When Is a Lion Not a Lion? When It’s an Unwanted Distraction

A great lion. But a great cause? Photo credit: The Independent
A great lion. But a great cause? Photo credit: The Independent

This week was no shorter than any other of unsettling news about the state of our nation. Hundreds of prospective migrants desperately stormed the Channel Tunnel, with one dead as a result. The death toll of British citizens so disfranchised and so disengaged with our society that they have left to join Islamist militant groups fighting in the Middle East has reached 50. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published a report detailing that less academically able children from wealthier backgrounds are still more likely proceed to earn more than their brighter, poorer compatriots.

And yet, amongst continued revelations that on our doorstep there is despair and anguish, loathing and terror, inequality and injustice, what captured the hearts and souls of thousands in this country? A lion. Albeit a very important lion hunted illegally. But a lion- in Zimbabwe- nonetheless.

The story of Cecil the Lion, shot by an American dentist, has ignited fury beyond expectation. I cannot conceive how many Facebook posts decrying the brutality and unfairness of the killer must have been posted in the last few days. I cannot conceive the hatred felt for Dr Palmer, the disgust and the fury. I cannot conceive the force of the moral tempest whipped up by those who are hashtagging “#wearececil”. We are outraged by the death of an animal in a faraway land at the hands of someone from a different foreign country to the point that many of us forget our own civilised nature and wish the death penalty on the perpetrator of the killing. Meanwhile, the poorest children in our own back garden quietly starve, bereft not only of sustenance to which their humanity surely entitles them, but also of the attention of the vocal, self-appointed, so-called “compassionate” classes who fill the Guardian comment sections and our social media newsfeeds. No wonder David Cameron, an architect of the punitive welfare reforms and rigid socio-economic stratification which causes such hardship, is more than willing to prolong the obfuscating Cecil furore by contributing his own tuppence-worth. Compassionate Conservatism extends to African beasts but not to British families trapped in poverty. Animal rights trump human dignity.

Even in a week's time the poor will still be hungry. Photo credit: Huffington Post
Even in a week’s time the poor will still be hungry. Photo credit: Huffington Post

A soul more generous than mine would perhaps venture that the widespread condemnation of Cecil’s killing is simply a symptom of something bigger: a final, great awakening of the developed world to the postcolonial hangover of destruction their fellow Westerners wreak upon lands they once dominated. First the the lions of Zimbabwe, next the planet and the people still suffering from the result of centuries of empire and unfettered global capitalism. However, the generous soul is also the more foolish in this situation. A primary reason why Cecil has attracted so much posthumous support is because it is easy to offer it. There is next to nothing that any of us in Britain can positively contribute to the problem of illegal game-hunting in the south of Africa, so all there is to do is beat the moral drum loudly for a few days before sinking back into quietude and oblivion until the next insoluble outrage to shout about surfaces. And no one seriously thinks that Cecil should have been hunted down, or that Dr Palmer is a great man for firing the fatal shot, so any opposition is nigh on non-existent. It is all far more convenient than, yet just as satisfying as, considering how to help to resolve tricky and divisive social or economic issues that are more insidious and immediate to us.

Remember “#kony2012” anyone?

Most animals are cute from a distance of six and a half thousand miles, and killing them illegally, especially when they are endangered and emblematic, is wrong. That is undisputed and the perpetrator of the act will face the consequences of that unanimity of opinion. However, we, especially those of us who proudly wear the badge of “liberal” or “progressive” do ourselves and those whom our sentiments and values are supposed to serve an embarrassing disservice by obsessing over Cecil. For he has ceased to be a lion, and now has become a passing shadow, pushing into obscurity all the graver injustices around which we must rally.


The Utter Nonsense of the “Royal Family Nazi Salute” Story

Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story
Credit to The Sun for both the photo and the non-story

It is not uncommon for me to encourage the dismissal of something which The Sun publishes, given my conformity to the mainstream centre-left view of the Murdoch press. More rare is it for me to plea that an article from The Guardian, my newspaper of choice, be ignored. However, in the circumstance of The Sun’s exclusive report on footage from 1933 capturing members of the Royal Family, including our current monarch, giving the Nazi salute, and Peter Preston’s subsequent adulation for the publication in The Guardian, I implore that we ignore the lot. The whole story.

If the press has a questionable record for reporting on the present, then how much dubious is its ability to report on the past. Flashy tabloid headlines, blown-up pictures and responses written in the heat of the moment do not amount to the kind of academic caution with which history, especially history of such consequence as this, must be treated. Therefore, allow me to do what many a journalist and editor appear to have neglected in introducing a little bit of context of which most GCSE history students are probably aware.

Europe in 1933- the year when the footage was shot- was not beholden to the fears that it was less than a decade later on. The greatest threat to the stability of the continent did not come from Germany, which had been beaten in submission by the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, all eyes were on the Soviet Union, the revolution of which had desposed the British Royal Family’s relatives 16 years beforehand. Great Britain had supported the losing royalist “White” faction in the subsequent civil war. Elsewhere in Europe, especially in France and Germany, Communist uprisings had disrupted civil order and threatened to overturn governments. General strikes, backed by Communist parties, broke out in Belgium, Sweden, Germany and, infamously in 1926, Great Britain.

In this climate of fear, it is no surprise that the election in Germany of a staunchly anti-Communist leader, whose Chancellorship was propped up by more mainstream conservatives, was of little concern to many British people, especially those in the establishment. This perhaps goes some way to explain the notoriously close relationship between Edward VIII and the Nazi regime during the first half of the 1930s and beyond. Germany became viewed as the great bulwark that would defend Western Europe and its remaining ancient social hierarchies from Communism in the East.

Assuming that a context must be applied to the actions of the Royal Family, then it is only that of anti-Communist relief. Instead, the press, and its readers, have readily plunged headfirst in the intoxicating waters of prolepsis. People look at the salute and associate it with war-mongering, state terror propped up by racialism, the Blitz and the gas chambers. All of these were at the time unbeknowst the entire world, evils yet to be played out let alone revealed. The entire fuss caused by this footage smacks of bad history and bad journalism that is more intent on creating a story than analysing one and finding out that it has no weight or importance to it.

Say what you like about the Royal Family. But if you are to judge them unfavourably, judge them on their expenses during a time of economic hardship for millions, their undue interference in the affairs of a liberal democratic state or their embodiment of a national Church to which barely any of the population now adheres. Do not be lazy about the matter by, in reality, charging them with feeling relief at a blow against the Communist project and the inability to predict the future.

The Problem at the Heart of our Democracy: the Voter

“Outside the hall in which the meeting was being held a large crowd of poverty-stricken Liberal working men, many of them wearing broken boots and other men’s cast-off clothing, was waiting to hear the report of the slave-drivers’ deputation, and as soon as Sweater had consented to be nominated, Didlum rushed and opened the window overlooking the street and shouted the good news down to the crowd, which joined in the cheering.”  

– The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell (1914)

Amongst the fallout following the General Election nigh on three weeks ago, one of the loudest calls for those of a reforming mindset has been for electoral reform. This is in light of a Conservative majority secured by only 39.6% of the vote, SNP domination north of the border and UKIP and Green disappointment south of it. The Electoral Reform Society has seen a petition for a change from First Past the Post to a more proportional system (and theirs is only one of many such online campaigns) already accrue nearly 140,000 signatures. Others are already looking ahead to 2020, suggesting that proposed boundary changes is an act of gerrymandering that will hand the Conservatives a significant advantage next election.

However, when it comes to electoral reform, fewer people, especially the average person on the street who may talk about PR or constituency reviews, want to consider reforming the voter. This is curious, as a nation can establish the most perfectly representative electoral system imaginable but if their electorate is as downtrodden, apathetic and under-informed as ours in the UK is, then all that hard work will still produce undesirable results. It is not fashionable, nor politically advisable, to pin any kind of blame or onus for a certain outcome on the voter, but that is the case in Britain in 2015, and anyone who truly believes in democracy should seek to remedy that. We have to ask ourselves if an engaged, informed and socially aware population would have allowed a party that has overseen a huge rise in the reliance on foodbanks, a slump in living standards unseen in decades and fiscal policy of austerity condemned by two thirds of economists to return office undiluted by coalition.

Voter apathy, ensuring that turnout at general elections has not risen above 70% since 1997, is not just dangerous for the overall goal of democracy, but it results in a skewed advantage for parties which favour the wealthier owing to a marked correlation between financial anxiety and voter inactivity. Constituencies up and down the country with high levels of deprivation, especially in the South and Midlands of England, voted in Conservative MPs whose agenda has precious little to benefit the impoverished. Turnout was lowest in the poorest seats, giving the parties elected there less credibility than they could otherwise deserve. Fortunately, the remedy to this issue is straightforward and at least notionally familiar: compulsory voting.

Compulsory voting would reduce voter apathy both in the practical sense of increasing turnout and the psychological sense of preventing eligible voters from shutting out all political discourse from their lives on the grounds that they simply cannot be bothered to vote or because they have decided spontaneously that “all of them are the same” (comparing David Cameron to Alex Salmond or Dennis Skinner is enough to bust that myth). What it does though is throw them into the deep-end of politics and current affairs along with the rest of the electorate. Opponents to compulsory voting protest that it takes away an individual’s right to not vote, although this is clearly nonsense: plenty of ballot papers are spoilt every election, and the inclusion of a “none of the above” option is always possible. Once in a voting booth with the power of a cross at their fingertips, those who hitherto profess apathy would be given the chance to scrutinise their decision and consider whether it is still truly their position on democracy. Online voting would resolve the issue of unforeseen emergency circumstances that remove a voter from their constituency obstructing their new obligation. The penalty of a fine for evading the vote would further discourage those from less fortunate socio-economic brackets from disengaging on election day.

However, 100% (or thereabouts) turnout means nothing if the voter is incapable of making an informed decision. In fact, it would only serve to amplify that incapability further. Herein lies the more deep-seated and more firmly-rooted problem with the electorate in the UK: it is grossly misinformed, underinformed and difficult to re-inform. Work by the Royal Statistical Society in 2013 revealed the alarming degree to which the perceptions of the British population about issues such as immigration, crime and benefit fraud- some of the most emotive policy areas of the last election- are wrong. It is impossible to accept that voters will choose the policies that are the best for their country and for them as employees, parents, business owners, welfare claimants or any combination of such if the facts, or the opinions of the most qualified experts, are not delivered to them.

Nowhere was this more apparent in the last election than in the debate surrounding Labour’s fiscal legacy and the Conservative-led response to it. Time and again, the Conservatives conflated household microeconomics and nation state macroeconomics despite the fact that the two work very differently. Government debt is perfectly normal and manageable, and it is the kind of private debt encouraged by financial deregulation which voters should be wary of. Despite this, the Tory narrative (and their seemingly logical solution of retrenchment) stuck, and Osborne’s promise in 2010 to see that “like every solvent household in the country, that what we buy, we can afford, that the bills we incur we have the income to meet” sounded remarkably similar to the attack from one voter on Ed Miliband as he compared the government running a deficit to being able to buy a pint even without sufficient money at the end of the week. The Conservative Party managed to triumph with a blatant blurring of the boundaries between two separate economic realms because they employed a concept that related to the average voter’s narrower sphere of reference. Even a Nobel Prize-winning economist was not going to change that.

This illustrates the greatest cause and sticking point of voter misinformation: voters are often unable to grasp the ideas that lie at the most abstract or ‘macro’ end of the spectrum, those which often defy what would seem to be ‘common sense’. Immigrants are causing a net economic loss by straining our public services, people on benefits are lazy and scroungers, making those wealthier at the top will see prosperity for all eventually, poverty for one is rightful gain for another, outlawing drugs is the best way to stop them being an issue. All seem like perfect comprehensible, straightforward ideas and processes that voters can easily grasp at, process within the framework of their experiences and then hold onto in the face of more nuanced and ultimately sensible yet intellectually-heavy counterarguments. Consider long working hours that leave little time and energy for thorough self-information and a lot of motivation for selfish introspection, teachers mercilessly harried by the goal of government targets rather than inspired by the goal of creating critical and aware citizens, and a right-wing press that dominates print and online fora (peddling the same ‘common sense’ as the right-wing politicians) and it is utterly unsurprising that we, as an electorate, especially those of us from less affluent backgrounds, are in this position of severe information deprivation. We are like the decorators of Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: time and again cheated by the system of Edwardian free market economics, yet time and again defending that system whilst looking to our obfuscating newspapers and underhand, untruthful ‘betters’ for guidance.

The challenge of resolving voter misinformation, indeed ignorance, is far more difficult, especially when people begin to fall into the trap of equating the equality of each vote to the equality of the opinion of each voter. A politician cannot simply stand up and tell millions of people that they are probably wrong about most things, that they have either been duped or are frankly unable to properly understand the truth. Nor is the quixotic idea of introduce eligibility tests that are grounded in political, social and economic awareness advisable, as the better off who are bound to be- generally- better educated (if not necessarily more socially concerned) would at first dominate the electoral register in a way unseen since 1867. However, fighting for the expansion of the BBC as the only outlet capable to disseminating impartial reporting on a wide-ranging scale and  supporting the break-up of media empires, which are monolithic in their editorial stances and often underpinned by big business, would be a start. It is unsurprising that the current government is against either of those propositions. The inclusion of a proper ‘citizen education’ in  the state school curriculum that goes beyond the effects of smoking and how to write a CV and instead touches upon elections, economics and abstract reasoning would also be welcome. Combine these with a renewed engagement in politics resulting from the establishment of PR and compulsory voting, and maybe this nation will get closer to the goal of a better democracy founded on better voters.

We as a country lay claim to the “Mother of All Parliaments”, yet we as a country have an appalling record of sending those who have our best interests and the best idea of how to benefit the people as a whole to represent us within it. We need to break the myth that the voter is sacred and everything around him or her is broken, and instead recognise that the solution to policies that cheat us and politicians that lie to us does not principally lie anywhere else but within us.

Can We All Calm Down About the ‘War on Religion’?

Don't worry: he's not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.
Don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.

Today, I had the experience of reading a hysterical and hyperbolic article in the right-wing press. It was an experience which I deem unsurprising, but still worthy of exploring, because it highlighted one of the most absurd ideas in circulation amongst the more conservative members of the Western world: the ‘war on religion’.

The article, a piece by Cristina Odone in the Daily Telegraph, chillingly proclaimed that “Europe is becoming a no God zone”, presumably playing on the recent obsession of similarly right-wing pundits with the alleged ‘no-go zones’ of Europe, where Islam has apparently pushed out all forms of liberal civilisation. In the wake of a tragic attack on a Kosher store in Paris, the main argument was that secularist governments would be more at ease with advising the religious to practise in secret, unable to guarantee the safety of adherents of one faith from extremists in another. Then a comment was thrown in about the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last summer at the end, and how that had convinced teachers that it is better to ignore religion as a subject in its entirety than to educate their classes anything about it. The overall sentiment was that religion would soon be swept off the streets of Europe in an attempt to maintain public order.

I wonder if Cristina Odone, for all her journalistic pretensions, has dared switch the news on in the last couple of days, when the Prime Minister of her own country, and leader of the party her newspaper supports, declared himself publicly to be a Christian who is, understandably, unsettled when Christian images are mocked. She laments that Charlie Hebdo refused to approve of the tolling of the bells of Notre Dame de Paris in memory of its murdered satirists, but what would she expect from a radical-left French publication that is daring to defy its religious assailants in the edition it released today? Sudden deference to the Roman Catholic Church?

In reality, barely anyone is suggesting that the answer to the current problems with religious extremism is to push all religions underground or for the faithful to drop their convictions in a flash. Odone my decry Salman Rushdie’s position on the matter, but you can hardly berate a man who has had a fatwa declared against him for his opinion that religion is a “mediaeval form of reason”. If I woke up tomorrow to find that the Archbishop of Canterbury was assembling a crusade to purge the world of Philip Pullman, then I might wish to reconsider my own Anglican sympathies.

And why would governments fear a crisis of public order if differing religious sects were to continue to worship openly? Nearly everyone of a religious disposition in the West, despite their occasional eccentricity and predilection for somewhat archaic values, is law-abiding and ultimately secular in the sense that they peaceably accept that there are people of other beliefs around them. They may think they’re wrong or all going to suffer eternity in the inferno, but that does not provoke them to go on a criminal rampage with a Kalashnikov. In fact, the reason why anyone did that in the first place may not have much to do with religion at all, but instead with frustration with the socio-economic plight of many Muslims as a cultural group in France, a frustration easily hijacked by radicalism.

Of course, Odone, hailing from the right-wing, cannot bear to face the idea that the answer may be state intervention of a fiscal nature. No, instead she wants to see the police and army posted outside Jewish schools to prevent anti-Semitic attacks. Because that will help to prevent Muslims feeling even more victimised and mistrusted by the state. Perhaps we could ask our American cousins how the widespread employment of firearms has helped to solve their problems with criminal violence? The fact that a large proportion of the Jewish peoples of the Western world feel threatened is an obvious concern and one that should be addressed, but not by something so reactionary and inflammatory as offering them militarised protection. In fairness to Odone, she does also fly the flag for religious education in schools in order to fight ignorance. Not that it is a particularly threatened subject in the UK, especially with a government that sent a copy of the King James Bible to every school in 2011, but I’m neither churlish nor ideological enough to deny her credit for that.

There is no war against religion. Most people who personally have no heavenly inclination accept it as something to be tolerated, even supported in the name of freedom of expression. Furthermore, even governments are intelligent (or electorally aware) enough to understand the ramifications of suppressing religious expression or defending the expression of one particular one with state resources. Of course, where Odone may be getting all confused is the difference between governments which are not as explicitly theocratic as they once were (back when blasphemy was a crime and non-Anglicans were barred from Oxbridge) and governments which see religion as politically unimportant. Or maybe she was just trying to find a useful way to plug her ebook on a similar topic, which she mentioned in her article…

The article can be read here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11344228/Europe-is-becoming-a-no-God-zone.html

Is There An Al-Qaeda Cell in Fleet Street?

You have to hand it to Al-Qaeda for their ingenuity. Here is an organisation that, with violence attributed to religious fundamentalism, perverts the beliefs of a minority that has only recently settled in substantial numbers in Europe. A minority which is law-abiding, following a religion that, although founded on a holy book with exclusivist and fanatical passages (a bit like, you know, the Bible), compels the vast majority of its members to act honourably and peaceably. How was this comparatively tiny cell of bloodthirsty individuals supposed to recruit more members in the infidel West, when most of them have realised that tolerating, or even adopting, Western values can lead to economic prosperity, freedom of thought and streets safe beyond the wildest dreams of those living in Mosul or Peshawar? The task, after all, only becomes more difficult as time progresses, as the next generation of European Muslims are born and mix with peers hailing from all manner of social, racial and religious backgrounds, increasingly becoming more accepting of those that the Islamist agenda despises.

The way to reverse this trend, to swell the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the like and therefore protract this bloodshed, is to convince those of the moderate wing of their belief system that the Westerner, whom they probably have considered up until now their potential ally, is actually their diehard enemy. To assert that, behind all the primary school trips to mosques to ‘promote understanding’ and community projects run by people who wear sandals that aim to ‘forge links’ with them, there are millions more Westerners who would be much happier were Islam not to exist in their countries and who are reluctant to start any sort of dialogue with its followers whatsoever. Who are so suspicious of them on sight that, were one Muslim carrying their belongings in a rucksack to board a train on the London Underground , they would be prepared to evacuate to a different train carriage. Or train.

Sow fear of Muslims into the rest of the population, and soon the population begins to avoid them. Then it begins to protest against their presence. Then it begins to deny them any scope for integration into the West. Then it begins to advocate their wholesale deportation. Then it begins to attack them. Then it seems like Al-Qaeda were right all along, and the state of war between Islam and the West which they have proclaimed all along does actually exist, despite the primary school teachers and people wearing sandals.

And so, it was with strategic brilliance that this small band of murderous fanatics, hell-bent on promoting this narrative of war, infiltrated the British press. Following a deplorable, repulsive attack on some satirical cartoonists in Paris- an attack vicious enough to catch the whole of the UK’s attention- they, with their moles in some of the biggest names in print journalism in this country, began churning out headlines to convince everyone that this was it. This is was the moment to panic, to look out for the silent enemy who had the potential to look like, well, just about any Muslim out there, however tolerant, mellow and liberal they might actually be. “Al-Qaeda Plotting UK Attack” hollered the Daily Telegraph today. “WE COULD BE NEXT TARGET” screamed the Daily Mail, Britain’s second best-selling newspaper. “M15 BOSS: BRITAIN IS A TARGET” lamented the Daily Mirror.

Of course, Al-Qaeda have not actually wormed their way into the editorial and printing staff of the British press. There isn’t someone with a fake CV and good luck card from Ayman al-Zawahiri on their way to Wapping, hearing that quite a few senior vacancies have opened up there as of late. But you would be forgiven for thinking these newspapers were at least somewhat in the pocket of such a terrorist organisation, given that they have been responding in exactly the best way possible that any terrorist organisation could hope. By generating terror.

And, furthermore, by generating terror by stating what is the bleeding obvious and has been for years. The UK is a Western nation that has been meddling in the Middle East for over a century, throwing itself into places like Iraq at the behest of its arch-ally, the United States. It is an advocate, explicit or otherwise, of the secularisation of the Islamic republics and an historic supporter of the Israeli state. Of course it’s a target for a group like Al Qaeda. And, given that Al-Qaeda is an active, international group, they probably are plotting an attack on us. Just because another Western state with its own tensions with Islam, especially of the conservative variety, has been struck, the repetition of these patent facts is by no means merited. It is barely relevant that these newspapers take a more measured tone within their pages when most of us are influenced by the bold, sweeping headlines on the front that flash past us as we go about our daily business.

I am certainly not advocating the censorship of British journalism in order that this kind of ridiculous scare-mongering may be stopped. That would be absurdly hypocritical, especially in the current circumstances. What I am at least suggesting is that if these publications really are supporters of a victory for the UK and its values, then they should ditch the drive for profit through shock. They should be advising its readers and the public overall to trust in our security services (which, having dealt with the IRA for decades, are exemplary in sussing out terrorist threats), instead of provoking them into electing themselves members of some weird Home Guard-cum-John Birch Society. The British public should be being encouraged to defend ‘Western values’ not by hysterically going about trying to root out the threats- although clearly suspicious activity should be reported- but by being brave and calmly extending the hand of friendship to those who could otherwise be persuaded into joining the other side.