Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Toxic Spread of Authoritarian Intimidation

Authoritarian regimes want to dictate to people what they should fear and what they are to ignore. They do not care about evidence, just what is likely to suit their own ambitions to retain power. And they will use every means at their disposal to intimidate people to go along with their version of events. The tragic death of Dr. Li Wenliang in China from the new coronavirus is a vivid illustration of such intimidation.

Dr. Li was one of the first to suspect the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus and warned of the need to prepare for it. But this was deemed a threat to maintaining submissive compliance, and the police arrested him and forced him to sign a confession that he had spread false rumours about a dangerous virus. In the absence of concerted efforts to contain the virus, the disease spread and claimed Dr. Li as one of its many victims. Before long, we have a global crisis.

Like the harmful coronavirus, authoritarian intimidation has spread across the world, and unless action is taken against it, it will ruin an ever-greater number of lives.

While environmental awareness rose steadily through the 1990s into the dawn of the 21st century, authoritarian politicians have more recently become emboldened in denying the impact of activities that damage the environment, and promoting the silencing of those who dare to speak out. Between 2002 and 2017, the number of environmental activists murdered had doubled to 1,558 people (in 50 different countries). Nearly all of them took place where the ruling regimes were assessed by international standards to be amongst the worst performers in terms of corruption, human rights violation, and lack of legal oversight (many were to be found in Central and South America). Conviction rates of those charged with committing these murders were just 10% (compared with an average of 43% for all global homicides). [Note 1]

Intimidation against critics and whistleblowers is becoming the norm, not just in China, Russia, and the many other authoritarian regimes around the world, but even in countries purporting to support democracy and the rule of law.

In the UK, the majority of the media backs the Right, and collaboration has meant that journalists who do not give the government favourable coverage are denied access to ‘special’ meetings; while those who are ‘on side’ can be counted on to deter critics of the ruling regime from coming forward by threatening to dig up or fabricate negative stories about them. As for independent bodies that might hold the government to account, Conservatives have made it quite clear that they have no qualms about curtailing the resources and power of the likes of the BBC, the Equality & Human Rights Commission, or the courts when it comes to carrying out judicial reviews.

In the US, Trump and his die-hard Republican supporters in Congress have made authoritarian intimidation a routine practice. With control over the Senate and through it, a guaranteed majority voice on the Supreme Court, the Trump administration can break rules at will. Any official prepared to speak up about the regime’s wrongdoing is summarily dismissed, and systemically smeared by the well-financed propaganda machine. By contrast, people with no relevant qualification whatsoever, but unwavering loyalty to the leader in the White House, are given powerful positions to help silence dissent.

Many people in the US and the UK may still shrug at the intimidatory actions of those with power. But if the intensification of authoritarian controls is not widely opposed and reversed, the oldest democracies may soon become the newest members of the club of autocratic nations.

Note 1: See The Guardian:

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Brexit Blues

Stop all the clocks, turn off your mobile phone,
Don’t let the damn thing ring out with a cheery tone,
Silence the TVs and with muffled drum
Bring out the ashes, let the mourners come.

What have we now but crumbs of bread;
All around us the same message, 'Hope is Dead'.
Hatred and fear have triumphed over precious love,
Lunacy and chaos working hand in glove.

What now our North, our South, our East and West?
Our working week and our Sunday rest?
Our noon, our midnight, our police, our NHS?
No respite is coming, just endless stress.

Their lies are upon us now; conning every one,
So shun the Mail and discard the Sun,
A sad fate awaits each and every neighbourhood;
& nothing now can ever come to any good.

Adapted in sorrow from W. H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Smokescreen called ‘Politically Motivated’

Are we not getting tired of politicians shamelessly shielding their repeated wrong-doing by rejecting any criticism of them as ‘politically motivated’? When the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are found to have lied about sexual liaison, making up stories about their opponents, covering up policy failures, or putting their personal interests above their public duties, they and their allies trot out the same old line – this is all politically motivated. And that is supposed to be the end of that.

But let’s pause and think …

[A] Is there anything wrong inherently with being politically motivated – if what that means is that one’s actions are motivated by political objectives? Surely, it’s hardly surprising that politicians are often driven by political aims, and though some of these aims may be questionable, others could be quite appropriate or indeed noble in serving the wellbeing of society. Compare the notion of ‘religiously motivated’ – must it be bad if someone criticised an organisation out of a religious motive? It depends on what the criticism is directed at – is it simply because the organisation is being kind and welcoming towards people of all faiths, or because it is worshiping Mammon in its constant celebration of greed?

[B] Even if in a particular case, the political motivation has more to do with causing problem for an opponent than anything else, one still has to look at the facts of the case. If someone has committed serious fraud, or ordered a murder, it does not matter what is motivating the exposé, the crime should be brought to light. Authoritarian-minded political leaders, not unlike crime bosses, will readily accuse others of seeking to tarnish their ‘good’ name, but if the charge in question is correct, then they deserve to be punished. Deflection about motives should never get in the way of holding wrongdoers to account.

[C] Of course, ‘politically motivated’ may be used interchangeably with ‘biased on partisan grounds’. For example, if one is going to take action to hurt the other party when one would not otherwise do anything similar towards one’s own side in similar circumstances. No one is keener on dismissing criticisms as ‘politically motivated’ than the Republican Party in the US. They should know. They channelled energy and resources in their attempt to impeach President Clinton over his lying about his sexual affair. But when Trump has been found to lie about his sexual affairs, cover up his financial dealings from public scrutiny, make money through his public office, side with Russia in dismissing the US’s own national security experts’ analyses, and pressurising a foreign government to help him discredit his potential rival in the 2020 presidential election, the Republicans rally to Trump’s defence by saying the move to impeach him was unfounded simply because it was ‘politically motivated’. In the sense of ‘biased on partisan grounds’, it would be appropriate to dismiss Republican posturing as ‘politically motivated’ and irrelevant.

[D] One final point: there are cases where the charge might be accurate, yet it serves no real public interest other than to harm the reputation of someone, embarrass them, or ruin their career. For example, a politician who has a long track record of serving the public dutifully is found to have behaved badly when much younger – e.g., committed some acts of vandalism. If it has no real bearing on the person’s character and behaviour now, dredging something that happened thirty odd years ago in an attempt to put the person off from running for a higher office could be rightly dismissed as ‘politically motivated’, but only because in such a case the motive is not one worthy of endorsement, and the censure sought has no public value.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

The Path of Thoughtfulness

When lies, hatred, and anger seem to be shutting down the voices of reason everywhere, it is tempting to surrender to the cult of irrationality. One can slip into thinking there is no scope for distinguishing truth from falsehood anymore. The politicians who perpetrate deception on an unprecedented scale have not been isolated as charlatans, but like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have managed to create an atmosphere wherein evidence and expertise are readily discarded, and beliefs are secured by those most adept at manipulation.

But all the more we must strive to stay on the path of thoughtfulness, and make important choices with mutual respect and objective understanding. Plutocrats and fundamentalists alike want to stop schools teaching anything other than what they favour – money-making skills, readiness to serve the rich, or unwavering acceptance of groundless doctrines and denunciation of anyone not sharing their ‘faith’. With no sense of irony, they insist that anything else would be indoctrination. Brazenly, they intimidate teachers from inculcating open-mindedness, and condemn anyone daring to counter the real prejudices being advanced in society.

We must not give in to them. Resistance against subjugation, deceit, and atrophy is fuelled by thoughtful exploration of what we, in cooperation with others, should come to believe and pursue. Instead of closing our mind to every option except for what the manipulators and dogmatists want us to accept without question, we need to cultivate three related forms of thoughtfulness in discerning what should be the way forward.

First, everyone should learn to develop empathic thoughtfulness and recognise our mutual responsibility. Our actions can impact on each other, and just as we would not want others to behave thoughtlessly with no regard for the consequences on us, we should be mindful of how our attitudes and actions may affect others. Ideologues and fundamentalists tell their followers to wilfully disregard the feelings of others; they thereby cut themselves off from any reciprocal consideration that would otherwise be extended to them.

Secondly, all should advance in cognitive thoughtfulness and acquire the capability for cooperative enquiry. Over centuries, human beings have come to realise that the only viable alternative to arbitrary beliefs is sustained objective examination with a free flow of evidence and analyses between people. Only when we facilitate hypotheses-making, careful observations, experimentation, and informed revisions, without repression or groundless dismissal, can we at any given time, reach a reasoned consensus on what warrants belief.

Thirdly, we should foster our volitional thoughtfulness and ensure that decisions made on behalf of others should in line with the democratic ethos of citizen participation involve others appropriately. In a moment of rashness or when swayed by misguided confidence, we may give the go-ahead to a policy or a process without having sounded out others who will be affected. We would not want anyone to get away with deciding what is to happen to us regardless of our informed assessment of the options; we should equally be vigilant against allowing ourselves to impose our unilateral decisions on others.

While there are undoubtedly other skills and dispositions that should be taught, they will all need to be underpinned by the capability for thoughtfulness. Educators should not hesitate in prioritising the emotional and intellectual development outlined above. The further we deviate from this path, the closer we are to wandering off to a thoughtless existence.

For more details, see ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Lessons for Democrats

As the Democrats in the US are still trying to decide who they should back to run against Trump in 2020, they may want to take note of what has just happened in the UK. In short, a very unpopular leader of the country, viewed by many as an inveterate liar, notorious womaniser, with no compunction about insulting minorities, possessing a dreadful record in public policy failures, unconcerned with conflicts of interests, has just achieved a substantial electoral victory against his opponent.

Yes, after a decade of ruinous right-wing Conservative rule, the UK had handed Boris Johnson’s Party a solid majority in the House of Commons – not because Johnson had been much more effective in winning over the support of voters than his predecessor [he secured 43.6% of votes cast compared with Theresa May who obtained 42.4%], but because his challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, alienated so many people that the Labour Party ended up losing seats it had previously held for decades. UK commentators are busy pointing out the reasons for this, but there are four lessons that are particularly relevant for anyone wanting to get Trump voted out in 2020.

First, personal popularity is important. However unpopular the incumbent is, if the challenger is even more unpopular with the public, the latter will lose. There is no point in fielding some ideologically ‘ideal’ or establishment-friendly candidate, if that person is unable to get people to like her/him. Crucially, if successive opinion polls find someone less popular than the unpopular incumbent, take that as a big warning sign.

Secondly, policies matter if they register. Labour put forward many policies that would have helped people, old and young, get better support where that is needed. Perception of affordability is not actually a problem since the Tories have been throwing money over Brexit and those who want Brexit just shrug. If people want something, they believe it will be affordable in the long run. The problem is having too many policies that they barely register with voters. Instead of getting voters to connect with one or two major policy offers, Labour’s proliferation of policy proposals became a blur.

Thirdly, you need a clear and memorable message. Johnson ran with ‘Get Brexit Done’ and that rallied enough people to back him. Recent polls have shown that most people are not keen on Brexit, but Corbyn’s message was that he would negotiate a different Brexit deal, hold a referendum, and he would neither back that deal nor support ‘remain’ in the referendum. Aside from the Brexit fudge, he did not come up with one core message that resonated with people to rally them to back him.

Finally, you must build alliances rather than split potential support into antagonistic factions. The anti-Tory parties – Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens – achieved a higher share of the votes than the Conservative Party, but they were split, and under a first-past-the-post system (which prevails in the US too), that let the Tories in. Despite requests from others, Labour refused to form tactical alliances, and seats they and another anti-Conservative party might have won ended up with the Tories. If factions within the Democrats continue to attack candidates other than their own and breed long term resentment that deprives the eventual nominee from getting all the support of Democrats, that would only benefit Trump.

To beat Trump in 2020, Democrats should therefore bear this in mind. You may not like the way people think, but you need someone who is: more popular (or certainly not more unpopular) than Trump in the public mind; have two or three major policy offers that would resonate with the majority of people and not get bogged down with generating countless policy proposals; can articulate a clear and strong message that people can readily relate to (having a decently paid job would be high on that list); and able to bring factions together instead of alienating them. Make those your selection criteria.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Remember, Remember, Vote Them Out in December: here's a 10-point reminder

After a decade of enduring ever-worsening damages from Tory rule, what should we say to fellow citizens who are still wondering if they might give another chance to a Con-led (Farage-backed) Government to help the superrich become more powerful and heap misery on everyone else? Here are 10 things to remind them of:

[1] Remember they imposed austerity on the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, while giving tax cuts to the richest. For all their pretence that it would help to revive the economy, they only made things worse because of their wastefulness over ill-conceived projects, and the inevitable weakening of consumer demands through greater job insecurity.

[2] Remember they actually couldn’t care less about social or economic stability for our country, as revealed by their willingness to run a risky referendum on our EU membership when the process was infested with lies and corrupted by illegal campaigning, resulting in endless political in-fighting and business chaos that are deeply damaging for everyone.

[3] Remember they don’t even bother to make any claim about adhering to ‘sound financial management’ anymore. They are breaking their own borrowing targets; they have squandered billions over ‘no deal planning’ for the sake of a futile bluff (when business leaders have repeatedly said that the so-called ‘planning’ would do nothing to mitigate a ‘no deal’ Brexit disaster); and they won’t say how much their a-new-pledge-a-day is likely to cost.

[4] Remember how they keep making promises about ending the severe underfunding of public services, but never deliver any new money in practice. NHS is starved of the necessary investment, and forced to make ‘efficiency savings’ which are then handed over to the Treasury for tax cuts for the rich. Under the last Labour government, satisfaction with the NHS reached an all-time high; under the Tories, it has plummeted to an all-time low.

[5] Remember the disdain with which they hold people, especially those who find themselves in dire circumstances. Victims of the Grenfell fire were blamed for their lack of common sense, while there was no mention of drastic cuts to the fire service under Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London. Homelessness has continued to get worse. The sick and disabled were told they were fit for work and had their benefits cut off, leaving them to starve, and some to commit suicide.

[6] Remember how since they won power in 2010 they have cut funding to local authorities by 50%, directly causing the crippling deterioration of services in support of social care, child protection, libraries, education, street cleansing, and countless other functions on which all but the wealthy elite rely.

[7] Remember how the fall in crime under the last Labour government has under the Tories been replaced by cuts in police numbers and a relentless rise in crime. Violent crime is increasing at an alarming rate; prison numbers and conditions are worsening; and the move to privatise probation services has proven to be a costly disaster.

[8] Remember whatever lip service they might pay to tackling the climate crisis, the Tories always put the interests of their fossil fuel donors first. They have cut support for renewable energy, and pushed forward with fracking even though 99.99% of respondents to a government consultation opposed it.

[9] Remember they have been at the forefront of stirring up anti-immigrant sentiments, despising multiculturalism, and instigating the ill treatment and deportation of legitimate migrants from the Windrush generation to more recent EU citizens in Britain. Alongside the sharp rise in hate crime, desperately needed workers from abroad – nurses, doctors, carers, scientists, etc. – are officiously prevented from coming here.

[10] Last but not least, remember the financial deregulation idolised by the Conservatives and pushed through by Thatcher to allow banks and building societies to lend out previously ring-fenced savers’ money without any due constraint? The deregulated lending led to the 2008 financial crash, jeopardised savers’ money, and bailouts for careless lenders. But the Tories have remained unrepentant and refused to rectify the deregulatory flaws. Without effective regulation, another crisis will hit us all again.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Question Boris Johnson: an election special

[If we are to have an interview with Boris Johnson that will bring up the many examples pertaining to his suitability for public office, this is how it will go…]

Q: A lot of people are asking why anyone should vote for your party when that could lead to you having a majority in the Commons to push through policies that are highly damaging for this country?

BJ: Balderdash! Nothing I’ve done or will do can ever be described as ‘damaging for this country’. My entire career is devoted to serving the public, and that’s the God’s honest truth.

Q: The truth? Isn’t that something you actually find rather difficult to handle? As a journalist, you were fired by The Times for making things up; as the Brussels Correspondent of the Telegraph, you repeatedly fabricated stories about what the European Commission was doing; and you were sacked from your job as shadow arts minister by your leader on the grounds that you had lied about an extra-marital affair.

BJ: Total piffles! I tell the truth on what matters. Everybody knows that.

Q: You mean like the people of Liverpool who lost loved ones at the Hillsborough disaster, and then found out that you, as Editor of The Spectator, falsely accused the victims as drunks who brought it on themselves; or the campaigners against the third runway at Heathrow who were given a solemn pledge from you to stand with them, but only until it suited your personal ambition to drop your opposition to the runway; or your old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, who knew you well and remarked that “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade.”

BJ: It’s obvious we’re not going to agree about everything. But as a political leader, I deliver. Look at my record as London Mayor, the achievements speak for themselves.

Q: Are you referring to achievements such as closing 10 fire stations and removing 27 fire engines after promising you would do no such thing; declaring that you would eradicate rough sleeping in London by 2012 when during your term of office it actually doubled; telling people there would continue to be manned ticket offices at every tube station before you went on to close all of London's ticket offices; ignoring advice when you insisted on acquiring three water cannon vehicles, which were immediately banned by the Home Office from being used in London and ended up being sold for scrap; or wasting £53million of public funds over the ill-conceived Thames garden bridge project?

BJ: For heaven’s sake, try looking at the big picture. What’s most important for our country is Brexit, and I’m the only one capable of delivering it, because I believe in it and I would rather die in a ditch than let it slip.

Q: What exactly is it that you believe in relation to the European Union? In 2012, you said on the BBC Andrew Marr Show, ″it’s very simple – what most people in this country want is the Single Market, the Common Market.” You pointed out that even if we left the EU, “We’d still have huge numbers of staff trying to monitor what was going on in the Community, only we wouldn’t be able to sit in the Council of Ministers, we wouldn’t have any vote at all. Now I don’t think that’s a prospect that’s likely to appeal.” And you explained further in an article for the Daily Telegraph, “most of our problems are not caused by ‘Brussels’, but by chronic British short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and underinvestment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure.”

BJ: It’s a free country, one can change one’s mind.

Q: So what changed yours? Could it be that when David Cameron put his political career on the line by backing Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, you thought that was your chance to become the favourite to succeed him with the Conservative Party becoming increasingly anti-EU, so you switched to backing Leave?

BJ: Absolutely not. It’s purely a matter of principle. Brexit is the correct path to take.

Q: And that is why you’re so incensed with MPs blocking it?

BJ: Of course. We must leave the EU. The moment we have agreed a way for our departure, we must take it, instead of coming up with pathetic excuses to vote it down.

Q: Yet when Theresa May agreed a way for Brexit, you voted it down. You blocked Brexit, because it helped to undermine her, force her to step down, and give you the chance to become the leader of the Tory Party, and by a quirk of procedures, Prime Minister of this country.

BJ: What utter nonsense! Theresa May’s deal was bad for the country. My deal is good for the country.

Q: But you don’t want Parliament to scrutinise it, and you don’t want to give the British people a ‘Final Say’ referendum to consider if on these terms it’d be better to leave or remain after all.

BJ: We must honour the 2016 referendum result.

Q: But as you said, it’s a free country, people can change their minds. It’s over three years since the 2016 referendum, and with far more details coming out now, shouldn’t people have a chance to reconsider?

BJ: Let me tell you something. When it comes to the most vital issues, you must leave it to the person at the top to make the ultimate decision. Why waste any more time when it can all be left to me to look after the interests of our country? There’s no conceivable reason why anyone should doubt my sincerity, my judgement, and my integrity. Trust me on this. I don’t lie.

Q: That just about sums it up.

Note: the dramatised interview above is based on information supplied in the articles to be found in the links below:
(Boris Johnson on why leaving the EU won’t solve the UK’s problems.)
(Max Hastings, former editor of the Telegraph, on Boris Johnson; succinctly summing him up as someone who “cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification”)
(On Boris Johnson’s record on telling lies)
(Boris Johnson on people wanting to stay in the Single Market)
(More on Boris Johnson’s lies and false promises)
(Boris Johnson wasting £53million of public money on Thames garden bridge.)
(Boris Johnson presiding over the closure of fire stations and removal of fire engines)
(Boris Johnson’s U-turn on Heathrow’s third runway).