Tag Archives: racism

being humans

The following article is Chapter Three of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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What a piece of work is a man!

— William Shakespeare 1

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Almost a decade ago, as explosions lit up the night sky above Baghdad, I was at my parents’ home in Shropshire, sat on the sofa, and watching the rolling news coverage. After a few hours we were still watching the same news though for some reason the sound was now off and the music system on.

“It’s a funny thing,” I remarked, between sips of whisky, and not certain at all where my words were leading, “that humans can do this… and yet also… this.” I suppose that I was trying to firm up a feeling. A feeling that arose in response to the unsettling juxtaposition of images and music, and that involved my parents and myself in different ways, as detached spectators. But my father didn’t understand at first, and so I tried again.

“I mean how can it be,” I hesitated, “that on the one hand we are capable of making such beautiful things like music, and yet on the other, we are the engineers of such appalling acts of destruction?” Doubtless I could have gone on elaborating, but there was no need. My father understood my meaning, and the evidence of what I was trying to convey was starkly before us – human constructions of the sublime and the atrocious side-by-side.

In any case, the question, being as it is, a question of unavoidable and immediate importance to all of us, sort of hangs in the air perpetually, although as a question, it is usually considered and recast in alternative ways – something I shall return to – while mostly it remains not merely unanswered, but unspoken. We treat it instead like an embarrassing family secret, which is best forgotten. Framed hesitantly but well enough for my father to reply, his answer was predictable too: “that’s human nature”; which is the quick and easy answer although it actually misses the point entirely – a common fallacy technically known as ignoratio elenchi. For ‘human nature’ in no way provides an answer but simply opens a new question. Just what is human nature? – This is the question.

The generous humanity of music and the indiscriminate but cleverly conceived cruelty of carpet bombing are just different manifestations of what human beings are capable of, and thus of human nature. If you point to both and say “this is human nature”, well yes –and obviously there’s a great deal else besides – whereas if you reserve the term only for occasions when you feel disapproval, revulsion or outright horror – as many do – then your condemnation is simply another feature of “human nature”. In fact, why do we judge ourselves at all?

So this chapter represents an extremely modest attempt to grapple with what is arguably the most complex and involved question of all questions. Easy answers are good when they cut to the bone of a difficult problem, however to explain man’s inhumanity to man as well as to his other fellow creatures, surely deserves a better and fuller account than that man is by nature inhumane – if for no other reason than that the very word ‘human’ owes its origins to the earlier form ‘humane’! Upon this etymological root is there really nothing else but vainglorious self-deception and wishful thinking? I trust that language is in truth less consciously contrived.

The real question then is surely this: When man becomes inhumane, why on this occasion or in this situation, but not on all occasions and under all circumstances? And how come we still use the term ‘inhumane’ at all, if being inhumane is so hard-wired into our human nature? The lessons to be learned by tackling such questions can hardly be overstated; lessons that might well prove crucial in securing the future survival of our societies, our species, and perhaps of the whole planet.

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I        Monkey Business

There are one hundred and ninety-three living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair.”

— Desmond Morris 2

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The scene: just before sunrise about one million years BC, a troop of hominids are waking up and about to discover a strange, rectangular, black monolith that has materialised from nowhere. As the initial excitement and fear of this strange new object wears off, the hominids move closer to investigate. Attracted perhaps by its remarkable geometry, its precise and unnatural blackness, they reach out tentatively to touch it and then begin to stroke it.

As a direct, though unexplained consequence of this communion, one of the ape-men has a dawning realisation. Sat amongst the skeletal remains of a dead animal, he picks up one of the sun-bleached thigh bones and begins to swing it about. Aimless at first, his flailing attempts simply scatter the other bones of the skeleton. In time, however, he gains control and his blows increase in ferocity, until at last, with one almighty thwack, he manages to shatter the skull to pieces. It is a literally epoch-making moment of discovery.

The following day, mingling beside a water-hole, a fight breaks out. His new weapon in hand, our hero deals a fatal blow against the alpha male of a rival troop. Previously at the mercy of predators and reliant on scavenging to find their food, the tribe can now be freed from fear and hunger too. Triumphant, he is the ape-man Prometheus, and in ecstatic celebration of this achievement, he tosses the bone high into the air, whereupon, spinning up and up, higher and higher into the sky, the scene cuts from spinning bone into an orbiting space-craft…

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Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey is enigmatic and elusive. Told in a sequence of related if highly differentiated parts, it repeatedly confounds the viewer’s expectations – the scene sketched above is only the opening act to Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction epic.

Kubrick said “you are free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film” 3 So taking Kubrick at his word, I shall do just that – although not for every aspect of the film, but specifically for his first scene, up to and including that most revered and celebrated ‘match cut’ in cinema history, and its relationship to Kubrick’s mesmerising and seemingly bewildering climax: moments of transformation, when reality per se is re-imagined. Although on one level, at least, all of the ideas conveyed in this opening as well as the more mysterious closing scenes (more below) are abundantly clear. For Kubrick’s exoteric message involves the familiar Darwinian interplay between the foxes and the rabbits and their perpetual battle for survival, which is the fundamental driving force behind the evolutionary development of natural species.

Not that Darwin’s conception should to be misunderstood as war in the everyday sense, however, although this is a very popular interpretation; for one thing the adversaries in these Darwinian arm races, most often predator and prey, in general remain wholly unaware of any escalation in armaments and armour. Snakes, for example, have never sought to strengthen their venom, any more than their potential victims, most spectacularly the opossums that evolved to prey on them, made any conscious attempts to hone their blood-clotting agents. Today’s snake-eating opossums have extraordinary immunity to the venom of their prey purely because natural selection strongly favoured opossums with heightened immunity.

Of course, the case is quite different when we come to humankind. For it is humans alone who deliberately escalate their methods of attack and response and do so by means of technology. To talk of an “arms race” between species is therefore a somewhat clumsy metaphor for what actually occurs in nature – although Darwin is accurately reporting what he finds.

And there is another crucial difference between the Darwinian ‘arms race’ and the human variant. Competition between species is not always as direct as between predator and prey, and frequently looks nothing like a war at all. Indeed, it is more often analogous to the competitiveness of two hungry adventurers lost in a forest. For it may well be that both of our adventurers are completely unaware that somewhere in the midst of the forest there is a hamburger left on a picnic table. While neither adventurer may be aware of the presence of the other, yet they are – at least in a strict Darwinian sense – in competition, since if either one stumbles accidentally upon the hamburger, it happens that, and merely by process of elimination, the other has lost his chance of a meal. As competitors then, the faster walker, or the one with keener eyes, or the one with greatest stamina, will gain a very slight but significant advantage on the other. Thus, perpetual competition between individuals need never amount to war, or even to battles, and this is how Darwin’s ideas are properly understood.

In any case, such contests of adaptation, whether between predators and prey, or sapling trees racing towards the sunlight, can never actually be won. The rabbits may get quicker but the foxes must get quicker too, since if either species fails to adapt then it will not survive long. So it’s actually a perpetual if dynamic stalemate, with species trapped like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, always having to keep moving ahead just to hold their ground – a paradox that evolutionary biologists indeed refer to as “the red queen hypothesis” 4.

We might still judge that both sides are advancing, since there is, undeniably, a kind of evolutionary progress, with the foxes growing craftier as the rabbits get smarter too, and so we might conclude that such an evolutionary ‘arms race’ is the royal road to all natural progress – although Darwin noted that other evolutionary pressures including, most notably sexual selection, has tremendous influence as well. We might even go further by extending the principle in order to admit our own steady technological empowerment, viewed objectively as being a by-product of our own rather more deliberate arms race. Progress thus assured by the constant and seemingly inexorable fight for survival against hunger and the elements, and no less significantly, by the constant squabbling of our warring tribes over land and resources.

Space Odyssey draws deep from the science of Darwinism, and spins a tale of our future. From bony proto-tool, slowly but inexorably, we come to the mastery of space travel. From terrestrial infants, to cosmically-free adults – this is the overarching story of 2001. But wait, there’s more to that first scene than immediately meets the eye. That space-craft which Kubrick cuts to; it isn’t just any old space-craft…

Look quite closely and you might see that it’s actually one of four space-craft, similar in design, which form the components of an orbiting nuclear missile base, and though in the film this is not as clear as in Arthur C. Clarke’s parallel version of the story (the novel and film were co-creations written side-by-side), the missiles are there if you peer hard enough.

So Space Odyssey is, at least on one level, the depiction of technological development, which, though superficially from first tool to more magnificent uber-tool (i.e., the spacecraft), is also – and explicitly in the novel – a development from the first weapon to what is, up to now, the ultimate weapon, and thus from the first hominid-cide to the potential annihilation of the entire human population. 5

Yet 2001, the year in the title, also magically heralds a new dawn for mankind: a dawn that, as with every other dawn, bursts from the darkest hours. The meaning therefore, as far as I judge it, is that we, as parts of nature, are born to be both creators and destroyers; agents of light and darkness. That our innate but unassailable evolutionary drive, dark as it can be, also has the potential to lead us to the film’s weirdly antiseptic yet quasi-mystical conclusion, and the inevitability of our grandest awakening – a cosmic renaissance as we follow our destiny towards the stars.

Asked in an interview whether he agreed with some critics who had described 2001 as a profoundly religious film, Kubrick replied:

“I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that its star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe.”

Continuing:

“When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the cosmology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.”

When the interviewer pressed further, inquiring what this envisioned cosmic evolutionary path has to do with the nature of God, Kubrick added:

“Everything—because these beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant that somehow comprehended man’s existence. They would possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence… They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.” 6

Kubrick was an atheist although unlike many atheists he acknowledged the religious impulse is an instinctual drive no less irrepressible than our hungers to eat and to procreate. This is so because at the irreducible heart of religion lies pure transcendence: the climbing up and beyond ordinary states of being. This desire to transcend whether by shamanic communion with the ancestors and animalistic spirits, monastic practices of meditation and devotion, or by brute technological means is something common to all cultures.

Thus the overarching message in 2001 is firstly that human nature is nature, for good and ill, and secondly that our innate capacity for reason will inexorably propel us to transcendence of our terrestrial origins. In short, it is the theory of Darwinian evolution writ large. Darwinism appropriated and repackaged as an updated creation story – a new mythology and surrogate religion that lends an alternative meaning of life. We will cease to worship nature or humanity, which is nature, it says, and if we continue to worship anything at all, our new icons will be representative only of Progress (capital P). Thus, evolution usurps god! Of course, the symbolism of 2001 can be given esoteric meaning too – indeed, there can never be a final exhaustive analysis of 2001 because like all masterpieces the full meaning is open to an infinitude of interpretations – and this I leave entirely for others to speculate upon.

In 1997, Arthur C. Clarke was invited by the BBC to appear on a special edition of the documentary series ‘Seven Wonders of the World’ (Season 2):

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I have returned to Darwin only because his vision of reality has become the accepted one. Acknowledging that human nature is just another natural outgrowth, it is tempting therefore to look to Darwin for answers. However, as I touched upon in the previous chapter, though Darwinism as biological mechanism is extremely well-established science, interpretations that follow from those evolutionary principles differ, and this is especially the case when we try to understand patterns of animal behaviour: how much stress to place on our own biological origins remains an even more hotly debated subject. And if we are to adjudicate fairly then one important consideration must be where Darwin’s own ideas originated.

In fact, as with all great scientific discoveries, we can trace a number of precursors including the nascent theory of his grandfather Erasmus, a founder member of the Lunar Society, who wrote lyrically in his seminal work Zoonomia:

“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!” 7

So doubtless Erasmus sowed the seeds for the Darwinian revolution, although his influence alone does not account for Charles Darwin’s central tenet that it is “the struggle for existence” which provides, as indeed it does, one plausible and vitally important mechanism in the process of natural selection, and thus, a key component in his complete explanation for the existence of such an abundant diversity of species. But again, what caused Charles Darwin to suspect that “the struggle for existence” necessarily involved such “a war of all against all” to begin with?

Well, it turns out that he had borrowed the first idea of “the struggle for existence”, a phrase that he uses as his title heading chapter three of The Origin of Species, directly from Thomas Malthus 8. Interestingly, Alfred Russell Wallace, the less remembered co-discoverer of evolutionary natural selection, who reached his own conclusions independent of Darwin’s work, had also been inspired in part by thoughts of this same concept, which though ancient in origin was by then generally attributed to Malthus.

The notion of “a war of all against all” however traces back further, at least as far back as the English Civil War, and to the writings of highly influential political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. 9 So it is indirectly from the writings of these two redoubtable Thomases that much our modern thinking about Nature and therefore, by extension, about human nature, has itself evolved. It is instructive therefore to examine the original context from which the formation and development of Hobbes and Malthus’s own ideas occurred; contributions that have been crucial to the evolution of not only evolutionary thinking, but foundational to the development of our post-enlightenment western civilisation. To avoid too much of a digression, I have decided to leave further discussion of Malthus and his continuing legacy for the addendum below, and here to focus attention on the thoughts and influence of Hobbes. But to get to Hobbes, who first devoted his attention to the study of the natural sciences and optics in particular, I will provide a brief diversion by way of my own subject, Physics.

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The title of Thomas Pynchon’s most celebrated novel Gravity’s Rainbow published in 1973 darkly alludes to the ballistic flight path of Germany’s V2 rockets that fell over London during the last days of the Second World War. Pynchon was able to conjure up this provocative metaphor because by the time of the late twentieth century everyone already knew very well, and seemingly by their direct experience, how projectiles follow a symmetrical and parabolic arc. It is strange to think, therefore, that for well over a millennium people in the western world, including the most scholarly among them, had believed that motion followed a set of quite different laws, presuming the trajectory of a thrown object, rather than following any sweeping arc, must be understood instead as comprised of two quite distinct phases.

Firstly, impelled by a force this object was presumed to enter a stage of “unnatural motion” as it climbed away from the earth’s surface – its natural resting place – before having eventually run out of steam, when it abruptly falls back to earth under “natural motion”. This is indeed our most common sense view of motion – a view any child would instantly recognise and immediately comprehend – although as with many common sense views of the physical world, it is absolutely wrong.

This rather striking illustration of scientific progress was first brought to my attention by a university professor who worked it into an unforgettable demonstration at the beginning of a lecture on error analysis. On the blackboard he first sketched out the two competing hypotheses: a beautifully smooth arc captioned ‘Galileo’ and before it a pair of arrows up and then down labeled ‘Aristotle’. Obviously Galileo was about to win, but then came the punchline as he pulled out a balloon, slapped it at an approximate angle of forty-five degrees before we all watched it drift back to earth just as Aristotle rightly predicted. With tremendous glee he finally drew a huge chalk cross across Galileo, and declared the message (if you didn’t understand) that above and beyond all the other considerations, it is essential you first design your experiment and carry out your observations with due care! 10

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Legend tells us that Newton was sitting under an apple tree in his garden, unable to fathom what force could maintain the earth in its orbit around the sun, when all of a sudden an apple fell and hit him on the head. And if this is a faithful account of Newton’s Eureka moment, then the symbolism is surely remarkable. We might even say that it was this fall of Newton’s apple that redeemed humanity after the original Fall; snapping Newton and by extension all humanity instantaneously from darkness into an Age of Reason. For if expulsion from Eden involved eating an apple, Newton’s apple paved the way for a new golden age. As poet Alexander Pope wrote so exuberantly: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.” 11

Of course Newton’s journey into light had not been a solo venture, and as he said himself, “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 12 The predecessors and contemporaries Newton pays homage to include Descartes, Huygens, and Kepler, although the name that stands tallest today is once again Galileo. For it was Galileo’s observations and insights that led more or less directly to what we describe today as Newton’s Laws, and in particular Newton’s First Law, which states (in various formulations) that objects remain in uniform motion or at rest unless acted upon by a force.

This deceptively simple law has many surprising consequences. It means that when we see an object moving faster and faster or slower and slower or – and this is an important point – changing its direction of motion, then there must be a force impelling it. Thus it follows that there is a requirement for a force to arc the path of the earth about the sun, and, likewise, one causing the moon to revolve about the earth; hence gravity. Conversely, if an object is at rest (or moving in a straight line at constant speed – the law makes no distinction) then we know the forces acting on it must be balanced in such a way as to cancel to zero. Thus, we can tell purely from any object’s motion whether the forces acting on it are ‘in equilibrium’ or not.

An alternative way of thinking about Newton’s First Law requires the introduction of a related idea called ‘inertia’. Inertia is the reluctance of any object to change its motion, and, it turned out that the more massive the object, the greater its inertia – here I am paraphrasing Newton’s Second law. What this means in practice is that if you set up a situation where there are no resistive forces then an object will travel continually with unchanging velocity. This completely counterintuitive discovery was arguably Galileo’s finest achievement and it is the principle that permits modern hyperloop technology – high speed maglev trains that run without friction through vacuum tunnels. It also permitted Galileo’s understanding of how the earth could revolve indefinitely around the sun and without us ever noticing.

While others falsely presumed that the birds would get left behind if the earth was in motion, Galileo saw that the earth’s moving platform was no different in principle from a moving ship, and that, like on board the ship, nothing gets left behind as it travels forward – this is easier to envisage if you think about being on a train or car and recall how it feels at constant speed, and how you sometimes cannot even tell whether the train you are on or the one on the other platform is moving.

Of course, when Galileo insisted on a heliocentric reality, he was directly challenging Papal authority and paid the inevitable price for his impertinence. Moreover, when he implored his opponents merely to look through his own telescope and see for themselves, they quickly declined the invitation. This is the nature of fundamentalism – not just religious variants but all forms. It is also in our own nature – this confirmation bias – to have little or no desire to learn we might be wrong about matters of central concern. So the Inquisition in Rome tried him instead, and naturally found him guilty, sentencing Galileo to lifelong house arrest with a strict ban on ever publishing anything again. Given the age, this was comparatively lenient; two decades earlier the Dominican friar and philosopher Giordano Bruno, who amongst other blasphemies had dared to suggest the universe had no centre and that the stars were just other suns surrounded by planets of their own, was burned at the stake.

Today, our temptation is to regard the Vatican’s hostility to Galileo’s new science as a straightforward attempt to deny the reality because it devalues the Biblical story which places not just earth, but the holy city of Jerusalem at the centre of the cosmos. However, Galileo’s heresy actually strikes a more fundamental blow, and one that challenges not just papal infallibility and the millennium-long Scholastic tradition – the tripartite dialectical synergy of Aristotle, Neoplatonism and Christianity – but by extension, the entire hierarchical establishment of the late medieval period and much more.

Prior to Galileo, as my professor illustrated so expertly with his hilarious balloon demonstration, the view had endured that all objects obeyed laws according to their inherent nature. Thus, rocks fell to earth because they were by nature ‘earthly’, whereas the sun and moon remained high above because they were made of more heavenly stuff. In short, things knew their place. By contrast, Galileo’s explanation is startlingly egalitarian. According to this new opinion, not only do all objects follow common laws – laws that apply even to celestial bodies like the planets and moon – but they are forced to do so because they are inherently inert. Not impelled by inner drives – a living essence – but compelled always and absolutely by external forces. At a stroke the universe is hereby reduced to mechanics; its inner workings utterly akin to a most highly elaborate mechanism. At a stroke, it is reasonable to say indeed, that Galileo killed the cosmos.

Now if Newton’s apple is a reworking of the Fall of Man as humanity’s redemption through scientific progress, then the best-known fable of Galileo (since the tale itself is again wholly apocryphal), is how he instructed someone to drop cannon balls of differing sizes from the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to test how objects fell to earth, observing that they landed simultaneously on the grass together. The experiment itself was famously recreated by Apollo astronauts on the moon’s surface where without the hindrance of an atmosphere, it was found that even objects as shocking different as a hammer and a feather, do indeed accelerate at the same rate, landing in the dust at precisely the same instant. In fact, I have repeated the experiment myself stood on a desk in class with smaller objects and surrounded by bemused students, who unfamiliar with the principle, are reliably astonished; since intuitively we all believe that the heavier weights fall faster.

But my real point is this: Galileo’s thought experiment invokes a different Biblical reference. It is also a parable of sorts, reminding us all not to jump to unscientific assumptions and instead always “to do the maths”. But, in common with Newton’s apple it retells another myth from Genesis; in this case recalling the Tower of Babel, an architectural endeavour conceived when the people of the world had been united and hoped to build a short-cut to heaven. Afterwards, God decided to punish us all (as He likes to do) with a divide and conquer strategy; our divided nations further confused by a multiplicity of languages. But then along came Galileo to unite us again with his own gift, the application of a new universal language called mathematics. As he wrote:

Philosophy is written in this grand book, which stands continually open before our eyes (I say the ‘Universe’), but cannot be understood without first learning to comprehend the language and know the characters as it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to humanly understand a word; without these one is wandering in a dark labyrinth. 13

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Thomas Hobbes was very well studied in the works of Galileo, and on his travels around Europe in the mid 1630s he may very well have visited the great man in Florence. 14 In any case, Hobbes fully adopts Galileo’s mechanistic conception of the universe and draws what he sees as its logical conclusion, interpolating from what is true for external nature and determining that this must also be true of human nature.

All human actions, Hobbes says, whether voluntary or involuntary, are the direct outcomes of physical bodily processes occurring inside our organs and muscles. 15 Of the precise mechanisms, he ascribes the origins to “insensible” actions that he calls “endeavours”; something he leaves for physiologists to study and comprehend. 16

Fleshing out this bio-mechanical model, Hobbes next explains how all human motivations – which he calls ‘passions’ – that must also function on the basis of these material processes are thereby reducible to forces of attraction and repulsion; in his own terms “appetites” and “aversions”. 17 Just like elaborate machines, Hobbes says, humans too operate in accordance with responses that entail either the automatic avoidance of pain or the increase of pleasure; the will being merely the overarching passion of all these lesser appetites.

Thus, having presented this strikingly modern conception of life as a whole and human nature in particular, which he has determined is inherently ‘selfish’ since concerned only with improving its own situation, Hobbes next considers what he calls “the natural condition of mankind” (or ‘state of nature’) which leads him to consider why “there is always war of everyone against everyone”:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of War, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. 18

According to Hobbes, this ‘state of nature’ becomes inevitable whenever our laws and social conventions cease to function and no longer protect us from our otherwise fundamentally rapacious selves. Once civilisation gives way to anarchy, then anarchy, according to Hobbes, is hell because our automatic drive to improve our own situation comes into direct conflict with every other human individual. And to validate his claim, Hobbes reminds us of the fastidious counter measures everyone takes to defend themselves against their fellows:

It may seem strange to some man, that has not well weighed these things; that Nature should thus dissociate, and render men apt to invade, and destroy one another: and he may therefore, not trusting to this Inference, made from the Passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by Experience. Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself, and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be Laws, and public Officers, armed, to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow subjects, when he rides armed; of his fellow Citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children, and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words? 19

Not that Hobbes is making a moral judgment, since he regards all nature, drawing no distinctions for human nature, as equally compelled by the self-same ‘passions’ and in this ongoing war of all on all, objectively sees the world as value neutral. As he continues:

But neither of us accuse mans nature in it. The Desires, and other Passions of man, are in themselves no Sin. No more are the Actions, that proceed from those Passions, till they know a Law that forbids them; which till Laws be made they cannot know: nor can any Law be made, till they have agreed upon the Person that shall make it. 20

All’s fair in love and war because fairness isn’t the point. According to Hobbes, what matters are the consequences of actions, and this again is a strikingly modern stance. Finally, Hobbes wishes only to ameliorate the flaws he perceives in human nature, in particular selfishness, by constraining behaviour in accordance with what he deduces to be ‘laws of nature’: precepts and general rules found out by reason. This, says Hobbes, is the only way to overcome what is otherwise man’s sorry state of existence in which a perpetual war of all against all ensures everyone’s life is “nasty, brutish and short”. Thus to save us all from our ‘state of nature’, as he calls it, he demands that we conform to his more reasoned ‘laws of nature’.

In short, not only does Hobbes’ prognosis speak to the urgency of securing a social contract, but his whole thesis heralds our bio-mechanical conception of life and of the evolution of life. Indeed, following from the tremendous successes of the physical sciences, Hobbes’ radical faith in materialism, which would then have seemed shocking to many, has slowly come to seem quite commonsensical; so much so that it led philosopher Karl Popper to coin the phrase “promissory materialism”: adherents to the physicalist view relegating all concerns about gaps in understanding as just problems to be worked out in future – just as Hobbes does, of course, when he delegates the task of comprehending all human actions and “endeavours” to the physiologists.

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But is it really is the case, as Hobbes declares, that individuals are controlled only by laws and social contracts. If so, then we might immediately wonder why acts of indiscriminate murder and rape are such comparatively rare crimes given that they are the toughest of all crimes to foil or to solve. In fact most people, most of the time, appear to prefer not to commit everyday atrocities, and it would be odd to suppose that they refrain purely because they fear arrest and punishment. Everyday experience tells us instead that most people simply don’t have very much inclination for committing violence or other serious criminal intent.

Moreover, if we look for supporting evidence of Hobbes’ conjecture then we can actually find an abundance that refutes him. We know for instance that the appalling loss of life in the trenches should have been far greater still was it not for a very deliberate lack of aim amongst the combatants. And this lack of zeal for killing even during the heat of battle turns out to be the norm as US General S. L. A. Marshall learned from firsthand accounts gathered at the end of World War II when he was tasked with debriefing thousands of returning GIs in order to learn more about their combat experiences. 21 What he actually discovered was almost incredible: not only had three-quarters of combatants never fired at the enemy even when under direct fire themselves, but amongst those who did only two-percent actually shot to kill.

Nor is this a modern phenomenon. At the end of Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, the Union Army collected up the tens of thousands of weapons and discovered that the vast majority were loaded. More than half of the rifles had multiple loads – one had 23 loads packed all the way up the barrel. 22 Many of these soldiers had never actually pulled the trigger; the majority preferring to feign combat rather literally than fire off shots.

Indeed it transpires that contrary to the depictions of battles in Hollywood movies, by far the majority of men take no pleasure at all in killing one another. Modern military training from Vietnam onwards has developed methods to compensate for the natural lack of bloodlust: heads are shaven, identities stripped, and conscripts are otherwise desensitized, turning men into better machines for war. But then, if there is one day in history more glorious than any other then surely it has to be the Christmas Armistice of 1914. The bloodied and muddied troops huddling for warmth in no-man’s land, sharing food, singing carols together, and playing the most beautiful game of football ever played: such outpourings of sanity in the face of lunacy that no movie screenplay could invent such a scene that did not appear impossibly sentimental and clichéd.

*

In his autobiography Hobbes famously relates that his mother’s shock at hearing the news of the Spanish Armada led to his premature birth, saying: “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” Doing his best to avoid getting caught up in the English Civil War, Hobbes certainly did live through exceptionally fearful times, which accounts for why his entire political theory is a response to fear with a tolerance for tyranny. Because Hobbes understood clearly that the power to protect is derived from the power to terrify; indeed to kill. In fact, Hobbes manages to conceive of a system of government whose authority is sanctified by terrifying its own subjects to consent in their own subjugation. On the same basis when a highwayman demands “your money or your life?” then if you agree you have entered into a Hobbesian contract! This is government by protection racket; his keenness for an overarching unassailable but benign dictator perhaps best captured by the absolute power he grants the State right down to the foundational level of determining what is moral:

I observe the Diseases of a Common-wealth, that proceed from the poison of seditious doctrines; whereof one is, “That every private man is Judge of Good and Evil actions.” This is true in the condition of mere Nature, where there are no Civil Laws; and also under Civil Government, in such cases as are not determined by the Law. But otherwise, it is manifest, that the measure of Good and Evil actions, is the Civil Law… 23

Remember that for Hobbes every action proceeds from a mechanistic cause and so the very concept of ‘freedom’ had struck him merely as a logical fallacy – and as someone who once had a bitter mathematical dispute with Oxford professor John Wallis after Hobbes erroneously claimed to be able to square the circle 24, his dismissal of ‘freedom’ is certainly fitting:

[W]ords whereby we conceive nothing but the sound, are those we call Absurd, insignificant, and Non-sense. And therefore if a man should talk to me of a Round Quadrangle; or Accidents Of Bread In Cheese; or Immaterial Substances; or of A Free Subject; A Free Will; or any Free, but free from being hindred by opposition, I should not say he were in an Error; but that his words were without meaning; that is to say, Absurd. 25

According to Hobbes then, freedom reduces absurdity – a round quadrangle! – which immediately opens the door to totalitarian rule: and no thinker was ever so willing as Hobbes to sacrifice freedom for the sake of security.

But Hobbes is mistaken once again, as one now famous experiment first carried out by psychologist Stanley Milgram – and since repeated many times – amply illustrates. For those unfamiliar with Milgram’s experiment, here is the set up: Volunteers are told they are part of a scientific trial investigating the effects of punishment on learning. After being separated into groups, assigned the roles either of teachers and learners, the learner is strapped into a chair and fitted with electrodes before in an adjacent room the teacher is given control of apparatus enabling him or her to deliver electric shocks. Teachers are also given a low voltage sample shock to give them a taste.

The experiment then proceeds with each wrong answer punished by administering an electric shock of increasing voltage which the teacher must incrementally adjust. As the scale on the generator approaches 400V, a marker reads “Danger Severe Shock” and beneath the final switches there is simply XXX. Proceeding beyond this level runs the risk of delivering a lethal shock, but in the experiment participants are asked to proceed nonetheless. How you may reasonably wonder could such an experiment have been ethically sanctioned? Well, all of the learners are really actors, their increasingly desperate pleading just as scripted as their screams, but importantly the real participants (the teachers) don’t know this.

The results – repeatable ones, as I say – are extremely alarming: a staggering two-thirds of the subjects went on to deliver what they believed was a potentially fatal electric shock. In fact, the experiment continued until the teacher administered three shocks at 450V level, by which time the actor playing the learner had stopped screaming and would have been presumed unconscious or dead. “The chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation”, Milgram wrote later, is that:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority. 26

Milgram’s experiment has sometimes been presented as proof of our innate human capacity for cruelty and for doing evil. But this was neither the object of his study nor the conclusion he makes. To Milgram the evidence is clear in fact, that the vast majority do not want to inflict suffering or harm to others, but that they will do it when under a certain kind of duress and especially when an authority figure is instructing them to:

Many of the people were in some sense against what they did to the learner, and many protested even while they obeyed. Some were totally convinced of the wrongness of their actions but could not bring themselves to make an open break with authority. They often derived satisfaction from their thoughts and felt that – within themselves, at least – they had been on the side of the angels. They tried to reduce strain by obeying the experimenter but “only slightly,” encouraging the learner, touching the generator switches gingerly. When interviewed, such a subject would stress that he “asserted my humanity” by administering the briefest shock possible. Handling the conflict in this manner was easier than defiance. 27

Milgram concludes that it is the observed tendency for compliance amongst ordinary people that had most enabled the Nazi’s crimes and led to the Holocaust. Milgram’s study also helps to account for why the soldiers of the First World War, who having shared food and songs with the enemy, afterwards returned to the trenches and were ready to fight on in the hours, days, weeks and years that followed the Christmas Armistice. They too were following orders, on top of which, disobedience was severely punished with the ignominy of a court martial before execution by firing squad.

In short, what Milgram study shows is that Hobbes’ solution is, at best, deeply misguided, because it is authoritarianism (his remedy) that leads ordinary humans to commit the greatest atrocities. So Milgram offers us a way of considering Hobbes from a top down perspective. It addresses the question of how obedience to authority influences human behaviour.

But what about the bottom up view? After all, this was Hobbes’ favoured approach, since he very firmly believed (albeit incorrectly) that his own philosophy was solidly underpinned by mathematics – his grand ambition had been to derive a social philosophy that followed logically and directly from the theorems of Euclid. And according to Hobbes’ derived but promissory materialism, which sees Nature as wholly mechanistic and reduces actions to impulse. According to this view, all animal behaviours – including our own – are thus fully accountable and ultimately determined by – to use a modern phrase – basic instincts. So what does biology have to say on this subject, or more specifically, what are the findings of those who closely study animal behaviour?

*

This chapter is concerned with words rather than birds…

So writes British ornithologist David Lack who devoted much of his life to the study of bird behaviour, conducting field work for four years while he also taught at Dartington Hall School in Devon; his spare-time spent observing populations of local robins; his findings delightfully written up in a seminal work titled straightforwardly The Life of the Robin. The passage I am about to quote follows on from the start of chapter fifteen in which he presents a thoughtful aside under the heading “A digression upon instinct”. It goes on:

A friend asked me how swallows found their way to Africa, to which I answered, ‘Oh, by instinct,’ and he departed satisfied. Yet the most that my statement could mean was that the direction finding of migratory birds is part of the inherited make-up of the species and is not the result of intelligence. It says nothing about the direction-finding process, which remains a mystery. But man, being always uneasy in the presence of the unknown, has to explain it, so when scientists abolish the gods of the earth, of lightning, and of love, they create instead gravity, electricity and instinct. Deification is replaced by reification, which is only a little less dangerous and far less picturesque.

Frustrated by the types of misunderstanding generated and perpetuated by misuse of the term ‘instinct’, Lack then ventures at length into the variety of ambiguities and mistakes that accompany it both in casual conversation or academic contexts; considerations that lead him to a striking conclusion:

The term instinct should be abandoned… Bird behaviour can be described and analysed without reference to instinct, and not only is the word unnecessary, but it is dangerous because it is confusing and misleading. Animal psychology is filled with terms which, like instinct, are meaningless, because so many different meanings have been attached to them, or because they refer to unobservables or because, starting as analogies, they have grown into entities. 28

When I first read Lack’s book I quickly fell under the spell of his lucid and nimble prose and marvelled at how the love for his subject was infectious. As ordinary as they may seem to us, robins live surprisingly complicated lives, and all of this was richly told, but what stood out most was Lack’s view on instinct: if its pervasive stink throws us off the scent in our attempts to study bird behaviour, then how much more alert must we be to its bearing on perceived truths about human psychology? Lack ends his own brief digression with a germane quote from philosopher Francis Bacon that neatly considers both:

“It is strange how men, like owls, see sharply in the darkness of their own notions, but in the daylight of experience wink and are blinded.” 29

*

The wolves of childhood were creatures of nightmares. One tale told of a big bad wolf blowing your house down to eat you! Another reported a wolf sneakily dressing up as an elderly relative and climbing into bed. Just close enough to eat you! Still less fortunate was the poor duck in Prokofiev’s enchanting children’s suite Peter and the Wolf, swallowed alive and heard quaking from inside his stomach to the end. Then, as I got older, I also began to hear stories about werewolves that sent still icier dread coursing down my spine…

I could go on and on with this because wolves have been portrayed as rapacious and villainous throughout folkloric traditions across the civilised world, which is actually very curious. Curious because wolves are not especially threatening to humans and wolf attacks are comparatively rare occurrences – while other large animals including bears, all of the big cats, sharks, crocodiles, and even large herbivores like elephants and hippos, pose a far greater threat to us. Moreover, polar bears are known to stalk humans routinely, but in spite of this we have learned to find them cuddly rather than terrifying. It is likely then that our attitudes towards the wolf are shaped by other factors besides the observed behaviour of wolves themselves.

So now let us consider the rather extraordinary relationship our species actually has with another large carnivore: man’s best friend and cousin of the wolf, the dog – and incidentally, dogs kill (and likely have always killed) many more people than wolves.

The close association between humans and dogs is incredibly ancient. Dogs are quite possibly the first animals humans ever domesticated, and so ubiquitous that no society on earth exists that hasn’t adopted them. An adoption that took place so long ago in prehistory, conceivably it may even have played a direct role in the evolutionary development of our species; and since frankly we will never know the answers here, I feel free to speculate a little. So here is my own tale about the wolf…

One night a tribe was sat around the campsite finishing off the last of their meal as a hungry wolf watched on. A lone wolf, and being a lone wolf, barely able to survive in his very difficult and precarious existence, and longing for company. Drawn by the smell of the cooking and the warmth of the fire, the wolf entered the encampment and for once wasn’t chased away or beaten with sticks, but instead one in the gathering tossed him a bone to chew on. The next night the wolf returned, and the next, and the next, until soon he was welcomed permanently as one of the tribe: the wolf at the door had found a new home as the wolf by the hearth.

It’s a story that sounds probable enough to have happened countless times in fact and in many locations. Having enjoyed the company of the wolf, the people of the tribe may later have found wolf cubs and adopted them (or perhaps it all began with cubs). In any case, as the wolves became domesticated they changed, and after only a few generations of selective breeding, were fully transformed into dogs. So much for speculation: the rest of the story is more or less obvious. With dogs we had better protection and could hunt more effectively. Dogs run faster, have greater endurance, keener hearing and smell. They became our fetchers and carriers; our dogsbodies. Our symbiotic relationship meant that like cave creatures without pigmentation and in which eyesight atrophies in favour of greater tactile sense and even sonar 30, we could likewise lose acuity in those senses we no longer needed, since the dogs compensated for our loss, and set our brains to other tasks: advanced dexterity and language skills. Did we also lose our snarls and replace them with smiles?

I shan’t say much more about wolves, except that we know from our close bond with dogs that they are affectionate and loyal creatures. So why did we vilify them as the “big, bad wolf”? My hunch is that they represent symbolically, something we have lost, or perhaps more pertinently, that we have repressed in the process of our own domestication. In a deeper sense, this psychological severance involved our alienation from all of nature. It has caused us to believe, like Hobbes, that all of nature is nothing but rapacious appetite, red in tooth and claw, and that morality must therefore be imposed upon it by something other; that other being human rationality.

Our scientific understanding of wolf behaviour has been radically overturned. Previously accepted beliefs that wolves compete for dominance by becoming alpha males or females turn out to be largely untrue. Or at least this happens only if unrelated wolves are kept in captivity. In all cases where wolves are studied in their natural environment, the so-called ‘alpha’ wolves are just the parents – in other words, wolves form families just like we do:

*

One school views morality as a cultural innovation achieved by our species alone. This school does not see moral tendencies as part and parcel of human nature. Our ancestors, it claims, became moral by choice. The second school, in contrast, views morality as growing out of the social instincts that we share with many other animals. In this view, morality is neither unique to us nor a conscious decision taken at a specific point in time: it is the product of gradual social evolution. The first standpoint assumes that deep down we are not truly moral. It views morality as a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature. Perfectibility is what we should strive for. Until recently, this was the dominant view within evolutionary biology as well as among science writers popularizing this field. 31

These are the words of Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who became one of the world’s leading experts in chimpanzee behaviour. Based on his studies, de Waal applied the term “Machiavellian intelligence” to describe the variety of cunning and deceptive social strategies used by chimps. A few years later, however, de Waal came across their and our pygmy cousins the bonobos that were also captive in a zoo in Holland, and says they had an immediate effect on him:

“[T]hey’re totally different. The sense you get looking them in the eyes is that they’re more sensitive, more sensual, not necessarily more intelligent, but there’s a high emotional awareness, so to speak, of each other and also of people who look at them.” 32

Sharing a common ancestor with bonobos and chimps, humans are in fact equally closely-related to both species, and interestingly when de Waal was asked do you think we’re more like bonobo or chimp he replied:

“I would say there are people in this world who like hierarchies, they like to keep people in their place, they like law enforcement, and they probably have a lot in common, let’s say, with the chimpanzee. And then you have other people in this world who root for the underdog, they give to the poor, they feel the need to be good, and they maybe have more of this kinder bonobo side to them. Our societies are constructed around the interface between those two, so we need both actually.” 33

De Waals and others who have studied primates are often astonished by the kinship with our own species. When we look deep into the eyes of chimps, gorillas, or even those of our dogs, we find ourselves reflected in every way. It’s not hard to fathom where morality came from, and the ‘veneer theory’ of Hobbes reeks of a certain kind of religiosity, infused with the hardship and terrors of civil strife.

*

I opened this section with the vulgarised Darwinian account of human beings as apex predators struggling for survival on an ecological battlefield, fighting over scraps, and otherwise competing for a meagre share of strictly limited resources. It is hard not to find this vision of reality, our overarching belief in scientific materialism (aka scientism), a depressing one, and yet this has become the prevailing orthodoxy – the Weltanschauung of our times – albeit seldom expressed quite so antiseptically.

Indeed, to boil this down further, as doctrinaire hardliners really ought to insist, we must best comprehend ourselves as biological robots genetically coded solely for reproductive success, functioning for just such time as required prior to our inevitable and inconsequential death, in order to propagate the species until such time as the species as a whole becomes extinct, or until such time as the inherently meaningless universe succumbs to its own overarching and totally insignificant end. No amount of space colonisation can save us here. In fact, more nakedly told, it is not merely that, as Nietzsche famously lamented, “God is dead”, which has some upsides, but, that although very richly animated there is nothing besides machine process at all, anywhere in this universe or the next. This is Hobbes in a nutshell too.

Like the old religions, the boundaries of our new mechanistic system extend infinitely and thereby encompass whatever remnants of God or gods we might ever try to salvage. There is no location for the god within and no apparatus for free will. Love is obviously another epiphenomenal illusion. Redemption is available but only by virtue of a genetic operating system which includes a compensatory subroutine compelling us to carry on regardless of the painful irrelevance of our human situation. In fact, few of us deeply consider the existential ramifications of the materialist doctrine we have, for the most part unconsciously inculcated; and almost no-one lives life in strict nihilistic accordance. Instead, we mostly bump along trying to be good people (a religious hangover maybe) and guided by the approximate view expressed so lucidly by Morty Smith that: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.” 34

*

New scientific studies are proving that primates, elephants, and other mammals including dogs also show empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity. That morality is an aspect of nature. Here Frans de Waal shares some surprising videos of behavioral tests that show how many of these moral traits all of us share:

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II       Between two worlds

If men were as much men as lizards are lizards

They’d be worth looking at

— D. H. Lawrence 35

*

Of all the creatures on earth, apart from a few curiosities like the kangaroo and giant pangolin, or some species of long-since extinct dinosaurs, only the birds share our bipedality. The adaptive advantage of flight is so self-evident that there’s no need to ponder why the forelimbs of birds morphed into wings, but the case for humans is more curious. Why it was that about four million years ago, a branch of hominids chose to stand on two legs rather than four, enabling them to move quite differently from our closest living relatives (bonobos and chimps) with all of the physiological modifications this involved, still remains a mystery. But what is abundantly clear and beyond all speculation is that this single evolutionary change freed up our hands for purposes no longer restricted by their formative locomotive demands, and that having liberated our hands, not only did we become supreme manipulators of tools, but this sparked a parallel growth in intelligence, causing us to become supreme manipulators per se – the very etymological root of the word coming from ‘man-’ meaning ‘hand’ of course.

With our evolution as manual apes, humans also became constructors, and curiously here is another trait that we have in common with many species of birds. That birds are able to build elaborate structures to live in is indeed a remarkable fact, and that they necessarily achieve this by organising and arranging the materials using only their beaks is surely more remarkable again. Storks with their ungainly bills somehow manage to arrange large piles twigs so carefully that their nests often overhang impossibly small platforms like the tips of telegraph poles. House martins construct wonderfully symmetrical domes just by patiently gluing together globules of mud. Weaver birds, a range of species similar to finches, build the most elaborate nests of all, and quite literally weave their homes from blades of grass. How they acquired this ability remains another mystery, for though recent studies have found that there is a degree of learning involved in the styles and manner of construction, this general ability of birds to construct nests is an innate one. According to that throwaway term, they do it ‘by instinct’. By contrast, in one way or another, all human builders must be trained. As with so much about us, all our constructions are therefore cultural artefacts.

*

With very few exceptions, owls have yellow eyes. Cormorants instead have green eyes. Moorhens and coots have red eyes. The otherwise unspectacular satin bowerbird has violet eyes. Jackdaws sometimes have blue eyes. Blackbirds have extremely dark eyes – darker even than their feathers – jet black pearls set within a slim orange annulus which neatly matches their strikingly orange beaks. While eye colour is common to birds within each species, the case is clearly different amongst humans, where eye colour is one of a multitude of variable physical characteristics including natural hair and skin colour, facial characteristics, and height. Nonetheless, as with birds and other animals where there is significant uniformity, most of these colourings and other identifying features are physical expressions of the individual’s genetic make-up or genotype; an outward expression of genetic inheritance known technically as the phenotype.

For a wide diversity of species, there is also an inheritance of behaviour that then acts to shape the creature’s immediate environment – so the full phenotypic expression is observed to operate outside the body of the creature too. These ‘extended phenotypes’ as Dawkins calls them are discovered within such wondrous but everyday structures as spider’s webs, delicate tube-like homes formed by caddis fly larvae, the larger scale constructions of beaver’s dams and of course bird’s nests. It is reasonable therefore to speculate on whether the same evolutionary principle applies to our human world.

What, for instance, of our own houses, cars, roads, bridges, dams, fortresses, cathedrals, systems of knowledge, economies, music and other works of art, languages…? Once we have correctly located our species as just another of amongst many, existing at a different tip of an otherwise unremarkable branch of our undifferentiated evolutionary tree of life, why wouldn’t we judge our own designs as similarly latent expressions of human genes interacting with their environment? Indeed, Dawkins addresses this point directly and points out that tempting as it may be, such broadening of the concept of phenotype stretches his ideas too far, since, to offer his own example, scientific justification must then be sought for genetic differences between the architects of different styles of buildings! 36

So the distinction is actually clear: artefacts of human conception which can be as wildly diverse as Japanese Noh theatre, Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon, Dadaist poetry, recipes for Christmas pudding, TV footage of Geoff Hurst scoring a World Cup hat-trick, and as mundane as flush toilets, or rarefied as Einstein’s thought experiments, are all categorically different from such animal artefacts as spider’s webs and beaver’s dams. They are patterns of culture not nature. Likewise, all human behaviour right down to the most ephemeral including gestures, articulations and tics, is profoundly patterned by culture and not fully shaped only by pre-existing and underlying patterns within our human phenotypes.

Vocabulary – another human artefact – makes this plain. We all know that eggs are ‘natural’ whereas Easter eggs are distinguishable as ‘artificial’, and that the eye is ‘natural’ while cameras are ‘technological’ with both of our antonyms deriving roots in words for ‘art’. Which means that while ‘nature’ is a strangely slippery noun that in English points to a whole host of interrelated objects and ideas, it is found nonetheless that throughout other languages equivalent words do exist to distinguish our manufactured worlds – of arts and artifice – from the surrounding physical world comprised solely of animals, plants and landscapes. A reinvention of this same word-concept that occurs for a simple yet important reason: the difference it labels is inescapable.

*

As a species, we are incorrigibly anthropomorphising, constantly imbuing the world with our own attributes and mores. Which brings up a related point: what other animal is capable of reimagining things in order to make them conform to a preconceived notion of any kind? Dogs may mistake us as other dogs – although I doubt this – but then we are their partners within our packs, and thus surrogate dogs. But from what I know of dogs, their world more simply is… stick chasing… crap taking… sleep sleeping… and going for a walk is again simply being present on an outdoor exploration! They live so close to the passing moment, whereas we mostly cannot. Instead we drift in and out of the past and the future, recollections and goals, far more than we attend to the present.

And the world for human beings is really nothing without other human beings. Without other humans there is no culture, and human beings are primarily creatures of culture. Yes, there would still be the wondrous works of nature, but no art beyond this, and no music except for the occasional bird-song and the wind in the trees: nothing but nothing beyond the things-in-themselves that surround us, and without other humans, no need to communicate our feelings about any of this. In fact, there could be no means to communicate at all, since no language could ever form in such isolation. Instead, we would float through a wordless existence, which might be blissful or grindingly dull, but either way our emotions would remain unnamed.

However, it is extremely hard to imagine any kind of world without words, although such a world quite certainly exists. It exists for animals and it exists in exceptional circumstances for humans too. The abandoned children, nurtured by wild animals (especially wolves), offer an uneasy insight into this world beyond words. So too, for different reasons, do a few of the profound and congenitally deaf. On very rare occasions, these children have gone on to learn how to communicate, and when this happens, what they tell us is just how important language is.

In his book Seeing Voices, neurologist Oliver Sacks, describes the awakening of a number of very remarkable individuals. One such was Jean Massieu. Almost without language until the age of fourteen, Massieu had become a pupil at Roch-Ambroise, Cucurron Sicard’s pioneering school for the deaf. Based on Sicard’s account, Sacks describes Massieu’s dramatically steep learning curve, and considers how similar it is to his own personal experience with a deaf child. Astonishingly, Massieu went on to become eloquent in both sign language and written French.

It was just by attaching names to objects in the pictures Massieu had drawn, that Sicard soon started to open the young man’s eyes. Labels that, to begin with, left his pupil “utterly mystified”, but then suddenly Massieu had “got it”. And his understanding went beyond the mere abstract connection between the pencil lines of his own drawing and the at-first incongruous additional strokes of his tutor’s labels, as almost immediately, Massieu understood the value of having such a tool: “… from that moment on, the drawing was banished, we replaced it with writing.”

The most magical part of Sack’s retelling comes in the description of Massieu and Sicard’s walks together through the woods. “He didn’t have enough tablets and pencils for all the names with which I filled his dictionary, and his soul seemed to expand and grow with these innumerable denominations…” Sicard later wrote.

Massieu’s epiphany brings freshly to mind the story of Adam. His naming of all the animals in the story of Genesis, and Sack’s tells us:

“With the acquisition of names, of words for everything, Sicard felt, there was a radical change in Massieu’s relation to the world – he had become like Adam: ‘This newcomer to earth was a stranger on his own estates, which were restored to him as he learned their names.’” 37

Rather obviously, it is our gift for language that most sets us most apart from other creatures. Not that humans invented language from scratch, of course, since it grew up both with us and within us: one part phenotype and one part culture. It evolved within other species too, but for reasons unclear, we excelled, and as a consequence became adapted to live in two worlds, or as Aldous Huxley preferred to put it: we have become “amphibian”, in that we simultaneously occupy “the given and the home-made, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols.” 38

Using words we can relate the present, reconstruct the past, and envisage a future. This moves us outside Time. It makes us feel at home, helps us to heal past wounds and to prepare for future events. Correspondingly, it also detaches us from the present. Whereas most living organisms can and do exist fully within immediate physical reality, human beings occupy a parallel ideational space: and there we are wholly embedded in language. Now think about that for a moment… no really do! Stop reading this. Completely ignore this page of letters, and silence your mind. Okay, close your eyes and turn your attention to absolutely anything you like and then continue reading…

So here’s my question: when you were engaged in pure thought, whatever it was you thought about, did you use any words at all? Very likely you literally “heard” them: your inner voice responding in its quiet, familiar way. Pause again and now contemplate the everyday noise of being oneself. Notice how exceedingly difficult it is to exist even for a moment without any recourse to language. I am therefore I think! For as our monkey minds go off wandering, instantly the words creep back, and with words come detachment from the present. Every spiritual teacher knows this, of course, and understands that the art of meditation does not involve any attempt to silence our excitable thoughts, but to ignore them. For we cannot be wholly present to the here and now while our mind darts off to visit memories, wishes, opinions, descriptions, concepts and plans: the same memories, wishes, opinions, descriptions, concepts and plans that gave us an evolutionary advantage over our fellow creatures.

It is evident therefore how in this essential way we are indeed oddly akin to amphibious beings since we occupy and move between two distinct habitats. Put differently, our sensuous, tangible outside world of thinginess (philosophers sometimes call this ‘sense data’) is totally immersed within the inner realms of language and symbolism. So when we observe a blob with eight thin appendages we probably see something spider-like. If we hate spiders then we are very likely to recoil from it. If we have a stronger aversion then we will recoil even after we are completely sure that it’s just a picture of a spider or, in extreme cases, a tomato stalk. On such occasions, our feelings of fear or disgust arise not as the result of failing to distinguish the likeness of a spider from a real spider, but from the power of our own imagination: we jump at the thought of a spider.

Moreover, words are sticky. They connect together in streams of association and this moulds our ideas. Religion = goodness. Religion = stupidity. If we hold the first opinion then crosses and pictures of saints will automatically generate a different affect than if we hold the latter. Or how about replacing the word ‘religion’ with say ‘patriotism’: obviously our perception of the world alters in another way. And just as the pheromones in the animal kingdom cause the direct transmission of behavioural effects to members of a species, the language secreted by humans is likewise capable of directly impacting the behaviour of others.

Now it is a modern tendency to suppose that the arrow which connects these strikingly different domains unerringly points in one direction: that language primarily describes the world, while the world as such is relatively unmoved by our descriptions of it. This is the presumed scientific arrangement in fact. By contrast, any kind of magical reinterpretation of reality involves a deliberate reversal of the direction of the arrow such that all symbols and language are treated as potent agents that might actively cause change within the material realm. Scientific opinion holds that this is false, and yet, on a deeply personal level, language and symbolism not only comprise the living world, but do quite literally shape and transform it. As Aldous Huxley writes:

“Without language we should merely be hairless chimpanzees Indeed, we should be something much worse. Possessed of a high IQ but no language, we should be like the Yahoos of Gulliver’s Travels—creatures too clever to be guided by instinct, too self-centred to live in a state of animal grace, and therefore condemned to remain forever, frustrated and malignant, between contented apehood and aspiring humanity. It was language that made possible the accumulation of knowledge and the broadcasting of information. It was language that permitted the expression of religious insight, the formulation of ethical ideals, the codification of laws. It was language, in a word, that turned us into human beings and gave birth to civilization.” 39

*

III      Past lives

“All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature”

— Karl Marx 40

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History, someone once joked, is just one damn thing after another! A neat one-liner, disassembling history, as it does, into its component and frequently terrible events, which then follow in sequence with little more intent than the random footsteps of the drunkard. Progress may be admitted in both cases, of course, for in spite of deficiencies in our sense of direction we generally make it home.

However, to view history in such a wholly disjointed way is also to desiccate it, although such a vulgar reductio ad absurdum is also the reason, of course, the joke is amusing. For why bother studying history at all when it makes so little sense? History, thus reduced, is surely bunk, and yet history at school has traditionally been taught very much like this: as just one thing after another…

Real historians make their living by joining up the dots instead, and attempting to put flesh back on the bones by reconstructing the past much like palaeontologists reconstruct dinosaurs. But here again there are dangers. After all when you’ve only got bones you’ve got to add the muscle and skin to your tyrannosaurus rex, and these have to be included on the basis of what you know about living, or at least, less extinct creatures. So when I was still a child, I learnt about an enormously long, herbivorous monster called the brontosaurus, whereas, as it now transpires, no such creature ever walked the Earth… at least not quite such a creature. Its discoverer, Othniel Charles Marsh, in his rush to establish a new species, had accidentally got the bones jumbled up. Worse than this, Marsh, having excavated an almost complete skeleton, though one lacking just a skull, had creatively added a composite head constructed from finds at different locations. As it transpires then, the brontosaurus that he thought he’d discovered was just an adult specimen of an already classified group, the apatosaurus.

What applies to reconstructions in palaeontology also applies, at least in general terms, to reconstructions of human history: the difference being that whereas palaeontologists rely on fossil records, historians pieces together the surviving records of a different kind: books, documents, diaries, and during more recent times, photographs and audio-visual recordings. When detailing and interpreting events beyond living memory (which is rather short) the historian then has to rely solely on documentary sources, since there is literally nothing else. This magnifies the difficulty faced by the historian, since, unlike bones and rocks, human records can frequently distort the truth (either wilfully or by accidents of memory).

How, then, does a scrupulous historian know which records to trust, especially if he encounters records that are in direct contradiction? How to ascribe greater reliability to some records over others? Or to determine whether any newly unearthed record is reliable, unreliable, authentic or just a hoax? Well, here s/he must become a detective, and just as a police detective relies upon cross-examination to check facts and corroborate evidence from witnesses, so the diligent historian makes thorough cross-checks against his alternative sources. There is, of course, an ineluctable circularity to all this.

In 1983, when the Hitler Diaries turned up out of the blue, they were quickly authenticated by three different expert historians, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Eberhard Jäckel and Gerhard Weinberg. The diaries were shortly afterwards proven to be forgeries, and soon afterwards totally discredited by means of actual forensic analysis. Handwriting turned out to be the biggest give-away. But then Hitler had been dead a mere half a century, well within living memory, and so there were ample handwritten documents to compare his words against. Such unassailable forensic evidence is obviously the exception rather than the rule for the greatest tracts of history.

Historians have their work cut out, since getting the basic facts straight is just the start of the process. If History is to be a living subject then they must try not to leave out too much of the warm, moist uncertainty of the real lives that made it, even though the greater part of most past lives must inevitably be lost in history’s creases, whilst any History told as just one damn thing after another is History shrivelled up to the driest of husks. Indeed, as archaeologist and historian John Romer once elegantly put it: “History is only myth: stories trying to make sense of reality” 41

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Two decades ago, I embarked an adventure to the USA. I was travelling with Neil, a friend and post-graduate colleague, to the International Conference on Asteroids, Comets and Meteors in Flagstaff, Arizona. We were wined and dined and given tours of the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. It was to be a most splendid jolly!

After the conference, we also took a tour a little further into the great continent. We hired a car and headed west on Route 66, only reaching our final destination, San Francisco, after a solid week of driving. Along the way, we had stopped to admire the great Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, Los Angeles, the giant redwoods and the towering rocks of Monument Valley which form such a spectacular backdrop to so many Westerns. En route we had also encountered the occasional roadside stalls where the Native Americans who sold trinkets to get by would try to entice passing trade with off-road signs and promises of dinosaur footprints.

On one of our excursions we visited that most famous of petrified forests, with its fossilised trees strewn like ancient bronze-casts, and then nearby, we wandered the ruined remains of human settlements. The ruins had signs too, ones that told us the houses were believed to have been built about six hundred years old or so, or, as the notes put it: “prehistoric”. Being Europeans we laughed, but of course we shouldn’t have. The idea that a mere six hundred years old could be designated “prehistoric” was not another fine example of dumb-ass American thinking, but a straightforward fact: history, as I said above, being a discipline that arises from documentation. Automatically, therefore, we, meaning all modern people, have, to put matters mildly, an historical bias.

Let’s be clear: Christopher Columbus did not discover America. For one thing, there were millions of people already living there. But Columbus wasn’t even the first European to sail to the ‘New World’. That honour more likely goes to Erik Thorvaldsson better known as Erik the Red, the Viking explorer credited in the Icelandic sagas with founding the first settlement in Greenland. Nor was Columbus the first European ever to set foot on continental American soil. The plaudits here should go instead to Thorvaldsson’s son, Lief Erikson, who according to the sagas established a Norse settlement in Vinland, now called Newfoundland. This all took place a full five centuries before the voyage of Genoese pretender Columbus.

What then did Columbus bring to our story, if not discovery? Well, the answer can be read in his lines of his captain’s log. This is what he writes about his first encounter with the Arawak Indians who inhabited the archipelago known today as the Bahamas:

They go as naked as when their mothers bore them, and so do the women, although I did not see more than one young girl. All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances… They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance… They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion.

On the next day, Columbus then writes:

I was attentive, and took trouble to ascertain if there was gold. I saw that some of them had a small piece fastened in a hole they have in the nose, and by signs I was able to make out that to the south, or going from an island to the south, there was a king who had great cups full, and who possessed a great quantity.

The following day, a Sunday, Columbus decided to explore the other side of the island, and once again was welcomed by the villagers. He writes:

I saw a piece of land which appeared like an island, although it is not one, and on it there were six houses. It might be converted into an island in two days, though I do not see that it would be necessary, for these people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them. 42

Having failed in his quest for gold, Columbus subsequent expeditions sought out a different cargo to bring back to Spain. In 1495, they corralled 1,500 Arawak men, women and children in pens and selected the fittest five hundred specimens for transportation. Two hundred died onboard the ships and the survivors were all sold in slavery. Unfortunately for Columbus, however, and by turns for the native people of the Caribbean, this trade in humans was insufficiently profitable to pay back his investors, and so Columbus adopted a different strategy and intensified his search for gold again.

In Haiti, where he believed the precious metal lay in greatest abundance, Columbus soon demanded that everyone over the age of fourteen must find and exchange a quarterly tribute for a copper token. Failure to comply was severely punished with the amputation of limbs; victim left to bleed to death, and those who tried out of desperation to escape hunted down with dogs and then summarily executed.

Bartolome de las Casas, a young priest who had arrived to participate in the conquest and was indeed for a time a plantation owner, afterwards became an outspoken critic and reported on the many atrocities he witnessed. 43 In his own three-volume chronicle, History of the Indies, las Casas later wrote:

The Indians were totally deprived of their freedom and were put into the harshest, fiercest, most horrible servitude and captivity which no one who has not seen it can understand. Even beasts enjoy more freedom when they are allowed to graze in the field. 44

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Napoleon has been attributed with the utterance that “History is written by the winners” or alternatively, “What is History but a fable agreed upon” 45, and for one with such a prodigious record both of winning and “making history”, who doubts that he knew whereof he spoke. Strange, therefore, the little attention paid to Napoleon’s straight-talking maxim. How instead we eagerly absorb the authorised versions of our histories, trusting that by virtue of scholastic diligence and impartiality, these reconstructions of the past represent a near facsimile to the actuality of the real events. But then, with regards to the centuries-long fractious infighting between the European monarchies, we are privy to the accounts of both adversaries. So here we generally have – at the very least – two sides to every tale of every conflict, scandal and criminal act. In stark contrast, of course, when the British and the other European powers first sailed to those unconquered lands soon after to be collectively known as “the colonies”, only one side of the story remains extant.

For during the period of the last five hundred years or so, times when western records have been most replete, a world once teeming with a diversity of alternative cultures, has been slowly wiped away: the people of these forgotten worlds either annihilated or wholly assimilated by the great European powers. Our rather homogeneous culture, by the terror of cannons and on other occasions by the softer coercions of the sermons of missionaries, has thereby steadily erased and replaced the heterogeneous confusion sometimes as swiftly as it was encountered. Defeated cultures, if not entire indigenous populations, not just swept aside and defeated, but utterly and irreversibly deleted.

Oral traditions leave little if anything in the way of an historical trace, and so back in the fifteenth century, America was indeed “prehistoric”; its history having first been established only when first the alien invaders (as the first Europeans must have appeared to the wide eyes of the native peoples they were about to overwhelm – as creatures from another world) stepped ashore. As in the Americas, so too in Australia and the other so-called “new worlds”, where, of the novelties we brought, perhaps the most significant was History itself.

When relying upon evidence from History, it is important therefore, to continually bear in mind that throughout most regions of the world, throughout almost all of human time, people didn’t actually have any. That all of History begins only with writing, which was a largely Eurasian preoccupation. Thus History in most parts of the world only began with our arrival: its origins, an indirect consequence of conquest, oppression, exploitation and enslavement.

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author and activist Chris Hedges discusses the teaching of history as a form of indoctrination with Professor James W. Loewen, author of ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’:

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I could at this juncture attempt to set out to list all the barbarisms of history, although to do justice I would need to at least double the length of the current chapter. Just a few examples will more than serve the purpose of illustrating the point…

From the North came the longboats of the Vikings intent on rape and pillage; from the East, the marauding Mongol horde, and the butchery of tyrants such as Vlad the Impaler; in the Mediterranean South, we were once entertained by the sadistic spectaculars of the Roman circuses, and then afterwards the more ideologically entrenched, atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition. When the first Europeans explored the lands of the West, the ruthless conquistadors came face to face with the blood-curdling savagery of the Aztec and Mayan empires. Which was the more dreadful?

In former times, the Christians marched thousands of miles to slaughter innocents in the name of the Prince of Peace, and, in astonishingly recent times, other Christians dispatched heathens and heretics by drowning, burning and lynching, especially at the height of the witch craze that swept Europe and America well into the Enlightenment period.

Muslims, by comparison, have generally preferred to kill in the name of Jihad and Fatwa, or else to inflict judicial cruelties by means of stoning, flagellation, amputation and decapitation, all in strict accordance to their holy Sharia Law. But then the irreligious are no less diabolical, whether we consider Hitler and the Nazi death camps, or the Soviet gulags, or the killing fields of Cambodia, and Mao Tse-tung’s “Cultural Revolution” in China. Given how little time has passed since the decline of religion, the sheer number of victims tortured and murdered by these surrogate atheistic (or perhaps neo-pagan in the case of the Nazis) regimes is as gut-wrenching as it is perplexing.

Few have spoken with more forceful eloquence or erudition on the evils of religion than ardent atheist Christopher Hitchens. Sadly it was this same hatred of religion that in the end led Hitchens to join in the chorus calling for the neo-imperialist ‘war on terror’ and finally arguing the case for the ‘shock and awe’ bombing and subsequent invasion of Iraq at the cost of more than a million innocent lives in a 2003 collection of essays entitled A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. One of Hitchens’ prime examples of religious authority making good people behave in morally repugnant ways is the barbarous practice of infant genital mutilation:

Britain itself witnessed centuries of religious intolerance, brutal repression and outright thuggery. Henry VIII, one of the most celebrated monsters in history, is chiefly remembered for his penchant for uxoricide, not to mention the land-grabbing and bloodletting of the English Reformation that followed from the convenience of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. And like father, like daughter: this radical transformation of the sectarian landscape under Henry being partially undone by Bloody Mary’s reign of terror and her ultimately failed restoration of Catholicism (and had she been successful it is doubtful she would be remembered as “Bloody Mary”).

Meantime, the sudden rise and spread of the British and other European empires meant that such commonplace domestic atrocities could, during the next four hundred years, be committed as far afield as Africa, North and South America, India, China, and Australia. All of this facilitated by, and, in turn facilitating and encouraging, the international trade in human slaves. Of course, the European place in world history has been a repeatedly shameful one, but then man’s inhumanity to human has also been legitimised and justified for a hundred other reasons beneath dozens of alternative flags. According to historical records then, human nature is infernally bad, and incurably so.

Cruel, bellicose, sneaky, and selfish; we must plead guilty on all counts. We are perhaps the worst, though differing by degree from our fellow creatures. And here is something genuinely unique: many of us feel disgraced by our own diabolical behaviour. Somehow, we know that there is a better way to use our special talents. But then, what other creature could take such a detached position? Could actually aspire to be kinder, peaceful, and more selfless?

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The French writer Voltaire is nowadays best remembered for his marvelous satire, Candide (1759), which he subtitled with characteristic irony: “or the Optimist”. A savage critique of the unenlightened politics and obscurantist metaphysics of his time, Candide is an historical fantasy, with many episodes in the book cleverly interwoven with factual events of the period. It is rightly celebrated, and I reference its central theme in the addendum below. A decade earlier, however, Voltaire had road-tested similar ideas, choosing not an historical backdrop, but one that we would today describe as science fiction. A forgotten classic, Voltaire’s Micromegas (1750) is a story about the adventures of two philosophical aliens. Here is a brief synopsis.

Micromegas, the eponymous hero, is a gigantic inhabitant of the star Sirius, who ventures to Earth, stopping off at Saturn along the way. Being many miles tall, the Saturnians who are themselves as tall as small hills, nevertheless appear to Micromegas as pigmies, and so his initial response is to deride them: “accustomed as he was at the sight of novelties, he could not for his life repress that supercilious and conceited smile which often escapes the wisest philosopher, when he [first] perceived the smallness of that globe, and the diminutive size of the inhabitants”. Eventually, however, and once the Saturnians ceased to be amazed by his gigantic presence, he befriends the secretary of the Academy of Saturn. Having discussed the comparative differences between their two worlds, Micromegas and the Saturnian resolve to set off on a grand tour of the Solar System. Shortly afterwards they arrive on Earth.

Upon landing, they decide to search around for evidence of intelligence but discover no signs of life at all except, eventually, for a whale, which the Saturnian catches between his fingers and shows to Micromegas, “who laughed heartily at the excessive smallness peculiar to the inhabitants of our globe”. As luck would have it, however, a ship of philosophers happens to be returning from a polar expedition, and aboard this ship, as the aliens soon encounter “a creature very different from the whale”.

Having established contact with the “intelligent atoms” aboard the ship, the alien philosophers are curious to learn about a life so “unencumbered with matter, and, to all appearance, little else than soul” conjecturing that such tiny earthlings must spend their lives “in the delights of love and reflection, which are the true enjoyments of the perfect spirit”. Of course, they are very quickly disabused of such idealist illusions by those on-board:

“We have matter enough,” said [one of the philosophers], “to do abundance of mischief, if mischief comes of matter; and too much understanding, if evil flows from understanding. You must know, for example, that at this very moment, while I am speaking, there are one hundred thousand animals of our own species, covered in hats, slaying an equal number of fellow-creatures who wear turbans; or else are slain by them; and this hath been nearly the case all over the earth from time immemorial…”

“The dispute is about a mud-heap, no bigger than your heal,” continued the philosopher. “It is not that any one of those millions who cut one another’s throats pretends to have the least claim to that clod; the question is to know, whether it shall belong to a certain person who is known by the name of Sultan, or to another whom (for what reason I know not) they dignify with the appellation Caesar. Neither the one nor the other has ever seen, or ever will see, the pitiful corner in question; and scarcely one of those wretches who slay one another hath ever beheld the animal on whose account they are mutually slain!”

Sadly, little has changed since Voltaire wrote his story more than two hundred and fifty years ago. 46

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But now a related question: why did the Europe become such a dominant force in the first place? This, arguably, is the greatest, most important question in all of our History, though one that until contemporary times was met with the most hubristic of lame answers:

The white race is the most versatile, has the most initiative, a greater facility for organization, and a more practical outlook in life. This has led to its mastery of the material side of living, urged it to invention and discovery, and to the development of industry, commerce and science.

So begins an explication outlined under an horrifically racist heading “why is the white race dominant?” as quoted from a pre-war children’s ‘book of facts’ entitled How Much do You Know?; a copy of which I happen to own. The author’s deep-seated yet unconscious white supremacist mindset presumes such an excruciating air of colonial haughtiness, that immediately after the book summaries the other “races” as follows:

The black race, enervated by the heat of the tropics, has never shown great capacity for sustained or combined effort. The brown race, also found in hot climates, has produced the world’s main religions, and is excelled in artistic handicrafts. The yellow race is said still to have a slave mentality: the individual matters nothing, the community all. 47

When I showed this passage to my father he was rightly outraged. Those opinions were outdated and unacceptable when I was at school, he told me. But then my father went to school a full decade after the book’s publication. A world war had since been and gone. Perceptions and attitudes had evidently changed – greatly for the better.

And yet, if we hold our nose to the overwhelming stench of casual racism, there is within the same passage, one idea that might – if expressed more sensitively – resonate with a somewhat permissible and rather commonly held opinion that still abounds today:

It [the white race – Europeans] has had the advantage also of living for the most part in temperate climates, where the struggle for existence has been neither too difficult nor too easy.

In a sense, it was this very assumption that Jared Diamond attempted not so much to dispel, as to correct in his best-selling book, Guns, Germs and Steel. In pursuit of that end, he dedicated thirty years of life on the road, trying to understand precisely why Europe did come to dominate the world, and he makes the intriguing and largely convincing case that the roots to present global inequality were basically an outcome of freak circumstances and happenstance. Not simply “the advantage also of living for the most part in temperate climates”, although, according to Diamond at least, climate has had a vital part to play in the ascent of the West, but also due to other advantages conferred by location and historical timing.

His book begins by reminding us how the very origins of human civilisation in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East depended upon the accidental occurrence of arable crops and animals suitable for domestication. These two factors opened the way to a land of plenty. For given that the rise of agriculture was inevitable, Diamond says, then since its origins so happened to occupy a central geographical location in the Eurasian landmass, which has the fortuitous geographical orientation in so much as this super-continent spreads out east and west, thus providing similar lengths of day, and of seasons and climates, then it was comparatively easy for these new modes of agriculture to propagate as the people slowly migrated. A led to B led to C if only because the rise of A, B and C was so perfectly compatible.

Thanks to the development of agriculture, the population enjoyed a surplus, and this in turn brought about the rise of trade, and no less importantly, of free-time. So the people in the new settlements would spend extended periods preoccupied with otherwise unproductive activities, such as making stylistic improvements to their houses and other amenities, rather than, as in former times, gathering nuts or trapping pigs. This new freedom resulted in the rise of new technologies which, with time to spare, could also then be refined – undoubtedly the most significant of which was the production of metals and development of metal-working skills. Plough shears that were later turned into swords.

Trade routes lead to the transmission of new ideas, and once the discovery of gunpowder in China reached the shores of the Middle East, then its military use was quickly perfected. It was thanks to the early invention of writing – which arose on a very few occasions worldwide, and just once outside of the super-continent of Eurasia with the development of Mayan Script in Mexico – that this steady transmission of ideas and innovations thereafter accelerated.

As a consequence, the Eurasian civilisations had everything in place to begin their takeover, and also a secret weapon in reserve which they weren’t even aware of – germs. Our 10,000 years of domestication of so many species had inadvertently equipped these Eurasian invaders with an arsenal of new biological agents: diseases they themselves had considerable immunity to: smallpox from cattle, chicken-pox and influenza from poultry, to name but three examples. Whereas in North and South America, many people did not live in such close proximity to domesticated animals, and so had neither immunity nor exotic infections of their own to spread. Conquests by war were thus very often followed by pandemics more devastating than even our swords and cannons – although more recently, once the genocidal effect of disease had been better understood, the contamination of Native Americans became chillingly deliberate. The rest is history… our history.

Following on the vanguard of conquerors and explorers, a variety of enterprising European settlers made land grabs for King and Country, and as the empires grew, so a few European superpowers came to dominance. According to Diamond’s version then, it was by virtue of the happenstance of circumstance, the stars very firmly in our favour, that these new kingdoms of the West were first won and then overrun.

The rise of agriculture, a fluke, and the inventions of the printing press and the gun, lucky but likely consequences, Diamond presents us with a timeline of evidence to show how European dominance had nothing to do with superior intelligence, or, even that less racist presupposition, superior ideology. We would have won with or without the Protestant work-ethic, and with or without the self-righteous and assertive arrogance that often comes with worship of a One True God; a god who permits unlimited belligerence for holy ends.

In reaching this conclusion, however, Diamond is surely being too much the professor of geography, the scientist, and the archaeologist, and not sufficiently the historian, because even his own evidence doesn’t entirely lend support to such an overarching claim. For when it came to Europe’s seizure of Africa, the tables were to some extent turned, the European settlers now highly susceptible to the ravages of tropical disease, and our advantages, including, of course, the superiority of our weaponry, more than ever buttressed by an unshakeable ideology: that pseudo-religio-scientific notion of racial superiority so imprinted on the minds of the colonisers. It is the European mindset that finally retilts the balance. For the natives needed “civilising”, and despite the ever-present dangers of famine and disease, more than enough Europeans were driven by the profit motive and a deep-seated belief in the virtue of “carrying the white man’s burden”.

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Bruce Parry is an indigenous rights advocate, author, explorer and filmmaker. He has lived with some of the most isolated tribes in the world, learning from how they interact with each other and the planet. After much exploration, one of the things that has truly inspired Bruce is the idea of egalitarian living. In August 2019, Ross Ashcroft, host of RT’s ‘Renegade Inc.’ caught up with him to hear his ideas on how to we can rethink our leadership structures and muster the courage to look within so we are able to change the modern western narrative:

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All of the stories we tell fall within two broad categories. First there are our quotidian tales of the everyday. What happened when and to whom. Loosely we might say that all of these are our ‘histories’ whether biographical, personal, anecdotal, or traditional histories that define nations, and where it may be noted the words ‘story’ and ‘history’ are synonymous in many languages. 48 But there are also stories of a second, more fundamental kind: those of fairytale, myth and allegory that sometimes arise as if spontaneously, and though deviating from the strict if mundane ‘truth of accountants’, are able to penetrate and bring to light otherwise occluded insights and wisdom.

Stories of the second kind have sprung forth in all cultures, often sharing common themes and characters. These include stories of creation; of apocalypse; of the wantonness of gods; of murder and revenge; of cosmic love and of battles between superheroes. Interestingly, the songlines of Australian aboriginals map their own stories of origin directly to the land. Less fantastical and wondrous, in the civilised world too, there are nationalistic versions of what might also be more loosely considered ‘songlines’. In England, for instance, we might trace the nation’s genealogy via Stonehenge, Runnymede, Sherwood Forest, Hastings, Agincourt, the white cliffs of Dover and Avalon (today called Glastonbury). Accordingly, Stonehenge tells us we are an ancient people; Runnymede that we are not slaves; Sherwood Forest that we are rebellious and cheer for the underdog; Hastings, Agincourt and the white cliffs of Dover that we are a warrior nation seldom defeated, in part because our isle is all but impregnable; while Avalon, to steal from Shakespeare, makes ours a “blessed plot”:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of Majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England… 49

So here we find history and myth entwined as unavoidably as if they were stories of a single kind. But then what is the past when it is not fully-fleshed and retold in stories? Unlike the rest of the extinct world, it cannot be preserved in jars of formaldehyde and afterwards pinned out on a dissecting table. To paraphrase George Orwell, the stories of our past are not just informed by the present, they are in part reconstituted from it, and thereafter those same stories ineluctably propel us into the future. Not that there is some future already fixed and inescapable, since we have no reason to presume it is, but that what unfolds is already prefigured in our stories, which then guide it like strange attractors, just as today’s world was prefigured by stories told yesterday. If things were otherwise, history would indeed be bunk – nothing more or less than a quaint curiosity. Instead it is an active creator, and all the more dangerous for that. 50

In 1971, Monty Python appeared in an hour-long May Day special showcasing the best of European TV variety. Python’s contribution was a six-minute piece describing traditional May Day celebrations in England, including the magnificent Lowestoft fish-slapping dance [at 2:30 mins]. It also featured as part of BBC2’s “Python Night” broadcast in 1999:

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IV      Mostly Harmless

“Human nature is not of itself vicious”

— Thomas Paine 51

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In the eyes of many today, it follows that since our evil acts far exceed our good deeds, and indisputably so given the innumerable massacres, pogroms, genocides and other atrocities that make up so much of our collective history, the verdict on ‘human nature’ is clear and unequivocal. With the evidence piled so precipitously against us as a species, we ought to plead guilty in the hope of leniency. However, and even though at first glance the case does indeed appear an open-and-shut one, this is not a full account of human nature. There is also the better half to being human, although our virtues are undoubtedly harder to appraise than our faults.

Firstly, we must deal with what might be called ‘the calculus of goodness’. I’ve already hinted at this but let me now be more explicit: Whenever a person is kind and considerate, the problem with ‘the calculus’ is how those acts of kindness are to be counted against prior acts of indifference or malevolence? Or to broaden this: how is any number of saints to make up for the actions of so many devils? Can the accumulation of lesser acts of everyday kindness in aggregation, ever fully compensate for a single instance of rape, torture or cold-blooded murder? Or, to raise the same issue on the larger stage again, how did the smallpox and polio vaccines, which undoubtedly saved a great deal of suffering and the lives of millions, compensate against the bombings of Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? For aside from the moral dubiousness of all such utilitarian calculations, the reality is that inflicting harm and causing misery is on the whole so much easier than manufacturing any equivalence of good.

And this imbalance is partly an unfortunate fact of life; a fact that new technologies can and will only exacerbate. So here is a terrible problem that the universe has foisted upon us. For destruction is, as a rule, always a much more likely outcome than creation. It happens all of the time. As things erode, decay, go wonky and simply give up the ghost. If you drop a vase onto a hard floor, then your vase will reliably shatter into a pile of shards, and yet, if you toss those same hundred shards back into the air they will never reform into a vase again. Or, as Creationists like to point out (entirely missing the bigger point that evolution is not a purely random process) no hurricane could ever blow the parts from a scrapyard together again to reform a Jumbo Jet. Destruction then – i.e., the turning of order into chaos – turns out to be the way our universe prefers to unwind. And it’s tough to fight against this.

The random forces of extreme weather, earthquakes, and fires, are inherently destructive, just because they are erratic and haphazard. So if destruction is our wish, the universe bends rather easily to our will; and this is the diabolical asymmetry underlying the human condition.

In short, it will always be far easier to kill a man than to raise a child to become a man. Killing requires nothing else than the sudden slash of a blade, or the momentary pull on a trigger; the sheer randomness of the bullet’s tumbling wound being more than enough to destroy life. As technology advances, the push of a button increases that same potentiality and enables us to flatten entire cities, nations, civilisations. Today we enjoy the means for mega-destruction, and what was unimaginable in Voltaire’s day becomes another option forever “on the table”, in part, as I say, because destruction is an easy opinion, comparatively speaking – comparative to creation, that is.

Nevertheless, our modern weapons of mass destruction have all been willfully conceived, and at great expense in terms both of time and resources, when we might instead have chosen to put such time and resources to a wholly profitable use, protecting ourselves from the hazards of nature, or else thoroughly ridding the world of hunger and disease, or by more generally helping to redress the natural though diabolical asymmetry of life. 52

Here then is a partial explanation for malevolent excesses of human behaviour, although I concede, an ultimately unsatisfactory one. For however easily we are enabled to harm others with soft bodies given that we live in such a world beset by sharp objects and less visible perils, we do nevertheless have the freedom to choose not to do so. To live and let live and to commit ourselves to the Golden Rule that we “do unto others as we would have others do unto us”. So my principle objection to any wholesale condemnation of our species will have little to do with the estranging and intractable universal laws of nature, however harshly those laws may punish our human condition; instead, it entails a defence founded on anthropocentric considerations.

For if human nature is indeed so fundamentally rotten, then what ought we to make of our indisputable virtues? Of friendship and love; to select a pair of shining examples. And what of the great social reformers and the peacemakers like Gandhi and Martin Luther King? What too of our most beautiful constructions in poetry, art and music? Just what are we to make of this better half to our human nature? And why did human beings formulate the Golden Rule in the first instance?

Of course, even apparent acts of generosity and kindness can, and frequently do have, unspoken selfish motivations, so the most cynical adherents of the ‘dark soul hypothesis’ go further again, reaching the conclusion that all human action is either directly or indirectly self-serving. That friendship, love, poetry and music, along with every act of philanthropy (which literally means “love of man”), are all in one way or another products of the same innate selfishness. According such surprisingly widespread opinion, even at our finest and most gallant the underlying motivation is always reducible to “you scratch my back…”

Needless to say, all of human behaviour really can, if we choose, be costed in such a one-dimensional utilitarian terms. Every action evaluated on the basis of outcomes and measured in terms of personal gain, whether actual or perceived. Indeed, given the mountains of irrefutable evidence that people are all-too-often greedy, shallow, petty-minded and cruel, it is not irrational to believe that people are invariably and unalterably out for themselves. That kindness is only ever selfishness dressed up in mischievous disguise. So challenging such cynicism is far from easy and can feel like shouting over a gale, but the abrupt answer is that not all personal gain ought to be judged equivalently. Since even if our every whim were, in some ultimate sense, inseparable from, contingent upon, and determined by self-interest, then who is this “self” in which our interests are so heavily vested?

Does the interest of the self include the wants and needs of our family and friends, or even, in special circumstances, the needs of complete strangers, and if so, then do we still call it ‘selfish’? If we love only because it means we receive love in return, or for the love of God (whatever this means), or simply for the pleasure of loving, and if in every case this is deemed selfish, then almost by definition all acts have become selfish. The meaning of selfishness is thus reduced to nothing more than “done for the self”, thereby missing the point entirely that selfishness implies a deficiency in the consideration of others. If we say that all human action is born of selfishness, as some do, then we immediately redefine and reduce the meaning of ‘selfish’.

Having said this, I certainly do not wish, however tempting it may be, to paint a false smile where the mouth is secretly snarling. There is nothing to be usefully gained by naivety or sentimentality when it comes to gauging estimates of human nature. Nonetheless, there is an important reason to make a case in defence of our species, even if our defence must be limited to a few special cases. For if there is nothing at all defensible about ‘human nature’ it is hard to see past a paradox, which goes as follows: if human beings are innately and thus irredeemably bad (in accordance with our own estimation obviously), then how can our societies, with structures that are unavoidably and unalterably human, be anywise superior to the ‘human nature’ that designs them, and thus inherently and unalterably bad also. After all, ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing comes from nothing. This is, if you like, the Hobbesian Paradox. (And I shall return to it shortly.)

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There have been many occasions when writing this book has felt to me a little like feeling around in the dark. Just what is it that I am so urgently trying to say? That feeling has never been more pronounced than when working on this chapter and the one ensuing. For human nature is a subject that leads into ever more divergent avenues and into deeper and finer complexities. What does it even mean to delve into questions about ‘human nature’? Already this presumes some general innate propensity that exists and provides a common explanation for all human behaviour. But immediately, this apparently simple issue brings forth a shifting maze of complications.

Firstly, there is the vital but unresolved debate over free will as opposed to determinism, which at one level is the oldest and most impenetrable of all philosophical problems. All attempts to address this must already presuppose sound concepts of the nature of Nature and of being. However, once we step down to the next level, as we must, we find no certain answers are provided by our physical sciences, which basically posit determinism from the outset in order to proceed.

Then there is a related issue of whether as biological organisms, humans are predominantly shaped by ‘nature or nurture’. In fact, it has become increasingly clear that the question itself is subtly altering, since it is evident that the dichotomy is a false one. That inherited traits are encouraged, amplified, altered and sometimes prohibited by virtue of our environment due to processes occurring both at biological and social levels. Nature and nurture cannot be so easily disentangled. The tree grows and develops in accordance not merely with biochemical instructions encoded within its seed but in response to the place where that seed germinates, whether under full sunlight or deep shade, whether its roots penetrate rich or impoverished soil, and in accordance with temporal variations in wind and rainfall. We too are shaped not only as the flukes of genealogy, but adapting moment by moment to environmental changes from the very instant our father’s sperm penetrated and merged with our mother’s egg. We are no more reducible to Dawkins’ ‘lumbering robots’, those vehicles “blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” 53 that bloodlessly echo Hobbes, than we are to the ‘tabula rasa’ of Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau and Sartre. Yet even so, the argument lurches on, as if nothing is remotely settled.

As for the question of free will or determinism at a cosmic level, my personal belief is presented in the book’s introduction, but to make matters absolutely unequivocal allow me to also proffer my equivalent to Pascal’s famous wager: that one ought to live without hesitation as though free will exists, because if you are right, you gain everything, whereas if you lose, you lose nothing. Moreover, the view that we are without agency and altogether incapable of shaping our future involves a shallow pretence that also seeks to deny personal responsibility; it robs us of our dignity and self-respect, and disowns the god that dwells within.

As for proof of this faculty, I have none, and the best supporting evidence is that on occasions when I have most compellingly perceived myself as a thoroughly free agent in the world, there has spontaneously arisen a corresponding anxiety: the sense that given one’s possession of such an extravagant gift involves the acknowledgment of the sheer enormity of one’s responsibility. An overwhelming feeling that freedom comes with an excessively heavy price attached. Indeed, my preferred interpretation of the myth of Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden follows from this: that the eating of “the apple” – i.e., the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – miraculously and instantly gave birth to free will and conscience as one, with each sustaining the other (like the other snake, Ouroboros, perpetually eating its own tail). It follows that The Fall is nothing but our human awakening to the contradistinction of good and evil actions, and thus interpreted, this apprehension of morality is the contingent upshot of becoming free in a conscious sense. 54

Indeed, we might justifiably wonder upon what grounds the most dismal critiques of human nature are founded, if not for the prior existence of a full awareness of moral failings that itself is another component aspect and expression of that same nature. Or, as French writer La Rochefoucauld put it in one of his most famous and eloquent maxims: “Hypocrisy is the homage which vice renders to virtue.” 55 That is, whenever the hypocrite says one thing then does another, he does it because he recognises his own iniquity but then feigns a moral conscience to hide his shame. Put less succinctly he might have said that acting with good conscience is hard-wired and so for most people (sociopaths presumably excluded) doing otherwise automatically involves us in compensatory acts of dissemblance, denial and in self-delusion also.

Not that humans are wholly exceptional in possessing a conscience, but that we are uncommonly sensitive when it comes to detecting injustice because, perhaps (this is admittedly a hunch), we are uniquely gifted empathisers. That said, such a prodigious talent for getting into the minds of others is one that also makes our species uniquely dangerous.

James Hillman was an American psychologist, who studied at, and then guided studies for, the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich. In the following interview he speaks about how we have lost our connection to the cosmos and consequently our feelings for the beauty in the world and with it our love for life:

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The Enlightenment struck many blows, one of which effectively killed God (or at least certain kinds of Theism), in the process it more inadvertently toppled the pedestal upon which humanity had earlier placed itself, Darwinian slowly but inevitably bringing us back down to earth with a bump. No longer the lords of creations, still the shibboleth of anthropocentrism was harder to shake.

Hobbes convinced us that ‘human nature’ is dangerous because it is nature. Rousseau then took the opposing view that our real problems all stem from not behaving naturally enough. His famous declaration that “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” forms the opening sentence of his seminal work The Social Contract; the spark that had helped to ignite revolutions across Europe. 56 Less than a century later, Marx and Engels concluded The Communist Manifesto, echoing Rousseau with the no less famous imperative often paraphrased: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains” 57

Instead of freedom and perhaps out of a sense of loss, we soon recreated ourselves as gods and set about constructing new pedestals based on fascist and Soviet designs. But finally, the truth was out. Humans make terrible gods. And as we tore down the past, remembering in horror the death camps and the gulags, we also invented new stories about ourselves.

In the process, the post-Hobbesian myth of ‘human nature’ took another stride. Rather than being on a level with the rest of creation and mechanically compelled to lust for power and material sustenance like all animals, our species was recast once again as sui generis. Beyond our ability to wield tools, or to manipulate the world through language and indeed by virtue of culture more generally, we came to the conclusion that the one truly exceptional feature of humans – the really big thing that differentiates ‘human nature’ from the whole of the rest of nature – was our species outstanding tendency to be rapacious and cruel. Thanks to our peculiar desire for self-aggrandisement, this has become the latest way we flatter ourselves.

For instance, I sometimes hear from friends how humans are the only creatures that take amusement from in cruelty. Indeed, at first glance this sounds like a perfectly fair accusation, but then just a little consideration finds it to be incorrect. Take for instance, the well-fed cat that is stalking the bird; does it not find amusement of a feline kind in its hunt? When it toys with a cornered mouse, meting out a slow death from the multiple blows of its retractable claws, is it not enjoying itself? And what other reason can explain why that killer whales will often toss a baby seal from mouth to mouth – shouldn’t they just put it out of its misery?

Ah yes, comes the rejoinder, but still we are the only creatures to engage in full-scale warfare. Well, again, yes and no. The social insects go to war too. Chemical weapons are deployed as one colony defends itself from the raids of an aggressor. A little closer to home – too close perhaps – chimpanzees will gang up to fight against a rival neighbouring troop. How is this to be differentiated from our own outbreaks of tribal and sectarian violence?

Ah yes, and here’s the next comeback: we bring malice aforethought. The social insects are merely acting in response to chemical stimuli. They have pheromones for war, but no savage intent. Even our close relatives the chimps are simply responding to a situation in the heat of the moment. They do not carefully plan out their campaigns in advance. All of which may be granted, although we do know that chimpanzees are capable of malice aforethought, since they have been observed on occasion to bring a weapon to the scene of the attack. But then you might expect our evolutionary cousins to share a few of our vices! Without any doubt, humans are best able of all creatures to act with malice aforethought, although even in this we are apparently not alone.

Okay then… and here is the current fashion in humanity’s self-abasement… we are the only creatures that deliberately destroy their own environment. But again, what does this really mean? When rabbits first landed in Australia (admitted introduced by humans), did they settle down for a fair share of what was available? When domestic cats first appeared in New Zealand (and sorry to pick on cats again), did they negotiate terms with the flightless birds? And what of the crown of thorns starfish that is devouring the coral reefs, or of the voracious Humboldt squid swarming in some parts of our oceans and consuming every living thing in sight? Or consider this: when the continents of North and South America first collided and a land bridge allowed the Old World creatures of the North to encounter the New World creatures of the South, the migration of the former caused mass extinction of the latter. The Old World creatures being better adapted to the new circumstances simply ate the competition. There was not a man in sight.

In short, Nature’s balance is not maintained thanks to the generosity and co-operation between species: this is a human conceit. Her ways are all-too often cruel. Foxes eat rabbits and in consequence their populations grow and shrink reciprocally. Where there is an abundance of prey the predators thrive, but once numbers reach a critical point that feast becomes a famine, which restores the original balance. This is how ‘Nature’s balance’ is usually maintained – just as Malthus correctly describes (more below). But modern humans have escaped this desperate battle for survival, and by means of clever artificial methods, enable our own populations to avoid both predation and famine; an unprecedented situation that really does finally set us apart from all of our fellow species.

*

However much we may try to refine our search for answers, it is actually hard to get beyond the most rudimentary formulation which ponders upon whether ‘human nature’ is for the most part good or bad. Rephrased, as such, as it commonly is, this inquiry generally receives one of four responses that can be summarised as follows: –

i) that human nature is mostly good but corruptible;

ii) that human nature is mostly bad but can be corrected;

iii) that human nature is mostly bad but with flaws that can be ameliorated – rather than made good; or,

iv) most misanthropically, that human nature is atrocious, and irredeemably so, but that’s life.

The first is the Romanticism of Rousseau; the third and fourth contain the cynicism of Hobbes. Where Hobbes regarded the ‘state of nature’ as the ultimate threat, Rousseau implores us instead to return to a primitive state of authentic innocence. Although outliers these conflicting notions still prevail today, informing the nuclear-armed policy of Mutual Assured Destruction on the one hand, and the counterculture of The New Age on the other. Curiously, both peer back distantly to Eden and reassess The Fall from different vantages too. Although deeply unreligious, Hobbes holds the more strictly orthodox view. As undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch laid it out:

[T]he facts of the matter of human nature – we want, we hurt and hunger, we thirst and crave, we weep and laugh, dance and desire more and more and more. We only do these things because we die. We only die because we do these things. The fruit of the tree in the middle of Eden, being forbidden, is sexy and tempting, tasty and fatal.

The fall of Man and Free Market Capitalism, no less the doctrines of Redemptive Suffering and Supply and Demand are based on the notion that enough is never enough… A world of carnal bounty and commercial indifference, where men and women have no private parts, nor shame nor guilt nor fear of death, would never evolve into a place that Darwin and Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama could be proud of. They bit the apple and were banished from it. 58

If you asked Hobbes whether “we’d still be blissfully wandering about naked in paradise”, as Dudley Moore put it to Peter Cook’s Devil in the marvelous Faustian spoof Bedazzled, you’d very likely get a similar reply to the one Cook gave him: “they [Adam and Eve] were pig ignorant!” 59 However, the Genesis myth although a short story, in fact takes place as two very distinct acts: and only the first part is concerned with temptation, whereas the denouement is centred on shame. So let’s consider shame for a moment, because shame appears to be unique as an emotion, and though we often confuse it with guilt – since both are involved in reactions to conscience – shame has an inescapable social quality. To summarise this, guilt involves what you do, while shame is intrinsically bound up with your sense of self. So guilt leads us to make apologies, a healthy response for wrongdoing, whereas you cannot apologise for being bad.

The American academic Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” 60 and says imagine how you would feel if you were in a room with all the people you most loved but when you walked out you began to hear the worst things imaginable about you; so bad that you don’t think you’ll ever be able to walk back into the room to face everyone again. An overwhelming feeling that is accompanied by lots of physiological sensations such as blushing, the tightening of the chest, feelings of not being able to breathe, and a horrible doubt that also runs to the pit in your stomach.

In fact, shame is ultimately tied up with fears of being unworthy, unloveable, and of abandonment that we learn to feel as infants, when isolation and rejection are actual existential threats. So it triggers instinctual responses that humans probably evolved in order to avoid being rejected and ostracised by the group, when this again involved an actual existential threat. It is really no exaggeration to say that shame feels like death.

Moreover, and unlike our other emotions, shame can be a response to just about anything: We may feel shamed by our appearance, our own attention-seeking, when we get too boisterous, too over-excited and talking too much, and especially about oneself; or when we retreat into isolation, feeling shy and avoidant; or if we feel inauthentic or fake; or for having weak boundaries and are being taken advantage of; or conversely too many boundaries and being unable to drop our armour, and then become judgmental and quick to anger; or just for a lack of ability, skills, or creativity; our failure to communicate properly, including being able to speak up or speak honestly; or when we are lazy, or weak, with low energy or lack of motivation, perhaps sexually; or finally – not that my list is in anyway exhaustive – it will also be triggered by anxiety, nervousness, defensiveness, when we display our weakness by blushing or showing other visual signs of nervousness or shame. Note the circularity.

And oddly, often when we feel shame, we don’t even recognise the symptoms, which then generate escalating confusion and a terrifying sense of spiralling: a fear that we won’t survive the feeling itself. In fact, shame and fear have a co-existent relationship such that we can alternate between both, and both may leave terrible psychological scars; some of parts of us  becoming repressed; others forming a mask – becoming conscious and unconscious aspects that I will come back to consider in the next chapter.

Interestingly, Jean-Paul Sartre is often paraphrased as saying “hell is other people”, which is widely misinterpreted to mean that our relationships with others are invariably poisoned. Although what he meant is actually closer to the idea that hell is the judgment of our own existence in the eyes of other people, so then again, perhaps what he finally intended to say is “hell is our sense of rejection by other people”. If so, then he was right. 61

Seen in this way, the Rousseauian standpoint becomes intriguing. Is it possible that the root cause of all human depravity is shame?

In this chapter I have already tried to expose the chinks in their rather well-worn armour of Hobbesianism, because for the reasons also expounded upon above, for too long it has been collectively weighing us down. However, I would not go so far as to plump for Rousseau. Hobbes’ adamancy that human nature is rotten to the core with its corollary that there is little that can be done about it, is actually rather difficult to refute; the measure of human cruelty vastly exceeding all real or apparent acts of generosity and kindness. But Hobbes’ account is lacking and what it lacks most is empathy, which, as Brené Brown explains, is obstructed primarily by shame. Why? Because empathy can only flourish where there is vulnerability and this is precisely what shame crushes.

So yes, we must concede that the little boy who pulls the legs off flies greatly amuses himself. There can be a thrill to malice, if of a rather shallow and sordid kind. But more happiness is always found in acts of creation than in destruction; more fulfillment to helping than hindering; and there is far more comfort in loving than in hating. Even Hobbes, though ‘twinned with fear’, must deep down have understood this too.

Brené Brown has spent many decades researching shame, which she believes is an unspoken epidemic and the secret behind many forms of disruptive behaviour. An earlier TED talk on vulnerability became a viral hit. Here she explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on:

*

When Donald, son of psychologists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, turned ten-months old, his parents took the extraordinary decision of adopting Gua, a seven and a half-month female chimp to bring up in their home as a surrogate sibling. It was the 1930s and this would be a pioneering experiment in primate behaviour; a comparative study that caused some deal of dismay in academia and amongst the public. But irrespective of questions of ethics and oblivious to charges of sensationalism, the Kelloggs proceeded and Donald and Gua finally lived together for nine months.

They soon developed a close bond. Although younger, Gua was actually more mature than Donald both intellectually and emotionally. Being protective, she would often hug him to cheer him up. Her development was remarkably swift, and she quickly learned how to eat with a spoon and to drink from a glass. She also learned to walk and to skip – obviously not natural behaviours for a chimp – as well as to comprehend basic words; all of this before Donald had caught up.

This comparative developmental study had to be cut short, however, because by the age of two, Donald’s behaviour was becoming disconcertingly apelike. For one thing, he was regressing back to crawling. He had also learned to carry things in his mouth, picking up crumbs with his lips and one day chewing up a shoe, and far more than ordinary toddlers, he took delight in climbing the furniture and trees. Worse still, his language skills were seriously delayed and by eighteen-months he knew just three words, so that instead of talking he would frequently just grunt or make chimp-like gesticulations instead. The story ends tragically, of course, as all of the concerns over ethics became confirmed. Gua died of pneumonia less than a year after the study was curtailed and she had been abandoned by the Kelloggs family. Donald committed suicide later in life when he was 43 years old.

This is a sad story and by retelling it I am in no way endorsing the treatment of Donald and Gua. No such experiment should ever have been conducted, but it was, and the results are absolutely startling nonetheless. Instead of “humanizing the ape”, as the Kelloggs hoped to achieve, the reverse had been occurring. What they had proved inadvertently is that humans are simply more malleable than chimps, or for that matter any other creature on earth. It is humans that learn best by aping and not the other way around.

*

On the whole, we are not very much into the essence of things these days. Essentialism is out and various forms of relativism are greatly in vogue. That goes for all things except perhaps our ‘human nature’, for which such an essence is very commonly presumed. Yet it seems to me that the closer one peers, the blurrier any picture of our human nature actually becomes; and the harder one tries to grasp its essence, the less tangible it is. In any case, each of the various philosophies that inform our modern ideas of ‘human nature’ are intrinsically tainted by prior, and in general, hidden assumptions, which arise from vestigial religious and/or political dogma.

For instance, if we take our cue from Science (most especially from Natural History and Biology) by seeking answers in the light of Darwin’s discoveries, then we automatically inherit a view of human nature sketched out by Malthus and Hobbes. Malthus who proceeded directly from (his own version of) God at the outset, and Hobbes, who in desperately trying to circumvent the divine, finished up constructing an entire political philosophy based on a notion barely distinguishable from Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin. Meanwhile almost all of the histories that commonly inform our opinions about human nature are those written about and for the battle-hardened conquerors of empires.

But why suppose that there really is anything deserving the title ‘human nature’ in the first place, especially given what is most assuredly known about our odd species: that we are supremely adaptable and very much more malleable and less instinctive than all our fellow creatures. Indeed the composite words strike me as rather curious, once I can step back a little. After all, ‘human’ and ‘nature’ are not in general very comfortable bedfellows. ‘Human’ meaning ‘artificial’ and ‘nature’ meaning, well… ‘natural’… and bursting with wholesome goodness. Or else, alternatively, ‘human’ translating as humane and civilised, leaving ‘nature’ to supply synonyms for wild, primitive and untamed… and, by virtue of this, red in tooth and claw.

In short, the very term ‘human nature’ is surely an oxymoron, doubly so as we see above. The falsehood of ‘human nature’ concealing the more fascinating if unsettling truth that in so many respects humans conjure up their nature in accordance with how we believe ourselves to be, which rests in turn on what limits are set by our family, our acquaintances and the wider culture. Human nature and human culture are inextricable, giving birth to one another like the paradoxical chicken and egg. As Huxley writes:

‘Existence is prior to essence.’ Unlike most metaphysical propositions, this slogan of the existentialists can actually be verified. ‘Wolf children,’ adopted by animal mothers and brought up in animal surroundings, have the form of human beings, but are not human. The essence of humanity, it is evident, is not something we are born with; it is something we make or grow into. We learn to speak, we accumulate conceptualized knowledge and pseudo-knowledge, we imitate our elders, we build up fixed patterns of thought and feeling and behaviour, and in the process we become human, we turn into persons. 62

Alternatively, we might give a nod to Aristotle who famously declared “man is by nature a political animal”, an assessment seemingly bound up in contradictions while yet abundantly true, and which he then expounds upon saying:

“And why man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal is clear. For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well (for their nature has been developed so far as to have sensations of what is painful and pleasant and to indicate those sensations to one another), but speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities, and it is partnership in these things that makes a household and a city-state.” 63

To end, therefore, I propose a secular update to Pascal’s wager, which goes as follows: if, and in direct contradiction to Hobbes, we trust in our ‘human nature’ and promote its more virtuous side, then we stand to gain amply in the circumstance that we are right to do so and at little cost, for if it turns out we were mistaken and ‘human nature’ is indeed intrinsically rotten to our bestial cores, our lot as a species is inescapably dreadful whatever we wish to achieve. For in the long run, as new technologies supply ever more creative potential for cruelty and destruction (including self-annihilation), what chance do we have to survive at all if we are so unwilling to place just a little trust in ourselves to do a whole lot better?

Next chapter…

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Addendum: the Malthusian population bomb scare

Thomas Malthus was a man of many talents. A student of Cambridge University, where he had excelled in English, Latin, Greek and Mathematics, he later became a Professor of History and Political Economy and a Fellow of the Royal Society. There is, however, chiefly one subject above all others that Malthus remains closely associated with, and that is the subject of demography – human populations – a rather single-minded preoccupation that during his tenure as professor is supposed to have earned him the nickname “Pop” Malthus.

Malthus big idea was precisely this: that whereas human population increases geometrically, food production, upon which the growing population inevitably depends, can only increase in an arithmetic fashion. He outlines his position as follows:

I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state. These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature, and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are… 64

Given that populations always grow exponentially whereas food production must inevitably be arithmetically limited, Malthus concludes that the depressing, but unassailable consequence is a final limit not simply to human population but to human progress and “the perfectibility of the mass of mankind”:

This natural inequality of the two powers of population and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families. 65

It’s a truly grim message, although in fairness to Malthus, the gloom is delivered in a lively and frequently entertaining style. That said, however, Malthus was wrong. Terribly wrong.

Firstly, he was wrong in terms of specifics, since he wildly over-estimated the rate of population growth 66, thereby exaggerating the number of future mouths needing to fed and, by extension, the amount of food needed to fill them. Obviously what Malthus was lacking here was actual available statistics, and it is perhaps not surprising therefore, that he later became one of the founder members of the Statistical Society in London 67: the first organisation in Britain dedicated to the collection and collation of national statistics. Charles Babbage, who is nowadays best remembered as the inventor of early calculating machines, known as “difference engines” – machines that helped to lead the way to modern computing – was another founder member of the group, and obviously took statistics very seriously indeed. He even once corrected the poet Alfred Tennyson in a letter as follows:

In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads, ‘Every moment dies a man,/ Every moment one is born’: I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows: ‘Every moment dies a man / And one and a sixteenth is born.’ I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre. 68

It may be noted then, that such a rate of increase (presumably based on real statistics), although still exponential, is far below the presumed rates of growth in Malthus’s essay. But then Malthus’s estimate may be fairly excused; his famous essay having been first published about four decades before any statistics would have been available. Malthus was, however, also more fundamentally wrong in his thesis; for such catastrophic oscillations as he envisaged through cycles of overpopulation and famine are not the order of our times, and less so now than even during his own times of relatively small populations. In fact contrary to Malthus’ prophesies of doom, we have a great plenty of food to go around (lacking merely the political and economic will to distribute it fairly) 69, with official UN estimates indicating that we shall continue to have such abundance for the foreseeable future. 70

*

I can still recall when, as a sixth-former, I’d first heard about Malthus’ theory of population, and how it had sounded like altogether the daftest, most simplistic theory I’d ever come across – an opinion that remained for at least a few months before I’d heard about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” which I then considered still dafter and more simplistic again. In both cases, it was clear to me that supposition and conjecture is being presented as quasi-scientific fact. In Maslow’s case, with his hierarchical stacking of physical and psychological needs, it was also self-evident that no such ascending pyramid really existed anywhere outside of Maslow’s own imaginings. That you might just as well construct a dodecahedron of pleasures, or a chocolate cheesecake of motivational aspirations, as make-up any kind of pyramid of human needs.

I was judging his ideas unfairly, however, and in hindsight see I was prejudiced by my scientific training. As a student of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, I’d become accustomed to rigorously grounded theories in which predictions can and must be made and tested against actual data. But Maslow’s theory is not a theory of this kind. It is inherently nonrigorous, and yet it may still be valuable in another way. As a psychologist he had diverged from the contemporary practice of expanding the field purely on the basis of neuroses and complexes, and he sought instead, a more humanistic approach to analysing what he thought constituted healthy-mindedness. His main concern was how people might achieve “self actualization”. So his ‘theory’ is better understood and judged within this context, and the same goes for other nonrigorous formulations. 71

With Malthus, however, my irritation was coloured differently. His theory may have been simply an educated and carefully considered hunch, but it did at least present us with outcomes that could be scientifically reviewed. Plainly, however, all the available facts confounded his case absolutely.

After all, it had been two centuries since Malthus first conjectured on the imminence of food shortages, yet here we were, hurtling towards the end of the twentieth century, still putting too many leftovers in our bins. And though people living in the third world (as it was then called) were desperately poor and undernourished – as remains the case – this was already the consequence of our adopted modes of distribution rather than any consequence of insufficient production of food as such. Indeed, as a member of the EEC, the United Kingdom was responsible for its part in the storage of vast quantities of food and drink that would never be consumed: the enormous ‘mountains of cheese’ and the ‘lakes of milk and wine’ being such prominent features of the politico-economic landscape of my adolescence.

So where precisely did Malthus go wrong? In fact, both of his purportedly axiomatic postulates are unfounded. Regarding food production being an arithmetic progression, he completely failed to factor in the staggering ingenuity of human beings. He seems curiously oblivious to how, even at the turn of the nineteenth century when his essay was written, food production was already undergoing some dramatic technological shifts, including methods of selective breeding, and with the advent of mechanised farming equipment. The more recent developments of artificial fertilisers and pesticides have enabled cultivation of far greater acreage, with crop yields boosted far in excess of any arithmetic restriction. With the latest “green technologies” permitting genetic manipulation, the amounts of food we are able to produce might be vastly increased again, if this is what we should chose to do – and I do not say that we should automatically resort to such radical and potentially hazardous new technologies, only that there are potential options to forestall our supposed Malthusian fate.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Malthus’s inequality, we see that his estimates of rates of population growth were wrong for different but perhaps related reasons. Again, he underestimates our adaptive capability as a species, but here the error is born out of an underlying presumption; one that brings me right back to the question of ‘human nature’.

*

Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing part of Malthus’ famous essay are not the accounts of his discredited formulas that illustrate the mismatch between population growth and food production, but the concluding pages. Here are chapters not about geometric and arithmetic progressions, nor of selected histories to convince us of the reality of our predicament, nor even of the various criticisms of progressive thinkers who he is at pains to challenge – no, by far the most interesting part (in my humble opinion) are the final chapters where he enters into discussion of his real specialism, which was theology. For Reverend Malthus was first and foremost a man of the cloth, and it turns out that his supposed axiomatic propositions have actually arisen from his thoughts about the nature of God, of Man, of the Mind, and of Matter and Spirit. 72, 73

In short, Malthus argues here that God fills us with needs and wants in order to stimulate action and develop our minds; necessity being such a constant and reliable mother of invention. And Malthus draws support from the enlightenment philosophy of empiricist and humanist John Locke:

If Locke’s idea be just, and there is great reason to think that it is, evil seems to be necessary to create exertion, and exertion seems evidently necessary to create mind.” This given, it must follow, Malthus says, that the hardships of labour required for survival are “necessary to the enjoyment and blessings of life, in order to rouse man into action, and form his mind to reason. 74

Whilst adding further that:

The sorrows and distresses of life form another class of excitements, which seem to be necessary, by a peculiar train of impressions, to soften and humanize the heart, to awaken social sympathy, to generate all the Christian virtues, and to afford scope for the ample exertion of benevolence.

The perennial theological “problem of evil” is thus surmountable, Malthus says, if one accepts “the infinite variety of forms and operations of nature”, since “evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.” In other words, these things are sent to try us, or rather, because Malthus is very keen to distance himself from more traditional Christian notions of reward and punishment, “not for the trial, but for the creation and formation of mind”. Without pain and distress there would be no pricks to kick against, and thus no cause to perfect ourselves. This, at least, is Malthus’ contention.

In this he echoes a theodicy already well developed by one of the true Enlightenment geniuses, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Best remembered now as the independent discoverer of calculus, unaware of Newton’s parallel development, Leibniz also left us an astonishing intellectual legacy with published articles on almost every subject including politics, law, history and philosophy. In a collection of essays from 1710, and in making his own case for the goodness of God, it was Leibniz who first described our world as “the best of all possible worlds”. 75

Famously, Voltaire stole Leibniz’s aphorism and, by reworking it into the central motif of his marvellous satire Candide (written 1759), invested it with characteristically biting irony. In Candide’s adventures, Voltaire turns the phrase into the favourite maxim and motto of his learned companion and teacher Dr Pangloss. The Panglossian faith an unimpeachable acceptance of the divine and cosmic beneficence to be maintained in spite of every horror and irrespective of all disasters they witness and that befall them. Shipwrecks, summary executions, and even being tortured by the Inquistion; all is justifiable in this best of all possible worlds. For Malthus, although writing half a decade after Voltaire’s no-nonsense lampooning, an underpinning belief in a world that was indeed “the best of all possible worlds” remained central to his thesis; Malthus even declaring with Panglossian optimism that:

… we have every reason to think that there is no more evil in the world than what is absolutely necessary as one of the ingredients in the mighty process [of Life]. 76

So what does all of this mean for Malthus’s God? Well, God is mysterious and ultimately unfathomable, because “infinite power is so vast and incomprehensible an idea that the mind of man must necessarily be bewildered in the contemplation of it.” This accepted, Malthus then argues that we do have clues, however, for understanding God through objective analysis of his handiwork, by “reason[ing] from nature up to nature’s God and not presum[ing] to reason from God to nature.”

Yes, says Malthus, we might fancy up “myriads and myriads of existences, all free from pain and imperfection, all eminent in goodness and wisdom, all capable of the highest enjoyments, and unnumbered as the points throughout infinite space”, but these are “crude and puerile conceptions” born of the inevitable and unassailable ignorance and bewilderment we have before God. Far better then, to:

“… turn our eyes to the book of nature, where alone we can read God as he is, [to] see a constant succession of sentient beings, rising apparently from so many specks of matter, going through a long and sometimes painful process in this world, but many of them attaining, ere the termination of it, such high qualities and powers as seem to indicate their fitness for some superior state. Ought we not then to correct our crude and puerile ideas of infinite Power from the contemplation of what we actually see existing? Can we judge of the Creator but from his creation?”

So God, at least according to Rev. Malthus, is to be understood directly through Nature – an idea that is bordering on the heretical. But what of the Principle of Population? How does this actually follow from the Malthusian “God of nature” 77 ?

Here we must remind ourselves again that what nowadays are sometimes called our instinctual drives, and what Malthus describes as “those stimulants to exertion which arise from the wants of the body”, are to Malthus but necessary evils. They are evils but with a divine purpose, and this purpose alone justifies their existence. In particular, those wants of the body which Malthus coyly refers to as “the passion between the sexes” are, in this scheme, the necessary means for the human race to perpetuate itself. With sex directly equated to procreation.

On the face of it then, Malthus must have been entirely ignorant of the sorts of sexual practices that can never issue progeny. (To rework a line from Henry Ford) sex might be any flavour you like, so long as it is vanilla! More likely, however, he dismissed any such ‘contraceptive’ options not because of ignorance but on the grounds of his deep-seated Christian morality. Rum and the lash, in moderation possibly, but sodomy… we are British!

If Malthus could be brought forward to see the western world today, what he’d find would doubtless be a tremendous shock in many ways. Most surprisingly, however, he would discover a culture where ‘the passions’ are endlessly titillated and aroused, and where “the wants of the body” are very easily gratified. Quite aside from the full-frontal culture shock, Malthus would surely be even more astonished to hear that our libidinous western societies have solved his supposedly insoluble population problem; our demographics flattening off, and our numbers in a slow but annual decline.

Malthus had argued very strongly against the poor laws, calling for their eventual abolition. He firmly believed that all kinds of direct intervention only encouraged a lack of moral restraint which was the underlying root to all the problems. He earnestly believed that it would be better to let nature take care of these kinds of social diseases. Yet we can now see that one solution to his population problem has been the very thing he was fighting against. That the populations in our modern societies have stabilised precisely because of our universal social welfare and pension systems: safety nets that freed us all from total reliance upon the support of our children in old age.

We also see that as child mortality has markedly decreased, parents have little reason to raise such large families in the first instance. And that once more people – women especially – won access to a basic education, the personal freedom this affords gave them further opportunity and better reason to plan ahead and settle for smaller families. It is thanks to all of these social changes, combined with the development of the contraceptive pill, that “the passion between the sexes” has been more or less surgically detached from population growth.

Making life tougher, Malthus reasoned, would be the bluntest tool for keeping down the numbers, especially of the lower classes. Yet if he landed on Earth today, he would discover irrefutable proof that the exact opposite is the case. That where nations are poorest, populations are rising fastest. There is much that Malthus presumed to be common sense but that, in fact, turns out to be false. 78

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

*

1 From Prince Hamlet’s monologue to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet Act II, Scene 2. In fuller context:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

2  Quote taken from the Introduction to The Naked Ape written by Desmond Morris, published in 1967; Republished in: “The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris,” LIFE, Vol. 63, Nr. 25 (22 Dec. 1967), p. 95.

3 Stanley Kubrick speaking in an interview with Eric Norden for Playboy (September 1968)

4 “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

5 The original script for the 2001 also had an accompanying narration which reads:

“By the year 2001, overpopulation has replaced the problem of starvation but this is ominously offset by the absolute and utter perfection of the weapon.”

“Hundreds of giant bombs had been placed in perpetual orbit above the Earth. They were capable of incinerating the entire earth’s surface from an altitude of 100 miles.”

“Matters were further complicated by the presence of twenty-seven nations in the nuclear club.”

6 From the Stanley Kubrick interview with Playboy magazine (1968). http://dpk.io/kubrick

7 From the chapter on “Generation” from Zoonomia; or the Laws of Organic Life (1994) written by Erasmus Darwin http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15707/15707-h/15707-h.htm#sect_XXXIX

8

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus On Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.

From Charles Darwin’s autobiography (1876), pp34–35

9 Bellum omnium contra omnes, a Latin phrase meaning “the war of all against all”, is the description that Thomas Hobbes gives to human existence existing in “the state of nature” that he describes in first in De Cive (1642) and  later in Leviathan (1651). The Latin phrase occurs in De Cive:

“… ostendo primo conditionem hominum extra societatem civilem, quam conditionem appellare liceat statum naturæ, aliam non esse quam bellum omnium contra omnes; atque in eo bello jus esse omnibus in omnia.”

“I demonstrate, in the first place, that the state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all; and in that war all men have equal right unto all things.”

In chapter XIII of Leviathan, Hobbes more famously expressly the same concept with these words:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called War; and such a war as is of every man against every man.[…] In such condition there is no place for Industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual Fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

10 The glee with which my old professor had jokingly dismissed Galileo was undisguised, and he was quick to add that he regarded Galileo’s reputation as greatly inflated. What other physicist, he inquired of us, is remembered only by their first name? With hindsight, I can’t help wondering to what he was alluding? It is mostly kings and saints (and the convergent category of popes) who we find on first-name historical terms. The implication seems to be that Galileo has been canonised as our first secular saint (after Leonardo presumably). Interestingly, and in support of this contention, Galileo’s thumb and middle fingers plus the tooth and a vertebra (removed from his corpse by admirers during the 18th century) have recently been put on display as relics in the Galileo Museum in Florence.

11 Alexander Pope (1688–1744): ‘Epitaph: Intended for Sir Isaac Newton’ (1730)

12 The famous quote comes from letter Newton sent to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, in which about two-thirds of the way down on the first page he says “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It has been suggested that this remark was actually intended as a snide dig at Hooke, a rival who Newton was continually in dispute with and who was known for being rather short in physical stature.

13 From Il Saggiatore (1623) by Galileo Galilei. In the original Italian the same passage reads:

La filosofia è scritta in questo grandissimo libro, che continuamente ci sta aperto innanzi agli occhi (io dico l’Universo), ma non si può intendere, se prima non il sapere a intender la lingua, e conoscer i caratteri ne quali è scritto. Egli è scritto in lingua matematica, e i caratteri son triangoli, cerchi ed altre figure geometriche, senza i quali mezzi è impossibile intenderne umanamente parola; senza questi è un aggirarsi vanamente per un oscuro labirinto

14

Hobbes and the earl of Devonshire journeyed to Italy late in 1635, remaining in Italy until the spring of 1636 when they made their way back to Paris. During this tour of Italy Hobbes met Galileo, although the dates and details of the meeting are not altogether clear. In a letter to Fulgenzio Micanzio from 1 December, 1635, Galileo reports that “I have had many visits by persons from beyond the alps in the last few days, among them an English Lord who tells me that my unfortunate Dialogueis to be translated into that language, something that can only be considered to my advantage.” The “English Lord” is almost certainly Devonshire, and the projected English translation of the Dialogue is presumably the work of Dr. Joseph Webb mentioned in Hobbes’s February, 1634 letter to Newcastle. It is therefore likely that Hobbes met Galileo in December of 1635, al-though Hobbes was not otherwise known to be in Florence until April of 1636. Aubrey reports that while in Florence Hobbes “contracted a friend-ship with the famous Galileo Galileo, whom he extremely venerated and magnified; and not only as he was a prodigious witt, but for his sweetness of nature and manners”. Legend even has it that a conversation with Galileo in 1635 or 36 inspired Hobbes to pursue the goal of presenting moral and political philosophy in a rigorously geometrical method, although the evidence here is hardly compelling.

From a paper entitled Galileo, Hobbes, and the Book of Nature by Douglas M. Jesseph, published in Perspectives on Science (2004), vol. 12, no. 2 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is footnoted with the following disqualifier:

The evidence, such as it is, comes from the eighteenth century historian of mathematics Abraham Kästner, who reported “John Albert de Soria, former teacher at the university in Pisa, assures us it is known through oral tradition that when they walked togeteher at the grand-ducal summer palace Poggio Imperiale, Galileo gave Hobbes the first idea of bringing moral philosophy to mathematical certainty by treating it according to the geometrical method”. Schumann dismisses the tale as “certainly false,” basing this judgment on a variety of evidence, including the fact that Soria himself expressed skepticism about the story.

https://watermark.silverchair.com/106361404323119871.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAo4wggKKBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggJ7MIICdwIBADCCAnAGCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQMsyC-rL3cNaA4jxGKAgEQgIICQUv8KppqEobaooIWAp4zOmspRnjPLemQuJPq9SdYMkXz9MdidZukWj-XPLej4xmVxFg9w13iQjQ6vJBkevCQSAHpI7Ltsdr5Cq9OtusB7kZ72Z2ERWX8aW6-6nXgo5VX3pcUKwR8rfd6uRrDRlT-av27Qg3Gr2yE5bitEnOuljPtwnYeI9ZAAwbu6d9Ncg7_W5_StRVBELTJ7QTjzjsM9Dx0B64IGa9o0L7hTPdc6PkOUK23g6D4dCZ2kN2Qn3fEh-Uwkkm_iYO2DrOqUQM_dkkcjpRGJDrSvUrMpOSpVBPh7V2vz8TzaE_8D3300Zm_f8pkiNKBrqPJ1ghe3b7VmfPj9-foW_4rZCNN2SkcosyNg1988UWm155UoesLrh8NZUm3sxgVnkPafBIx7xmHGdcVmxpQHCH-8Ahju5_VvOx-LfSCbkdc1zFG0Qs-jH4ecrL9ESPQGDhRCUwjtnsCuuC8gjM6UFXl9Fd8bzrdTvVukzlOYEleSlWc-mStmEsiGZ85dPSCKMrv3-jYiXk6k5JvtoFQvYquvcN_krLTYLw0tjzlO-b_0zvRzWWVQnrnjNDkkLWFCAKkDqAIK8OhLfafzHfXenkgvjhcV4Ba1XWp0a5Ji8THKrPO1S3Sa65xm_jgTmlPVVJ69Ar2GWAFBveO6DLy79G6KRKFtE-K9908bmblJzHAUqkI1btDuOIcXCbZy2tFnDj1Dk3lcSuUtJrVeUCsGCFynA8AiN16CTvKUZx3XJvdzv6XGyfE-5n_BE0

15

There be in Animals, two sorts of Motions peculiar to them: One called Vital; begun in generation, and continued without interruption through their whole life; such as are the Course of the Blood, the Pulse, the Breathing, the Concoctions, Nutrition, Excretion, &c; to which Motions there needs no help of Imagination: The other in Animal Motion, otherwise called Voluntary Motion; as to Go, to Speak, to Move any of our limbs, in such manner as is first fancied in our minds. That Sense is Motion in the organs and interior parts of man’s body, caused by the action of the things we See, Hear, &c

Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 6, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling). https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm#link2H_PART1

16

[A]lthough unstudied men, do not conceive any motion at all to be there, where the thing moved is invisible; or the space it is moved in, is (for the shortness of it) insensible; yet that doth not hinder, but that such Motions are. For let a space be never so little, that which is moved over a greater space, whereof that little one is part, must first be moved over that. These small beginnings of Motion, within the body of Man, before they appear in walking, speaking, striking, and other visible actions, are commonly called ENDEAVOUR.

Ibid.

17

This Endeavour, when it is toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE, or DESIRE; the later, being the general name; and the other, oftentimes restrained to signify the Desire of Food, namely Hunger and Thirst. And when the Endeavour is fromward [i.e., distant from] something, it is generally called AVERSION. These words Appetite, and Aversion we have from the Latin; and they both of them signify the motions, one of approaching, the other of retiring. […]

Of Appetites, and Aversions, some are born with men; as Appetite of food, Appetite of excretion, and exoneration, (which may also and more properly be called Aversions, from somewhat they feel in their Bodies;) and some other Appetites, not many. The rest, which are Appetites of particular things, proceed from Experience, and trial of their effects upon themselves, or other men. For of things we know not at all, or believe not to be, we can have no further Desire, than to taste and try. But Aversion we have for things, not only which we know have hurt us; but also that we do not know whether they will hurt us, or not.

Ibid.

18 Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 8, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 S. L. A. Marshall findings were complied in a seminal work titled Men Against Fire (1947).

22

In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate Army was in full retreat, forced to abandon all of its dead and most of its wounded. The Union Army and citizens of Gettysburg had an ugly cleanup task ahead of them. Along with the numerous corpses littered about the battlefield, at least 27,574 rifles (I’ve also seen 37,574 listed) were recovered. Of the recovered weapons, a staggering 24,000 were found to be loaded, either 87% or 63%, depending on which number you accept for the total number of rifles. Of the loaded rifles, 12,000 were loaded more than once and half of these (6,000 total) had been loaded between three and ten times. One poor guy had reloaded his weapon twenty-three times without firing a single shot.

From On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1996) by Dave Grossman

23 The same passage concludes:

Another doctrine repugnant to Civil Society, is, that “Whatsoever a man does against his Conscience, is Sin;” and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of Good and Evil. For a man’s Conscience, and his Judgement is the same thing; and as the Judgement, so also the Conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no Civil Law, sinneth in all he does against his Conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a Common-wealth; because the Law is the public Conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided.

Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The Second Part, Chapter 29, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).

24 Hobbes had actually tried to found his entire philosophy on mathematics but in characteristically contrarian fashion was also determined to prove that mathematics itself was also reducible to materialistic principles. This meant rejecting an entire tradition that began with Euclid and that continues today and which recognises the foundations of geometry lie in abstractions such as points, lines and surfaces. In response to Hobbes, John Wallis, Oxford University’s Savilian Professor of Geometry and founding member of the Royal Society, had publicly engaged with the “pseudo-geometer” in a dispute that raged from 1655 until Hobbes’s death in 1679. To illustrate the problem with Hobbes various “proofs” of unsolved problems including squaring the circle (all of which were demonstrably incorrect), Wallis had asked rhetorically: “Who ever, before you, defined a point to be a body? Who ever seriously asserted that points have any magnitude?”

You can read more about this debate in a paper published by The Royal Society titled Geometry, religion and politics: context and consequences of the Hobbes–Wallis dispute written by Douglas Jesseph, published October 10, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2018.0026

25 Quote from, Leviathan (1651), The First Part, Chapter 5, by Thomas Hobbes (with italics and punctuation as in the original but modern spelling).

26 From The Perils of Obedience  (1974) by Stanley Milgram, published in Harper’s Magazine. Archived from the original on December 16, 2010. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority.

27 Ibid.

28 From The Life of the Robin, Fourth Edition (1965), Chapter 15 “A Digression on Instinct” written by David Lack.

29 From Historia Vitae et Mortis by Sir Francis Bacon (‘History of Life and Death’, 1623).

30 Morphological changes such as albinism and loss of sight are common to all cave-dwelling species including invertebrates, fish and also birds. It is presumed that these changes have come about because they save energy and thus confer an evolutionary advantage although biologists find it difficult to explain loss of pigmentation since there seems to be very little energy saved in this way.

31 From a Tanner Lecture on Human Values entitled Morality and the Social Instincts: Continuity with the Other Primates delivered by Frans B. M. Waal at Princeton University on November 19–20, 2003.

The abstract begins:

The Homo homini lupus [“Man is wolf to man.”] view of our species is recognizable in an influential school of biology, founded by Thomas Henry Huxley, which holds that we are born nasty and selfish. According to this school, it is only with the greatest effort that we can hope to become moral. This view of human nature is discussed here as “Veneer Theory,” meaning that it sees morality as a thin layer barely disguising less noble tendencies. Veneer Theory is contrasted with the idea of Charles Darwin that morality is a natural outgrowth of the social instincts, hence continuous with the sociality of other animals. Veneer Theory is criticized at two levels. First, it suffers from major unanswered theoretical questions. If true, we would need to explain why humans, and humans alone, have broken with their own biology, how such a feat is at all possible, and what motivates humans all over the world to do so. The Darwinian view, in contrast, has seen a steady stream of theoretical advances since the 1960s, developed out of the theories of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, but now reaching into fairness principles, reputation building, and punishment strategies. Second, Veneer Theory remains unsupported by empirical evidence.

https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/d/deWaal_2005.pdf

32 Quote from a NOVA interview, “The Bonobo in All of UsPBS from January 1, 2007.

33 Quote from a NOVA interview, “The Bonobo in All of UsPBS from January 1, 2007.

34 Quote taken from “Rixty Minutes”, Episode 8, Season 1, of adult cartoon Rick and Morty first broadcast by the Cartoon Network on March 17, 2014.

35

A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening

no doubt to the sounding of the spheres.

And what a dandy fellow! The right toss of a chin for you

And swirl of a tail!

If men were as much men as lizards are lizards

they’d be worth looking at.

“Lizard” by D. H. Lawrence

36 As he explained in an interview published in the Royal Society of Biology journal The Biologist Vol 60(1) p16-20. https://www.rsb.org.uk/biologist-interviews/richard-dawkins

37 Extracts taken from Chapter 2, pp 45-48, “Seeing Voices” by Oliver Sacks, first published 1989, Picador.

38 Aldous Huxley in the Foreword of ‘The First and Last Freedom’ by Jiddu Krishnamurti.

In his collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956), the first chapter titled “The Education of an Amphibian” begins as follows:

Every human being is an amphibian— or, to be more accurate, every human being is five or six amphibians rolled into one. Simultaneously or alternately, we inhabit many different and even incommensurable universes. To begin with, man is an embodied spirit. As such, he finds himself infesting this particular planet, while being free at the same time to explore the whole spaceless, timeless world of universal Mind. This is bad enough; but it is only the beginning of our troubles. For, besides being an embodied spirit, each of us is also a highly self-conscious and self-centred member of a sociable species. We live in and for ourselves; but at the same time we live in and, somewhat reluctantly, for the social group surrounding us. Again, we are both the products of evolution and a race of self-made men. In other words, we are simultaneously the subjects of Nature and the citizens of a strictly human republic, which may be anything from what St Paul called ‘no mean city’ to the most squalid of material and moral slums.

39 Also from the first chapter titled “The Education of an Amphibian” of Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956).

40 The quote is directly addressed to political philosopher and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in Chapter 2: “The Metaphysics of Political Economy”; Part 3: “Competition and Monopoly” of Karl Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy, a critique of the economic and philosophical doctrine of Proudhon, first published in 1847. In full the quote reads:

“M. Proudhon does not know that all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/

41 Quote taken from Episode 3 of Romer’s Egypt first broadcast on BBC TV in 1982.

42 From Christopher Columbus’s log for Friday, Saturday and Sunday October 12 –14, 1492. https://www.americanjourneys.org/pdf/AJ-062.pdf

43 The following are separate entries:

“With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. …Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.”

“They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.”

“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’”

“They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house.”

“They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive.”

From the History of the Indies (1561) by Bartolome de las Casas.

44 Ibid.

45 As with many of the best known quotes, the first appears to be misattributed and the second is very possibly the reworking of an utterance by Voltaire. While it is true that Napolean is reported as once saying in conversation: “What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history? A fable agreed upon,” the phrase certainly predates him. The first quote “History is written by the winners” can however be traced to the pen of George Orwell from one of a series of articles published by the Tribune under the title “As I please”, in which he wrote:

During part of 1941 and 1942, when the Luftwaffe was busy in Russia, the German radio regaled its home audience with stories of devastating air raids on London. Now, we are aware that those raids did not happen. But what use would our knowledge be if the Germans conquered Britain?  For the purpose of a future historian, did those raids happen, or didn’t they? The answer is: If Hitler survives, they happened, and if he falls they didn’t happen. So with innumerable other events of the past ten or twenty years. Is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer which is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle. History is written by the winners. [bold emphasis added]

46 All excerpts taken from Candide and Other Tales written by Voltaire, translated by T. Smollett, revised by James Thornton, published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London , first published 1937. Incidentally, my own personal copy of this book was saved from the flames of my parent’s wood-burning stove after I discovered it hidden amongst hundreds of old textbooks and destined to become fuel for their central heating system.

47 All excerpts taken from How Much do You Know? (p. 215) Published by Odhams Press Limited, Long Acre, London. WC2 Date of publication unknown but definitely pre-WWII on basis of, for example, the question “what territory did Germany lose after the World War?” (on p. 164)

48 For instance, in German, Geschichte, in Russian история, and in French histoire.

49 Quote from William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, Act II, Scene 1, spoken by John of Gaunt.

50 In their book Trump and the Puritans (published in 2020), authors James Roberts and Martyn Whittock point to the remarkable coincidence that on almost precisely the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, if Donald Trump is to be re-elected it in 2020, then it will be thanks to not only to his strong base amongst Christian Right but down to a more of pervasive and enduring belief in Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, the making of the New Jerusalem and “the city on the hill” that can be traced all the way back to the Pilgrim Fathers.

Speaking with host Afshin Rattansi on RT’s Going Underground, Martyn Whittock outlined this thesis, which offers a convincing account for  why so many American Christians support Trump despite his non-religious character traits, and also why there is greater support for Israel amongst Christian evangelicals than American Jews:

51 The quote is taken from Chapter 4: “Of Constitutions”; Part 2 of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, a defence of the French Revolution against charges made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Rights of Man was first published in two parts in 1791 and 1792 respectively.

In fuller context, Paine writes:

Man will not be brought up with the savage idea of considering his species as his enemy, because the accident of birth gave the individuals existence in countries distinguished by different names; and as constitutions have always some relation to external as well as to domestic circumstances, the means of benefitting by every change, foreign or domestic, should be a part of every constitution. We already see an alteration in the national disposition of England and France towards each other, which, when we look back to only a few years, is itself a Revolution. Who could have foreseen, or who could have believed, that a French National Assembly would ever have been a popular toast in England, or that a friendly alliance of the two nations should become the wish of either? It shows that man, were he not corrupted by governments, is naturally the friend of man, and that human nature is not of itself vicious.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3742/3742-h/3742-h.htm

52 The Second Law of Thermodynamics can be stated in a variety of different ways but is probably best known as follows: “ that the total entropy of any isolated macroscopic system must always decrease.” Where entropy is the precise measure of something that can be loosely described as the total microscopic disorder within the system. The second law has many implications. Firstly, there is insistence upon a direction whenever any system changes, with order changing into increasingly to disorder. This itself implies an irreversibility to events and suggests a propelling “arrow of time”. The Second Law also prohibits the possibility for any kind of perpetual motion, which by extension, sets a limit to the duration of the universe as a whole, since the universe can also be considered as an isolated thermodynamic system, and is therefore, and as a whole, subject to the Second Law. For this reason the universe is now expected to end in a cosmic whimper, known in Physics as “the heat death of the universe” – with all parts having reached a very chilly thermodynamic equilibrium. It almost seems then that the Second Law of Thermodynamics might be the physical axis about which the diabolical asymmetry of destruction over creation is strung. Just how any universe of intricate complexity could ever have formed in the first instance is mysterious enough, and though the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not prohibit all orderly formation, so long as the pockets of order are counterbalanced by regions of increasing chaos, the law does maintain that the overall tendency is always towards disorder. Form it did, of course, which perhaps implies the existence of an as yet undiscovered but profoundly forceful creative principle – something that may prove to be nothing more or less than another law of thermodynamics.

Here is physicist Richard Feynman wondering about the physical cause of irreversibility and what it tells us about the past:

53

We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.

From The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

54 This variant on the myth, with its rather Buddhist overtones, does at least account for God’s rage and instant reaction. For according to Genesis, God thereafter says, to no-one in particular: “… the man is become as one of us [sic], to know good from evil.” Our expulsion from the Garden of Eden is not simply His punishment for our disobedience (which is, of course, the doctrine the church authorities are keen to play up), but a safeguard to protect and secure His own divine monopoly. God fearing that left alone in paradise we might now, and as the same passage goes on to elucidate, “take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.”

Extracts taken from Genesis 3:22. The full verse is as follows: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:”

55L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.” – François de La Rochefoucauld, Maximes (1665–1678), 218.

Alternative translation: “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”

56

L’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers. Tel se croit le maître des autres, qui ne laisse pas d’être plus esclave qu’eux.

Translated by G. D. H. Cole (1913) as: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”

From Part I, Chapter 1 of Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique [trans: Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right ] (1762) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. is a book in which Rousseau theorized about the best way to establish a political community.

57 Translated by Samuel Moore in cooperation with Frederick Engels (1888):

The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

From Section 4, paragraph 11 of Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei [trans: The Communist Manifesto] (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

58 From “Bible Studies” published in Thomas Lynch’s collection of essays titled Bodies in Motion and At Rest (2011).

59

Stanley Moon [Dudley Moore]: If it hadn’t been for you… we’d still be blissfully wandering about naked in paradise.

George Spiggott aka The Devil [Peter Cook]: You’re welcome, mate. The Garden of Eden was a boggy swamp just south of Croydon. You can see it over there.

Stanley Moon: Adam and Eve were happy enough.

The Devil: I’ll tell you why… they were pig ignorant.

From the 1967 British comedy Bedazzled, directed and produced by Stanley Donen, screenplay by Peter Cook.

Transcript is available here: https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=bedazzled_3792&p=11

60 From an article titled “shame v. guilt’ by Brené Brown, published on her own website on January 14, 2013. https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/

61 The quote comes from Sartre’s play No Exit [French: Huis clos] first performed in 1944. Three characters find themselves trapped and forever waiting in a mysterious room which depicts the afterlife. The famous phrase “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is other people” is a reference to Sartre’s idea that seeing oneself as apprehended by and thus the object of another person’s view of conscious awareness involves a perpetual ontological struggle.

It seems that Sartre offered his own clarification, saying:

“Hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because … when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves … we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves.

The quote above is from a talk that preceded a recording of the play issued in 1965. http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2010/07/most-famous-thing-jean-paul-sartre.html

62 Quote from the Aldous Huxley’s collection of essays Adonis and the Alphabet (1956), Chapter 2 titled “Knowledge and Understanding”.

63 Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, section 1253a

64 From “An Essay on the Principle of Population: as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers” by Thomas Robert Malthus (1798), chapter 1.

65 Ibid.

66 “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.” is a prediction taken from chapter 2 of “An Essay on the Principle of Population…” by T. Malthus (1798). Okay then, here’s the maths: Malthus is assuming a population exponentially doubling in 25 years (every generation). In two and a quarter centuries this would allow 9 generations, so 2 to the power of 9 increase, which represents a 512-fold increase as he correctly claims. Well, what actually happened? At the time of Thomas Malthus, Britain also conducted its first census recording in 1801 a population of 8,308,000 (which is thought likely to have been an under-estimate). Meanwhile, the world population is estimated to have just reached around 1 billion (precisely as Malthus estimates). So then, according to Malthus calculations, the population of Britain should now be more than 4 billion! (which is approaching close to the current global population) Taking the same approach, the population of the world should now have exploded past half a trillion! This is at the extreme upper limit of estimates for the Earth’s carrying capacity: “The estimates of the Earth’s carrying capacity range from under 1 billion to more than 1,000 billion persons. Not only is there an enormous range of values, but there is no tendency of the values to converge over time; indeed, the estimates made since 1950 exhibit greater variability than those made earlier.” from UN World Population Report 2001, p.30.

67 Now known as The Royal Statistic Society (after receiving Royal Charter in 1887)

68 Letter sent to Tennyson in response to his poem “Vision of Sin” published 1842. The exact details of this letter seem to vary according to sources. In another version he signs off saying, “Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.”

69

After 30 years of rapid growth in agricultural production, the world can produce enough food to provide every person with more than 2 700 Calories per day level which is normally sufficient to ensure that all have access to adequate food, provided distribution is not too unequal.

From report of World Food Summit of FAO (Rome 13-17 November 1996), entitled Food for All.

70

“[However,] the slowdown [of worldwide agricultural production] has occurred not because of shortages of land or water but rather because demand for agricultural products has also slowed. This is mainly because world population growth rates have been declining since the late 1960s, and fairly high levels of food consumption per person are now being reached in many countries, beyond which further rises will be limited.” – “This study suggests that world agricultural production can grow in line with demand, provided that the necessary national and international policies to promote agriculture are put in place. Global shortages are unlikely, but serious problems already exist at national and local levels and may worsen unless focused efforts are made.” – “Agricultural production could probably meet expected demand over the period to 2030 even without major advances in modern biotechnology.”

Extracts from the Executive Summary of the FAO summary report World agriculture: towards 2015/2030, published in 2002.

71 Maslow’s ideas have fallen by the wayside, which is a pity because his study of human need was a worthwhile project. Maslow’s reductionism is wrong, but perhaps by considering a more intricate and dynamic interconnectedness between human needs, his theory can be usefully revised. The trouble with Maslow is any insistence on hierarchy, something that other academics, and especially those working in the social sciences, are inclined to mistake as a kind of verified truth. Just calling an idea, ‘a theory’, doesn’t make it so, certainly not in any rigorous sense, but those not trained in the hard sciences are often inclined to treat speculative formulations as though they are fully-fledged theories. This is grave and recurring error infuriates many people, myself included, and especially those who have received specialist scientific training.

72 All subsequent passages and quotations in this chapter are also taken from “An Essay on the Principle of Population: as it affects the future improvement of society with remarks on the speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and other writers” by Thomas Robert Malthus (1798), chapters 18 and 19.

73 His ideas on these daunting topics are rather cleverly-conceived, unusual if not wholly original, and tread a line that is unorthodox and close to being heretical. So it’s really in these closing chapters that Malthus is most engaging and most at ease. Here, for example, is the Malthusian take on mind and matter:

It could answer no good purpose to enter into the question whether mind be a distinct substance from matter, or only a finer form of it. The question is, perhaps, after all, a question merely of words. Mind is as essentially mind, whether formed from matter or any other substance. We know from experience that soul and body are most intimately united, and every appearance seems to indicate that they grow from infancy together… As we shall all be disposed to agree that God is the creator of mind as well as of body, and as they both seem to be forming and unfolding themselves at the same time, it cannot appear inconsistent either with reason or revelation, if it appear to be consistent with phenomena of nature, to suppose that God is constantly occupied in forming mind out of matter and that the various impressions that man receives through life is the process for that purpose. The employment is surely worthy of the highest attributes of the Deity.

Having safely negotiated the potential minefield of Cartesian dualism, Malthus now applies himself to the tricky problem of evil, and its relationship to “the wants of the body”:

The first great awakeners of the mind seem to be the wants of the body… The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold, and the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils, by procuring food, and building himself a covering, are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity. From all that experience has taught us concerning the structure of the human mind, if those stimulants to exertion which arise from the wants of the body were removed from the mass of mankind, we have much more reason to think that they would be sunk to the level of brutes, from a deficiency of excitements, than that they would be raised to the rank of philosophers by the possession of leisure.

74 Malthus, aware of the dangers of over-generalisation, adds a little later that:

There are undoubtedly many minds, and there ought to be many, according to the chances out of so great a mass, that, having been vivified early by a peculiar course of excitements, would not need the constant action of narrow motives to continue them in activity.” Saying later again that: “Leisure is, without doubt, highly valuable to man, but taking  man as he is, the probability seems to be that in the greater number of instances it will produce evil rather than good.

75Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal ” (more simply known as Théodicée) which translates from French as “Essays of theodicy on the goodness of God, the freedom of man and the origin of evil”.

76 Malthus also offers us reasons to be cheerful and indeed grateful for our world of apparent imperfection:

Uniform, undiversified perfection could not possess the same awakening powers. When we endeavour then to contemplate the system of the universe, when we think of the stars as the suns of other systems scattered throughout infinite space, when we reflect that we do not probably see a millionth part of those bright orbs that are beaming light and life to unnumbered worlds, when our minds, unable to grasp the immeasurable conception, sink, lost and confounded, in admiration at the mighty incomprehensible power of the Creator, let us not querulously complain that all climates are not equally genial, that perpetual spring does not reign throughout the year, that all God’s creatures do not possess the same advantages, that clouds and tempests sometimes darken the natural world and vice and misery the moral world, and that all the works of the creation are not formed with equal perfection. Both reason and experience seem to indicate to us that the infinite variety of nature (and variety cannot exist without inferior parts, or apparent blemishes) is admirably adapted to further the high purpose of the creation and to produce the greatest possible quantity of good.

77

This view of the state of man on earth will not seem to be unattended with probability, if, judging from the little experience we have of the nature of mind, it shall appear upon investigation that the phenomena around us, and the various events of human life, seem peculiarly calculated to promote this great end, and especially if, upon this supposition, we can account, even to our own narrow understandings, for many of those roughnesses and inequalities in life which querulous man too frequently makes the subject of his complaint against the God of nature.

Taken from Chapter 18. Ibid.

78 There are of course modern reinventions of the Malthusian message, which are still play a significant role in our current political debate. These depend on extending Malthus’ idea into considerations of resource shortages of other kinds such as energy (and after all, food is the primary form of energy for human beings) and water. This however is an area that I wish to save for future writing.

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Norman Finkelstein on why HRW finally turned their back to “the lunatic state” of Israel

The title of the Human Rights Watch report is “A Threshold Crossed”. The paradox there is the threshold was not crossed by Israel – like you say, this is all old news – the threshold was crossed by Human Rights Watch. They crossed the threshold. They now were looking square in the face without any extenuations, any qualifications, any caveats; they said Israel is based on Jewish domination… I mean I can barely say that.

I have a small public career denouncing Human Rights Watch – many of the chapters in many of my books are devoted to denouncing its whitewashing of Israel… Who would have thought the day would come to pass that Human Rights Watch would make us look like milquetoast? Taking positions that frankly I’ve not taken publicly – I was of a school of let’s just resolve this: let’s end the occupation and let’s move on; but now the terms are changing. [from 44:00 mins]

*

On Monday 10th, BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis interviewed Palestinian Ambassador to UK, Husom Zomlot, who eloquently called out the western media’s consistent downplaying of Israel’s settler colonial oppression as just its inevitable response to a cycle of violence sparked by Palestinians:

And here is Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd from Sheikh Jarrah responding to CNN anchor in a clip that went viral:

As the liberal media does its level best to misrepresent the ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestinians as “clashes”, feigning equivalence between Palestinian stones and ‘rockets’ to the routine brutality of Israel’s military occupation and its “mowing the grass” with renewed airstrikes and bombing of Gaza, on Tuesday night [May 11th] political commentator Katie Halper invited Jewish American scholar Norman Finkelstein to speak about the protests in East Jerusalem and more widely across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, lending his own perspective on both the current and historical context for the violence. The full interview is embedded below alongside my own transcripts with relevant links provided – all the quotes (including the one above) are Norman Finkelstein:

I’ll tell you something that is a kind of a paradox; an irony. I’m not passing judgment now; I’m just going to lay out a picture. From 1967, Israel’s occupation, and especially beginning in the early 1970s, Israel’s existence as a Jewish state ceased to be called into question. The international consensus was: Israel, for better or for worse, it exists; it’s a state; if it wants its Jewish majority, it can have its Jewish majority, and it can carry on however it wants internally. And then the issue was just [what to do about] the occupied Palestinian territories.

Had the Israelis not been so arrogant; had they not been so supremacist, so contemptuous of the Palestinians; had they just calculated their own best interest; they would have settled for the two states and said let’s move on. But their arrogance, their Jewish supremacy, that impulse for Jewish domination – the cheapness to which they reduced Palestinian life – that had a paradoxical consequence. And what was the consequence? The consequence was that now their whole legitimacy is being challenged.

When it first came up in 1975 with the “Zionism is racism” resolution at the UN. When it first came up the western states, and in particular the United States, had expressed its outrage, its indignation: how dare you say Israel’s a racist state? How dare you say Israel is an apartheid state? You probably remember the American official – I won’t call him ‘a statesman’ – Daniel Patrick Moynihan [who] made his whole reputation by sitting in the United Nations… holding up his hand, giving his no vote to that resolution. And that launched his career…

Here’s the irony: what Moynihan is objecting to now that ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution at the UN. Guess what? You now open up B’Tselem’s report, you open up Human Rights Watch report, and what did they say? The Israeli state is based on Jewish Supremacy and Jewish domination. Now isn’t that an irony? That’s what the reports are now saying. Exactly what launched Daniel Moynihan’s career was denouncing that claim, as did the whole of the western states and the American media in particular. That position, ‘Zionism is racism’ – Israel as a Jewish Supremacist state based on Jewish domination – that notion has now been legitimised.

From an historical point of view it’s a real irony, because to use simple language ‘they could have gotten away with it’. The international community was willing to accept Israel as it was, even though they knew the land had been and was still being relentlessly confiscated. They knew there were Palestinian refugees who were denied the right to return to their homeland. Everybody knew that. But, the international community turned its head away, and said let’s just forget about that, let’s just resolve the conflict: two states: Palestinian state, Israeli state; and let’s move on. [But] they didn’t want to move on. They wanted to have everything. And now everything is being called into question. Everything! [from 37:00 mins]

*

The text below is also a partial transcript of Norman Finkelstein’s conversation with Katie Halper.

Let me just map out broadly what I see happening. First is the headline news, which is the explosion in East Jerusalem. Which was a long time coming. There have been intimations for the last few weeks or more that Israel’s expulsions of families in East Jerusalem were at some point going to climax in a clash. And that happened this past week. You can never predict when they’re going to happen, but obviously a breaking point had been reached.

That’s the political aspect – the facts on the ground – and that’s what’s right now garnering all the headlines. But there’s another aspect to this conflict which has been getting some but not equal media attention. And that is the quite dramatic and one might say a turning point in the Israel-Palestine conflict at the legal, at the moral, and at the public opinion level. A collapse of all three: legal, moral, public opinion level. And for some of your listeners it’s particularly revealing of what’s happening in the American-Jewish community.

Now, let me try to just back-up and put things in context. First the major development. The major development is the past week Human Rights Watch, which as you know is the leading human rights organisation in the world. It’s the most prominent, the most influential, the most well-endowed. And I would also say – because it’s pertinent to what I’ll be saying in this evening’s conversation – it’s also the most centrist. The most mainstream of the human rights organisations.

And this past week Human Rights Watch put out a very substantial report. It ran to 214 pages, and it had a voluminous scholarly apparatus, which is the fancy way of saying that it was exhaustively and comprehensively researched. It’s an impressive piece of work. And it had many dramatic things to say. The title of the report is “A Threshold Crossed”, and before I get to that threshold crossed, I want to just back-up a moment and set it in context.

The context is that since roughly 2009, Palestinians and their supporters have been trying to bring a case against Israel before the International Criminal Court [ICC], and these were very protracted proceedings and they frankly seemed as if they were getting nowhere. There were two cases brought before the court. One was after many, many years finally dismissed by the Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda – that was the subject of [Finkelstein’s] book I accuse – it was an attack on the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda; and then there was a second case brought before the court. The second case was also dragging and dragging and dragging, and it looked as if was going to die out. However, this past year for reasons which I won’t go into now, the court finally decided it’s proceeding with an investigation into Israeli war crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Gaza.

Now one hurdle had been cleared to pursue this investigation, but there were still many other hurdles to be cleared. I myself having followed the case very closely and studied it, I was very sceptical the Palestinians would be able to clear the next hurdles. There are a lot of legal technicalities that would have enabled the court to kill the case. And I didn’t think [the Palestinians] would be able to prevail.

But then, lo and behold, about three months ago, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, which is the main Israeli human rights organisation monitoring Israeli crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories, they came out with what one might call an astonishing position paper. And I’m just going to read you the title. I’m not going to belabour you with the text; just the title: “A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid.”

Now there are three notable things about that title:

Number one. They use a very incendiary phrase. The phrase is “Jewish Supremacy”. Obviously for an American ear that sounds an awful lot like ‘White Supremacy’. Jewish Supremacy: there’s not even a flea’s hop separating the two. So to a public which has been – mostly because of the Black Lives Matter movement – very much sensitised to issues of White Supremacy and White domination – it was, as I said, an incendiary phrase.

Secondly, usually in discussions of the Israel-Palestine conflict there’s Israel here and the Occupied Palestinian Territories there. Israel’s legitimacy is more or less accepted. The point of contention is the state and future of the occupied Palestinian territories. B’Tselem did something new. It said we’re no longer talking about Israel here, Occupied Palestinian Territories there; there’s just one state now. We have to be honest about it. There’s just one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and that one state is Israel. And that one state is a Jewish Supremacist state. As the report goes on to say: this state’s foundation is Jewish Supremacy.

And then it takes the next step and says “this is an apartheid state”. Well, that crossed several red lines. Number one: it no longer acknowledged the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The point of contention was no longer just the occupied Palestinian territories; it’s the whole thing. And number two: they compared it to apartheid, and for Israel’s supporters that’s been a bogie: you can’t compare it to apartheid.

So frankly speaking – candidly – I was shocked. I was very surprised at what they did. They have a new leadership; the fellow who heads the executive is named Hagai El-Ad – he’s a very unusual figure. I don’t know him personally. I have never had personal contact – not from a want of trying from me, but we’ve never had contact. He’s a Harvard PhD in Physics and he apparently set aside his professional attainments and he now heads up B’Tselem. And he’s a remarkably principled and forthright person. There is one quite amusing exchange between him and [former] Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon at the United Nations. It’s a real sight to behold. And frankly I personally thought – and still think – he has gone so far out on a limb that there’s probably a good chance he will be assassinated. [from 2:45 mins]

Here is Hagai El-Ad, the director of Israeli non-profit organisation B’Tselem slamming the Israeli occupation’s crimes and violations during a UN Security Council session held in October 2018:

The response of Israeli Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Danny Danon, was to say “Shame on you, collaborator:

[B’Tselem] is the main Israeli human rights organisation monitoring Israeli crimes and abuses – I don’t like the word abuses I prefer the word crimes – Israeli crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories. It’s very reputable. It’s won many awards, and I think it’s fair to say no-one has seriously disputed the quality or the accuracy of its research. So it’s a formidable organisation in terms of its persuasive power. It has a good track-record for its accuracy.

Now the Human Rights Watch report is as astonishing as the B’Tselem report but in a different way. First of all, the Human Rights Watch report says, not that Israel has established a regime of ‘Jewish Supremacy’ across the board from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean; they say something slightly different, but equally incendiary. They say Israel has established across the board from the Mediterranean to the Jordan (Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories); they have established a regime – I’ll use their words now – ‘a regime of Jewish domination over and against the Palestinian people’.

And they say, that in the occupied territories, Israel has established – or Israel engages in – the crime of apartheid and the crime of persecution, and that these two crimes constitute under international law crimes against humanity, which according to Human Rights Watch, quoting some statutes, they say these are among the most odious – ODIOUS – crimes in international law.

And they say, that the ICC should not limit itself to investigating Israeli war crimes, but should go to the next step and investigate Israeli crimes against humanity. So it’s already taken what you might call ‘out on a limb’ positions – I’ll get back to that in a moment – the other thing that it does which was a total surprise to me (and I’m not saying these things for their theatrical or emotive effect – I’m being quite sincere and candid with you – I’ve studied this conflict since 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon which eventually became the subject of my doctoral dissertation and so I’m pretty inured to events in the Israel-Palestine conflict – I kind of think I’ve seen it all) but some things are happening which are very surprising. It’s the 1960s song that I grew up with: ‘There’s Something Happening Here’. There is: something is happening – there’s no doubt about it.

Because the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t just stick to the present: what is the situation now; what has been the situation in the past ten or twenty years. The B’Tselem report is basically a description of the present. The Human Rights Watch report – I’m not exaggerating, believe me I don’t exaggerate; I’m very careful about staying true to the facts – it goes all the way back to Israel’s establishment in 1948 – it even goes back to 1947. And it says, from the beginning, Israel, in order to create this Jewish state – the Zionist movement and then the State of Israel – they tried to do two things.

Number one – I’m using their words now – they tried to engineer a Jewish majority in Israel. Because for the founders of the State of Israel, a Jewish state could not be a Jewish state unless there was a Jewish majority, and so they wanted to engineer that Jewish majority. Well there was only one way to engineer a Jewish majority; you had to expel the indigenous population. There’s no other way to do it. And so Human Rights Watch… delegitimises the notion of a Jewish majority, because it says in order to create that Jewish majority, it could only be created at the expense of the Palestinians. And so it says this creation of a Jewish majority state was intrinsically at the expense of – or discriminating against – the Palestinian population.

The second pillar of the Jewish State objective was the confiscation of the land, because the land was owned by Palestinians; they didn’t live there. When Israel was created only 6% of the land in Palestine was owned by Jews. So they describe in searing detail – even though I know that’s a kind of catchphrase – this juggernaut, this maw, which is gobbling up the Palestinian land; dispossessing the Palestinians of their land. And to the point of creating the Jewish majority, 90% of the indigenous population was expelled; about 750,000 Palestinians. Now, with their descendants, Human Rights Watch gives a figure of 5.7 million Palestinian refugees.

And then on the other end, they say that Israel controls 93% of the land – its state owned land – and that 93% is earmarked only for Jews. Palestinians constitute 19% of the population of the State of Israel (about 1.6 million people) and they are confined to about 3% of the land.

To cut to the chase and to make a long story a little bit shorter, the effect is… and I’m not quite sure if Human Rights Watch is really aware of what they are doing – honestly I’m not sure – but the long and the short of the report is that it completely delegitimises the idea of a Jewish state. [from 13:55 mins]

What’s happening now in East Jerusalem, when you read the Human Rights Watch report, you see it as part of this juggernaut that began in 1947; this relentless, heartless, confiscation of Palestinian land. They just don’t stop – you know the expression: the hunger increases with the eating. The more they consume that land, the more they want more and more and more.

And so after reading the report, you see what’s happening in East Jerusalem in Sheikh Jarrah, you just see it as one more step in this long trajectory, this relentless, heartless juggernaut – this maw – of stealing the land from those hopeless, helpless and hapless people. That’s one point.

The second point I would make is where I left off a few moments ago. Human Rights Watch is a mainstream organisation. It’s not a radical organisation… They watch NPR, they listen to the NPR, they read The New York Times, in their leisure they read The New Yorker, they probably subscribe to the New York Review of Books, probably a few subscribe to the London Review of Books – they’re very mainstream, very conventional. They’re also very Jewish. Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director – this is the mainstream of the progressive and centrist Jewish community. And they’re very dependent on Jewish donors. They received a humungous donation from George Soros – a spectacular number [precisely: $100 million].

And so they must be very sensitive to how far they can go on the Israel-Palestine conflict before they lose their donors and they lose their constituency, which tells me that having done the calculations they reached the conclusion that their donors and their constituency were ready, were prepared, could digest a human rights report issued by HRW which not only condemns Israeli policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and describes this policy as the crime of “apartheid”, the crime of “persecution”, and those two crimes – apartheid and persecution – are crimes against humanity under international law, which as they say constitute among the most “odious crimes in international law” – they went not only that far, but they described the whole regime from the Jordan to the Mediterranean as one based on “Jewish domination”, which as I’m sure you recognise is only a flea’s hop from saying ‘Jewish Supremacy’ – these are pretty much synonymous – and what’s most revelatory they said all this on the assumption (in my opinion) that they wouldn’t lose their Jewish constituency. […]

The bottom line is, henceforth the paradigm is no longer Israel here and Occupied Palestinian Territories there: Israel, for better or for worse, we accept it as it is; Occupied Palestinian Territories we don’t accept, the occupation has to end and a Palestinian state has to be created. That was the paradigm up until now. Now, the whole legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish state has been called into question. [from 24:10 mins]

As you probably know there’s been a huge amount of contention on college campuses over this annual event called “Israel Apartheid Week” which unfolds annually on many college campuses. And up until now, the Israeli organisations and their supporters have said that it’s antisemitic – it hurts the Jews and makes Jews feel scared, and all this politically correct nonsense [is used] in order to try and suppress the Israel Apartheid Week. Well, guess what happened? In the past three months, the most important human rights organisation in Israel and the most important human rights organisation in the world, they said: but it is apartheid. And they just legitimised Israel Apartheid Week. How can the Israelis answer that now and their supporters? You want to suppress a term, ‘apartheid’, that’s been appropriated now by Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem?

So I think this is a major setback for Israel’s apologists. I think they’re probably now in a panic mode. And I think that events like what happening now in East Jerusalem will no longer be seen in isolation. When you read the Human Rights Watch report you see it now as a momentary flashpoint in a long trajectory. […]

The [main] flashpoint is in East Jerusalem, however, Palestinians in Haifa, Palestinians in Nazareth, they’re all joining in; Palestinians in the West Bank are joining in; Palestinians in Gaza via the so-called ‘rockets’, they’re joining in. And so you kind of see a manifestation of what the report described. Because both reports talked about from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, meaning it’s about all Palestinians and all Israelis…. and so for the moment it seems it is becoming a struggle no longer confined to the occupied Palestinian territories, or confined to Gaza, as was the Great March of Return beginning in March 2018, or confined to the West Bank; it’s now spreading among all Palestinians. I think that’s a significant development.

It’s possible that all the terms for understanding the conflict and resolving the conflict – those terms are now being called into question and they may be recast in a new form, which I think is going to be a real problem for the State of Israel. [from 32:15 mins]

I don’t want to be polyannish about this but I don’t think {Israel and its apologists] are going to be as successful anymore. We saw a video of them dancing and singing as the fire blazes on Al-Aqsa… they were all wearing Jewish yarmulkes… It was actually quite hideous.

Video shows Israelis dancing and celebrating the burning of the Al-Aqsa Mosque – the third most holy Islamic site in the world [the same footage can be viewed in the Katie Halper show at 1:07:15]:

If you were to imagine in a neighbourhood like where I live in Ocean Parkway [Brooklyn, NY] where there’s about two synagogues in every block, of Muslims gathered around the synagogue while the synagogue is on fire, and they’re cheering. [from 1:02:25]

If you go back and listen to the interviews (not that you’re obliged to of course) I’ve done in the last few years, I’ve said: “it’s a lunatic state”. And you see now the lunacy is being played out, maybe not in The New York Times and maybe not in the New Yorker and maybe not in the New York Review of Books or The Atlantic magazine, but enough people will see it. It’s a cliché but it’s true: the democratising effect of the web. They’re not going to be able to hide this…

I don’t want to be too polyannish but in my opinion Israel’s in for a rough ride now. Too much is known. Too many people are alienated. Too many people disgusted. There is a sea-change occurring. [from 1:07:55]

We should acknowledge when there have been victories and what has now been said [in these reports] constitutes a major victory. And from my point of view, what’s equally important: it’s going to give Israel a very hard time now. [from 1:13:10]

*

Last night’s Novara Media also devoted its main segment to Palestinian protests in the occupied territories and the latest bombardment of Gaza by Israel. Host Michael Walker welcomed Riya Al’Sanah who is a Palestinian activist and writer based in Haifa:

*

Additional: Palestinian solidarity protests across Britain

On Saturday 15th, there are events planned to take place across the country calling for an end to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, and for the right of return for all exiled Palestinians.

Protests are being organised around the country by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition, Friends of al-Aqsa, Palestinian Forum in Britain and Muslim Association of Britain.

SATURDAY 15th MAY 2021 #SaveSheikhJarrah #FreePalestine #FreeGaza Protests:

Aberdeen, Marischal Square, 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/579816402984185/

Brighton, The Clocktower, 12pm

Bristol, Castle Park, 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/210502050657881/

Canterbury, HSBC Bank, Whitefriars, 9 Rose Lane, Canterbury CT1 2JP, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/307828627519700

Cambridge, Market Square, 11.15am – https://www.facebook.com/groups/cambridgepalestineforum

Cardiff, Aneurin Bevan Statue, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/4560945557267377

Edinburgh, Regent Road Park, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/372506180780931

Exeter, Bedford Square, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/306515077708621

Hastings, Near Debenhams, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/1183922488708042/

Hitchin, Windmill Hill, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/events/284046986748935/

Inverness, Town House, 12-1pm – https://www.facebook.com/HighlandPalestine

Jersey, Royal Square, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/events/580129649570440/

Leeds, Leeds Trinity Briggate (Area outside Zara/Debenhams), 2pm – https://www.facebook.com/LeedsPSC.org.uk

London, March to the Israeli Embassy, Assemble Marble Arch, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/464271897978862

Machynlleth, The Clock Tower, 11am-12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/208833754148964

Manchester, Platt’s Field Park, Rusholme, 12pm-4pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/373982893940589/

Newcastle, Grey’s Monument, 11.30am – https://www.facebook.com/events/463362151414611

Nottingham, Old Market Square, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/833822114155903/

Plymouth, New George Street, 11am-1pm  – https://www.facebook.com/events/323519439242407/

Sheffield, Sheffield Town Hall, 12pm – https://www.facebook.com/sheffieldpalestine

Southampton, Bargate, 11am-12.30pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/237979378115605/

Wolverhampton, Queen Square, 11am – https://www.facebook.com/groups/167943526632859


Sun 16 May:

Glasgow, George Square + March to BBC, 1pm – https://www.facebook.com/events/2625768251049758/

Click here to find this same event list on the Stop the War Coalition website.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, campaigns & events, Israel, Palestine

almost five years after the police killing of Dalian Atkinson, will there be justice at last?

A police officer murdered the former Aston Villa striker Dalian Atkinson, first shooting him with a Taser stun gun for 33 seconds, then kicking him in the head as though striking a football, causing his head to snap back violently, a jury heard on Tuesday.

PC Benjamin Monk denies murder and manslaughter following the incident on 15 August 2016 in Telford, Shropshire, which began at the home of Atkinson’s father.

Monk is alleged to have also fired a Taser electrical weapon at Atkinson for nearly seven times longer than the standard five-second deployment.

Then, while Atkinson was on the ground and apparently unresponsive, the officer had kicked him in the head twice with such force that the imprint of Monk’s laces was left on Atkinson’s forehead, Birmingham crown court heard.

Click here to read the full report by Vikram Dodd published in the Guardian published on Tuesday May 4th.

At the time of Dalian Atkinson’s death in 2016, his was the latest of eleven deaths attributable to the use of Tasers by British police (a rate of one per year). The number of incidents has since increased.

In December 2018, Amnesty International released a report entitled “Public should ‘resist drum-beat of calls for all police to carry a Taser’” stating:

In the UK, a total of 18 people have died after a Taser was discharged against them by police. The most recent case was in May last year when a 30-year-old father-of-two died in hospital after he was Tasered by police in Falmouth.

In July 2020, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)’s monthly magazine E&T, produced an investigative review entitled Why Tasers are being misused by British police which “spoke to experts about why British police appear to be using Taser tactics disproportionally against black people”.

The article records 26 deaths from Taser-related incidents and highlights the clear disparity in numbers of cases based on ethnicity, noting that 20% of Taser events are against black people who make up just 3.3% of the population:

Why do the police use CED [‘conducted energy device’ or Taser] tactics against black men? Few want to talk. It’s a big question, says Sarah Uncles, policy and communications officer at The Inquest, a human rights activist group. It’s not just Taser tactics that are disproportionally used against black, Asian and other members of minority groups, she says. “It’s all use of force” that stands out for these groups.

Home Offices figures show that all forms of force, from restraint up to firearms, are used more commonly against black people than would be expected by their share of the population.

Use of Tasers against different ethnic groups by British police

Use of Tasers against different ethnic groups by British police

The author of the piece, Ben Heubl, also cites three more recent incidents of Taser use that led to deaths:

The Home Office finds it difficult to connect deaths directly to Taser tactics, E&T confirms. 2017 saw at least three fatality cases where Tasers played a dominant role, but Home Office data shows no CED fatalities for that period.

In February 2017, Paul Williams was tasered twice after police officers noticed him being in possession of part of a Stanley knife blade (which he used to inflict injuries on himself). He died in hospital due to an injury to his neck during the incident.

Then there is Darren Cumberbatch, who died in July 2017 after what the coroner called “excessive” force involving CED tactics by Warwickshire police officers.

Three months earlier, Marc Cole died. The jury stated he died from excessive use of cocaine resulting in paranoid and erratic behaviour, but the use of the Taser by Devon and Cornwall Police assisted Cole into cardiac arrest, the inquest said. Among other reasons, the medical cause of death was the discharge of a Taser X26 device – a weapon Axon makes, now in the form of the X26P, a more compact version. A 2017 Reuters investigation found the X26 was being taken off the market due to posing a higher cardiac risk than other models.

The same article concludes with statistics that show an alarming 30 percent rise in the use of Tasers by British police over the period 2017–2019:

Last year’s figures show CEDs rank among the more dangerous tactics in terms of hospitalisations. In contrast, Tasers made limited progress on arrests. With a third more CED events between 2017/18 and 2018/19, the number of people that escaped following Tasers surged 56 per cent.

Click here to read the full article published by Engineering and Technology magazine in July 2020.

***

To mark ten year’s blogging, this is the fourth of my re-uploads from the WoC archive. Originally posted on August 25th 2016, eleven Taser deaths in as many years – RIP Dalian Atkinson reported on the tragic death of Dalian Atkinson, which received surprisingly little media coverage at the time. I also drew attention to the eleven known Taser-related deaths that had previously happened in Britain, as well as the far more widespread and lethal use of Tasers in America.

*

Well-loved ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson (aged 48) lost his life last week (in the early hours of Monday, August 15th) shortly after he was Tasered by police outside his father’s home in the Trench area of Telford, Shropshire. This is testimony of Paula Quinn, an eyewitness to the events leading up to Atkinson’s violent death:

“They were shouting and kicking so much all I could hear were the boots hitting him. And then the officer who released the Taser stepped back while the other officer still continued to kick and then I could hear him shout to the other officer that was still kicking, ‘Back off, back off, back off.’ And then the officer with the Taser asked the gentleman to put his hands behind his back and did so probably two or three times and reactivated the Taser another four or five times after that.1

[bold highlight added]

On Thursday [August 18th], following a postmortem examination determining the cause of his death as ‘inconclusive’, the Independent Police Complaints Commission released a statement that two West Mercia police officers were being served with gross misconduct notices and put under criminal investigation:

The IPCC commissioner Derrick Campbell said: “Having carefully considered the evidence gathered so far, we are undertaking a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Atkinson’s death and the level and type of force used. Two police officers will be interviewed under criminal caution by IPCC investigators.

As this is a criminal investigation, the IPCC is limited in the amount of information which can be released into the public domain. I would ask people to be patient during the progress of our investigation and not to add to speculation about the circumstances of Mr Atkinson’s death. Speculation across the media as a whole can risk prejudice to the investigation process. 2

The IPCC says there will be “a thorough examination of the circumstances surrounding the death” but sadly there are historical reasons to be doubtful, and Atkinson’s death inevitably adds extra weight to already confirmed suspicions that in Britain, as in America and elsewhere, black people are still disproportionate victims of police brutality – including being Tasered. 3

Moreover, Atkinson’s tragic death highlights the often overlooked fact that Tasers, which deliver a 50,000 Volt shock, are not non-lethal weapons but classified as “less lethal” firearms. In fact, according to official statistics there has been at least one ‘Taser-related’ death in Britain every year for the last ten years – 11 in total. 4 Meanwhile, in America, where Taser use is more established, the number of fatalities may well be in the hundreds 5, although deaths are often attributed instead to ‘excited delirium’.

The introduction and, inevitably, the increasing use of the Taser is, in truth, indicative of unsettling trend in our culture – which unfortunately once again takes its lead from America. For as law enforcement does away with the blunter instruments of previous decades and centuries, the public is trained instead to tolerate the semi-detached, hi-tech violence administered by twenty-first century technology: yesterday’s more savage methods of coercion continually upgraded and superseded by less bloody, more hands-free techniques of ‘pain compliance’ – and Tasers do not simply disable the victim, they are torture devices too, as countless internet videos testify, and as the UN’s Committee against Torture declared in 2007:

“The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use,” the committee said in a statement.

“Well, it means that it’s a very serious thing,” Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox told CBS Early Show co-anchor Julie Chen. “These are people that have seen torture around the world, all kinds of torture. So they don’t use the word lightly.” 6

[bold highlight as original]

So let us take stock. Beneath the science fiction brand name, these ‘stun guns’ are more literally cattle-prods for people. Is this how we expect fellow humans to be treated in modern Britain?

At this stage the IPCC is justifiably asking the media to refrain from detailed speculation about the circumstances surrounding Dalian Atkinson’s death since it could be prejudicial to the inquiry. Obviously I respect this request. Whatever the eventual findings of the IPCC, however, it is irrefutably the case that Dalian Atkinson was just the latest victim of the creeping militarisation of the British police force. Tasers torture and kill – they should be banned.

Click here to add your support to a petition calling on Prime Minister Theresa May to hold an urgent review of Tasers and the medical implications of their use.

R.I.P. Dalian.

*

1 From a BBC news report entitled “Dalian Atkinson dies after being Tasered in Telford by police” published on August 15, 2016. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-37082207

2 From an article entitled “Police officiers investigated over Dalian Atkinson Taser death”, written by Vikram Dodd, published in the Guardian on August 18, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/18/police-officers-investigated-over-dalian-atkinson-taser-death

3

Black people are three times more likely have a Taser used against them by police than white people, according to figures that have raised the alarm among race relations campaigners.

From an article entitled “Black people ‘three times more likely’ to be Tasered” written by Damien Gayle, published in the Guardian  on October 13, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/oct/13/black-people-three-times-more-likely-to-have-taser-used-against-them

4  IPCC files show ten people have died following the police discharging a Taser. They are:

  • John Butler: Wigan, May 2006 – shot himself after Taser fired
  • Robert Haines: New Romney, Oct 2006 – Taser fired after police shot him
  • Brian Loan: County Durham, Oct 2006 – died from heart disease three days after Taser fired
  • Justin Petty: Bedford, Jan 2008 – Taser fired after he stabbed himself
  • Raoul Moat: Rothbury, July 2010 – shot himself dead after Taser fired
  • Dale Burns: Barrow, Aug 2011 – died of drug poisoning after Taser fired
  • Philip Hulmes: Bolton, Aug 2011 – a Taser was fired after he stabbed himself
  • Ernestas Anikinas: Gatwick, Feb 2012 – Taser fired after he stabbed himself
  • Andrew Pimlott: Plymouth, April 2013 – Liquid he had doused himself in caught fire after Taser fired (IPCC investigation ongoing)
  • Jordan Begley: Gorton, July 2013 – died after Taser fired (IPCC investigation ongoing)

Source: Danny Shaw, BBC Home Affairs correspondent

From an article entitled “Man dies after police use Taser in Manchester” published by BBC news on July 11, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23265905

5 Jared Feuer, who heads the U.S. southern regional office of Amnesty International, said the group has documented that 277 people in the United States have died after being shocked by a Taser since June 2001.

From an article entitled “Police use of Tasers causes few injuries: study” writteb by Will Dunham, published in Reuters October 8, 2007. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-weapons-stun-idUSN0523646320071008

6 From an article entitled “U.N.: Tasers Are A Form Of Torture” published by CBS news on November 25, 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/un-tasers-are-a-form-of-torture/

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B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch confirm that Israel is an apartheid state

The forthright branding of Israel as an apartheid state by Human Rights Watch could be a watershed moment in mainstream acceptance of what Israel has become. Human Rights Watch is not an outlier or left wing organisation. It is very much a part of the establishment in the United States and is not generally associated with hard hitting criticism that conflicts with the promoted interests of the American state.

This is the verdict of Craig Murray in light of the release of the recent HRW report that confirms Israel is an apartheid state.

It is interesting to consider how we have reached this moment, so before coming back to the details contained in the new report, let us quickly retrace some events that have happened since the turn of the year.

Firstly, on January 12th, B’Tselem, ‘The Israeli Information Center of Human Rights in the Occupied Territories’, released their own report that emphatically accused the state of Israel under the government of Netanyahu of being “a regime of Jewish supremacy”. Headlined “This is apartheid”, it begins:

More than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under a single rule. The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area, separated by the Green Line. One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens. The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, is a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.

Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality. This state of affairs has existed for more than 50 years – twice as long as the State of Israel existed without it. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice. Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians. All this leads to the conclusion that these are not two parallel regimes that simply happen to uphold the same principle. There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.

Click here to read the report entitled “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”

Then, on February 5th, the International Criminal Court made a landmark ruling that it has jurisdiction to investigate Israel for war crimes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Shortly afterward [Feb 14th], The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté invited Jewish American historian Norman Finkelstein to discuss the ICC decision and its probable outcomes:

*

The ICC investigation commenced on March 3rd, when the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued her own statement:

Today, I confirm the initiation by the Office of the Prosecutor (”Office”) of the International Criminal Court (“ICC” or the “Court”) of an investigation respecting the Situation in Palestine. The investigation will cover crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that are alleged to have been committed in the Situation since 13 June 2014, the date to which reference is made in the Referral of the Situation to my Office.

Continuing:

Any investigation undertaken by the Office will be conducted independently, impartially and objectively, without fear or favour.

Click here to read the full statement by ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

The Guardian reported:

The move, which Palestinians and human rights groups said was long overdue, was immediately condemned by the Israeli foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, as “morally and legally bankrupt”.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, added: “The decision of the international court to open an investigation against Israel today for war crimes is absurd. It’s undiluted antisemitism and the height of hypocrisy.”

In a videotaped statement, Netanyahu added: “The state of Israel is under attack this evening.[”]

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “ICC opens investigation into war crimes in Palestinian territories.”

The BBC headline was more nuanced with scare quotes and a skilful avoidance of any mention of Israel: it reads, “ICC opens ‘war crimes’ investigation in West Bank and Gaza”. Their report does however include the following statement:

Campaign group Human Rights Watch said “all eyes” would be on incoming prosecutor Karim Khan to “pick up the baton”, and that “ICC member countries should stand ready to fiercely protect the court’s work from any political pressure”.

Then last Tuesday [April 27th], Human Rights Watch finally issued its own 213-page report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”.

The HRW Press Release begins:

Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The finding is based on an overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

Continuing:

“Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

The finding of apartheid and persecution does not change the legal status of the occupied territory, made up of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, or the factual reality of occupation.

Originally coined in relation to South Africa, apartheid today is a universal legal term. The prohibition against particularly severe institutional discrimination and oppression or apartheid constitutes a core principle of international law. The 1973 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the 1998 Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court (ICC) define apartheid as a crime against humanity consisting of three primary elements:

  1. An intent to maintain domination by one racial group over another.
  2. A context of systematic oppression by the dominant group over the marginalized group.
  3. Inhumane acts.

The reference to a racial group is understood today to address not only treatment on the basis of genetic traits but also treatment on the basis of descent and national or ethnic origin, as defined in the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Human Rights Watch applies this broader understanding of race.

The crime against humanity of persecution, as defined under the Rome Statute and customary international law, consists of severe deprivation of fundamental rights of a racial, ethnic, or other group with discriminatory intent.

Human Rights Watch found that the elements of the crimes come together in the occupied territory, as part of a single Israeli government policy. That policy is to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territory. It is coupled in the occupied territory with systematic oppression and inhumane acts against Palestinians living there.

Drawing on years of human rights documentation, case studies, and a review of government planning documents, statements by officials, and other sources, Human Rights Watch compared policies and practices toward Palestinians in the occupied territory and Israel with those concerning Jewish Israelis living in the same areas. Human Rights Watch wrote to the Israeli government in July 2020, soliciting its perspectives on these issues, but has received no response.

Across Israel and the occupied territory, Israeli authorities have sought to maximize the land available for Jewish communities and to concentrate most Palestinians in dense population centers. The authorities have adopted policies to mitigate what they have openly described as a “demographic threat” from Palestinians. In Jerusalem, for example, the government’s plan for the municipality, including both the west and occupied east parts of the city, sets the goal of “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” and even specifies the demographic ratios it hopes to maintain.

To maintain domination, Israeli authorities systematically discriminate against Palestinians. The institutional discrimination that Palestinian citizens of Israel face includes laws that allow hundreds of small Jewish towns to effectively exclude Palestinians and budgets that allocate only a fraction of resources to Palestinian schools as compared to those that serve Jewish Israeli children. In the occupied territory, the severity of the repression, including the imposition of draconian military rule on Palestinians while affording Jewish Israelis living in a segregated manner in the same territory their full rights under Israel’s rights-respecting civil law, amounts to the systematic oppression required for apartheid. […]

Israeli authorities should dismantle all forms of repression and discrimination that privilege Jewish Israelis at the expense of Palestinians, including with regards to freedom of movement, allocation of land and resources, access to water, electricity, and other services, and the granting of building permits.

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor should investigate and prosecute those credibly implicated in the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. Countries should do so as well in accordance with their national laws under the principle of universal jurisdiction, and impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on officials responsible for committing these crimes.

The findings of crimes against humanity should prompt the international community to reevaluate the nature of its engagement in Israel and Palestine and adopt an approach centered on human rights and accountability rather than solely on the stalled “peace process.”[…]

“While much of the world treats Israel’s half-century occupation as a temporary situation that a decades-long ‘peace process’ will soon cure, the oppression of Palestinians there has reached a threshold and a permanence that meets the definitions of the crimes of apartheid and persecution,” Roth said. “Those who strive for Israeli-Palestinian peace, whether a one or two-state solution or a confederation, should in the meantime recognize this reality for what it is and bring to bear the sorts of human rights tools needed to end it.”

Click here to read the HRW press release in full.

In his own assessment of the HRW report, Craig Murray writes that:

The strength of the report lies in its systematic comparison of the structural system of Israeli rule with the formal definition of the crime of Apartheid in the Statute of Rome [which established the ICC] and the Apartheid Convention, both widely ratified and important documents of international law. This perforce leads to less concentration than is possible on the outrageous acts of individual cruelty, but shows them to be systemic and part of a much wider design.

The Statute of Rome defines the international crime of apartheid as:

inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.

The Apartheid Convention defines apartheid as:

inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.

I do not believe anybody can sincerely deny that the situation in Palestine meets these criteria, even if attempts are made to justify how we got here. If you have not done so, you may like to read my previous personal article on why Israel is an apartheid state, which draws on my experience as FCO Desk Officer for South Africa when it was the original apartheid state.

Click here to read Craig Murray’s full article which includes a less than glowing personal account of his interview with Kenneth Roth after he left the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 2005 and was shortlisted for the position as HRW Global Advocacy Director and flown to its “very plush” New York HQ located inside the Empire State Building.

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when hate speech is just dandy: release of CCE report throws into light the strange liberal love affair with Alexei Navalny

If I was to describe Muslim migrant workers arriving here from the south as cockroaches and then go so far as you recommend eradication as a solution, not only would I expect my readers to be absolutely disgusted, but I would think it quite justifiable for WordPress, Facebook and Twitter to censor such incendiary racist content. And I say this as an ardent proponent for free speech who fully supports the right for others to hold and spread contemptible opinions, not even debarring vile racism so long as it is within well-established restrictions that make it illegal to incite violence.

With this in mind, now watch “Alexei Navalny Certified Nationalist” (as his own caption reads) rallying his base by speaking to supporters in precisely this way in a political promo broadcast from 2007:

Click here to find the same content uploaded on the Internet Archive.

Ten years later in 2017, Navalny, already the darling of western liberals, was featured by the Guardian in an interview with Shaun Walker. A perfect opportunity to issue his apology and express some modicum of regret (even if phoney) for what the article lightly describes as “a number of disturbing videos, including one in which he is dressed as a dentist, complaining that tooth cavities ruin healthy teeth, as clips of migrant workers are shown.” Instead, however, we learn, Navalny remains “unapologetic”:

He sees it as a strength that he can speak to both liberals and nationalists. But comparing migrants to cockroaches? “That was artistic license,” he says. So there’s nothing at all from those videos or that period that he regrets? “No,” he says again, firmly.

Well hey ho, Navalny may speak in terms no different from Le Pen and Trump and with less restraint and worse manners, and be unrepentant in his choice of rancid language and imagery so long as it appeals to a slavering nationalist base, but quite unlike Le Pen and Trump he somehow still manages to tick all of the liberal boxes; his single discernible quality being his hostility towards Putin, which is evidently all that finally counts. The Guardian certainly gives Navalny a pass, Shaun Walker continuing:

Perhaps he has a cynical belief that, with the support of the liberal elite sewn up, the anti-migrant rhetoric can potentially help him appeal to a broader audience. Certainly, most opposition politicians, even if they don’t like Navalny much, are aware that he is the best hope for swelling anti-Putin sentiment. 1

However, not everyone is so forgiving. For perfectly understandable reasons therefore, and with public pressure mounting, on Tuesday Amnesty International quietly downgraded the status of Navalny, determining that he no longer fits their criteria for “prisoner of conscience”.

In dismay, the BBC yesterday reported:

A spokesman for the human rights organisation in Moscow told the BBC that he believed the wave of requests to “de-list” Navalny was part of an “orchestrated campaign” to discredit Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critic and “impede” Amnesty’s calls for his release from custody. 2

To be honest, I am absolutely sick and tired of hearing about Alexei Navalny, and though our own liberal media has got into the unfortunate habit of fawning over Russia’s own Trump, his “anti-corruption” shtick (to drain the Kremlin swamp presumably!) seems to strike less of a chord with the average Russian. In the west, Navalny is endlessly held up as the poster child of Russian opposition, and yet in truth his political sideshow is seen more as a dubious irrelevance and especially by those on the left who are actually taking the battle to the oligarchs.

To better gauge Russian public opinion and hear a genuine left-wing take on Alexei Navalny, I recommend this recent Grayzone interview in which Katya Kazbek, the editor-in-chief of arts and culture magazine Supamodu.com; and Alexey Sakhnin, activist and a member of the Left Front, who was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin protest movement from 2011 to 2013, spoke with Aaron Maté:

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Unrelated but with perfect timing, the Commission for Countering Extremism (CCE) yesterday released its long-awaited report. In it they are calling for new laws to tackle the spread of hate speech and the glorification of extremism.

Set up by Theresa May’s government back in 2017 in the shadow of the Manchester Arena and London Bridge attacks, the “independent” CCE, “a statutory body to help fight hatred and extremism in the same way as we have fought racism,” 3 was headed up by a little-known activist called Sara Khan and ex-senior police officer, Sir Mark Rowley. At the time, the appointment of Khan came as a shock to many and was heavily criticised by anti-racist voices as politically diverse as former Conservative minister Baroness Warsi, Labour MPs Naz Shah and Diane Abbott, as well as the Muslim Council of Britain, and CAGE, the London-based advocacy group for Muslim detainees.

Writing in Middle East Eye, Siema Iqbal expressed her own outrage at Khan’s appointment as follows:

An article Khan wrote that was published in a report by Hope Not Hate in 2017, which amounts to a collection of smears directed at dissenting Muslim individuals and organisations, is just the tip of the iceberg.

The broad-brush strokes with which she portrayed these organisations, many of which are stalwarts of the community, does not command confidence. It is true that Khan is from the Pakistani and Muslim communities, but without legitimacy and without trust, this amounts to little.

Continuing:

[W]hat is more extraordinary, is that the government has launched a Commission to Counter Extremism when there is no actual legal definition of the term itself. How is it possible to work on something the government has failed to define?

Instead, why not engage more widely with Muslim community organisations and address the concerns around Prevent and the lack of transparency around the Home Office’s Extremism Analysis Unit and its work?

Numerous academics, organisations and individuals have expressed their concerns around the discriminatory aspects of the Prevent policy and its pseudo-scientific basis, yet the government still refuses to call an independent enquiry.

The government may have found itself a Muslim woman to serve as a “mouthpiece” for the Home Office alongside others. However, she is outnumbered by those who will not. 4

Click here to read Siema Iqbal’s full article entitled “I am insulted at Sara Khan’s appointment”.

The details of this new CCE report recommend the further tightening of controls on activities the commission describes as “hateful extremism”, which according to Mark Rowley is “where one group targets another to ‘to advance a political, religious or racial supremacist ideology’ and wanting ‘to create a climate conducive to hate crime, terrorism or other violence’”:

It is based on a concept already in use in terrorism trials, the “mindset material” where extremist material, such as from the far right or Islamist terrorist videos, are accepted as evidence of pre-existing extremism. […]

Rowley said a tougher approach for the internet was needed but technology companies had pointed out there was little more they could do until they [sic] was an accepted definition of what counted as extremism: “The magnifying effect of social media had transformed it from a sideshow to a major threat.”

The report said there were worrying signs the young were being duped by extremists.

From an article in the Guardian which also includes a response from a spokesman for CAGE – an organisation Sara Khan now claims could meet ‘the threshold for action’ – who in turn accuses the commission of “implementing an ‘official’ state-sanctioned policy of ‘cancel culture’ arguing for further restrictions on lawful speech”:

“After 3 years, and at great taxpayer expense, the CCE concludes its work without any further clarity on what ‘extremism’ is. Instead it promotes ideas from some of the most stridently Islamophobic and censorious organisations in the industry.” 5

Click here to read the full Guardian report.

While seemingly unconnected, the latest twist in the Navalny saga and the concurrent release of the CCE report throw abundant light on the double standards we see operating throughout the media. More alarmingly, the difference in the way cases are being treated seems to be indicative of a divergence at the level of law: what is deemed politically acceptable potentially informing what kinds of freedom of speech will be legally sanctioned in the future.

On the one hand, anyone in Britain presumed to be creating “a climate conducive to hate crime, terrorism or other violence” may soon find themselves faced with the threat of prosecution. The big question is, of course, to whom will this legislation actually apply? Muslims understandably fear that once again they will be the ones targeted.

Meanwhile, censorship on the grounds of such vaguely defined infringements as “hateful extremism” provides yet another pretext to deplatform alternative opinion, which is deeply worrying at a time when freedom of speech, especially on the internet, is already under sustained attack and unwanted alternative opinions are already subjected to unprecedented levels of censorship.

On the other hand, describing Muslim migrant workers as cockroaches and openly calling for their eradication will doubtless continue to be passed over as a minor indiscretion and more actively defended as a justifiable ploy for gaining political traction against the enemy, just so long as your name is Alexei Navalny.

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1 From an article entitled “Alexei Navalny on Putin’s Russia: ‘All autocratic regimes come to an end’” written by Shaun Walker, published in the Guardian on April 29, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/29/alexei-navalny-on-putins-russia-all-autocratic-regimes-come-to-an-end

2 From an article entitled “Amnesty strips Alexei Navalny of ‘prisoner of conscience’ status” written by Sarah Rainford, published in BBC News on February 24, 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-56181084

3 From Theresa May’s statement following the terrorist attack near a mosque in Finsbury Park, London, published in full by BBC News on June 19, 2017. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40327996

4 From an article entitled “I am insulted at Sara Khan’s appointment” written by Siema Iqbal, published in Middle East Eye on January 29, 2018. https://www.middleeasteye.net/fr/node/68777

5 From an article entitled “New UK laws needed to stop hate speech and extremism, says report” written by Vikram Dodd, published in the Guardian on February 24, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/feb/24/new-uk-laws-needed-to-stop-hate-speech-and-extremism-says-report

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the toppling of statues has let in some air but it won’t bring a wind of change

Four people have been charged with criminal damage after the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June this year.

Rhian Graham, 29, Milo Ponsford, 25, Jake Skuse, 32, and Sage Willoughby, 21, will appear before Bristol magistrates court on 25 January for the first hearing, the Crown Prosecution Service said. 1

As reported in today’s Guardian. In response I have decided to publish an article that was composed last summer but never posted. It is accompanied by extracts drawn from four other perspectives that were published around the same time.

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A painting entitled “The Slave Ship” by J. M. W. Turner. In the background, the sun shines through a storm while large waves hit the sides of a sailing ship. In the foreground, slaves are drowning in the water, while others are being eaten by large fish

It perhaps says something of the make-up of the Anglo-Saxon mindset that the very word ‘violence’ in the English language draws no distinction between acts of grievous harm committed against people and the lesser evil of vandalising property (and yet we have no better synonym). For this reason talk of the violence in the case of the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and the other slavers is semantically correct; that said, to speak of the toppling of an effigy of a man that owes its erection as a civic monument entirely to the transportation and forced resettlement of nearly a hundred thousand African slaves, nearly a quarter of whom died unknown but horrific deaths during the genocidal ‘Middle Passage’, is also crass hyperbole. The statue of Colston wasn’t lynched, unlike many of those he had happily sold into slavery, but straightforwardly pulled down and then, in a moment of supreme poetic justice, tossed into the harbour whence his slave ships set sail three centuries ago.

Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade. (From an Abstract of Evidence delivered before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1790 and 1791.)

One of the most oft-repeated dictums from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the Party slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” On ‘Airstrip One’ in Oceania (aka Britain), such brutal reductionism has become a central feature of state control: past mistakes are expunged; Party misdeeds rendered impossible by constant reediting; the names of enemies of the state purged unless they are useful foils; and the sole purpose of historical remembrance is the maintenance of the status quo. Revisionism is thus non-stop and never-ending.

Today Orwell is routinely wheeled out by people he would have detested to justify causes that would have sickened him. So let’s understand that he had no time for preservation simply for the sake of preservation – just read what he says about Gaudi’s now celebrated cathedral the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and how “the Anarchists showed bad taste in not blowing it up when they had the chance.” Orwell couldn’t have cared less about tearing down the odd statue, but devil can cite scripture for his purpose.

What Orwell did care about and understood better than most is the extraordinary power of symbols; most especially the ugly symbols of colonialism, a rapacious system he had experienced first-hand in Burma and despised no less than the crowd of defenestrators on the quayside in Bristol. Few have spoken more forcefully than Orwell on the abuses of Empire, and so there is little reason to suppose he would have been anything less than delighted to see Colston and the other slavers ripped from their pedestals.

Violence, in all senses of the word, is the underpainting to History’s canvass; new layers added once older ones are scraped away: for History is a study not of mere incidents, but of collective and prolonged exertions of force strewn with wilful acts of destruction. Therefore, to draw any line before the toppling of statues like Colston’s, first you must ask what else besides the sheer scale of its enterprise makes Britain’s acts of savage imperialism different at all from the savagery you do deplore, remembering of course that the offending statue of Colston had only been erected little more than a century ago; a fillip to late Victorian pride as the sun was about to set permanently on the Empire.

And when on that crisp October night three decades ago, the East Germans clambered atop the Berlin Wall and smashed it to the ground with sledgehammers, their impromptu act of vandalism opened the way for greater freedoms. We cheered them on. Likewise we cheered the toppling of statues of Stalin all across the old Soviet bloc. Should these too have been preserved as historical monuments instead? If so, then how about all of these…?

There is a tendency to think of statues as mere illustrations of famous past lives, like the solid pages from a pop-up history book. But they have plinths for good reason: to look down from. Statues – indeed all memorials – are virtue signallers. They are fundamentally didactic, presenting role models that are rather hard to repudiate: do as I have done and you shall become an immortal too. Thus Colston’s statue pays tribute to all who put greed and self-interest above human life: it glorifies profiteering and elevates the cruellest of merchants into a demigod. Be thankful that his days of lording it over the rest of us have gone.

As the words on the broken plinth set amongst the desolate ruins in Shelley’s famous sonnet declare:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! 2

Foretold is the fate of all monuments, although some monuments deserve to suffer their fate more swiftly than others; and when they do, it is right that we celebrate.

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Reprinted below are extended extracts and abridged versions of four excellent articles published or republished by ‘Counterpunch’. The first two, by Jonathan Cook and Patrick Cockburn respectively, address the issue of the toppling of statues. The latter two, by Nick Turse and Rob Urie, put the recent Black Lives Matter protests into broader context; the first historically and second socio-economically. I very much encourage readers to follow the links to read the articles in full.

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Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue

I did not expect to be returning to this issue so soon but I was surprised, to put it mildly, to discover that my last post on anti-racists toppling a statue of the notorious slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proved to be the most polarising article I have ever written. Given the many controversial topics I have addressed over the years, that seems noteworthy in itself.

It may not be surprising that those on the right are troubled by ordinary people challenging authority, demanding change rather than conserving what we already have, and “taking the law into their own hands”. None of this sits too easily with the conservative political worldview. But some on the left seem equally disturbed by this act of popular protest. That needs to be analysed and challenged.

I have been able to identify three main types of criticism from the left.

Cities on the back foot

The first suggests that tearing down statues is ineffective. It does not change anything, and actually conceals society’s continuing racism. These actions may make activists feel good but they fail to bring about any tangible progress.

Such arguments are obviously undermined by the fact that Bristol’s mayor and its council, which had been ignoring demands to remove Colston’s statue for decades, are finally proposing action. For the first time, the mayor has called for a “citywide conversation” about all of Bristol’s public memorials. He has promised to discuss their future with historians, presumably to identify which ones venerate people like Colston so obscenely horrible that they have no place in public squares looking down on us. Instead they should be in museums so their crimes can be contextualised and properly understood. […]

I’ve been truly staggered to find leftists who follow me on social media decrying this simply as “mob rule”. Probing their reasoning a little has tended to reveal some pretty ugly premises and a tendency to dismiss everything as hollow identity politics. That is lazy political thinking, and a position that is held easily only if one is white.

“Golliwog” racism, as I explained in my original post, was the jam generations of white children spread on their morning toast. We live with those unquestioned associations and assumptions still. It’s about time we confronted them rather than indulged them.

Overthrowing symbols

The second criticism is that toppling statues is a distraction from proper political activism, that statues are meaningless symbols, that there are much more important things to be getting on with, and that the establishment wants us to target statues to sow division or direct our energies into irrelevancies. It is claimed that tearing down Colston’s statue has detracted from the inspiration for the protests: challenging police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

There are lots of reasons why this approach is a wrong-headed.

Symbols are important. They are the illustrations to the stories we are fed about who we are and what we hold dear. Like images in the picture books our parents read to us before we could make out the letters of the text, these symbols often have more impact than the stories themselves. When we challenge symbols we begin to deconstruct the stories that they illustrate. Overthrow a symbol, and you are taking the first step on the path to overthrowing the system behind it.

After all, if these symbols weren’t so important in entrenching a sense of “national life” and “national values”, the establishment would not have bothered to erect them. That’s why the rightwing will make a battleground of protecting statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Because it is vitally important to them that we don’t tear off the mask to see for ourselves – or to show them – what really lies beneath. […]

Isn’t having the establishment fearful exactly where the left should want them? Because when the establishment is not frightened, all they do is line their pockets more deeply. They make concessions only when we raise the stakes.

If that is not obvious, recall the mass marches against the Iraq war. They failed not because they were not popular – they were some of the largest protests ever in Britain. They failed because the public could not make Tony Blair and his cabinet more frightened of us – the British people – than they were of the White House and the Pentagon. The cynical, dispiriting lesson we took away from the Iraq war was that we could never have an effect on the political class. The real lesson was that we needed to bare our teeth.

Last week the crowds in Bristol bared their teeth, and the politicians and police decided the fight – this time – wasn’t worth it. Defending a racist statue is much less of a priority for the establishment than placating the US, of course. But it doesn’t mean it is no priority at all.

The lessons of revolts through the ages are that small victories inspire crowds to larger battles. That is why the establishment usually tries to crush or co-opt the first signs of popular dissent and defiance. They fear our empowerment. It is also why it is important for those who want fairer societies to support, not diminish, the actions of those who take on initial confrontations with the establishment. They build the launchpad for bigger things.

Progress through protest

The third and seemingly most common criticism is that it is dangerous to allow the mob to win, and that once “mob rule” scores a success it will lead to anarchy and violence.

As I explained in my last post, none of the things we value today in Britain – from the vote to the National Health Service – happened without either direct protest in defiance of the establishment or the threat of such protest. It was only ever fear about the breakdown of order or of the eruption of violence that pushed the establishment to give up any of its wealth and power. […]

Those who worry about “mob rule” assume that we now live in democracies that are responsive to the popular will. I will not waste my breath again demolishing that fallacy – it has been the sole reason for my writing this blog for the past six years. We live in sophisticated oligarchies, where corporations control the narratives of our lives through their control of the mass media to make us compliant and believe in fairytales. The biggest is that we, the people, are in charge through our vote, in a political system that offers only two choices, both of them political parties that were long ago captured by the corporations. The one countervailing force – organised labour – now plays almost no role. It has been either destroyed or its leaders co-opted themselves.

Wrong about democracy

All that aside, those anxious about “the mob” have failed to understand what liberal democracy means – the model of democracy we are all supposed to subscribe to. It does not give carte blanche to the white majority to smother symbols all over the public space of people who abused, murdered and oppressed our black neighbours’ ancestors. That is democracy as the tyranny of the majority.

If this is not blindingly obvious, let me propose a hypothetical analogy. How would we judge Britain’s Jewish community if after years of failed protests they and non-Jewish supporters “took the law into their own hands” and tore down a statue in Hamstead to Adolf Eichmann? Would we call them a mob? Would we characterise what they did as vigilantism? And perhaps more to the point, can we conceive of an Eichmann statue being erected in Hamstead – or anywhere? Of course, not. So why is it even conceivable that a man like Colston who profited from the destruction of the lives of tens of thousands of Africans should still be presiding over a multicultural city like Bristol, where some of the descendants of those Africans live today?

The fact that we cannot imagine being so insensitive to the Jewish community should underscore how unbelievably insensitive we have been to Britain’s black community for many decades.  3

Click here to read the full unabridged article by Jonathan Cook entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue”.

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British leaders have no idea how bad slavery was

Conservative leaders snigger at protesters seeking the removal of statues memorialising those whose fortunes came from the exploitation of slaves.

The leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, implied facetiously this week that such demands are on a par with seeking to knock down Stonehenge on the grounds that it once could have been the site of human sacrifice. He was speaking in response to a puerile question from the Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne – who got into trouble last year for blacking his face – suggesting that a measure be introduced to remove “all remaining trace that there was a Roman civilisation in this island”.

The flippancy of the exchange shows that both men feel that slavery happened a long time ago and does not stand out in history as a particularly horrendous crime, and that the demonstrations against those who benefited from it amount to a passing fad that need not be taken seriously. […]

Appreciation of the savage reality of slavery is clouded among white populations by films like Gone with the Wind which emphasise sentimental attachments between master and slave. One way to understand what it was really like is to recall how Isis enslaved the Yazidis in northern Iraq and Syria in 2014, murdering men, women and children and selling thousands of women into sexual slavery.

Terrified women held in Isis jails waited to be raped and sold to the highest bidder. “The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror,” says a UN report on what happened in one jail. “The selection of any girl was accompanied by screaming as she was forcibly pulled from the room, with her mother and any other women who tried to keep hold of her being brutally beaten by [Isis] fighters. [Yazidi] women and girls began to scratch and bloody themselves in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential buyers.” The reference comes from With Ash on Their Faces: Yezidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten.

Isis did not behave very differently from the slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies and the US in the 18th century. The best-informed guide to what life was like on a slave plantation in the Caribbean at that time are the books written by James Ramsay, an Anglican clergymen and former navy surgeon who worked as a doctor for 19 years in the plantations on the British-ruled islands of St Kitts and Nevis. Finally forced to leave by the plantation owners because of his evident sympathy for the slaves – he let them worship in his church – he retired to Kent to describe his experiences.

Ramsay records the endless round of punishments inflicted on the slave to force them to work cutting sugar cane for 16 hours or more a day. He says that an experienced slave driver could use a cart whip “to cut out flakes of skin and flesh with every stroke”. When a surgeon refused to amputate the limb of a slave as a punishment, a cooper’s adze was used to sever it “and the wretch then left to bleed to death, without any attention or dressing”.

As in Isis-held Iraq and Syria, sexual slavery was a common feature of plantation life. Ramsay says that slave women were “sacrificed to the lust of white men; in some instances, their own fathers”. He adds that white women on the plantations, presumably members of the family of the owner, would hire out their maid servants as prostitutes. Contrary to the romantic cinematic image, the real life Scarlett O’Hara might have been paying for her ball dress with money gained from the rape of her maids. 4

Click here to read Patrick Cockburn’s full article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was”

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A Latter Day Lynching

[I]f you had told me that, in the span of a few months, a novel coronavirus that dates back only to last year and systemic American racism that dates back to 1619 would somehow intersect, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you had told me that a man named George Floyd would survive Covid-19 only to be murdered by the police and that his brutal death would spark a worldwide movement, leading the council members of a major American city to announce their intent to defund the police and Europeans halfway across the planet to deface monuments to a murderous nineteenth-century monarch who slaughtered Africans, I would have dismissed you. But history works in mysterious ways.

Four hundred years of racism, systemic abuse of authority, unpunished police misconduct, white skin privilege, and a host of other evils at the dark core of America gave a white Minneapolis police officer the license to press a black man’s face to the pavement and jam a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. For allegedly attempting to buy a pack of cigarettes with a phony $20 bill, George Floyd was killed at the intersection of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by police officer Derek Chauvin.

At the beginning of the last century, whites could murder a black man, woman, or child in this country as part of a public celebration, memorialize it on postcards, and mail them to friends. Between 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 blacks were lynched in the American South, more than a death a week for 73 years. But the murders of blacks, whether at the hands of their owners in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries or of unaccountable fellow Americans in the latter nineteenth and twentieth centuries never ended despite changes in some attitudes, significant federal legislation, and the notable successes of the protests, marches, and activism of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

From 2006 to 2012, in fact, a white police officer killed a black person in America almost twice a week, according to FBI statistics. And less than a month before we watched the last moments of George Floyd’s life, we witnessed a modern-day version of a lynching when Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down while jogging on a suburban street in Glynn County, Georgia. Gregory McMichael, a 64-year-old white retired district attorney, investigator, and police detective, and his son Travis, 34, were eventually arrested and charged with his murder.

Without the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s botched response to it, without black Americans dying of the disease at three times the rate of whites, without the suddenly spotlighted health disparities that have always consigned people of color to die at elevated rates, without a confluence of so many horrors that the black community in America has suffered for so long coupled with those of a new virus, would we be in the place we’re in today?

If President Trump hadn’t cheered on the efforts of mostly older white protesters to end pandemic shutdowns and “liberate” their states and then echoed a racist Miami police chief of the 1960s who promised “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” essentially calling for young black protesters to be gunned down, would the present movement have taken off in such a way? And would these protests have been as powerful if people who had avoided outside contact for weeks hadn’t suddenly decided to risk their own lives and those of others around them because this murder was too brazen, too likely to end in injustice for private handwringing and public hashtags? 5

Click here to read Nick Turse’s full article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America”.

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Police killings are a political tactic

As the spark that lit a fire, the murder of George Floyd was horrifyingly, sickeningly ordinary. According to the scant data on police killing of citizens that is available, about three people are killed by the police in the U.S. every day. And despite the protest movements Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, this number has remained about constant in recent years through Democratic and Republican administrations. This persistence stands in contrast to the political ‘branding’ of the mainstream political parties where difference is claimed, but little is evident.

The place of Mr. Floyd’s murder in the ordinary working of American governance makes it the catalyst, not the cause, of current protests. The background circumstances of economic calamity suggest that political tensions will continue to rise as unemployment and economic desperation exert a toll on social stability. The horror of Mr. Floyd’s murder should get outraged citizens into the streets regardless of broader circumstances. But with history as a guide, it is these broader factors that are creating the political moment. This highlights the urgency of acting while there is an opening.

The disproportionate targeting of blacks by the police is given needed context when the data is organized by economic class. Poor and working-class whites are arrested and incarcerated at about the same rate as poor and working-class blacks. By its nature, this data says nothing about history. But it does offer structural and political insights. To the prior, history informs the present, it doesn’t define it. To the latter, 1) the frame of race divides people who otherwise have shared class interests and 2) poor and working class ‘allies’ are struggling for their own freedom from police violence, whatever their intentions.

What this arithmetic of disparity implies is that a larger proportion of blacks than whites are poor and working class. One interpretation is that race defines economic opportunity, which is overly generous to how capitalism works. Whatever people’s sentiments, slavery, convict leasing and Jim Crow had economic explanations. Some people, call them capitalists, make themselves rich by making and keeping other people poor. Here is a dry, academic and partial explanation of how poor people are kept poor in the present. […]

With regard to the current alliance of convenience between protesters, the establishment press and national Democrats, it was only a few weeks ago that the latter were lauding the American political police — the FBI, as the saviors of freedom and democracy in the Russiagate fraud. That the FBI was behind the scenes in the murders of Black Panther Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, suggests that protecting freedom and democracy isn’t precisely its mandate. Through its Cointelpro program, the FBI worked with Richard Nixon— and subsequent administrations, to disrupt, thwart and otherwise destroy organized opposition to state policy.

Closer to home, the FBI was ‘deeply involved’ in the vicious police repression that was used to shut Occupy Wall Street down in an organized multi-state operation. To bring this back to Mr. Nixon’s service to capital in creating the modern carceral-police state, the FBI coordinated with the large Wall Street banks that the Obama administration was still in the process of bailing out when its assault on the peaceful protesters of OWS took place. For those who may have forgotten, Wall Street bank J.P. Morgan made a $4.6 billion contribution to the NYPD pension fund as OWS gained political strength.

Events have moved past the murder of George Floyd as establishment hacks try to extinguish the flames with ham-fisted theatrics. I had a hard time not vomiting at the sight of craven Democrats dressed in kante garb kneeling in Kaepernick fashion to show solidarity with the people they have dedicated their careers to selling out to the highest bidder. Given that ‘we’ were in a similar place in 2015, with near daily high-profile murders of unarmed youth at the hands of the police that they had empowered, and they did nothing. To save the suspense, they engage in theatrics in place of taking meaningful action, not in addition to it.

With capitalism in its deepest crisis since 2009, and possibly since the 1930s, the current political moment is fraught. As was demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the existing powers are incapable of governing. What they are capable of is massive transfers of social wealth to the already rich and political repression. If capital is perceived to be threatened, look for self-preservation to come in the form of political violence no matter which party holds the White House. One might ask what happened to Bernie Sander’s ‘coalition,’ which I supported for tactical reasons (to head off environmental calamity). Bernie Sanders is a Democrat. That is what happened. 6

Click here  to read the full article by Rob Urie entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic”

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1 From a report entitled “Four charged over damage to Colston statue in Bristol”  written by Jessica Murray, published in the Guardian on December 9, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/09/four-charged-over-damage-to-colston-statue-in-bristol

2 The name “Ozymandias” is a rendering in Greek of a part of Ramesses II’s throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The poems paraphrase the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as:

King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.

From the current Wikipedia entry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozymandias

3 From an article entitled “Symbols are Invested with Power. Don’t Dismiss the Importance of Toppling a Statue” written by Jonathan Cook published on June 12, 2020.  https://www.jonathan-cook.net/blog/2020-06-12/statue-colston-bristol-power/

4 From an article entitled “British Leaders Have No Idea How Bad Slavery Was” written by Patrick Cockburn, published in Counterpunch on June 16, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/16/british-leaders-have-no-idea-how-bad-slavery-was/ 

5 From an article entitled “A Breathless Moment in America” written by Nick Turse, published in TomDispatch on June 14, 2020. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176714/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_a_breathless_moment_in_america/#more

6 From an article entitled “Police Killings are a Political Tactic” written by Rob Urie published in Counterpunch on June 15, 2020. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/06/15/police-killings-are-a-political-tactic/

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Palestinian lives matter: the killing of Eyad el-Hallaq

Eyad el-Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian, was chased and shot dead by Israeli police officers in occupied East Jerusalem on Saturday May 30th.

At protests taking place in Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem and in other Palestinian towns, demonstrators hold placards to draw attention to parallels between Hallaq’s death and the brutal killing of George Floyd that happened a few days earlier:

The man [Eyad Hallaq] was unarmed, and had fled the officers in fear, unable to communicate properly because of his disability. He died just a few metres away from his special-needs school, in East Jerusalem. The officer who killed him said he thought Hallaq was a terrorist because he was wearing gloves.

Click here to read the full report entitled “Eyad Hallaq’s Life Mattered” published by English-language Middle East newspaper The National.

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Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian refugee and a postgraduate student at Sheffield Hallam. She recently shared a letter sent to her constituency MP, Louise Haigh, with the Sheffield Labour Friends of Palestine (SLFP)  and with her permission I am publishing it below.

Along with Shahd and SLFP, I encourage others to write to their MPs on this very serious matter.

Dear MP Louise,

I hope you’re keeping well.

My name is Shahd Abusalama, a Palestinian refugee and PhD student at Sheffield Hallam, living in your constituency. I supported your re-election campaign to keep you as our MP. I am aware of your longstanding activism for justice for Palestine and all people facing racism, inequality and discriminations, and I respect you for that.

I follow you on twitter, and I noticed many tweets for #BlackLivesMatter. Happy to see you speaking up against the systematic racism facing black people in the UK and the US, but if we’re addressing violence happening internationally, then addressing such racist systematic violence against the Palestinians is a must too.

You’re probably well-aware that systematic racism and dehumanisation is a disease shared between all states with a history of colonialism and slavery. These states empower each other through military, economic and diplomatic collaborations. And here comes apartheid Israel, which has dehumanised, dispossessed, imprisoned, killed and maimed us Palestinians for 72 years, since it’s foundation on the ethnic cleansing of our homeland. As a result of this event, I was born a refugee in Palestine’s largest refugee camp, Jabalia, northern Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison.

I would like to bring your attention to the case of Eyad Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic Palestinian, killed by Israeli occupation soldiers on his way to Elwyn school for disabled people near Al-Asbat Gate in occupied Jerusalem’s old city on the morning of 30 May 2020. His disability makes him like a 7 year old child, and he has hearing and speech difficulties. Israeli soldiers claimed he was holding a ‘suspicious object,’ they thought it was a gun- he held a cellphone. When they ordered Eyad to stop, he started running out of fear. The penalty was death sentence. They shot 10 times! 10 bullets. Before the shooting, Halak’s teacher told Israel’s Channel 13 news that she had tried to warn Israeli police, shouting “He’s disabled! He’s disabled!” before they proceeded to gun him down. They still killed him, in cold blood as his mother said in a painful video. Still, after the shooting, they declared a state of emergency in the occupied Old City of Jerusalem, looking for a gun of their fantasy and found none. During that time, medics were barred from entering the area as poor Eyad was bleeding to death.

Such dehumanising treatment of Palestinians, as “disposable natives” is continuing since pre-state Israel, under British colonialism, and this is only the latest example. We are well aware that Zionism is Racism, as adopted by a UN resolution in 1975, and despite desperate attempts by Israel and its allies to conceal this and suppress reports exposing Israeli apartheid practices (see attached), this is visible and clear to anyone with open eyes.

The technique that brought about the lynching of George Floyd is widely used against Palestinians, including children! For years, there have been grassroots efforts calling for an end to this deadly military exchange between Israel, the US and the UK.  See the Morning Star recent article on the issue in light of the US, making it strikingly clear the connection between Israeli military and US police brutality, including the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police who are trained in Israel.

I assume your knowledge about the Palestinian call for BDS until freedom, justice and equality is served in historic Palestine. I’ve also seen your support in the past for imposing arms embargo on Israel.

We are currently witnessing a historical moment of protests flaring up from Palestine to the US, calling for equality and justice. And the protesters are seeing the connections between Israeli practices against the Palestinian people, and those of US police against blacks and protesters.

We should seize this moment and speak louder about ending this deadly military exchange, in solidarity with the Palestinians and all people at the receiving end of their oppression.

Will you amplify this call both online and at the house of commons?

I look forward to hear from you!

Shahd

Additional:

In her reply to me, Shahd says that Louise Haigh MP:

Answered with a generic email to all people who wrote to her expressing their concern about George Floyd murder, and nothing was mentioned in that letter answering to my request regarding Iyad Hallaq or military exchange. So she definitely needs more voices to join to take me seriously.

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Update:

Shahd wrote to me a second time and included links to share – one of which is the Tweet embedded above. This is her message in full:

Thanks for the link, I tweeted it.

On Saturday’s protest in Sheffield for Black Lives Matter, a guy with a camera called Mark Banaman approached me and made this video:

Please if you’re on facebook, feel free to share Apartheid Off Campus’ video:

https://www.facebook.com/apartheidoffcampus/posts/126314959082249

If you’re on twitter, a Gaza-based youth group called 16th October shared it: https://twitter.com/16thOctoberGr/status/1269644975475736576

And if you’re on instagram, SHU PalSoc shared the video: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CBKxq-wFtcE/?igshid=xnjae96ykofj

In Solidarity!

Shahd

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Jewish Voice for Labour deplores the suspension of Chris Williamson

On February 27th, Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) issued the following statement in support of Labour MP Chris Williamson.

We are shocked at the suspension from the Labour Party of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, despite his apology.

As a Jewish organisation we condemn antisemitism unreservedly. And, of course, we support robust measures to deal with any instances.

Like Chris Williamson we stand in a long tradition of opposition to all forms of racism, including antisemitism. We support the statement in which he apologised to anyone hurt by his words. But we agree with him that the number of instances of antisemitism in the Labour Party, though small relative to its size, is still too high. Any antisemite in the Party is one too many.

Williamson based his statement on the official statistics published by the General Secretary of the Party, Jennie Formby. They confirm that over the last 10 months complaints received led to 453 cases being investigated for antisemitism. This represents 1/12th of 1% of the membership. There is no wave of antisemitism in the Party.

The existence of antisemitism in the Party, as everywhere in society, is not in doubt. It needs to be contested, and the Party’s beefed up disciplinary processes are doing just that. But these figures, and the experience of the hundreds of our Jewish members in the Labour Party, give the lie to the false narrative that the Party is rife with antisemitism. Such a description bears no resemblance to reality.

The flood of exaggerated claims of antisemitism make it harder to deal with any real instances of antisemitism. The credibility of well-founded allegations is undermined by the less credible ones and real perpetrators are more likely not to be held to account. Crying wolf is dangerous when there are real wolves around the corner.

This was the reality that Chris Williamson was drawing attention to. His suspension from the party is unjust and should be rescinded.

Click here to read the statement on the JVL website

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In Summary: the truth behind the stats [on cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party]

On February 24th, Labour Briefing published an article by Glyn Secker, secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour, and Dr Alan Maddison, a solidarity member, that looked into the data recently released by General Secretary of the Labour Party, Jennie Formby. The article is reproduced in full below.

FROM THE MOMENT Jeremy Corbyn emerged as leader of the Labour Party a barrage of allegations of antisemitism was levelled at him and the party. These allegations have tarnished the party’s image and deflected it from promoting its core programme of anti-austerity and redistribution of wealth.

Representing several hundred Jewish members of the party, Jewish Voice for Labour from the very start challenged the existence of this antisemitic wave. Never denying for a moment the existence of serious, isolated expressions of antisemitism, none of us – many with decades of party membership – experienced anything at all resembling such undercurrents. Why was Labour singled out for such interrogation, and was antisemitism really more prevalent in the party than elsewhere?

The wave of allegations swamped the party machinery. After Jennie Formby became General Secretary, the implementation of some of the Chakrabarti recommendations and expansion of staffing levels, it is clear that this wave of reported allegations is being managed promptly, with only 24 cases outstanding.

And a clear picture has finally emerged. Jennie Formby’s data confirms that the grounds for the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour have indeed been grossly exaggerated, and in some cases fabricated. Over the last ten months there were:

» 1,106 referrals of antisemitism allegations;

» 433 of these had nothing to do with party members, leaving 673 to be investigated;

» 220 of these were dismissed entirely for lack of evidence;

» this left 453 cases;

» 453 is 0.08% of the party’s 540,000 members – that’s about 1/12th of 1%;

» 96 of these resulted in suspensions – that’s 0.01%, or 1/100th of 1% of members;

» there were twelve expulsions – that’s 0.002%, or 1/500th of 1% of members!

By no stretch of the imagination can a 0.08% incidence support the claim of a ‘”rampant problem in Labour”. Of course, even one case of antisemitism is one too many. But these are vanishingly small statistics, especially when you consider that 2-5% of the general population are considered to be antisemitic.

This is not a wave, it is not even a ripple. In nautical terms it’s almost a dead flat calm.

Furthermore, there is no record of the thousands of abusive messages MPs like Ruth Smeeth claimed to have received, alleging most emanated from the Labour Party. The source of these might well have been traced to the ten fake twitter accounts masquerading as Labour Party members, unmasked by journalist Asa Winstanley. But to our knowledge, such numbers have never been submitted for investigation.

Margaret Hodge MP was informed by Jennie Formby that of the 200 dossiers of cases of antisemitism she had submitted, only 20 were found to be by Labour Party members. In other words, her allegations of antisemitism in the party had been exaggerated tenfold. And single handedly she accounted for approaching one fifth of all referrals.

Headlines proclaiming there was “no safe place for Jews in Corbyn’s Labour”, or that Labour needed, in the words of Marie van de Zyl, when vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to “drain the cesspit of antisemitism”, have been shown to be contradicted by the evidence.

When the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry was presented we learned that there was no evidence of widespread antisemitism in Labour, but there were some offensive comments often borne out of ignorance. In cases such as these 146 written warnings were issued.

If the facts are at such odds with the accounts of leading politicians and mainstream media, there can be only one explanation – these accounts are driven by ulterior political agendas. Other forms of racism, for which manifestations in the UK are 70 times more prevalent than those for antisemitism, barely get a mention.

At the last election Labour fell short of becoming the government by a few percentage points. The next election is predicted to be as close. The damage to the party inflicted by the allegations of antisemitism is calculated to impact on this tipping point – to keep the party out of office. Ironically, the Labour Party is the only party in western Europe which has both the programme and the potential to govern, and thus the power to address the economic and political causes of the very real rise of fascism across Europe. The stakes couldn’t be higher!

Click here to find the original article entitled “Labour antisemitism: the Truth Behind the Stats” written by Glyn Secker and Alan Maddison published by Labour Briefing.

And here to read the same article with a brief introduction on the JVL website.

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Additional: The Boris Johnson Supporters’ Group

While every fresh accusation of Labour Party antisemitism makes headline news, our media shows a deplorable lack of interest when it comes to reports of racism within the Conservative Party. The following extract is part of a report published today by Evolve Politics about The Boris Johnson Supporters’ Group on facebook:

The group appears to have been ostensibly set up to support the current Tory MP and former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, in his bid to become the leader of the Conservative Party.

However, a huge amount of the posts use unashamedly racist, far-right language – especially ones lambasting immigration, refugees, minorities, and in particular, Muslims.

Amongst the disgustingly racist posts and comments that the Tory-led administration team have failed to remove, and in some cases even endorsed, are:

At least 7 comments that describe Muslims and immigrants as “ragheads”

There is also a comment that describes BAME people as “wogs“; another telling a black British soldier to “p**s off back to Africa”; another telling an EU immigrant to “f**k off back to Poland”; a comment directed to Bradford-born Labour MP Naz Shah telling her to “p**s off to [her] own country”; another that describes London Major Sadiq Khan as a “conniving little muzrat”; one comment calls black Labour MPs Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler “monkeys”; another says black former Labour MP, Fiona Onasanya, should be “put on a banana boat back home”; there is a joke about bombing mosques; numerous jokes about shooting immigrants and their families; and lastly, numerous posts spreading white-genocide conspiracy theories.

I shall not include any images of these facebook posts, however they can be found embedded in the original article.

The most incriminating revelation is that one of the people running ‘The Boris Johnson Supporters’ Group’ is a serving Conservative Party councillor:

Among the people running the Boris Johnson: Supporters’ Group are a current, serving Tory Councillor in Wellingborough, Martyn York (Moderator), and a failed Conservative Party Council candidate in Newcastle Under Lyme, Dorinda Bailey (Administrator).

In addition to these two Tory politicians is another Administrator called David Abbott. Abbott currently serves as an Independent Councillor and is the Deputy Mayor of Houghton Regis.

Click here to read the full article entitled entitled “Tory Politicians are running a VILE Facebook Group where members joke about BOMBING MOSQUES and SHOOTING IMMIGRANTS” written by Tom D. Rogers published on March 1st by Evolve Politics.

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Update:

Back in June 2018, former Conservative co-Chair Baroness Warsi gave an exclusive interview to Business Insider in which she accused the party leadership of ignoring “widespread” Islamophobia, and of deliberately stirring up anti-Muslim hatred to win elections. She told Business Insider:

[T]he “poison” of Islamophobia had now affected all levels of the party.

“It’s very widespread [in the Conservative party]. It exists right from the grassroots, all the way up to the top.”

Adding:

“It has been a classic case of ‘we’re not racist — we like brown people but we like this kind of brown people as opposed to this kind of brown people.”

“It’s saying ‘these are the acceptable brown people and those are the unacceptable brown people’ and I think that is really dangerous.”

The article continues:

She cited the example of the 2016 London mayoral election where the party was condemned for targeting Hindu voters with leaflets suggesting that the Labour candidate Sadiq Khan, who is a Muslim, was attempting to take away their jewellery.

“We specifically went out for Hindu voters saying Sadiq’s after your jewellery and I love Modi and by the way, Sadiq is an extremist. It was really amateur dog whistle politics,” Warsi told BI.

Click here to read the full article entitled “The Islamophobia scandal in the Conservative party goes ‘right to the top’” written by Adam Bienkov, published by Business Insider on June 11th, 2018.

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On March 2nd, the Guardian published an article by Miqdaad Versi in which he details “A litany of unpunished bigotry by [Conservative] MPs”. Here is an excerpt:

An unbelievable 42% of Tory voters have a positive view of the way Yaxley-Lennon [aka Tommy Robinson] highlights issues ignored by the media (compared with 18% of Labour voters).

One might have assumed that such a positive view about a widely reviled and hateful figure would not have any place in a modern Conservative party membership.

But the problem seems to be far worse.

The Conservative MP Bob Blackman retweeted an anti-Muslim post from Tommy Robinson, yet he did not even get a slap on the wrist from the party. In fact, depite having subsequently hosted anti-Muslim extremist in parliament (Tapan Ghosh), shared an Islamophobic story on Facebook, and been found as a member of a number of Islamophobic social-media groups, the party seems to have no real concern and the prime minister even chose to campaign with him.

He’s not alone. Conservative MP Nadine Dorries shared a tweet from Tommy Robinson before using far-right tropes against Sadiq Khan, Yasmine Alibhai-Brown and Muslims more generally and – despite being personally against same-sex marriage – weaponised gay rights to attack Muslims. Unlike Blackman, she didn’t even apologise once she was found out.

And I could go on – whether it is Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell’s Facebook account being found to have joined a “Free Tommy” group, or Conservative MPs Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson meeting Steve Bannon, who famously praised Tommy Robinson as representing the working class. Johnson’s burqa comments have led to many claiming that he is using Islamophobia as part of a populist, Trump-like appeal to anti-Muslims in the party.

Click here to read the full article entitled “The Tories’ response to raging Islamophobia? Turn a blind eye” written by Miqdaad Versi, published in the Guardian on March 2nd.

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roll up the red carpet!

The following article is Chapter Five of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year and beyond. Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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“All animals are equal
but some animals are more equal than others

— George Orwell 1

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I discovered recently and by happy accident that the author, Michael Young, who invented the term ‘meritocracy’, detested his own creation. Here’s how Young outlined his position in a Guardian article “Down with meritocracy”, published in 2001:

I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.

The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.2

But I shall save further thoughts of Michael Young until later, and begin here by considering what lies in the shadows of a meritocracy. After all, and at first glance, what on earth can be wrong with the purposeful restructuring of society in ways that prioritise ‘merit’ above all else? Isn’t this the epitome of a fair system?

As with examining most ideas, it is helpful first to step back a little to gain perspective. In this case, it is important to get a fuller grasp of what ‘merit’ means when buried within the heart of ‘meritocracy’. What does ‘merit’, in this narrow political sense, finally equate to?

Throughout the last two hundred and more years, including under progressive administrations such as Clement Attlee’s reforming government in Britain and FDR’s earlier New Deal for America, the political systems in the West have remained very solidly rooted in capitalism, and being so, they have remained inherently utilitarian in design. It follows that ‘merit’ (in our narrow definitional sense) must be gauged on the scales of those extant utilitarian-capitalist conventions: that ‘merit’ therefore becomes an adjunct of ‘utility’ or, in other words, ‘usefulness’.

Advocates of capitalism like to evoke the invisible hand of the market, which they say enhances productivity and safeguards against wanton overproduction, thereby ensuring society’s needs are met. Thanks to the market that which is wasteful falls away, and in consequence profits and earnings will flow to the most efficient producers. So it follows that within a meritocracy governed strictly by market forces, with the invisible hand steering our efforts unerringly toward ‘usefulness’, estimations of ‘merit’ ought to be fairly directly measureable in terms of salaries and wealth. Maximum profits and earnings tending to go to those who serve the most useful function and are, by dint of this, the most ‘merited’. The losers are those who merit little since they provide little to nothing of use, and, conversely, the winners contribute most gainfully in every sense…

There is already a suffocating tightness in this loop; a circularity that brings me to consider the first serious objection against meritocracy, if only the most trivial and conspicuous. For judged solely by its own terms just how meritocratic is our celebrated meritocracy? Hmmm – need I go on? Very well then, I shall offer this brisk reductio ad absurdum:

Let’s start where the debate ordinarily ends, with the topic of professional footballers… To most people, the excessive salaries paid to footballers stands out as an egregious example of unfairness. I share the same view, but wonder why we stop at footballers. They are not alone; not by a long chalk.

Indeed, given that our utilitarian-capitalist meritocracy does in fact function as it is presumed to function, then it follows that most top sportsmen (to a lesser extent, sportswomen too), including footballers, but also tennis players, golfers, F1 drivers, cyclists, athletes, etc – sports of low popularity by comparison – as well as pop idols, TV celebrities and film stars (not forgetting agents and the retinue of hangers-on) are, by virtue of their fabulous incomes, not merely most deserving of such high rewards, but also, by direct extension, some of the most ‘productive’ amongst us. Would any deign to defend this high visibility flaw in our socio-economic system? Truth is that many on this ever-expanding list are rewarded for just one thing: fame – thanks to another self-perpetuating cycle in which fame makes you wealthy, and then wealth makes you more famous again.

Nor does such rightful utilitarian calculus reliably account for the gargantuan salaries and bonuses (and who else gets bonuses in excess of their salaries!) of so many bankers, hedge fund managers and other financiers who callously wrecked our western economies. With annual remuneration that outstrips most ordinary worker’s lifetime earnings, the staggering rewards heaped upon those working in The City and Wall Street have little relationship to levels of productivity and usefulness, but worse, remuneration is evidently disconnected from levels of basic competence. Instead we find that greedy ineptitude is routinely and richly rewarded, if only for the ‘made men’ already at the top and lucky enough to be “too big to fail”. In light of the crash of 2008, any further talk of “the classless society” ought to have us all running for the exits!

Then we come to the other end of our meritocratic muck-heap. And here amongst the human debris we find contradictions of an arguably more absurd kind. I am referring to those disgustingly unworthy winners of our many lotteries – you know the types: petty criminals, knuckle-draggers and wastrels (the tone here is strictly in keeping with tabloid outrage on which it is based) who blow all their winnings on a binge of brash consumerism and a garage full of intoxicants. Conspicuous consumption of the most vulgar kinds! How dare they squander such hard, unearned dosh on having fun! But wait a minute… surely the whole point of running a lottery is that anyone can win. Have we forgotten the advertisement already? So if we are really serious about our meritocracy then perhaps we should to be stricter: no lotteries at all! Yet a cursory consideration of this point presents us with far bigger hurdles by far. For if we are truly committed to the project of constructing a meritocracy (and we must decide precisely what this means), it is vital to acknowledge the fact that life is inherently beset with lotteries. Indeed when roundly considered, this represents an existential dilemma that potentially undermines the entire project.

For life begins with what might best be described as our lottery of inheritance. Where you are born and to whom, the postal code you reside in, the schools you attended, your religious (or not) upbringing, whether you happen to carry one or two x-chromosomes, and the colour of your skin… the whole nine yards. Your entire existence happened by extraordinary chance and each and every aspect of it owes an unfathomable debt to further blind chance.

Therefore, in our most puritanical understanding of meritocracy, lotteries relating to the guessing of random numbers will be abolished altogether, in order to set a precedent, although still these other lotteries, life’s lotteries, remain inescapable. Which is devastating blow to the very concept of fully-fledged meritocracy, since whatever meritocracy we might choose to build will always remain a compromise of one kind or another.

In point of fact, however, we have been moving instead in the completely opposite direction. There has been a tremendous and rapid growth in lotteries of all shapes and sizes: from the casino economy working to the advantage of financial speculators at the top; to the rise of online casinos and the latest betting apps, mathematically honed to suck money from the pockets of the desperate and sometimes destitute pipedreamers at the bottom. Further indications of how far our society truly diverges from even the most rudimentary notions of meritocracy.

So there is plenty of scope for devising a better version of meritocracy; one that isn’t so riddled with blatant inconsistencies and arbitrary rewards. A more refined meritocracy operating according to common sense fairness and consistency, with built-in checks and balances to ensure the winners are more consistently worthy than the losers. A more level playing field bringing us closer to the ideal – for surely a better devised version of meritocracy is the fairest system we can ever hope to live under. In fact, I beg to differ, but before entering further objections to the sham ideal of meritocracy, I wish first to celebrate the different areas in which greater equality has indeed been achieved and ones where it is still dangerously lacking.

During the Q&A session following a lecture entitled “Capitalist Democracy and its Prospect’s” that he delivered in Boston on September 30th, 2014, Noam Chomsky speaks to why the notion of a capitalist democracy is oxymoronic. He also discusses the widespread misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s economic thinking, especially amongst libertarians, and specifically regarding the misuse of his terms ‘invisible hand’ and ‘division of labour’.

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There is no denying that at the start of the twenty-first century our own society has, and in a number of related ways, been made fairer and more equal than it was just thirty years ago when I was a school-leaver. Most apparent is the sweeping change in attitudes towards race and gender. Casual racism wasn’t merely permissible in seventies and early eighties Britain, but an everyday part of the mainstream culture. The sporadic Black or Asian characters on TV were neatly allotted into their long-established stereotypes, and comedians like bilious standup Bernard Manning had free rein to defile the airwaves with their popular brands of inflammatory bigotry. Huge strides have been taken since then, and social attitudes are unalterably changed for the better. Today the issue of diversity is central to political debate, and social exclusion on the grounds of race and gender is outlawed.

In the prophetic words of abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”; words famously borrowed by Martin Luther King in a celebrated sermon he delivered in the year of 1965.3 It was a momentous year: one that marked the official end to racial segregation in the Southern United States with the repeal of the horrendous Jim Crow laws, and the same year when Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the Race Relations Act prohibiting discrimination in Britain on “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic and national origins”.

On August 28th (last Tuesday) ‘Democracy Now’ interviewed co-founder and chair of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, who was arrested and indicted after speaking outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He describes how during his trial Judge Julius Hoffman ordered him to be gagged and bound to his chair [from 9:15 mins]:

Did Bobby Seale’s treatment provide inspiration for Woody Allen’s madcap courtroom scene in ‘Bananas’? [from 5:00 mins]:

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As Parker and King understood well, of course, the arc of the moral universe does not bend of its own accord but requires tremendous pressure from below. And so it was, again in 1965, after shockwaves sent by Wilson’s government through former colony Rhodesia, that in efforts to avoid the end of its apartheid system, the white minority government under then-Prime Minister Ian Smith, declared independence, and an armed struggle for black liberation ensued. It was a bloody struggle that would grind on throughout the 70s, but one that ended in triumph. Meanwhile, apartheid in neighbouring South Africa outlasted Rhodesia for a further decade and a half before it too was dismantled in 1994 and the rainbow flag could be hoisted.

In solidarity with Nelson Mandela and leading the armed struggle had been Joe Slovo, a commander of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) who fought alongside deputy Ronnie Kasrils; both the sons of émigré Jews. Also prominent within the anti-apartheid resistance were other Jewish figures including Denis Goldberg, Albie Sachs, and Ruth First – an activist, scholar and wife of Joe Slovo, she was murdered by a parcel bomb sent to her in Mozambique. Ironically, today Israel stands alone as the last remaining state that legally enforces racial segregation, but even the concrete walls and barbed wire dividing the West Bank and Gaza cannot hold forever.

This video footage was uploaded as recently as Wednesday 29th. It shows a young Palestinian girl living under Israeli control in Hebron having to climb a closed security gate just to get home:

The fence had been extended in 2012 and fitted with a single gate to provide entrance to the Gheith and a-Salaimeh neighborhoods in Hebron. The footage below was recorded by B’Tselem in May 2018 and shows other students unable to return from school and their mothers beseeching the Border Police officers to open it. The officers say in response that the gate is closed as “punishment” for stone throwing; a collective punishment that is prohibited under international law:

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Likewise, homosexuality, which until astonishingly recent times remained a virtually unspoken taboo, was decriminalised as comparatively recently as 1967 – the year of my birth and coincidentally the same year aboriginal Australians received full citizenship and the right to vote.

Before the Sexual Offences Act came into force, gay men faced prosecution and a prison sentence (lesbians slipped through the legal loophole due to technicalities surrounding the delicate issue of penetration), whereas today they enjoy the equal right to marriage, which cynics will doubtless say entitles them to an alternative form of imprisonment, but hurrah for that… since irrespective of one’s views on the institution of marriage, equality under law is indicative of genuine social progress. The same goes for the transformation of attitudes and legal framework in countering discrimination on grounds of gender, disability and age. Discrimination based on all these prejudices is plain wrong, and liberation on all fronts, an unimpeachable good.

In these ways, our own society – like others across the globe – has become more inclusive, and, if we choose to describe it as such, more meritocratic. Yet many are still left out in the cold. Which people? Sadly, but in truth, all of the old prejudices linger on – maybe they always will – but prime amongst them is the malignant spectre of racism.

For overall, as we have become more conscious and less consenting of racism than in the past, the racists, in consequence, have adapted to fit back in. More furtive than old-style racism, which wore its spiteful intolerance so brashly on its sleeve, many in the fresh crop of bigots have learned to feign better manners. The foaming rhetoric of racial supremacy is greatly moderated, and there is more care taken to legitimise the targeting of the chosen pariahs. Where it used to be said how “the Coloureds” and “the Pakis” (and other labels very much more obscene again) were innately ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘doped-up’ and ‘dirty’ (the traditional rationalisations for racial hatred), the stated concern today is in difference per se. As former BNP leader Nick Griffin once put it:

[I]nstead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people.4

And note how identity politics here plays to the right wing just as does to the left, better in fact, because it is a form of essentialism. In effect, Griffin is saying ‘white lives matter’, when of course what he really means is ‘white lives are superior’. But talk of race is mostly old hat to the new racists in any case, who prefer to attack ‘culture’ over ‘colour’.

In multicultural Britain, it is the Muslim minority, and especially Muslim women, who receive the brunt of the racial taunts, the physical abuse, and who have become the most preyed upon as victims of hate crimes, while the current hypocrisy lays blame at their door for failing to adopt western values and mix in; a scapegoating that alarmingly recalls the Nazi denigration and demonisation of the Jews. It follows, of course, that it is not the racists who are intolerant but the oppressed minority who are or who look like Muslims. By this sleight of hand, Islamophobia (a very clumsy word for a vile creed) festers as the last manifestation of semi-respectable racism.

When it was released in 1974, “Blazing Saddles” shocked audiences. It is no less shocking today, but the difference today is that no-one could make it. No contemporary film in which every third word is a vile racist expletive would pass the censors. Yet as it plunges us headlong into a frenetic whirlwind of bigotry, and as all commonsense rationality is suspended, nothing remains besides the hilarious absurdity of racial prejudice. Dumb, crude, and daring: it is comedy of rare and under-appreciated genius. As Gene Wilder puts it “They’ve smashed racism in the face and the nose is bleeding, but they’re doing it while you laugh” [6:15 mins]. Embedded below is a BTS documentary tribute entitled “Back in the Saddle” [Viewer discretion advised]:

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“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” quipped Oscar Wilde.5 And though the accusation at the heart of his bon mot may be contested, that most people certainly do judge by appearances really cannot be. Briefly then, I wish to consider a few of the most overlooked but widespread social prejudices, which though seldom so vicious and of less clear historical significance than other such virulent strains as sexism and racism, are long-standing and ingrained prejudices nonetheless. These tend to be prejudices against certain types of individual, rather than against interconnected “communities”. Prejudices so commonplace that some readers will doubtless see my digression as trivial, or even laughable, and yet there is good reason to delve into the matter as it opens up a bigger question, and, once expanded upon, more fundamentally challenges our whole notion of meritocracy. So here goes… (I am braced for the many titters and guffaws and encourage you to laugh along!)

Firstly, there is a permitted prejudice on the one hand against short blokes (trust me, I am one), and on the other against fat ladies. Short men and fat women being considered fair game for ridicule literally on the grounds that we don’t shape up. Which would be fine – believe me, I can take a joke – except that in playing down the deep-seated nature of such prejudice, as society generally does, there are all sorts of insidious consequences. For it means, to offer a hopefully persuasive example, that whenever satirists (and I use the term loosely, since genuine satire is rather thin on the ground) lampoon Nicolas Sarkozy, rather than holding him to account for his reactionary politics and unsavoury character, they go for the cheaper shot of quite literally belittling him (and yes, prejudice in favour of tallness saturates our language too). Worse still, Sarkozy had the gall to marry a taller and rather glamorous woman, which apparently makes him a still better target for wisecracks about being a short-arse (it’s okay, I’m reclaiming the word). As a result, Sarkozy is most consistently disparaged only for what he couldn’t and needn’t have altered, instead of what he could and should have. No doubt he takes it all on the chin… presuming anyone can actually reach down that far! Yes, it’s perfectly fine to laugh, just so long as we don’t all continue pretending that there is no actual prejudice operating.

Moreover, it is healthy for us to at least admit that there is a broader prejudice operating against all people regarded in one way or another as physically less attractive. Being fat, short, bald or just plain ugly are – in the strictest sense – all handicaps, which, and though far from insurmountable, represent a hindrance to achieving success. Even the ginger-haired enjoy a less than even break, as Neil Kinnock (who was unfortunate enough to be a Welshman too) discovered shortly after he was elected leader of the Labour Party.

Indeed, most of us will have been pigeon-holed one way or another, and though we may sincerely believe that we don’t qualify to be categorised too negatively, our enemies will assuredly degrade us for reasons beyond our ken. But then, could we ever conceive of, for instance, the rise of something akin to let’s say an “ugly pride” movement? Obviously it would be comprised solely of those self-aware and unblinkingly honest enough to see themselves as others actually see them. This envisaged pressure group would comprise an exceptionally brave and uncommon lot.

Then what of the arguably more delicate issues surrounding social class? Indeed, we might reasonably ask ourselves why is there such an animal as social class in the first place? And the quick answer is that people are inherently hierarchical. That “I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower class”, to quote again the famous skit from The Frost Report. But now pay proper attention to the vocabulary and its direct correspondence with the physical stature of the three comedians.6

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Class and stature side-by-side, just as they are in the dictionary – and as they have been throughout recent history thanks to dietary deficiencies. Here is a visual gag with etymological parallels: the word ‘stature’ itself a double entendre. But, and unlike physical stature, class is already inextricably tied into levels of wealth and success, and virtually impossible to escape in any society – the Soviet system and Mao’s China were arguably more deeply class-riven than our own purportedly “classless” societies.

Incidentally, I in no way advocate the drafting of future legislation to close the gap on these alternative forms of everyday discrimination: demanding social justice for all those with unpopular body shapes, or who speak with the wrong accent, or stutter, or who have chosen to grow patches of hair in the wrong places, or whatever it is (beards became fashionable after I wrote this!). That would instantly make our lives intolerable in another way: it would be (as the Daily Mail loves to point out) “political correctness gone mad!” After all, prejudice and discrimination come in infinite guises, so where could we finally draw the line?

All of which brings me to our last great tolerated prejudice, and one that is seldom if ever acknowledged as a prejudice in the first place. It is our own society’s – and every other society’s for that matter – very freely held discrimination on the grounds of stupidity. And no, this is not meant as a joke. But that it sounds like a joke makes any serious discussion about it inherently tricky.

Because the dim (and I have decided to moderate my language to avoid sounding unduly provocative, which is not easy – I’ll come to other tags I might have chosen in a moment) cannot very easily stand up for themselves, even if they decide to try. Those willing to concede that their lives are held back by a deficit in braininess (sorry, but the lack of more appropriate words is unusually hampering) will very probably fail to grasp much, if anything at all, of the bigger picture, or be able to articulate any of the frustrations they may feel as daily they confront a prejudice so deeply entrenched that it passes mostly unseen. Well, it’s fun to pick on the idiots, blockheads, boneheads, thickos, cretins, dimwits, dunderheads, dunces, knuckleheads, dumbbells, imbeciles, morons, jerks, and simpletons of the world isn’t it? It is the cheaper half of every comedy sketch, and in all likelihood will remain so; with much of the rest that brings us merriment being the schadenfreude of witnessing the self-same idiots cocking up over and over again. And finally, is there really a nicer word that usefully replaces all the pejoratives above? Our casual prejudice against the dim has been indelibly written into our dictionaries.

On May 13th, 1999, comedian George Carlin was invited to deliver a speech to the National Press Club at Washington D.C. He used the occasion to poke fun at the tortuous abuse of language by politicians as well as the growing tyranny of an invented “soft language”, which includes what he describes as ‘the tedious liberal labeling’ of minorities. His speech is followed by an entertaining Q&A session:

Here’s a little more from Carlin dishing the dirt on political correctness:

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Now if I’d been writing say a hundred years ago (or even more recently) the available vocabulary would have been a little different. For it was permissible during the first half of the last century to speak and write about the problem of ‘feeble-mindedness’ – a term that implies an innate (and thus inherited) ‘disability’. Moreover, as part of a quasi-scientific conversation, social reformers including intellectuals and political thinkers got into the habit of discussing how this affliction (as it was then regarded) might best be eradicated.

Those on the political left were no less shameful in this regard than those on the right, with radical thinkers like H.G. Wells 7 and George Bernard Shaw, chipping in alongside the youthful Winston Churchill8; all scratching their high brows to think up ways of preventing the spread of such evidently bad stock from ruining good society – ‘the feeble-minded’, for reasons never dwelt on by the pioneering eugenicists, not the least bit incapable of passing on their enfeebled genes.

Thanks again to genuine social progress it is unacceptable to speak (openly) about the elimination of the underclasses in our societies today, or to openly speculate on means of halting their uncontrolled and unwanted proliferation (though I write very much in terms that Wells, Shaw and Churchill would have understood). But eugenics, we should constantly remind ourselves, was a great deal more fashionable not so very long ago – even after the concentration camps and worryingly under alternative names it finds advocates still today (for instance, the Silicon Valley techies gather nowadays for conferences on transhumanism, the artificial ‘enhancement’ of humanity, which is one way in which eugenics has reemerged9).

Today’s progressives (and keep in mind that Wells and Shaw both regarded themselves as progressives of their own times) prefer to adopt a more humanitarian position. Rather than eliminating ‘feeble-mindedness’, the concern is to assist ‘the disadvantaged’. A shift in social attitude that is commendable, but it brings new hazards in its stead. For implicit in the new phraseology is the hope that since disparities stem from disadvantage, all differences between healthy individuals might one day be overcome. That aside from those suffering from disability, everyone has an approximately equivalent capacity when it comes to absorbing knowledge and learning skills of one form or another, and that society alone, to the advantage of some and detriment of others, makes us smart or dim. But this is also false, and cruelly so – though not yet barbarously.

For differences in social class, family life, access to education, and so forth (those things we might choose to distinguish as environment or nurture) are indeed significant indicators of later intellectual prowess (especially when our benchmark is academic performance). So it makes for comfortable presupposition that regarding intelligence (an insanely complex matter to begin with) the inherent difference between individuals is slight, and upbringing is the key determinant, but where’s the proof? And if this isn’t the whole picture – as it very certainly isn’t – then what if, heaven forfend, some people really are (pro)created less cognitively proficient than others? Given that they did indeed receive equivalent support through life, it follows that failure is “their own fault”, is it not?

In any case, intelligence, like attractiveness, must be to some degree a relative trait. During any historical period, particular forms of mental gymnastics are celebrated when others are overlooked, and so instruments to measure intelligence will automatically be culturally biased (there is a norm and there are fashions) to tally with the socially accepted idea of intelligence which varies from place to place and from one era to the next. There can never be an acid test of intelligence in any pure and absolute sense.10

Furthermore, whatever mental abilities happen to confer the mark of intelligence at any given time or place, obviously cannot be equally shared by everyone. As with other human attributes and abilities, there is likely to be a bell curve. It follows, therefore, that whatever braininess is or isn’t (and doubtless it takes many forms), during every age and across all nations, some people will be treated as dimmer, or brighter, than their fellows. And notwithstanding that whatever constitutes intelligence is socially determined to some extent, and that estimates of intelligence involve us in a monumentally complex matter, it remains the case that an individual’s capacity for acquiring skills and knowledge must be in part innate. This admission is both exceedingly facile and exceedingly important, and it is one that brings us right to the crux of meritocracy’s most essential flaw.

For how can those who are thought dim be left in charge of important things? They can’t. Which means that it would be madness to give the dimmest people anything other than the least intellectually demanding jobs. The meritocratic logic then follows, of course, that being less capable (and thus relegated to performing only the most menial tasks) makes you less worthy of an equal share, and yet this cuts tangentially across the very principle of ‘fairness’ which meritocracy is supposed to enshrine. For wherein lies the fairness in the economic exclusion of the dim? To reiterate what I wrote above, our prejudice is so deeply ingrained that to many such exclusion will still appear justified. As if being dim is your own lookout.

For whether or not an individual’s perceived failure to match up to society’s current gauge of intelligence is primarily down to educational ‘disadvantage’ (in the completest sense) or for reasons of an altogether more congenital kind, we may justifiably pass over the comfortable view that equal opportunity (laudable as this is) can entirely save the day. Degrees of intellectual competence – whether this turns out to be more socially or biologically determined – will always be with us, unless that is, like Wells, Shaw and Churchill (together with a many other twentieth century social reformers including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, and the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger) we opt instead for the eugenic solution – and I trust we do not. But bear in mind that programmes of forced sterilisation kept running in regions of the western world long after WWII right up to the 1970s.11 Earlier calls to weed out the “feeble-minded” that never fully went away, but instead went underground.

On March 17th 2016, ‘Democracy Now!’ interviewed Adam Cohen, co-editor of TheNationalBookReview.com and author of “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck”, who explained how:

After World War II, we put the leading Nazis on trial for some of the worst things that the Nazis did. One of those very bad things was they set up a eugenics program where they sterilized as many as 375,000 people. So we put them on trial for that. And lo and behold, as the movie [“Judgment at Nuremberg”] shows, their defense was: “How can you put us on trial for that? Your own U.S. Supreme Court said that sterilization was constitutional, was good. And it was your own Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of your most revered figures, who said that. So, why are we the bad guys in this story?” They had a point.

Click here to watch on the Democracy Now! website.

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Now for those further thoughts from the man we might describe as “the father of meritocracy” – even though he would certainly hate it! This is Michael Young speaking out against about his accidental bastard child and the decisive role it is has played in reshaping our societies:

I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment.

They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.

It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.12

This meritocracy we live in today, as Michael Young points out, is not just a distant remove from the fairest society imaginable, but in other ways – psychological ones especially – arguably crueller than any older, and less enlightened, -ocracies.

Embedded below is one of a series of lectures “Biology as Ideology” given by distinguished geneticist and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in 1990. Lewontin here explaining how erroneous theories of biological determinism have been used to validate and support the dominant sociopolitical theories and vice versa. He also offers his subversive thoughts on meritocracy:

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Inevitably, ‘merit’ is equated with, and thus mistaken for, ‘success’, and this is true not only for our self-declared meritocracy, but universally. Think about it: if millions of people love to read your books, or to listen to your songs, or just to watch your delightful face on their TV screens, then who would not leap to the conclusion that what they do is of the highest ‘merit’? How else did they rise to stand above the billions of ordinary anonymous human drones?

The converse is also true. That those who remain anonymous are often in the habit of regarding themselves as less significant – in fact psychologically less real – than others in the limelight they see and admire: the celebrities and the VIPs. Which brings me to a lesson my father taught me; an observation which reveals in aphoristic form the inbuilt fault with all conceptions of meritocracy: VIP being a term that makes him curse. Why? For the clinching fact that every one of us is a “very important person”. If this sounds corny or trite then ask yourself sincerely, as my father once asked me: “Are you a very important person…?”

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Famously, Van Gogh sold just a single painting in his lifetime13, but then we all know that millions of terrible painters have also sold one (or less than one!) Not so widely known is that a great deal of Schubert’s music was lost when, in the immediate aftermath of his death, it was recycled as waste paper; but then again, thousands of dreadful composers have also had their music posthumously binned. So the odds are that if you can’t sell your music or publish your book, then you’re just another of the billions, rather than an as yet unappreciated master and another Van Gogh or Schubert. For aside from posterity, and no matter how much we might like to conjure one up, there is no established formula for separating ‘merit’ from ‘success’, and no good reason for supposing we will ever discover such a razor.

In reality therefore, any form of meritocracy will only ever be a form of success-ocracy, and in our own system, money is the reification of success. A system in which success and thus money invariably breeds more success and more money because unavoidably it contains positive and negative feedback loops. For this reason the well-established ruling oligarchies will never be unseated by means of any notional meritocracy – evidence of their enduring preeminence being, somewhat ironically, more apparent in the American republic, where dynasties, and especially political ones, are less frowned upon, and in consequence have remained more visible than in the class-ridden island kingdom it abandoned and then defeated. But even if our extant aristocracies were one day uprooted wholesale, then meritocracy simply opens the way for that alternative uber-class founded by the “self-made man”.

Indeed, ‘aristocracy’, deriving from the Greek ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) and literally meaning “rule of the best”, sounds a lot like ‘meritocracy’ to me. Whereas governance by those selected as most competent (the other way ‘meritocracy’ is sometimes defined) is better known by an alternative name too – ‘technocracy’ in this case – with the select order of technocrats working to whose betterment we might reasonably ask. Meritocracy of both kinds – and every meritocratic system must combine these twin strands – has fascistic overtones.

The promise of meritocracy has been seductive largely because of its close compatibility with neoliberalism, today’s predominant, in fact unrivalled, politico-economic ideology. Predicated on the realism that humans do indeed have an ingrained predisposition to social hierarchy (something that traditional concepts of egalitarianism sought to abolish), it offers a reconfigured market solution to foster a sort of laissez-faire egalitarianism: the equalisation of wealth and status along lines that are strictly “as nature intended”. Furthermore, it appeals to some on the left by making a persuasive case for “equality of opportunity”, if always to the detriment of the more ambitious goal of “equality of outcome”. A sidelining of “equality of outcome” that has led to a dramatic lowering of the bar with regards to what even qualifies as social justice.

Moreover, the rightward drift to meritocracy involves the downplaying of class politics in favour of today’s more factional and brittle politics of identity. This follows because under meritocracy the rigid class barriers of yesteryear are ostensibly made permeable and in the long run must slowly crumble away altogether. In reality, of course, social mobility is heavily restricted for reasons already discussed at length. But this abandonment of class politics in favour of the divisiveness of identity politics is greatly to the benefit of the ruling establishment of course. Divide and conquer has been their oldest maxim.

Interestingly, of the many advocates of meritocracy – from Thatcher to Reagan; Brown to Blair; Cameron to Obama; Merkel to May – none have bothered to very precisely define their terms. What do they mean to imply by ‘merit’ and its innately slippery counterpart ‘fairness’? And whilst they talk of ‘fairness’ over and over again – ‘fairness’ purportedly underlying every policy decision they have ever taken – the actual direction all this ‘fairness’ was leading caused a few to wonder whether ‘fairness’ might be wrong in principle! Like other grossly misappropriated abstract nouns – ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ spring instantly to mind – the difficulty here is that ‘fairness’ is a handy fig-leaf.

Instead, and if we genuinely wish to live in a society striving for greater equality, then the political emphasis ought not to be placed too heavily on wooly notions like ‘merit’ or ‘fairness’ but upon enabling democracy in the fullest sense. The voice of the people may not be the voice of God, but it is, to paraphrase Churchill (who mostly hated it), the least worst system.14 One person, one vote, if not quite the bare essence of egalitarianism, serves both as a fail-safe and a necessary foundation.

Of course, we must always guard against the “tyranny of the majority” by means of a constitutional framework that ensures basic rights and freedoms for all. For democracy offers an imperfect solution, but cleverly conceived and justly organised neither is it, as so many right-wing libertarians are quick to tell you: “two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner”. This sideswipe is not just glib, but a better description by far of the extreme right-wing anarchy they advocate. In reality, it is their beloved ‘invisible hand’ that better ensures rampant inequality and social division, and for so long as its influence remains unseen and unfettered, will continue to do so, by rigging elections and tipping the scales of justice.

Democracy – from its own etymology: rule by the people – is equality in its most settled form. Yet if such real democracy is ever to arise and flourish then we must have a free-thinking people. So the prerequisite for real democracy is real education – sadly we are a long way short of this goal too and once again heading off in the wrong direction. But that’s for a later chapter.

Next chapter…

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Addendum: our stakeholder society and the tyranny of choice

Prior to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders (for further thoughts on Sanders read my earlier posts), mainstream politics in Britain and America, as more widely, were converged to such a high degree that opposition parties were broadly in conjunction. Left and right had collapsed to form a single “centrist” amalgam in agreement across a wide range of diverse issues spanning race relations, gender equality, immigration, environmentalism, to foreign policy, and most remarkably, economics. In Britain, as in America, the two major parties ceased even to disagree over the defining issue of nationalisation versus privatisation because both sides now approved of the incorporation of private sector involvement into every area of our lives. “Big government”, our politicians echoed in unison, is neither desirable nor any longer possible. Instead, we shall step aside for big business, and limit ourselves to resolving “the real issues”.

The real issues? Why yes, with the business sector running all the fiddly stuff, governments pivoted to address the expansion of individual opportunity and choice. Especially choice. Choice now became the paramount concern.

Even the delivery of essential public services, once the duty of every government (Tory and Labour alike), began to be outsourced. No holy cows. It became the common doctrine that waste and inefficiency in our public services would be abolished by competition including the introduction of internal markets and public-private partnerships, which aside from helping to foster efficiency, would, importantly, diversify customer choice once again.

Under the new social arrangement, we, the people, became “stakeholders” in an altogether more meritocratic venture. Here is Tony Blair outlining his case for our progressive common cause:

“We need a country in which we acknowledge an obligation collectively to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it. One Nation politics is not some expression of sentiment, or even of justifiable concern for the less well off. It is an active politics, the bringing of a country together, a sharing of the possibility of power, wealth and opportunity…. If people feel they have no stake in society, they feel little responsibility towards it, and little inclination to work for its success. ….”15

Fine aspirations, you may think. But wait, and let’s remember that Blair was trained as a lawyer, so every word here counts. “Sharing in the possibility of power…” Does this actually mean anything at all? Or his first sentence which ends: “…to ensure each citizen gets a stake in it” – “it” in this context presumably meaning “the country” (his subject at the beginning). But every citizen already has a stake in the country, doesn’t s/he? Isn’t that what being a citizen means: to be a member of a nation state with an interest, or ‘stake’ (if we insist) in what goes on. However, according to Blair’s “One Nation” vision, members of the public (as we were formerly known) are seemingly required to become fully paid-up “stakeholders”. But how…?

Do we have to do something extra, or are our “stakeholder” voices to be heard simply by virtue of the choices we make? Is this the big idea? The hows and wheres of earning a salary, and then of spending or else investing it; is this to be the main measure of our “stakeholder” participation? In fact, is “stakeholder” anything different than “stockholder” in UK plc? Or is it less than this? Is “stakeholder” substantially different from “consumer”? According to the Financial Times lexicon’s definition, a stakeholder society is:

“A society in which companies and their employees share economic successes.”16

Well, I certainly don’t recall voting for that.

*

We are increasingly boggled by choice. Once there was a single electricity supply and a single gas supply – one price fitting all. Now we have literally dozens of companies offering different deals – yet all these deals finally deliver an entirely identical supply of electricity and gas. The single difference is the price, but still you have to choose. So precious moments of our once around the sun existence are devoted to worrying about which power company is charging the least amount. And the companies know all this, of course, so they make their deals as complicated as possible. Perhaps you’ll give up and choose the worst of options – for the companies concerned, this is a winning strategy – thinking about it, this is their only winning strategy! Or, if you are of a mind to waste a few more of your precious never to be returned moments of existence, you may decide to check one of the many comparison websites – but again, which one? Just one inane and frustrating choice after another. And more of those tiresome tickboxes to navigate.

But choice is everything. So we also need to worry more about the latest school and hospital league tables. It is vital to exercise our right to choose in case an actual ambulance arrives with its siren already blaring. In these circumstances we need to be sure that the ambulance outside is bound for a hospital near to the top of the league, because it is in the nature of leagues that there is always bottom – league tables giving a relative assessment, and ensuring both winners and losers.

And provided, an entirely free choice – and not one based on catchment areas – what parent in their right mind elects to send their offspring to a worse school over a better one? So are we just to hope our nearest school and/or hospital is not ranked bottom? Thankfully, house prices save much of the time in helping to make these determinations.

Meantime I struggle to understand what our politicians and civil servants get up to in Whitehall these days. Precisely what do those who walk the corridors of power find to do each day? Reduced to the role of managers, what is finally left for them manage?

And where is all of this choice finally leading? In the future, perhaps, in place of elections, we will be able to voice our approval/dissatisfaction by way of customer surveys. With this in mind, please take a moment to select the response that best reflects your own feelings:

Given the choice, would you say you prefer to live in a society that is:

 More fair

Less fair

Not sure

*

Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

*

1 Quote taken from Chapter 10 of George Orwell’s satirical fairytale Animal Farm published in 1945. After the animals have ceased power at the farm they formulate “a complete system of thought” which is designed to unite the animals as well as preventing them from returning to the evil ways of the humans. The seventh and last of these original commandments of ‘Animalism’ is straightforwardly that “All animals are equal”, however, after the pigs have risen to dominance again, the sign is revised and so this last commandment reads “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

2 From an article entitled “Down with meritocracy: The man who coined the term four decades ago wishes Tony Blair would stop using it” written by Michael Young, published in the Guardian on June 29, 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/jun/29/comment

3 Quote taken from a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at Temple Israel of Hollywood delivered on February 25, 1965. In fuller context, he said:

“And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right: “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet, that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”

An audio recording of King’s speech and a full transcript is available here: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm

4 Quote taken from a meeting on April 22nd, 2000 with American white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, that was recorded as “American Friends of the British National Party” video.

In fuller context Griffin says:

“Perhaps one day, once by being rather more subtle we got ourselves in a position where we control the British Broadcasting media and then we tell ’em really how serious the immigration problem was, and we tell them the truth about a lot of the crime that’s been going on, if we tell ’em really what multiracialism has meant and means for the future, then perhaps one day the British people might change their mind and say yes every last one must go.  Perhaps they will one day.  But if you hold that out as your sole aim to start with, you’re going to get absolutely nowhere. So instead of talking about racial purity, you talk about identity, and about the needs and the rights and the duty to preserve and enhance the identity of our own people.  My primary identity quite simply is there (points to veins in wrist). That’s the thing that counts.”

The clip was shown in BBC1’s Panorama: Under the Skin first broadcast on November 25, 2001.

The transcript is available here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/audio_video/programmes/panorama/transcripts/transcript_25_11_01.txt

5 Although these words are frequently attributed to Wilde himself, they actually belong to one of his characters. To Lord Henry Wotton who says “To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Taken from Chapter 2 of Wilde’s once scandalous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

6 The “Class Sketch” was first broadcast on April 7, 1966 in an episode of David Frost’s satirical BBC show The Frost Report. It was written by Marty Feldman and John Law, and performed by John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in descending order of height!

7 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901), is one of H.G.Wells’ earliest blueprints for the future. Set in 2000, a youthful Wells (aged 34) suggested an altogether more matter of fact solution to the problem of what he then called “the People of the Abyss” than a promise of education, education, education (the commentary is my own of course):

“It has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future, to other masses, that they cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power as superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental in the civilizing fabric, and that their range of incapacity tempts and demoralises the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity…”

Which is putting it most politely! Oh dear, oh dear! What has happened to the clarion call for freedom and equality (and here I mean equality of opportunity, since to be fair Wells was ever the egalitarian, consistently keener on meritocracy than any of the more radical ideals of wealth redistribution). Might it be that the young Mr Wells was showing off his truer colours? Let us go on a little:

“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully, and efficiently will be to die.”

Just who are the hideous hoards who Wells so pities and despises (in roughly equal measures)? Let us read on:

“…the small minority, for example, afflicted with indisputably transmissible diseases, with transmissible mental disorders, with such hideous incurable habits of the mind as the craving for intoxication…”

But he’s jesting… isn’t he?

“And I imagine also the plea and proof that a grave criminal is also insane will be regarded by them [the men of the New Republic] not as a reason for mercy, but as an added reason for death…”

Death? Why not prison and rehabilitation…?

“The men of the New Republic will not be squeamish either, in facing or inflicting death, because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life than we possess…”

Ah, I see, yes since put like that… yes, yes, death and more death, splendid!

“All such killing will be done with an opiate, for death is too grave a thing to be made painful or dreadful, and used as a deterrent for crime. If deterrent punishments are to be used at all in the code of the future, the deterrent will neither be death, nor mutilation of the body, nor mutilation of the life by imprisonment, nor any horrible things like that, but good scientifically caused pain, that will leave nothing but memory…”

An avoidance of nasty old pain… that’s good I suppose.

“…The conscious infliction of pain for the sake of pain is against the better nature of man, and it is unsafe and demoralising for anyone to undertake this duty. To kill under the seemly conditions of science will afford is a far less offensive thing.”

Death, yes, a more final solution, of course, of course…

This is horrifying, of couse, especially in light of what followed historically.

Deep down Wells was an unabashed snob, though hardly exceptional for his time. Less forgivably, Wells was a foaming misanthropist (especially so when sneering down on the hoi polloi). But mostly he longed to perfect the human species, and as a young man had unflinchingly advocated interventions no less surgical than those needed to cure any other cancerous organ. But then of course, it was once fashionable for intellectual types to seek scientific answers to social problems: programmes of mass-sterilisation and selective reproduction.

His Fabian rival George Bernard Shaw had likewise talked of selective breeding in his own quest to develop a race of supermen, whilst Julian Huxley, Aldous’s big brother, was perhaps the foremost and pioneering advocate of eugenics, later coining the less soiled term ‘transhumanism’ to lessen the post-Nazi stigma. Judged in the broader historical context therefore, Wells was simply another such dreaming ideologue.

That Wells was also one of the first to use the term “new world order” maybe of little lasting significance, however totalitarian his visions for World Socialism, but importantly Wells was never in the position to realise his grander visions, in spite of being sufficiently well-connected to arrange private meetings with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who entertained him over dinner, and with Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin. Finally, he was unable to inspire enough significant others to engage in his “open conspiracy”.

All extracts below are taken from Anticipation of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought, Chapman & Hall, 1901

8

Like most of his contemporaries, family and friends, he regarded races as different, racial characteristics as signs of the maturity of a society, and racial purity as endangered not only by other races but by mental weaknesses within a race. As a young politician in Britain entering Parliament in 1901, Churchill saw what were then known as the “feeble-minded” and the “insane” as a threat to the prosperity, vigour and virility of British society.

The phrase “feeble-minded” was to be defined as part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, of which Churchill had been one of the early drafters. The Act defined four grades of “Mental Defective” who could be confined for life, whose symptoms had to be present “from birth or from an early age.” “Idiots” were defined as people “so deeply defective in mind as to be unable to guard against common physical dangers.” “Imbeciles” were not idiots, but were “incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.” The “feeble-minded” were neither idiots nor imbeciles, but, if adults, their condition was “so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or the protection of others.”

Extract taken from a short essay called “Churchill and Eugenics” written by Sir Martin Gilbert, published on May 31, 2009 on the Churchill Centre website. http://www.winstonchurchill.org/support/the-churchill-centre/publications/finest-hour-online/594-churchill-and-eugenics

9 “Population reduction” is another leftover residue of the old eugenics programme but freshly justified on purportedly scientific and seemingly less terrible neo-Malthusian grounds – when previous “population reduction” was unashamedly justified and executed on the basis of the pseudoscience of eugenics, the pruning was always done from the bottom up, of course.

10 Aside from being the invention of pioneering eugenicist Francis Galton, the IQ test was an pseudo-scientific approach that first appeared to be validated thanks to the research of Cyril Burt who had devised ‘twin studies’ to prove the heritability of IQ. However, those studies turned out to be fraudulent:

“After Burt’s death, striking anomalies in some of his test data led some scientists to reexamine his statistical methods. They concluded that Burt manipulated and probably falsified those IQ test results that most convincingly supported his theories on transmitted intelligence and social class. The debate over his conduct continued, but all sides agreed that his later research was at least highly flawed, and many accepted that he fabricated some data.”

From the current entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/85886/Sir-Cyril-Burt

11

Eugenics is now rightly abjured, and if only for its abominable record for cruelty. But the cruelty of the many twentieth century programmes of eugenics was hardly incidental. Any attempt to alter human populations to make them fit an imposed social structure by means of the calculated elimination and deliberate manipulation of genetic stock automatically reduces people to the same level as farm animals.

It should be remembered too that what the Nazis had tried to achieve by mass murder across Europe was only novel in terms of its extremely barbarous method. Eugenics programmes to get rid of “inferior” populations by forced sterilisation having been introduced earlier in America and surreptitiously continuing into the 1970s. For instance, there was a secret programme for the involuntary sterilisation of Native American women long after the World War II.

http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/american_indian_quarterly/v024/24.3lawrence.html

12 From the same Guardian article entitled “Down with meritocracy” written by Michael Young, published in June, 2001.

13 Van Gogh famously sold one painting during his lifetime, Red Vineyard at Arles. A painting that now resides at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The rest of Van Gogh’s more than 900 paintings were not sold nor came to public attention until after his death.

14

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

— Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons, November 11, 1947.

15 Tony Blair speaking in Singapore on January 7, 1996.

16 The source for this definition is given as the Longman Business English Dictionary (although the link is lost). http://lexicon.ft.com/Term?term=stakeholder-society

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