middle East is far darker.

Both use the word “scandal”. Norton said

the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent at this point nearly seven years trying to wage war against and destabilize the Syrian government unsuccessfully. They have lost. They’re trying to, in the last gasps of air, trying to get whatever they can and pull it back for them, But Turkey’s incursion in this country is not authorized and the US’s military incursion and subsequent occupation even after ISIS is defeated is also not authorized. Syria is a sovereign country and there are multiple countries who are militarily intervening without the consent of any of the people who actually live there. This should be a huge scandal but there’s very little attention to it.

And Blumenthal reinforced the point:

If we go back to last year, when the US troops, which were training a group of rebranded Salafi insurgents, “moderate rebels,” at the al-Tanf border crossing between Iraq and Syria, the US engaged in actual combat with Shia militias allied with Iran. That’s extremely dangerous and beyond US troops being killed, the prospect of an escalation with Iran should trouble everyone. As Ben pointed out, this is a huge scandal that’s gone totally unacknowledged, including by progressive media in the US.”

He’s right. The wreckers aggression and carnage in the Middle East have gone totally unacknowledged by the media, and most social commentators. Instead, what are they talking about? His tweets, and the crude and insulting vulgarity he used to describe certain countries.

I think I know why, as well. It’s politics. People like to paint their political opponents in the darkest colours possible. And they like to whitewash the politicians on their own side. And in America, and in the west in general, politicians on almost every side have supported the policies that have brought mass death and destruction to the Middle East for the past quarter of a century. So nobody says anything.  Because it would mean criticising our own side.

And Holocaust Memorial Day comes and goes and much is said and thought – but none of it about Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Libya or Yemen – let alone North Korea in the 1950s.

And so we feel good about ourselves.

What the Bible says

But I keep coming back to what the Bible says about human nature.

I remember the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and how it is introduced with the words

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)

I remember the question that he asked in the Sermon on the Mount:

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?” (Matthew 7:3.)

It’s a good question. Why?

And I remember what the Psalmist says

Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:11).

It is difficult for us to see our own faults and failings. Which is something that I guess I need to remember as much as anyone else.

The world in 2017: a look back at the year just ended

1st January. A time for looking to the future. But since I don’t know what is going to happen in 2018, I am looking back at 2017. What, if anything, really changed?

And the answer is, not a lot.

Donald Trump is still president of America. (Technically he wasn’t at the beginning of the year, but he was just about to take office.)   Theresa May is still Prime Minister of the UK – though this turned out to be a more close run thing than most people would have guessed a year ago.   Angela Merkel is still hanging on a Chancellor of Germany.   No major wars have started.   And I am still alive.

So I went back to look at the review of 2016 that I wrote a year ago. And, again it seems that nothing has changed.   I wrote:

The last few days of 2016 have produced a few articles that particularly caught my attention, and which in many ways, summed up the year for me. They concerned two of the main stories that dominated world affairs in 2016: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the war in Syria; and the American presidential election, and in particular the allegation that Russian hacking had been the source of the Democratic Party emails published by Wikileaks. 

And, taking these two stories – the war in Syria, and the allegation of Russian government hacking of Democratic Party emails -I considered the roll of the media, and the question of honesty.

Twelve months later, it is uncanny how little has changed.

Russian hacking

Let’s start with the allegations of Russian government hacking and interference in the American election. Last year, I quoted Craig Murray, former British Ambassador in Uzbekistan, writing at the end of December. He says that the FBI report that had just been published,

gives no evidence at all of the alleged successful hack that transmitted these particular emails, nor any evidence of the connection between the hackers and the Russian government, let alone Putin.

Almost a year on, in December 2017, Murray wrote:

“I have enough direct knowledge of events to be aware that the entire premise of the Russophobic “election-hacking” conspiracy theory is simple nonsense. I am therefore most amused that my friend Randy Credico, who stayed with Nadira and I in Edinburgh a few months ago, has now been subpoenaed by the Senate Inquiry on Russian meddling as the alleged go-between for Roger Stone and Julian Assange, on the brilliant grounds that he knows both of them.

I can tell you from certain knowledge this is absolute nonsense. While Randy is a delightful person who hides a shrewd political mind behind a deliberate crackpot façade, he is the most indiscreet person in the world. He is not anybody’s conveyor of secrets, he would tell it all impulsively on his next radio show! Where Russia fits into this mad conspiracy theory I have no idea. If I had any belief that it was the genuine intention of Senate or Special Counsel inquiries to discover the actual truth, I would be surprised they have never made any contact with me, as opposed to my fleeting houseguests. But as I am well aware the last thing they want to know is the truth, I am not surprised in the least.”

Ouch.

Last year, I also quoted Glenn Greenwald, writing on the 31st December, about the FBI report. He described it as “the U.S. government’s evidence-free report.

Almost exactly a year later, Greenwald re-tweeted a link to an interview on the Real News Network:

Amid news the Mueller probe could extend through 2018, Guardian reporter Luke Harding and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss Russiagate and Harding’s new book “Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win.”

The interview is worth watching, and fairly entertaining. It begins:

Luke, welcome. Let’s start with the book’s title. Do you think there actually was collusion?

LUKE HARDING: I think we’re already across the line in terms of collusion. I think actually you have to go back a long way to see when it began to Donald Trump’s first trip to Soviet Moscow in 1987 paid for by the Soviet Union where he was discussing hotel deals. I think we can say — and I’m sure this is something that Robert Mueller is looking at — that there’s kind of long-term relationship. That doesn’t mean that Donald Trump is an agent or a KGB colonel, merely that there’s been a kind of transactional deal going back a very long way indeed.

AARON MATÉ: That’s also an assertion of the infamous Steele dossier, that there’s a transactional relationship between Trump and the Kremlin and that Putin has been cultivating Trump for several years now. But explain why you think that is and why you think there’s evidence of a transactional relationship.

And from there, most of the interview is basically Maté pressing Harding for what exactly the evidence is. Harding basically has three responses, which are


1) Everybody knows it:

I think that Russia played a role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

To which Maté responded:

it’s not . . . all the intelligence agencies; it’s a handpicked group assembled under the outgoing president, Barack Obama, by James Clapper. They say something, but speaking of empirical evidence, they presented no empirical evidence and they still haven’t. I don’t understand why we’re supposed to take that on faith.

2) There are lots of allegations, so it must be true:

Well I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller. I’m not head of the CIA or the NSA, but what I can tell you is that there have been similar operations in France most recently when President Macron was elected.”

To which Maté responded

Well actually, Luke, that’s not true…. After that election, the French cyber intelligence agency came out and said it could have been virtually anybody. 

3) The Russian government is horrible; this is the sort of thing they do, and you really need to spend more time in Russia in order to appreciate that:

I think maybe you might just go to Moscow for a couple of weeks, talk to human rights people. . . . . Just talk to people, ask them about Kremlin hacking, ask them about whether they think … I mean talk to Russians on this.

The interview ends with Maté saying

But again, well look. This gets back to the issue. The question is whether there is any evidence so far, and I don’t see it. It looks like Luke has logged off. Is that true? Well we’ve lost Luke Harding.

After Harding’s advice to “talk to Russians on this” it is interesting that a few days later, Maté interviewed Stephen F. Cohen, formerly professor of Russian Studies at Princeton, and asked

I’m curious your thoughts on how Russians are viewing this whole Russiagate so-called controversy right now. You were recently in Russia. You studied the country closely, how are Russians, the ones you speak to, looking at this national obsession here in the US and this widespread view that it was their president Putin, who got Donald Trump elected?

Cohen replied

I think most Russians who are educated and there are a lot of them, critical-minded, and who can process the evening news, even if it is Russian propaganda, think the story’s preposterous. They think it has to do with American internal politics, and nothing really to do with Russia. That’s the educated opinion in Russia today.

A year ago, Greenwald, Murray, and plenty of others pointed out that no evidence has been produced of Russian hacking or interference in the American election.

Now, a year later, a journalist publishes a book on the subject, and when asked about evidence, can’t come up with any, but simply says

I think that Russia played role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

Twelve months later, despite a huge amount of investigation by the U.S. government, nothing has changed.

Syria

A year ago, I quoted Robert Fisk of the Independent about Syria, and while neither I, nor Fisk, used the word “evidence”, Fisk makes it clear that the media was reporting things about Syria as fact when they had no evidence of these things:

The use of social media in reporting the battle of eastern Aleppo has been extraordinary, weird, dangerous, even murderous, when not a single Western journalist could report the eastern Aleppo war at first hand. Much damage has been done to the very credibility of journalism – and to politicians – by the acceptance of one side of the story only when not a single reporter can confirm with his or her own eyes what they are reporting. . . .

Can we really shake our heads in disbelief at electoral lies when we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years?”

A year later, much has changed in Syria. But one thing that has not changed is the matter of reporting the war.

In my opinion, the most interesting story here is coverage of the incident that took place at Khan Shaykhun on the 4th April this year.

I wrote about this in August (in an article that uses the word “evidence” eleven times!) and looked at the question of evidence, and concluded

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.

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

Well, a couple of months later, the UN put out its report. According to the BBC:

Syria’s government was responsible for a deadly chemical attack on a rebel-held town in the north-west of the country on 4 April, a UN report says. The authors say they are “confident” Damascus used sarin nerve agent in Khan Sheikhoun, killing more than 80 people. . . .

The report findings were issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN’s Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM). “The panel is confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April 2017,” stated the report. . . .

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “Britain condemns this appalling breach of the rules of war and calls on the international community to unite to hold Assad’s regime accountable.”

The UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said that “today’s report should lay to rest any discussion about who was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack”.

However, the BBC also tells us

Speaking to the Interfax news agency, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the UN report had “many inconsistencies”. He said: “Even the first cursory read shows many inconsistencies, logical discrepancies, using doubtful witness accounts and unverified evidence.”

I guess a lot of people would say “The UN says it. That concludes the matter.” Frankly, I am sceptical.

And I am not the only one. A week after the UN report came out, Consortium News published an analysis of the UN report by American investigative journalist Rick Sterling.  It makes interesting reading:

“The report titled “Seventh report of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism” was provided to select governments and media on Oct. 26. The world’s media announced the key finding without criticism or question: the sentence that the committee is “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin in Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.” About 36 hours later, the report was leaked via the Internet. But the die was already cast as establishment media had “confirmed” Syrian guilt.

Sterling then proceeds to point out the key contradictions and inconsistencies in the report. There are several. And they are glaring.

And Sterling concludes

“The report of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) gives the impression of much more certainty than is actually there. Seizing on the false “confidence,” the White House has denounced the “horrifying barbarism of Bashar al Assad” and “lack of respect for international norms” by Syria’s ally Russia. International diplomacy is being steadily eroded.

Most Western “experts” were dead wrong in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Are these same “experts,” institutes, intelligence agencies and biased organizations going to take us down the road to new aggression, this time against Syria?

In contrast with the JIM report, Gareth Porter reached the opposite conclusionThe evidence now available makes it clear that the scene suggesting a sarin attack at the crater was a crudely staged deception.” That is also more logical. The armed opposition had the motive, means and opportunity.”

It’s about evidence. And on that basis, I think that Sterling’s case is pretty strong – something that cannot be said for the case made by the UN report.

One year later

A year ago, the title that I gave my look back at the year was “Are we living in a post-truth world?”     And I quoted Robert Fisk:

We do not live in a “post-truth” world, neither in the Middle East nor in the West – nor in Russia, for that matter. We live in a world of lies. And we always have lived in a world of lies. 

And I had to agree. The world had not changed. But I had. I was a little older, and (I think) a little wiser:

For me, 2016 has been the year when my confidence in the western mass media hit rock bottom. Before 2016 I believed that it was biased and often misleading – but broadly speaking honest and accurate. By the end of the year, I had come to the conclusion that it was often dishonest and sometimes completely inaccurate. Individual reporters often told the truth, but when what they said was not what the powers that be wanted to hear, it was usually buried in obscure places.

In other words, 2016 stood out as the year when my confidence in the honesty of the western media collapsed. The events of 2017 did nothing to change that. If anything, my confidence in the mainstream media declined further.

But something else became obvious in 2017: the willingness of intelligent people to simply accept stories because they come from influential sources.

For example, I have already mentioned Luke Harding saying

I think that Russia played a role in last year’s election is a matter of fact. I mean it’s certainly what U.S. intelligence agencies believe.

And perhaps even more scarily the response of some to the UN report on the Khan Sheikhoun incident:

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “Britain condemns this appalling breach of the rules of war and calls on the international community to unite to hold Assad’s regime accountable.”

The UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said that “today’s report should lay to rest any discussion about who was responsible for the Khan Sheikhoun attack”.

I am not so sure.

But do I really think I know more than Boris Johnson? Well, I suspect that on some matters, I probably do.

Now, it is possible that Harding, Johnson, and Charbonneau had pretty much made up their minds before these reports came out. But I do think that a lot of people will simply believe something happened if US intelligence agencies or a UN report say that they are “confident” that it did – (and yes, the key sentence in both reports spoke about “confidence”). And that is especially true if the media report these things as if they are unquestionable facts.

We are much more influenced by powerful organisations and by the media than we think.

Nothing new

And so, a year ago, I quoted Psalm 12, in which David says

Help, LORD; for there is no longer any that is godly;
for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men.
Every one utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is our master?”

There are many who think that with their tongues, they will prevail. If enough powerful and influential people (and organisations) say something, then everyone will believe it – and will, as a result, get what they want. And a lot of the time, that is exactly what happens – which is why David called on God for help.

That’s the world we live in; and that’s the world we’ve always lived in. As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Or, as a son of David who was king in Jerusalem, put it (Ecclesiastes 1:9):

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

So yes, a lot has changed in 2017.

Trump replaced Obama as president. He made a big announcement about changing the location of the US embassy in Israel. In Syria, ISIS suffered several major set-backs. The question of independence for Catalonia became a major issue in Spain. In Britain, the Labour Party under Corbyn saw its popularity rise markedly. Smaller parties did remarkably well in the German election, which led to serious difficulties in forming a government with a working majority. And one could go on. These things are interesting, and some could have a major impact in years to come.

And yet in terms of the way the world works, nothing has really changed.

Another King

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” (Luke 2:1)

Taken on its own, that is an astonishing statement. Even allowing for the fact that the word “taxed” actually means to be copied down in writing  – i.e. enrolled or registered – it is pretty astonishing that this man, Caesar Augustus, should have the authority to order that the whole world be registered, and the power to compel it.

Of course, what Luke meant by “all the world” was actually the Roman Empire, but the Roman Empire was so big that it felt like “all the world” to a lot of people.

All the world

The phrase “all the world” is actually used only 4 times in the Bible. In two of the others uses, the phrase also seems to have not been intended to be taken literally as “the whole world”, but as “the known world” or “the Roman Empire”. But in the fourth use, it seems quite likely that it does actually mean “the whole world”.

That use comes at the end of Mark’s gospel, after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In fact, it is part of the final instructions Jesus leaves with his disciples before being taken into heaven:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.

In other words, we find the phrase “all the world” only twice in the gospels. The first time it is right at the beginning of the gospels before the birth of Jesus; the second it is right at the end, after his resurrection. The first time it concerns a decree from Caesar; the second it is part of an instruction of Christ. But both times, it concerns a command, and both times, it is, if you think about it, a pretty astonishing command.

These final instructions of Jesus to go into all the world are not just found in Mark’s gospel. They are also found, with slightly different wording, in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels and the book of Acts.

In Acts (1:8), we learn that Jesus said

you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

In Luke (24:46-47) it is

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

In Matthew (28:18-20), it is

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

But, even more astonishing than the instruction to go and proclaim to all nations are the words that come before the instruction:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

What would Augustus Caesar, the man who apparently had the authority to command that the whole world be enrolled, have thought of that?

And isn’t it curious that the gospels begin with Caesar as the one with such supreme authority that he could order that all the world be enrolled, and they end with Jesus claiming that all authority belongs to him?

Christ and Caesar

Consider the following passages from the New Testament about Jesus.

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” (Matthew 2:1-4 )

When Jesus was born, the wise men described him as a king. And King Herod found this disturbing – so disturbing, in fact, that he attempted to have the child killed. A newborn king clearly represented a threat to the established political order.

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”” (Luke 23:1-2)

When he was just an infant, the fact that Jesus might be a king was enough to lead to an attempt on his life. As a grown man, the fact that he had claimed to be a king was enough to get him brought to trial. In fact, according to John’s gospel (19:12, 15), Jesus’ enemies claimed that he was a threat to the established political order as a reason to demand his execution: “ “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar,” and when Pilate, the Roman governor who was hearing the case asked “”Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Jesus is being described as a potential rival to Caesar.

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd. And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” (Acts 17:5-7 )

As an infant and as an adult, Jesus seemed, to some at least, as a threat to the established political order. This third quote concerns events about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, in the city of Thessalonica. The apostles are there, following out Jesus’ final instructions to go into all the world to make disciples. And they run into opposition. Jesus is described as “another king”, who is a rival to Caesar, and whose followers act against the decrees of Caesar.

There is a consistent strand running through the New Testament about Jesus being a king, and how he was thus seen as a rival to Caesar – the supreme king at that time – and therefore a threat to the political order.

And surely it is the case that if he was a king who claimed universal authority and sent his apostles into all the world to make disciples, he was – and is – by implication, a rival to all kings, everywhere.

Not of this world

Which brings us to the question, why then did Pilate want to free Jesus? John’s gospel (8:33-38) explains:

Pilate . . . called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” . . . Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.

In a nutshell, Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight” – they would take up arms.

In fact, of course, what Jesus’ servants would do was to advance his kingship by proclamation – by the word, rather than the sword – as he had instructed them in his final instructions to “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.

So does that mean that Jesus is not a rival to earthly kings – i.e. rulers? Does that mean that he does not pose a potential threat to established political orders?

There are two answers to that.

A real king

The first is that disciples are described as those who are have learned (or are learning) to observe Jesus’ commands – to obey his teaching. And that, in itself, would pose a problem to established political orders. When the early Christians were told to stop telling people about Jesus, their response was consistently (Acts 5:29) “We must obey God rather than men.” That caused plenty of problems with the established political authorities in those days, and has continued to cause problems with established political authorities ever since.

For, if you think about it, and put together the fact that Jesus claims all authority in heaven and earth, and that he expects obedience from his followers, and that he is a king – then the call to follow and become a disciple is effectively calling people to allegiance, to accept him as their king. In fact, he is calling them to have him as their ultimate king – and ultimately to obey him, rather than kings, rulers, and earthly political establishments.

Herod, in other words, was (in a sense) completely correct when he saw the new born baby in Bethlehem as a threat to the established political order.

Which brings us to the second answer.

If you turn to the final book of the New Testament, the book of Revelation, you will find that it refers to Jesus as “King of kings and Lord of lords”, and “the ruler of kings of the earth” – stressing his supremacy over established political orders.

But, more than that, it consistently speaks negatively about the kings of the earth, and suggests that there is a very real rivalry between them and Christ. This rivalry culminates in a great apocalyptic battle, described in chapter 19:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. . . . He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. . . . On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. . . .

And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army.

And, in words famously quoted in the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah it says (Revelation 11:15): ““The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

The kingship of the baby born in Bethlehem ultimately overcomes and replaces the established political order of this world.  Caesar’s kingship passes away.  The gospel writers may not have intended to begin with the authority of Caesar and the unease of Herod.  However, the fact that they do so – and then end with Jesus sending the apostles out to all nations to proclaim him as king – actually fits like a hand in a glove with the New Testament’s message of his coming in weakness, and the growth of his kingdom from small, despised beginnings, until the day when he returns as king to reign for ever.

And so, to quote the prophet Isaiah:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; . . .  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end . . .  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Roy Moore: a sign of the times?

Much has been written about the recent election in Alabama for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. And stories are still appearing about it 9 days after the Doug Jones was pronounced the winner, because Roy Moore has not yet conceded defeat.

It was certainly an interesting election – in more ways than one, and there are a lot of things that I could say. However, I’m going to limit myself to just one.

On the day of the election, the BBC News website published a piece about Moore entitled “Roy Moore beliefs: Things the Republican has said“. It says

“Alabama firebrand Roy Moore dealt a huge blow to the Republican leadership by winning the party’s nomination for the Senate, despite their backing for his opponent. He is now battling Democrat Doug Jones for a place in the upper chamber of Congress. The controversial lawyer has made headlines for a series of incendiary remarks over the years. Here’s a round-up of some of his more extreme beliefs, with some analysis from the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher on why it all matters.”

What I think is significant is what views of Moore’s the BBC considers to be extreme. After all, the BBC is regarded as the epitome of respectability – at last for a media outlet – not only in the UK, but throughout the world. It’s opinions represent what currently counts as respectable opinion – at least among members of the British media establishment, and probably western culture as a whole.

So – what are his extreme views?

1. Homosexuality should be illegal

On election day, Moore’s spokesman Ted Crockett was asked whether the candidate still thought homosexuality should be outlawed. “Probably,” was his answer. Previously, Mr Moore has likened it to bestiality, and called it “abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this nation and our laws are predicated”. His refusal to issue marriage certificates to gay couples cost him his place on the bench for a second time.

First, notice that the spokesman said “Probably.” In other words, the BBC does not know for certain what currently thinks. They quote something Moore said in a judgement in 2002, the full quote being “Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated.   Such conduct violates both the criminal and civil laws of this State and is destructive to a basic building block of society-the family.”

Moore expresses a lot of opinions in those two sentences, but the basic issue is the legality of homosexual conduct. The BBC simply declares that to believe that it should be illegal is an “extreme view”. That raises the question, “What does ‘extreme’ mean?”

What is interesting about this is that as recently as 1960, laws banning homosexual conduct were in force in every state in the USA, and in every part of the UK.

In Britain, the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between two men in England and Wales (as long as they were conducted in private, and both men had attained the age of 21. Homosexual acts were decriminalised in Scotland by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, and in Northern Ireland by the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 1982.

In America, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986, but reversed that decision in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas, invalidating the sodomy laws that remained in the 14 states.

In other words, until just a few years ago, Moore’s view on the matter was completely mainstream, and a couple of generations ago were the prevailing political orthodoxy – and had been centuries. It was the undoubtedly the view of the BBC’s first Director-General, Lord Reith. It was undoubtedly the view of most of America’s founding fathers, and the four presidents whose images adorn Mount Rushmore, and it was the view of Che Guevara.

And that is only in the west. If you look at most of Africa and Asia, Moore’s views are completely mainstream.

When the BBC speaks about “extreme views”, what does it mean by that term? It clearly doesn’t mean views that are particularly unusual. The word “extreme” simply means “far from the centre” or “not moderate” – but who is to say what a “moderate” position is, or where the centre lies?

The word “extreme” strikes me as being vague, subjective, and even loaded. It is a very small step from having extreme views to being an extremist. And since the word “extremist” usually suggests “dangerous” to most people, I suspect that the BBC actually means “views which respectable, decent, people do not hold”.

So why is the BBC using a vague, subjective, loaded phrase like “extreme views” in this article? It looks to me like it is, very subtly, telling us what views are acceptable and what views are not. In other words, this article is not just news – it is seeking to tell readers what is decent and respectable – and even what is right and what is wrong – without ever trying to tell us why those things are right or wrong.

And in doing so, it tells us as much about the BBC as it tells us about Roy Moore.

2. God’s wrath is felt on Earth

Moore has suggested that the 11 September 2001 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a sign of God’s divine anger. “Sounds a little bit like the Pentagon” he remarked after reading a Bible passage about “the great slaughter when the towers will fall”. He has also said that violent crimes in the US such as murder and rape are “happening because we have forgotten God”.

Is the BBC really claiming that to believe that God’s wrath is felt on earth is extreme? This is the consistent view of the Bible from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It would be silly to quote proof texts for this, since it is almost as basic to the Bible as the belief that God exists, and is something that Christianity has always affirmed, and that is utterly uncontroversial across all parts of the church.

Likewise, the view that the 9/11 attacks were a sign of God’s anger, does not seem to me, from a Christian point of view, to be at all controversial. Indeed, even if one doesn’t believe in God, one could argue that they were a consequence of what Americans were doing.

In an interview the month after the attacks, Osama bin Laden, who masterminded them, was asked asked about the justification for killing innocent civilians. He responded,

“Whenever we kill their civilians, the whole world yells . . . . and America starts putting pressure on its allies and puppets. . . . What about the people that have been killed in our lands for decades? . . . Who said that our blood isn’t blood and that their blood is blood? . . . More than 1,000,000 children died in Iraq, and they are still dying . . . . How is it that these people are moved when civilians die in America, and not when we are being killed everyday?” ”

He was alluding to the sanctions on Iraq, which had been imposed by the UN at the request of America. On May 12, 1996, the American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was questioned about this on national TV: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

And Ron Paul, a member of Congress in America, had warned, in 1998, that America’s ongoing attacks on Iraq under the Clinton administration risked bringing terrorist attacks on America: “Matter of fact our national security is more jeopardized by permitting this to happen because we are liable to start a war. We are liable to have our military men killed. We are liable to have more attacks on us by terrorists.”

The view that violent crimes happen because people have forgotten God doesn’t strike me as that odd – I suspect that most of the people committing these crimes are not thinking about God – and that if they were remembering him, they would not be. On the other hand, it must be admitted that there are countries with lower rates of violent crime than America, that also have lower rates of church attendance and believing in God, so if Roy Moore thinks there is an easy correlation, he is simply wrong. On the other hand, I suppose that it could be said that people can completely forget about and ignore God even though they believe in him and go to church regularly . . . .

At any rate, if the BBC is saying that believing that God’s wrath is felt on earth is an “extreme view”, it is basically saying that atheism, agnosticism and deism are moderate positions, but that Christianity is extreme. Again, I think that tells us more about the BBC than about Roy Moore.

 

As for the BBC’s other eight Roy Moore views that are “extreme “, I don’t have much to add.

3. ‘Red and yellows’ don’t get along

He appeared to use pejorative racial terms for Asians and Native Americans at a rally this month.”We have blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting. What’s going to unite us? What’s going to bring us back together? A president? A Congress? No. It’s going to be God.”

I’m not quite sure what the BBC is describing as an “extreme view”. He is basically saying that people in America don’t get along, and that there is a lot of tribalism. Seems pretty uncontroversial, to me. In that context, I wouldn’t have assumed that he was literally saying that there was a lot of tension between “Asians and Native Americans.” As for saying that he used “pejorative racial terms” – well, in the context of speaking about blacks and whites, which are pretty normal terms, using the words “reds and yellows” is what one would expect a person to say.

It looks to me like the BBC is just being silly here in a desperate attempt to suggest that Moore is a racist. He may be, but this quote strikes me as pretty uncontroversial – unless, of course Moore’s belief that God can bring people together is seen by the BBC as controversial.

4. Darwin was wrong

“There’s no such thing as evolution,” he told the Washington Post less than a week before the election. “That we came from a snake? No I don’t believe that.”

OK. I admit that Moore’s views on evolution are outside the scientific mainstream, and as such, “far from the centre” and thus “extreme”. But they are views that are widely held by thoughtful and intelligent Christians.

Again, it looks like the BBC has a problem with Christians.

5. Islam is a ‘false religion’

It is also a threat to US laws, Moore claims. Over the summer he falsely alleged that Sharia law was already being enforced in parts of the states of Illinois and Indiana, offering no evidence.

I can’t see anything controversial with the view that Islam is a false religion. No doubt Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins would agree, as, I guess, would most practising Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.

I will admit that to claim that “Sharia law was being enforced in parts of the states of Illinois and Indiana” without any evidence strikes me as pretty unimpressive.

But then again, Moore is an American politician, and American politicians regularly assert that the Russian government interfered in last year’s presidential election and offer no evidence, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

6. The law comes from God

“God is the only source of our law, liberty and government,” he said from the debate stage last week.

All Christians would agree that God is the source of everything that is good, and I suppose that would include liberty, and aspects of our law and our government.

However, I might also say that it often seems to me that some aspects of America’s law and government (and indeed that of most other countries) give the impression of coming from the devil, rather than God.

7. He thinks he’s like Putin

In August he directly praised the Russian president Vladimir Putin for his gay rights stance, saying “maybe he’s more akin to me than I know”. The comment came after he described the US as “the focus of evil in the world” because “we promote a lot of bad things”.

Hmmm. Saying that America promotes a lot of bad things seems pretty uncontroversial; indeed I would expect the BBC to agree whole-heartedly. I guess it takes courage in the current climate for an American politician to say “maybe Putin is more akin to me than I know” – but maybe that’s no bad thing. When one compares Putin to some American presidents, Putin does seem to be a remarkably irenic and peaceable individual.

8. Obama might not be US-born

Trump’s predecessor was disqualified to be president, Moore claimed as far back as 2008. The so-called “birther” theory, alleging that Obama was born in Kenya, was heavily promoted by Donald Trump until very late in his campaign.

OK. I’ll admit that is controversial, wild, and extreme.

Even the BBC can get it right, occasionally.  You know what they say about stopped clocks.

9. He writes poetry

And he has occasionally been known to give live renditions. One said: “Babies piled in dumpsters, Abortion on demand/ Oh Sweet land of liberty; your house is on the sand.”

As poetry goes, it doesn’t impress me. But I suppose anyone is entitled to a hobby that they are not particularly skilful at.

Or does the BBC dislike the fact that Moore is anti-abortion?

10. A Ten Commandments sculpture is worth fighting for

He was dismissed from the Alabama Supreme Court after he refused a federal order to remove a massive stone statue of the Ten Commandments from inside his courthouse.

Personally, while I admit that Moore may have been a bit eccentric on this matter, I really wish more politicians would pay attention to the Ten Commandments.

Wouldn’t it be great if, before every vote in Parliament or Congress, someone got up and said “Now, remember everybody, ‘Thou shalt not kill and thou shalt not steal'”? And wouldn’t it be great if, before politicians opened their mouths, they would think to themselves, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?

And why stop at politicians? What about the press and the media? Wouldn’t it be great if the BBC, before it published a story, thought to itself , “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?

Yes. I can see why it thinks that 10 Commandments sculpture is “extreme”.

And that, dear reader, is why I read what the BBC has to say.   It’s a good guide to current orthodoxy, and what beliefs are respectable these days.  And that piece did a superb job.  It may not have told us much about Roy Moore, and it didn’t really begin to deal all the reasons why one might not want to vote for him, but it told us a lot about 21st century western culture.

And as such, it is a sign of the times.