“What About Fallujah?”

Originally posted here.

What do you have to say about Fallujah, let’s talk about Fallujah, what do you have to say about Fallujah? Since you care so much on the Left… What have we done in Fallujah Nick? WHAT HAVE WE DONE? Have you even bothered to find out?

Yasmin Alibhai Brown

When they say ‘Fallujah’ they refer to the Second Battle of Fallujah from Nov/Dec 2004. For commentators with an engrained anti-American perspective it is almost impossible to write about any combat, anywhere, without name checking Fallujah. Usually it comes in handy as whataboutary, ‘you think X are bad guys? Yeah? Well what about Fallujah?’. For them it proves we are no better than our enemies, it proves what the Coalition did in Iraq was evil, it is the unarguable catchall to show just how sick we are as people and how sophisticated in their self-criticism those that deploy it are.

A classic of this type can be seen in this show (04:00-04:30) with Nick Cohen cross-examined by Yasmin Alibhai Brown and Iain Dale. Although in this, like the Douglas Murray one, Dale generally sits back and laughs while Alibhai Brown is humiliated. It really is worth watching in full just for giggles. For now though watch the specified section and examine the moral outrage. The word ‘Fallujah’ is nothing less than an accusation to be spat at people, you can positively feel the indignant anger.

To further demonstrate the contempt many have for the actions in Fallujah you can look to its common inclusion in a list, such as: ‘what about Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Fallujah?’ These lists come out in people’s comments daily. There are countless examples, try googling the three together and you’ll see.

It is in strange company there as both of the other two were out of policy. The abuses in Abu Grahib were indeed disgusting, though barely comparable to the systematic barbarism Saddam’s goons undertook as official policy there. However, they were admitted as wrong and 11 of the perpetrators were convicted. Everyone’s favourite villain Donald Rumsfeld said of the scandal:

They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong.

To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.

The killings at Haditha were also out of policy. It could certainly be said that the legal follow up was not to a standard one would hope for, but illegal killings by soldiers are notoriously hard to prove. The action was however condemned and very much appears to be an exception.
With these two incidences, does one chose to claim them as an indictment of officially malign U.S. policy and morality or does one use it to show that such behaviour is not the norm, not the intention and not condoned? When making a moral comparison is it not strange to compare an action by the U.S. but condemned by the U.S. with an action by the enemy which is in policy and actively encouraged? I say it is and yet it so often occurs.

So why is Fallujah included? What is it about this three syllable word that has transformed it into a four letter one? Beyond the fact that a U.S. led coalition were victorious in the battle? It is very hard to ascertain as it is rarely spelt out by those that use it. The word has just seemed to pass without fight or enquiry into the debit column in the ledger of morality. But surely something terrible must have happened for it to be casually included in lists of criminal atrocities? If there was something I am yet to find out what it is.

I suggest a mistake has been made by the people unwilling to contradict those that use it, so that it has now been commonly and unthinkingly accepted as a stain on the record of the Allies. Even in that Nick Cohen exchange he readily concedes that it is legitimate to say ‘a plague on all your houses’ regarding it. Fallujah is asserted as a wrong and very little counter argument is ever provided. It seems to be accepted with a shrug that says ‘you might be onto something there but look at the wider picture…” This is a mistake and it will take some effort to restore some sanity regarding it.

We can take for granted that those who use Fallujah as a pejorative were against the invasion of Iraq. Fine. Accepting however that the invasion occurred and once it had there was a responsibility to try and do the best possible by Iraq, the first question is ‘should anything have been done in Fallujah at all?’

Before the Second Battle, Fallujah’s defences had been handed over, on request by the Iraqi government, to local Iraqi forces. In the proceeding months they had utterly failed in their task and according to U.S. intelligence a takfiri gang, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had taken de facto control of the city. His forces numbered up to 5,000 (probably closer to 3,000-4,000) and were mostly foreign fighters. This group was the direct predecessor of ISIS.

Their control of the region was not only to be considered a current and increasing disaster for the inhabitants but it was also beginning to be the home base for wider Islamist and Baathist disruptions. I posit that to leave these people in place would not only be immoral but tactically insane. After taking the city Coalition troops found torture rooms, IED factories and a calendar for video beheadings. Both the inhabitants of the city of Fallujah and the new Iraq as a whole required their removal if there was to be any chance at all at a better future. Unless you disagree with this the requirement for action to rid the city of this force is overwhelming.

As I am yet to hear any serious argument that when confronted with the situation as it was at the end of 2004 Fallujah should have been left to rot, we can begin to look at what actually happened.

Indulge me in a thought experiment:

Imagine a city with up to 300,000 civilian inhabitants. Inside there are un-uniformed enemy fighters that need to be removed but are hard to distinguish from the civilian population. They have had substantial preparation time and have set up IEDs and ambush points on all routes into the city.

Now imagine you control a military force with almost unimaginable might. You are charged with removing the enemy force inside. You have it within your power to obliterate the entire city without losing any of your own forces and the costs will amount to little more than jet fuel and bombs.

I suggest in this scenario the number of civilian deaths incurred says a great deal about your morality as a leader and as a society. Let us try and estimate a number for them.

Try these:

1: You’re Gengis Kahn in this scenario. I would suggest the civilian deaths would number fairly close to 300,000. Perhaps some will be allowed to live for slavery and rape purposes. Sound reasonable?

2: You’re of the moral level of ISIS. About the same.

3: You’re an Assad Jr. or a Saddam. You’d kill as many as necessary and probably a few more and you’d surely use poisoned gas and barrel bombs no? Assad Senior was faced with a similar number of Islamist combatants in a city with a similar population in Hama in 1982. He managed to kill between 20-40,000 civilians. In his own country.

4: You’re a modern Russian. Perhaps the best comparison is the Battle of Grozny. There the Russians faced a similar problem with similar numbers. But the numbers of civilians dead was never reliably counted and the corpses merely stuffed into anonymous, mass graves. It was certainly in the thousands, most probably in the 10s of 1000s. How would they have fared in a totally foreign, Arab city?

5: You’re part of an evil corporate American empire that simply doesn’t care about Iraqi lives at all and are comparable in morality to others mentioned but have to make some effort for the cameras. What, 10,000 dead? Minimum?

Well, according to the Red Cross, who I have no reason to suspect are good friends of Dick Cheney and George Bush, 800 civilians died. And it is by no means clear that all were killed by the allies. 800 out of 300,000. 1,500 insurgents were captured and 1,200 – 1,500 were killed.

800 civilian deaths is 800 we can wish had not occurred. 800 deaths is though, by many orders of magnitude, a smaller number than if the equivalent action had been taken by our enemies or more tellingly by the moral actors the apologists and anti-Americans pretend exist in the U.S. Still the question, ‘how many fewer could it still have been?’, should be asked.  I suggest not very many. Not realistically, not without massively increased risk to allied forces and not when compared to any other combat of similar nature. I contend this is a remarkably low figure.

The allies surrounded the city and painstakingly passed through their lines up to 90% of the entire population. Thus leaving perhaps 30,000 in pockets in the city. The insurgents knowing that civilians were good cover for them (it seems the insurgents had a higher understanding of their enemy’s care for civilians than the moral equivalence monkeys do), prevented as many leaving as they could. It was only after this was complete that the U.S. Marines began systematically moving through the city at great risk to themselves. In total the Coalition forces lost 107 killed and over 650 wounded. Overwhelmingly from the U.S.M.C.

A colleague of mine told me of a lecture he attended when in the British Army, given by a WW2 veteran on the subject of fighting through Western Europe. The veteran spoke of the orders to protect civilian housing and of the restraint they were ordered to show. He said however, that no matter who you are, when you lose a good friend the previous day going house to house, the urge to ignore the orders, sit back at a distance and shell and machine gun the target building to the ground is overwhelming. I mention this to suggest the coordinated, controlled and relatively restrained actions of the U.S. Marines go against every sensible instinct of self-protection and speaks to an enormous degree of professionalism. Professionalism in this case being the reflection of Coalition command’s intention to do the least damage practical and to show the highest care and attention to civilian lives.

Combat is ugly and messy. The results rarely perfect. Once such a grim undertaking as clearing Fallujah of insurgents is deemed necessary it must be judged on its merits, with relevant comparisons to relevant examples. It can’t be judged against a bland pacifism or with no counter-factual beyond an assumption of zero deaths. Sam Harris’ ‘perfect weapon‘ thought experiment is important here and worth the read. Yes 800 civilian deaths is 800 deaths but if the perfect weapon existed the number would have been zero. Do you think we could say the same if those that we are compared to undertook the mission?

A note on chemical weapons:

The example of Fallujah is oft heard in comparisons of illegal warfare with specific reference given to chemical weapons. This week it was mentioned in a very confused piece by Owen Jones where he wrote:

But the Assad regime does not flaunt its cruelty. It does not make videos with Hollywood effects – slo-mo, closeups, haunting music, the aftermath in high definition. Instead, it adopts the same regretful tone of western powers, like when the US dropped flesh-burning white phosphorus over Falluja. We regret any civilian casualties (or “collateral damage”, as the west prefers). We do not target civilians, unlike our opponents – and so on. The scale of death may be far greater, but the claimed intentions are different: unlike our opponents, we do not aim to kill civilians, they say, so we retain our moral superiority.

I think he is being sneaky here. Even if he honestly means to simply compare the tone, he is wrong. I read nothing regretful in the U.S. admitting the use of WP. Nor should they have to have been. If there is any regret it is simply because it contradicts earlier reports. The U.S. denied it killed civilians with it so its use here is irrelevant. It strongly whiffs of an attempt to tar with the same atrocity brush he uses against Assad. I quoted more than required by Jones there because as a side note I want you to look at his final use of ‘they say’. I think he is hinting at a claim he isn’t actually willing to make. Yes Owen, all things being equal, not aiming to kill civilians makes you morally superior to those intending to kill them. Argue this case explicitly or don’t at all. As I say, sneaky.

But other’s apart from the Orwell of Our Generation use the WP incident and usually in more brazen terms. It was repeated many times during the debate about striking the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons in order to show that we are no better than they and have no high ground from which to launch our strikes. This form masochism is worth little even with solid examples. Fallujah is not a solid example.

White Phosphorus is not a chemical weapon. When not used as a smoke screen it can be used as an incendiary weapon. This is not illegal. The U.S. used it in Fallujah in highly specific attacks to push the enemy out of cover due to the heat and then kill them with high explosive shells. The very nature of the tactic requires highly specific and accurate use of artillery fire. At worst, some claim that the generation of heat when the WP meets moisture is a chemical weapon because this amounts to toxicity. But it isn’t asphyxiating, it is burning. This may be a small distinction for some. But the distinction remains. It was effective and it was legal.

In the interest of fairness I recommend George Monboit’s article from the time, I don’t agree with it but it is worth a read and he is more responsible there than many. He also provides reasons why the execrable Italian documentary on Fallujah, which still appears to be at the root of so many feelings about Fallujah, can be dismissed.

The use of incendiary weapons against civilians is illegal. However, seeing that it was used in areas cleared of civilians and no credible evidence of it causing civilian deaths has been presented, I suggest this charge can also be dismissed. Its use in combination with HE rounds was highly effective. That’s why it was used, both sparingly and deliberately. And as much as this may offend those of the Pansy Left, killing the insurgents was the point of the exercise and of benefit to the the vast majority of civilians who remained unharmed. To do so efficiently is a moral act.

So what is the actual complaint? If it is that the U.S. used chemical weapons it is false. If it is that it used incendiary weapons against civilians, it is false or at least entirely unproven.

If it is that that the deaths of 800 civilians from a population of 300,000 is an example of callousness, incompetence, bloodthirstyness, or a lack of care comparable with our enemies or reasonable expectations, then the complainant is ahistoric, ignorant and frankly, silly.

There are tradeoffs in military operations. Risk to property, risk to civilians, risk to your own forces, effectiveness in dealing with the enemy. Each army and society has to make rules and undertake the training to reflect their own operational and moral priorities. Some like Monboit won’t be happy unless the risk to civilians is non-existent and all of that risk is placed on our armed forces. This is not realistic and at some point becomes its own form of immorality. Regardless of how much moral wrangling is done around the legality. I look at the decisions of the Coalition in the Second Battle of Fallujah and see a set of moral tradeoffs that put us in stark and favourable contrast to those who apologists seek to compare us to. Even if one accepts the worst versions of accounts from the most unreliable of sources, the Coalition still comes out on top in any reasonable moral comparison.

We can’t allow this military action to be used as rhetoric against our society or our armed forces. I won’t because I don’t think it merely not a crime, I think it a startling military undertaking which clearly indicates our moral superiority over those we fight.
As an isolated action it should be mentioned with pride and placed firmly in the credit column of the moral ledger. And yes, I am comfortable expressing moral superiority.

What about Fallujah? Good question, what about it?


Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 3, An Open Letter to Laurie Penny

Ms Penny,

Apologies for the rather trite format. I am no fan of open letters but I have long been blocked by you on Twitter and this is the remaining method of contacting you openly.

It’s now been over five weeks since the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. 48hrs subsequent to them you posted the following:

Murder is vile and unconscionable. Freedom of the press must be protected. But racist trolling is not heroism. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie.

This single tweet is all this is about. You didn’t say much else about the attack as far as I could find. And I looked.

I was appalled by many responses to the attacks and wrote a piece highlighting my problems with them. Your tweet is featured in it under the section ‘Reflexive Smearing’. Reading it back I was still struck by what you had written and think it valid to revisit. I believe there is a disparity between what you profess to believe in, how you usually conduct yourself and the content of your statement. Something doesn’t add up and I would be much obliged if at the very least you could help clarify it and end my confusion.

My objections to your message are as follows:

1: You force equivalence/balance into the statement via the formulation. Namely: ‘The murderer is wrong but so are the victims.’  It seems to suggest you were incapable, for some reason, of being satisfied merely with condemning Islamist murderers.

2: You reduce Charlie Hebdo’s work to mere ‘trolling’. Under some definitions of trolling this might be accurate but you only ever employ it as a pejorative. I am assuming you have done so here.

3: You chose to distance yourself from those expressing solidarity with them.

4: You deny their heroism.

5: You accuse the dead of being racist. I believe unfairly.

The first objection is probably worth leaving. I explained in my previous piece how the selective use of this formulation is perhaps a symptom of something else. I stand by that. But in its plain meaning it is merely the expression of two opinions side by side. I cannot definitively prove the ill-intent of the implied equivalence so I won’t ask you to deny it here. Although as a writer from whom I have read the term ‘victim blaming’ with some frequency, can you not see why your formulation gives off the strong whiff of it?

The remaining four points collectively amount to something quite egregious. I think it is incumbent on you to explain why you stand by your statement or repudiate it and apologise. I shall explain why this is so.

But before anything else I would strongly recommend you read this excellent piece by Frenchman Olivier Tonneau. It’s called A Letter to My British Friends and I’m sure he means you more than me, a conservative. Perhaps after reading it yourself we can be done with this early and move straight on to your repudiation and apology. There are several pieces explaining Charlie Hebdo’s content and style but I chose this one as a starting point because the author’s views are closest to what I perceive to be your own about most subjects.

I was aware of what Charlie Hebdo was since the 2006 Danish Cartoon controversy. However, I speak lousy French and five weeks ago I could not claim detailed knowledge of its content and history. Many of the first voices to speak out after the attacks were adamant of its malign intentions and conduct and there were cartoons, taken out of context, to back this up. Did you see an unexplained cartoon of Boko Haram sex slaves perchance? Is that what made you write what you did?

Knowing as I did that they were a far left, secular, deeply anti-racist organisation, the initial accusations did not ring true to me and I endeavoured to find the context and explanation of the images being circulated. That did take some time. Therefore I can understand how people under pressure to comment quickly and without foreknowledge may well have relied on these spurious accusations of racism. Perhaps you were one of those people? Did you perhaps not know what you were talking about but were as yet unaware of this ignorance? You follow Graham Linehan on Twitter, he set out early to speak against the victim blaming and was quick to disseminate backgrounds and explanations to the more controversial cartoons. Did you miss his commendable efforts before commenting? More to the point, five weeks on, are you still content in calling them unheroic racist trolls?

Assuming you are:

Let’s look at the trolling accusation. Judging the value or quality of satire is difficult. But Charlie Hebdo consistently and unfalteringly engaged in opposition to the following:

  • Corruption in government
  • Unwarranted power of big business
  • Europe’s disastrous austerity policies
  • Israeli actions in Gaza
  • Restrictions on immigration
  • Anti-immigrant policies
  • Any form of racism
  • Organised Religion
  • The Le Pen family, the National Front and their populist politics

Are there any on the list you wish that they didn’t attack? Or dispute that they did? These seem far closer to your political agenda than my own and I would have thought you a confirmed supporter of their efforts. Have you evidence they did things beyond this you felt worthy of condemnation? Do tell.

Even if you choose to describe their pieces and cartoons as being on the level of a troll’s output, surely the specific and righteous targeting elevates it above that? Why did you feel it reasonable to summarise the work they died for as merely trolling? As often as not your use of ‘troll’ is aimed at the sort of rampant misogynists who hurl rape threats at your feminist comrades. At this point I would invite you to examine this obituary of Elsa Cayat. Please read about this wonderful woman, named and singled out by the murderers, the only woman who was. Was her work trolling? If she was Charlie when she was murdered why aren’t you subsequently? Please spell it out.

As for choosing to expressly deny solidarity, I think the case for declaring solidarity is overwhelming, regardless of approval of the content. I made this case here and so will save myself the bother of making it in detail once more. However, a summation would be that for you to enjoy the freedoms we take for granted you’ve a duty to show solidarity with those threatened for free expression regardless of whether you approve of the expression. What is more, not stating “Je suis Charlie” is the simplest way to not express solidarity but to state “Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie” is something else altogether. The former hashtag came first and the latter was a repudiation of it. You therefore positively stated opposition to standing with them. Is there not something questionable in choosing to make your only contribution to the aftermath of a massacre include a repudiation of solidarity with the victims? I can scarcely imagine the crimes one would have to commit for me to make such a clear statement of separation from them after their cold-blooded murder. Why the hell did you?

“…not heroism”: Well this is a tricky one because surely such things are relative? Allow me to put my refutation in the form of a question. Imagine, you’re an editor of a magazine dedicated to secularism and you know for doing this job you are on the hit lists of active terrorist groups who have already taken serious risks to kill others. You acknowledge that you are under the most dire of threats and following a previous attack you say, and clearly mean, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees”. You can quit any time, but you don’t. Is that not heroic?

Now imagine that after this situation has transpired two religious-extremist thugs enter your place of work, call you out by name and shoot you in the head with an assault rifle. Assume you’ve enough time after realising certain death is imminent to contemplate that a fellow feminist, anti-racist, left-wing writer with 106,000 followers decides to publicly denounce your effort as unheroic. Ok, that might be the last thing on his mind but what if that was the final thing on Stéphane Charbonnier’s mind? Are you happy with that?

I have met two VC recipients and multiple MM/MC recipients, all of whom are heroic by virtue of combating pretty nasty people while being fortunate enough to be armed and trained. I know none who have faced the same people with nowt but a pen and a metaphorical prayer. If that isn’t heroic, Ms Penny, tell us what is? Can you name examples of people who are significantly more heroic? I honestly cannot. We’re up near Dietrich Bonhoeffer levels here. Tell us who has more steadfastly done what they considered right in the face of such apparent risks? Charb knew the risks, they were grave and they manifested in his murder. If you wish to claim this is not heroic that’s up to you but without explaining why, forgive me for thinking you not only wrong but so very clearly wrong that one has to start to question what motivation would lead you to choose to label such clear heroism as the opposite. Would you deign to enlighten? I contend you owe it to the dead whom you so casually choose to belittle.

Finally we’re left with racism. I’ve read thousands of your words so, although never having met you, I think if I were to sum up what you’re about politically, in a few bullet points, ‘anti-racist’ would feature high up and you wouldn’t disagree. I’d then also assume you know the following: Good people have exerted enormous effort to make the charge of racism, when proven, an enormous stigma. In fact it’s so virulent that it’s an enormous stigma even when unproven. The former case is a cause for celebration and for much of the advancement our societies have made regarding racism. The latter is, unfortunately, a temptation for those who wish to discredit or silence people they disagree with by misusing the power of the charge.

There is something uniquely pernicious about casual and false accusations of racism. This is because it diminishes the weight of the accusation that so many have fought to make weighty. I contend your attribution of racism is both false and casual and therefore you are making it easier for racists to express themselves without pause. You are making the social penalty harder to apply. Why did you choose to apply it?

There’s a burden of proof problem here. I could blow another couple thousand words explaining why these avowed anti-racists are not racist but ultimately one cannot prove a negative. The burden of proof is on you. If you are going to make an accusation that defies the stated mission of the newly dead, is the burden not on you to show why? Why have you shirked it?

No matter how hard one tries to think the best here it seems inescapable that you smeared the dead as racists. And with no valid justification. It’s not just an insult to the victims it clearly works against any serious effort to fight racism. How low is that? How do you live with that?

I wonder how firm you are in your convictions? Let’s try this…

12 Dead In French Magazine Shooting

This is the unheroic, racist, troll Stéphane Charbonnier. The man who contributed his talent to the National Movement Against Racism by the way and the one whose activities you felt comfortable to condemn in the same tweet as condemning his murder.

This was his partner:

Jeannette-Bougrab-portrait-en-2007_exact1024x768_l copy

Her name is Jeannetter Bougrab. Of Muslim parentage she had, by the time she got her PhD in public law from the Sorbonne, become a secular atheist. At one point in her career she was the Chair of the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission.

If something is true, it is true at anytime, in any place and in any company. So I ask you if you would be earnestly able to explain to this woman why her loved one was not just a troll, not just unheroic but also a racist? Do you think this news would be a shock to her? That she had given her love to a racist by being duped and that somehow you know better than her? Or do you suggest she knowingly loved a racist? Do you think your evidence would be strong enough to convince her? Or perhaps you merely smeared her loved one from a condition of total ignorance or for reasons of malice? Which is it? Is there another option?

I’ll sum up:

I easily understand why fifth columnist extremists head straight for the implications you made. They seek to shift the blame from their own Islamic ideology. However, I don’t understand how you’ve ended up on the opposing side to Caroline Fourest. Do you understand this? Can you justify it?

Stating you’re not Charlie is on the one hand a contemptible denial of support but on the other a clear statement of fact. You don’t deserve to be considered alongside those that died that day or whom managed to continue producing their magazine in the aftermath. At least not for as long as you are willing to stand by your opinion.

Now this time has passed and you are able to reflect upon what you wrote, have you altered your opinion any?

I would like you to do one of the following:

1: Justify your opinion. For although you have the right to make it, such a strong opinion, especially about those unable to reply, requires justification.


2: Repudiate your previous statement. Do so publicly and set straight those whom you influence and may have taken your ignorant and precipitant declaration as somehow based on thought and knowledge. Of course, with this should also come an apology and an explanation. What serious person could provide less?

Annotating Some Free Speech Nonsense

Another Free Speech article that needed some comeback.

This one was by Abdullah Al Andalusi.

If unfamiliar, I have used ‘Genius’. Wait for the highlighted sections to load up and click on them.

A brief thought on Page 3

So Page 3 will apparently no longer feature nipples. I’ve got plenty to say about the debate but I think I will leave most of those thoughts where they lay. Although I’ve rarely agreed with most of the arguments against the institution that is Page 3, I did always feel a touch uncomfortable about its existence. Something to do with its crassness I suppose. Something it said about me and the expectation that I needed or wanted such a thing. However my unease never extended to outright disapproval.

Well it’s gone now. I was pleased to see when it did go it went at the timing chosen by News International not whatever mob of the day was against it

I will though offer this observation:

A long while back, while still aware of that unease, I worked as a labourer. It was bitterly hard work with very early starts and was capable of inducing a level of tiredness hard to replicate without constant physical exertion. It was fulfiling in its way and I miss it.

Part of the morning ritual was being picked up in the white van, the sort Emily Thornberry might tweet about, imbibing of a cup of tea and saugsage and egg Mcmuffin and having a scan of the comic/newspaper that was on the dashboard (I’d often be mocked for my continued insistence my workmates collect a Telegraph or Guardian en route, my demands for Radio 4 were simply ignored). But that journey, myriad offensive conversations on breaks and the shower at the end of the day constituted small mercies akin to peaks of joy in other periods of my life

One morning I was zombie tired, just a few firing synapses above death. It was cold, the rest of the nation was asleep and I had a day ahead of lugging hugely heavy shit up and down a 5 storey townhouse.
Between mumbles and groans I reached for the Sun. It was all my deadened mind could handle. I opened the first page and despite my struggle to focus, there staring back at me was tanned female flesh, a beaming smile and a pair of soft, calming, bountiful breasts. We men can be simple souls at the best of times but I had now achieved new levels of simplicity. The image was no longer a statement of women’s role in society or of crassness, nor was it a symbol of more offensive and now anachronistic norms. It was just a mild stimuli of comfort in a dirty, smelly van. No more, no less. But tangibly so. I wished to thank Rupert Murdoch and Karen (23 from Essex) for providing such an oasis in my grim environment.

That experience didn’t make me start wolf whistling at passing women, in fact it did little beyond make a bumpy and freezing morning journey to work a touch softer. Perhaps though it did make me aware that the sneering disapproval, censorious  superiority and hectoring knowing of some out there reveals a gaping lack of empathy in their outlook.

I don’t wish to condescend all those builders with the energy to read Proust of a tea break, but sometimes life is a pretty hard slog, and sometimes a stolen moment absorbing the shining beauty of Karen (23 from Essex) is about as good as a day can get. I’d sure hope my reasoning is solid, well questioned and selfless in intent before I sought to deny such things to people whose daily lives and whose harmless ogling affects me not a jot.


Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 2, Know Your Enemy

Part 1 is here.

If you’re on Facebook you might know the feeling. Somebody you know socially, somebody you like, generally intelligent and sound, has freshly planted on their Facebook page the latest effusion of Greenwald or Hasan, Francois-Cerrah or Self. This can be tough to take. As it floats there like a turd in a swimming pool the ethics of whether or not to clean it up in public can weigh heavy. You might well restrain yourself until you see the depressing number of ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ and you read the ghastly comments underneath. This is something up with which you will not put.

If the person actually knew how stupid or dishonest it was they surely wouldn’t have posted it, but can you put your finger on exactly why it is stupid beneath the facade of nuance and balance?

There are experts we can turn to for help. From left and right and centre:

The late, great Norman Geras, whom this blog exists in honour of, was a master at skewering such pseudo-intellectual fraudulence (see his wonderful 2005 piece about apologists. I shall refer to it below). Hitchens, obviously (his savage demolition of the ghastly Chris Hedges is always good for morale. Here’s a free speech lecture). Mark Steyn has turned such exposure of humbug into an absurdist comedy act (on relativism, on free speech). David Aaronovitch is one of the few in Britain’s media mainstream who refuses to pull any punches against his colleagues. (This week he has taken to strangling weasels). Finally, Maajid Nawaz needs to be mentioned because of the specific topic at hand. Brave, pious and self critical, his patient dealing with slipperiness in this clip shows why he has much to offer you.

The respect achieved by those listed above is well deserved but my single advantage over them today, I suspect, is the sheer weight of bullshit I’ve waded through over this last week (due to their death in some cases).  The cretins kept writing them and I kept reading them. Perfect sadomasochism. But I have done it so you don’t have to, and in doing so I have noted a few recurring themes and tactics and began to pick up a few tips on how to address them. I share them below.

What follows includes a fair amount of ad hominem argument. But by that I don’t mean insults, there’s some of those too, but I mean actual ad hominem. Because when sometimes brilliantly clever and well educated people stoop to such low arguments, ones they don’t universally apply, you must surely look for a personal but commonly shared fault as part of the cause. And in identifying this fault it aids our understanding.

Finally, a reminder and for perspective: this discussion surrounds the slaughter of satirists with assault rifles. Fucking cartoonists. In Western Europe. In 2015. It’s worth sitting back and mulling that over for a bit before trying to ingest the attempted arguments for the explicable ‘root causes’ of this.

Of course we also mustn’t forget that Jews were attacked for being Jews that day, it’s simply the bulk of subsequent discourse on this has been heavily weighted towards the former incident.

So then… swimming pools, floaters, nets.


Root causism: “I’m only trying to explain, why are you so against nuance?” 

The ‘root causes’ types are the most common form of floater. We see plenty of examples from them. Jon Snow popped up with a great one.

Who is suggesting tanks? Although it is perhaps preferable to this. But either way, ‘merely explaining’ has been ubiquitous in apologist responses to the atrocity. There are countless different examples of root causism. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 etc.

They are usually preceded with a preamble saying ‘I am not condoning merely explaining’, too often another form of ‘I am not racist but‘.


And of course, we must all repeat the rubric: nothing – nothing ever – could justify these cruel acts of mass murder. And no, the killers cannot call on history to justify their crimes.

But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week….


My position is this: the murderers are fully responsible for what they did and should be treated with the full force of the law. Nothing justifies the killing of these people. But this is not the whole of this issue.


Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.

This time reformulated to avoid the ‘but’:

We urgently need to understand why this violence is happening and keeps recurring and to do so is neither a justification for any crime nor an apology of violence.

It is tricky to condemn because of course none of us are actually against nuance and are all for the greatest explanation possible.

Chomsky in this piece:

The reaction of horror and revulsion about the crime is justified, as is the search for deeper roots, as long as we keep some principles firmly in mind. The reaction should be completely independent of what thinks about this journal and what it produces.

This is true. There are important variables and competing factors we need to know more about. The marginalisation and alienation that makes the ideology attractive etc. It is important for counter-jihad organisations to understand this and to put the knowledge into practice. However, sometimes this is merely used to shift the blame.

None of these same writers followed up the Breivik slaughter in 2011 with articles explaining exactly why mass Muslim immigration to Europe might actually have driven him to it. They merely went about condemning anyone they didn’t like who Breivik happened to mention in his manifesto. This cartoon brilliantly exposes such inconsistency showing why the instant attempt at nuance is so out of place in any other circumstance. Thus demonstrating why the tactic is in fact rarely a search for nuance but is symptomatic of something else.

Try this example: When reporting on attacks and atrocities during the rise of the Nazis, each and every piece from an author is prefaced something like, “Obviously I condemn the beating, but we must understand that the greed of speculators before the 1929 Wall Street Crash led to despair in Germany.” Few doubt the importance of the Great Depression in the rise of the Nazis but surely at some point it’s fair to see such a preface as more than a search for nuance and explanation. Rather it would seem a source of exculpation.

There is something in the sense of it being reflexive, instant, automatic that should make you pause and question the actual motivation here. Assuming you have read thousands of articles on thousands of events, does this formulation not stand out?

Now the comparison with the Great Depression grants that there is some relationship to the event and is therefore suggesting merely the frequency and prominence is misplaced. But apart from my appeal to your reader’s spidey sense that something is up, there are other issues surrounding the concepts of proximate and ultimate causation which condemn these pieces. Namely, often the stuff following the ‘but’ is also broadly irrelevant to the actual incident in terms of moral blame. The Geras piece I mentioned in the introduction deals with this perfectly and I recommend reading all of it.

Trigger Warning: Nah, just kidding. Grow up.


In circumstances he judges not too risky, Bob, an occasional but serial rapist, is drawn to women dressed in some particular way. One morning Elaine dresses in that particular way and she crosses Bob’s path in circumstances he judges not too risky. He rapes her. Elaine’s mode of dress is part of the causal chain which leads to her rape. But she is not at all to blame for being raped.

The fact that something someone else does contributes causally to a crime or atrocity, doesn’t show that they, as well as the direct agent(s), are morally responsible for that crime or atrocity, if what they have contributed causally is not itself wrong and doesn’t serve to justify it. Furthermore, even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house. So simply by invoking prior causes, or putative prior causes, you do not make the case go through – the case, I mean, that someone else than the actual perpetrator of the wrongdoing is to blame.

So why so heavy on instantly searching for ‘root causes’, especially in the case of Charlie Hebdo where the attackers clearly said they were avenging their Prophet and therefore such wider issues as poverty, police stop and searches or Abu Ghraib are far removed? Let alone taking it back to the Algerian War which ended in 1962! Why this reflexive need to equivocate in Muslim attacks but not all others?

From Western writers I part of it comes from the sense that their self-criticism can make one appear and feel sophisticated. Unfortunately for them it doesn’t when based on abject nonsense, then it looks like nothing so much as public displays of masochism. For extremists and fifth columnists like Asghar Bukhari I presume the reasoning is obvious. For the likes of Jon Snow I suspect it involves an inability to empathise with the killers. I don’t mean sympathise, Snow will do that with the best of them. I mean his old-school liberal mind simply cannot accept that religious extremism actually motivates such people. It must have a root cause elsewhere more explicable from his own experiences. The likes of Milne operate from a vicious strand of anti-Americanism due to his being an unreconstructed communist, if not Stalinist. But I think there is another source of reasoning in the minds of those on what I call the ‘New Left’. You know, the ‘Multi-Culti Left, the Laurie Penny Left, what Caroline Fourest calls the ‘Stupid Left’. The crazies who simply won’t allow a Muslim terrorist to be responsible for their own actions. They tend to be ‘Type 1’ in my last piece. My explanation for their mindset goes something thus:


The three stages of stupidity

I suggest there is a three stage mental process undertaken by thinkers of the New Left. I think this process is prevalent in a large number of those being criticised here. I also think it will be found in those writing every second article on Comment is Free these days. Jones, Orr, Penny, Younge would all be candidates.

The three stages are:

1: Holding the urge to protect and support the underdog to the silencing of all other motivating forces. Support for the underdog is felt by most humans, thankfully, and should be. But it is so strong in some that it is followed unequivocally.

2: With that as a motivating principle each problem is approached, subconsciously and consciously, by dividing all actors in a situation into the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. This is done along demographic lines, be them race or gender or sexuality or whatever. If you are part of that group you’re treated as the group. The view struggles with seeing individuals at all.

3: The thinker then falls for Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of ‘The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed‘. The weaker group in the binary situation is of superior virtue no matter what.

So: Unequivocal support of the underdog, dividing into oppressor/oppressed, assuming the superior virtue of the oppressed.

Muslims in the West are (normally) a racial minority and a religious one. In the world, Muslim nations are weaker than America and the West. So both times they are ‘the oppressed’ regardless of what incident is under discussion. This means for people following those initial three stages, terror attacks cause a problem because they don’t like terror but like the ‘oppressed’.  Firstly the individuals are ignored and are reduced to part of a demographic grouping. So rather than just blame three Muslims with Ak47s who made decisions, it becomes a situation of Muslim oppressed vs the Western oppressor and the actions are relativised and excused away with a shift of blame and responsibility. They have to be. Reflexively. Or else the cognitive dissonance otherwise is too much to bear.

Of course most don’t think it was ok to gundown cartoonists. But the actual gunmen cannot be to blame as individuals. The oppressor has to be. So you then get to see the articles that begin “Obviously I condemn this action BUT let me explain why it wasn’t their fault…”.

This is utterly standard and I’ve already supplied examples galore. And many people do it without knowing why. Therefore seeing these pieces, written instantly and with dubious proximate causal-reasoning, we see more at play than an intelligent search for nuance and the greatest understanding.

We are not fighting nuance here but fighting reflexive attempts to relativise away cognitive dissonance and maintain that three stage process.

Take this line from Gary Younge’s piece immediately following the attacks:

They are personally responsible for what they did. But we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them.

By this logic we can say the same about anything. Everything is all everyone’s fault and therefore it is nobody’s fault. The fact is though the personal responsibility of the individuals is far more important than societal factors. Evidence this is true is that such similar actions are being carried out under very different societal conditions and that people under identical societal conditions choose not to.

So yes, there are other factors, but they don’t seem contingent. He write’s them as balanced and equal, but they simply are not. Younge’s line is not an appeal for more nuance, despite his piece being titled ‘The Danger of Polarised Debate’. It is an attempt to ensure we cannot make a member of the ‘oppressed’ the guilty party here and the most that can be gotten away with is that it is our fault just as much as the gunman’s. So that is what is implied. The three stage mental process won’t allow anything different. The blame must be shifted and shared or their heads will explode.

This helps explain why in their writing, if an ‘oppressed’ nation or peoples does something objectively awful, as a reflex to hold off the cognitive dissonance it is instantly explained away as an inevitable and inescapable reaction to one or other action of the oppressor. Of course fairly soon this becomes de facto racist in that that various ethnicities are robbed of agency, choice and responsibility based solely on on their ethnicity and its relative power ranking. Remember, individuals don’t count. Any of their work on Israel/Palestine by these people demonstrates this instantly.

These stages require all sorts of mental wrangling to maintain. With some perverse outcomes.

When a person is in more than one group at the same time, a female Muslim for example, cognitive dissonance is pretty high. To solve it a readjustment occurs and the individual in question is assigned to one or other group. Usually the largest or whichever allocation allows the assumptions of the three stages to remain most strongly in place in the course of that argument.

So let’s say there is discussion in the Guardian about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. The Muslim woman becomes part of the oppressed minority of Muslims against the oppressor, which is the West, and her individual struggle as a woman is then subsumed. Despite solicitous studies in the field of intersectionality, you really are only part of one group at a time with this process.

Because the people speaking of feminist ideals become part of the West they have to be bad. For although feminists are on the oppressed side in a UK based topic, these ones are up against Muslim men, who are lumped as Muslims as therefore they must conform to their larger identity, Westerners. Hence why we see some committed feminists willingly abandon their sisters in a Muslim country under talk of cultural relativism and of different standards applying.

Shifting the blame via reducing the actors to expressions of group dynamics is just one method of apologia.


Reflexive Smearing

“They didn’t deserve to die BUT they were racist…”. That’s the second most common formulation in evidence this last week. Again the examples are myriad and can be found in several of the pieces I have already linked to. The fact is, it simply isn’t true. They were a far Left magazine who mocked anti-immigration and racist campaigners. This next point isn’t a slam dunk, but the fact that Stephane Charbonnier’s life partner was Jeannette Bougrab, of Algerian descent and a diversity overseer at the CSA, should at least give pause. And yet so many writers have been willing to reflexively smear the dead as racists. Possibly it could be understood, but not condoned, in the immediate aftermath where people unfamiliar with the magazine were quick to comment and had merely seen unexplained images. But fairly soon such sites as this or this were up and running unpacking the satire and the excuse of total ignorance became even less valid. I speak worse French than Joey Barton and yet upon reading explanations and speaking to French friends I can clearly see the difference. That’s not a great expectation on a commentator to maintain.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer and pundit on French political issues. She knows the difference and still was happy to smear the dead on TV (Nesrine Malik also call their efforts “so racist” in that piece).

Hasan tries it on by suggesting:

crude caricatures of bulbous-nosed Arabs that must make Edward Said turn in his grave?

If true this might be a concern. But it isn’t true. I think the characters tend to look the same depending on the cartoonist. Orthodox Jews get curly side burns, Mohammed gets a dish dash and Jesus gets a halo. But unless you do a real compare and contrast study I’m calling bullshit on this. A claim without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Still though, better safe than sorry:

Hebdo 1 Hebdo 2

Here is Mohammed with normal features.

I don’t see a theme of racial caricatures here. Show me I’m wrong. More likely this line of attack is the sound of a barrel being scraped. It seeks to blame the victims, weaken movements of solidarity and enhance the never ending narrative of Muslim victimhood so cherished and promulgated by the likes of Ramadan, Hasan and Bukhari.

Yes some are fifth columnists and their interest in the smear is clear but some are simply unable to allow the blame to reside on the side of any identified victim group (the three Stages again).

Laurie Penny’s first contribution to this debate was as far as I can tell the following tweet:

I find this an extraordinary statement. Let us for the sake of argument agree that Charlie Hebdo’s efforts could be fairly reduced to racist trolling. Penny tweeted that the murders were bad but so is racist trolling. In one tweet. As a first comment. That is pure false relativism.

It is just about all she said on the matter. She could basically only bring herself to speak in order to show balance where none was required. She just crowbarred it in. Inappropriately and inelegantly.

But, Charlie Hebdo were not racist, they were deeply anti-racist. It is a smear.

Smearing the dead as racists is so far off the scale of bad, and done so reflexively and casually by people not considered stupid, that it has to be an indicator of underlying problems with the author and their approach. Cartoonists lie dead and Penny wastes no time declaring them racist in the same tweet as she condemns the violence. That’s fucking low. But with the three stages the ‘oppressed group’ cannot be the party in error and people will seemingly abandon all sense and decency in relativising away their cognitive dissonance.

Imagine, you know you are on the hit list of serious terrorist groups for doing your job at a magazine working in the name of secularism, you continue to do that job until you are murdered in cold blood. If that is not heroic I truly wonder what is. Penny’s notion of heroism might well be different from mine.

I wonder, will Penny ever get to be face to face with Charb’s life partner and be able to explain to her exactly why her murdered loved one was an un-heroic racist troll? I hope not.

Damn right you’re not Charlie. Disgusting. Is there enough chlorine to clear up this one?


False comparisons and whataboutary

‘What if the cartoons were about X,Y,Z?’. This performance by Bukari on Sky News covers half the fallacious nonsense in this entire post. But this line stands out  (Murray’s face from 01:32 is just wonderful, as is his subsequent performance):

We wouldn’t publish black people… as zoo animals

That is not an equivalent of what Charlie Hebdo was doing. It is a false comparison. There is such a thing as anti-Muslim racism. But, Islam is not per se a race and mocking Mohammed is not the same as drawing a racial cartoon. Islam is an idea no matter how much it means to you, your physical ethnicity is not.

The second form of this same argument is comparing printing Mohammed to antisemitism. Glenn Greenwald, predictably, went to town with this idea. His lengthy contribution is a prime example of disingenuous thought. Try also, this Joe Sacco cartoon in the Guardian.

Many have tried it. Here is Nabila Ramdani on This Week:

try a draw an antisemitic cartoon tomorrow

Another entirely false comparison. Mocking Islam is not the same as antisemitism. Why? Because anti-Judaism is not the same as antisemitism. They were not abusing all Muslims but the main character in their story, the comparison is false. Charlie Hebdo mocked the god of the Old Testament, this should be enough to qualify as a fair comparison. They weren’t murdered for it.

Hasan in his piece:

Has your publication, for example, run cartoons mocking the Holocaust? No? How about caricatures of the 9/11 victims falling from the twin towers? I didn’t think so…

Firstly, there are plenty of jokes playing on 9-11 in the media even people falling from the towers. Try this, it’s brilliantly funny. Or see the following picture:


Do I really need to explain the difference between mocking a religious figure and mocking the murder of 6 million people? Or 3000? When the close relatives of victims and survivors are still alive? Is he seriously making that comparison. Well clearly he’s making it, but no way can he be considered serious.

A similar attempt to show double standards is made referring to Muslim protests at soldiers funeral processions. Do such people now need to have the difference explained between the taboo of upsetting grieving relatives and the taboo of depicting an historically significant person who died a millennium and a half ago? Again, a false comparison.

Mehdi’s argument, and those of others, is that it is just as offensive to the receiver. Mehdi is a man who loves his prophet more than his children so this may well be the case. But level of offense claimed by an individual is entirely subjective. He might claim drawing a cartoon of an historical figure is as offensive as mocking the death of your family member, just like I may claim Mehdi’s perfectly trimmed facial hair offends me more than mocking every genocide that was ever undertaken.

A funeral isn’t a 1400 year dead man and a religion isn’t your mother.

To ignore the fundamental differences is stupid at best, slimy, opportunist and dishonest at worst. I’m not granting the benefit of the doubt here.


No absolute right to free speech and the Motte and Bailey

The ‘no absolute right’ line is a strawman. Only the craziest of libertarians come close to denying this. But it is also used as a Motte and Bailey argument.

Are you aware of a Motte and Bailey argument? If you are I am sorry for the egg sucking lesson, but I am new to the concept myself, have found it extremely useful and have started seeing them everywhere. This awareness has made me kick myself at not seeing earlier how so many people I disagreed with were getting away with cheating for so very long. A brief explanation is worthwhile as the tactic is used in more than one instance here:

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my original purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents philosophical propositions with similar properties: desirable to their proponents but only lightly defensible. The Motte represents the defensible but undesired propositions to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal. Once made it is relatively obvious to those familiar with the doctrine that the doctrine’s survival required a systematic vacillation between exploiting the desired territory and retreating to the Motte when pressed. Clearly, the diagnosis is not confined to philosophical doctrines: others may suffer the same malady.

This describes perfectly the use of ‘no such thing as an absolute right to free speech’. In Mehdi Hasan’s HuffPo piece he says:

None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed. We differ only on where those lines should be drawn.

‘Well there are limits to free speech’ is a rewording of the same point. It was used during Thursday night’s Question Time, yet again by Hasan.

This is pretty hard to disagree with. Of course there are limits. This is the Motte in this instance. Many have used that claim in their preambles and discussions this week. They then either directly say these cartoons should not have been published, or try and trade off the assumption they leave after making the initial statement that you shouldn’t publish x or y. They are using this because they are trying to suggest Charlie Hebdo has brought this on themselves. It is apologia. This latter area is their Bailey. That is the space the wish to inhabit in their piece. Don’t let them leave that assumption hanging.
If you question them with things like ‘so you are saying they had no right to publish?’ they may say ‘no’, then try ‘are you suggesting satirists should self censor when it comes to religion?’ or ‘is a picture of Mohammed something outside of our rights of expression or beyond the ‘limits’?’ then they tend to retreat back to their Motte. The same goes for asking ‘what are the limits?’ you are also unlikely to get an answer and will see a retreat. If they don’t and tell you their line is drawn before Charlie Hebdo, then fine, they are, despite their protestations elsewhere, calling for censorship or self-censorship. There is a social penalty to saying such things are beyond satire, but that is what they hint at without being willing to say. Make them say it. Let them endure the penalty.
Once the retreat has been made you may ask ‘then what is the relevance of your statement that there is no such thing as an absolute right to free speech?’. Again they don’t usually have an answer. Feel free to put the boot in and ask ‘so why did you choose to include it so prominently?’. If doing so on Twitter, be aware that this is the exact moment you get blocked.


‘With free speech comes responsibility’

Another classic and usually another Motte and Bailey. Will Self and many others have used this claim. From Self’s interview on Channel 4, ‘Should Satire only attack people in power‘:

My value is free speech, unquestionably, but I think we need to be aware that with free speech comes with responsibilities, any right comes with responsibilities

That’s a nice ‘but’ he has there. Now I agree rights come with responsibilities. They have to. But what are these responsibilities? I assumed it was ensuring you don’t try and repress the right of others to express themselves and that our responsibility is to ensure there is a free space in the public sphere for expressing ourselves without fear of violence. Perhaps it is to keep things fair and honest, to not employ demagogic language and engage in sophistry. Responsibilities the people examined here singularly fail to live up to.

Perhaps a responsibility of free speech is to ensure you don’t hover up all the intelligence documents you can and then fly them to Chinese and Russian controlled places. Something I have not heard Self or any of those mentioned here condemn.

You know what to do now: ‘What is that responsibility?’ is the question which must be asked. Followed by: ‘Why didn’t you put it in the article’? Make them spell it out.

From Hasan’s piece:

I disagree with your seeming view that the right to offend comes with no corresponding responsibility

It is telling that he doesn’t chose to explain what the responsibility is. Few do. Once however, when forced, he did have a stab at it. This was when he was previously discussing Charlie Hebdo. He said:

…with rights come responsibilities and I’m saying in a society where we all have to rub along together, where we all come from different backgrounds you have a responsibility not to go out of your way to piss people off, to try and kick off a riot etc. etc. put the law to one side…

Remember, Mehdi loves Mohammed more than his own family, I understand this is emotive for him and that he might feel as far as he is concerned that offense = riot. But who thinks Charlie Hebdo was indeed trying to kick off a riot? I know they’re French but was that the purpose of their satire? Was it merely to piss people off rather than target power or hypocrisy? Mehdi should be asked.

Either Mehdi is saying that Muslims are so basic they will inevitably riot (he isn’t), or he uses this tactic to condemn the offending of religious sensibility with a strawman. We know he would rather Mohammed wasn’t depicted in satire, in this example he got as far as saying he shouldn’t be, but he refuses to say it shouldn’t be done because such subjects should be socially protected from satire. He is merely implying a protection. Motte and Bailey. And in doing so he reduces Muslims to an ‘other’ who just cannot hold their temper.

It’s clear this is what he is doing yet he has stated he isn’t. This is shifty.

But he is adept and it is difficult to nail him down on this. Further on in that exchange Aaronovitch comes close in a lovely moment where Hasan is cornered and he attempts to sidestep by basically saying he is unable to comment on British society because it is Christian and he isn’t. Laughable, pathetic stuff.

Get them to fully defend the Bailey or beat them back into the Motte and proceed to burn it down.


Shouting fire in a crowed theatre

Speaking of burning things down, this cliche pops up often in free speech debates. Hasan brought it up some time ago in his debate st the L.S.E. vs Aaronovitch, on offence and Charlie Hebdo. There he attributed it to John Stuart Mill rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It was used by Diane Abbott on This Week following the attacks. To be fair though, Abbott is not a floater, she has been generally solid on this issue.

The main comeback to this is also becoming a cliche and is dependent on it being misquoted (Holmes included the word ‘falsely’). I first heard it from Steyn and then from Hitchens, namely that you are obligated to shout fire in a crowded theatre if you happen to believe there to be a fire there worth shouting about. Charlie Hebdo saw fires up and down French society, from National Front racists, to clerical bullies and Islamofacists. And they shouted fire loudly and humorously.

Even then, I don’t see how the grammar of this metaphor translates to general free speech situations. What exactly are the doorways where people will be crushed and trampled in this situation unless we are saying that Muslims seeing a cartoon are the same as people stampeding from the fear of death from fire.

Mill is often cited as the source of reasoning for the Holmes quote. Mill actually said:

An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard

That’s the closest Mill gets to supporting such a view. And it is surely an incitement argument. But a French newsstand is not a mob outside the house. They are simply circulating through the press. So when you hear Holmes’ poor metaphor uttered in a free speech argument, especially this one, feel free to point out its facile uselessness.


Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable

This is an HL Mencken quote that has been doing the rounds. It seems Will Self pulled it into the debate in his Vice article. He wrote:

Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: it should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. The trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously-motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.

This was used again to me in a very telling Twitter exchange with his wife Deborah Orr. As often with Twitter the full flow of the exchange is difficult to follow due to multiple answers to single tweets but it begins here. Her argument in the exchange is all over the place. Anyway, the offending tweet:

Note that in Self’s quote Mencken is talking of ‘good journalism’ and Self is asking what is ‘truly satire’. So let us say it is bad satire. That is a taste judgement, a value judgement. Either this is totally irrelevant to the free speech and solidarity argument and therefore shouldn’t be there or it is yet again part of the refusal to lay the blame on those with the weapons. Another surreptitious attempt at victim blaming. Like if their satire had been ‘good’ or ‘proper’ they still would be breathing.

This is all part of the ‘punching downward’ line. Which is not being used in a relevant way. But even if it were, I disagree with the premise.

Was Charlie Hebdo attacking all ‘Muslims’ or the religion itself? It is not the same thing. And attacking jihadists is not attacking ‘Muslims’ either, but merely Jihadist Muslims.
How often have you heard this week that they were offending 1.6 billion people? Well, if that is true then I think a religious figure important to 1.6 billion people is pretty powerful. It is punching upwards. How many people would come to violently avenge an insult to Stephane Charbonnier? None I am assuming. Is that not a measure of power? Be careful claiming a billion offended victims and screaming ‘powerlessness’ in the same argument.

Islam is a system of power, like Christianity. To mock its tenets and its characters is punching upwards and it is satire. And mocking the tenets is not to mock Muslims en masse. Many racists are poor and alienated, was Charlie Hebdo punching downwards when it mocked Marine LePen or racist attitudes in general? No. So stop being silly.

We must not let the ‘punching downwards’ stand on factual grounds, they weren’t, or on taste grounds, it is irrelevant. The continued use of it is yet another form of victim blaming.

Side note: Telling us 1.6 billion Muslims are offended does no favours to those Muslims that aren’t. It will make those that believe it look upon all Muslims as irrational when they are not and will renforce the Us vs Them narrative. It doesn’t take a genius to work this out so surely those that advance that line for their own arguments are unserious about their stated desires of progress and cohesion?


Secular Religion/Fundamentalists

This is like ‘fundamentalist atheist’. The cheap attempt to make you just the same as those you oppose. So adherence to secularism is the equal of adherence to religious dogma.
Once again we turn to Will Self:

The whole notion seems to be that free speech is some kind of absolute right and that’s exactly the same as a religious point of view interestingly, it places human ethics outside of human society…

Self teaches ‘Modern Thought’ and unfortunately for our future that seems appropriate.

Firstly it’s another strawman because I know of no ‘absolutists’ beyond a barely heard bunch of crazies. But ok, if an absolutist exists, my claims in Part 1 of this piece mean I must be one of the closest to one. Is it like a religious point of view to me? No. I think the right of a human to freely express themselves, although a beautiful and luminescent idea, it is founded on a utilitarian basis rather than a supernatural or dogmatic one. My support is not from ‘faith’.

I am however tempted to allow this to stand. Because then when people start saying ‘we should respect each other’s religions’, I’ll be able to reply ‘well my religion is unfettered free expression, so you must respect it you horrid blasphemer’. Of course my religion has no vengeful warriors, so you’ll be safe in your place of business if you happen to insult Paine or Voltaire.

For the sake of argument though let us grant Self and others the premise and call this belief in free speech or secularism a religion. My erztaz religion allows for maximum freedom of thought and expression, actual religions require the opposite. And Self’s implied middle way requires the state or/and supposed enlightened complex-thinkers such as he to adjudicate between groups and measure and judge offence. When compared thus his line of attack makes little headway. It’s not true and if true it loses. It does however obscure clear thinking behind clever sounding bollocks. Which Self does very well. I presume this is why this view is popular with many modern intellectuals. When faced with a simple moral standpoint that is difficult to live by and a complicated one that is easy, they will choose the latter all too often.


Violence and Orwellian word games

As a final note, be aware of the attempts to couch offensive language in terms of violence. This may be to compare an insult to a punch or to claim that an insult affects health.

But more slippery is the use of terms like ‘violently offensive’ or ‘safe space’.

This example comes from a ludicrous article by Abdal Hakim Murad:

To laugh at the Prophet, the repository of all that Muslims revere and find precious, to reduce him to the level of the scabrous and comedic, is something very different from “free speech” as usually understood. It is a violent act surely conscious of its capacity to cause distress, ratchet up prejudice and damage social cohesion.

When I hear ‘violent’ I think something along the lines of this:

using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something

So does anyone else with a care for language and its meaning. The attempt to piggy back his wish to see beliefs protected onto our rational fears of physical harm is both dishonest and an insult to sentient beings everywhere.

Tariq Ramadan refuses to condemn stoning women yet is welcome to teach women at Oxford who seemingly require safe mental spaces from harmful ideas. ‘Safe space’ is cheating language as it pretends a desire to have an unchallenged mind is a ‘safety issue’. It isn’t. Sticks and Stones. Words will hurt you, but stones will fucking kill you. And all the safe spaces in the world won’t protect you from the words that really hurt you in life.

Violence means violence and the sly appropriation of well understood words to advance an agenda is Orwellian.




There are a lot of words aboce and I feel vulnerable to the ubiquitous ‘somebody is wrong on the internet’ cartoon (no fear, I won’t kill you over it). But my introduction reference to the facebook scenario has a grain of seriousness to it. Unguarded but good people fall for these shysters and bullshitters. They are seduced by deceivers who peddle knowingly false arguments and fools who do so unknowingly, then they take their shaky conclusions with them to ballot boxes. This subject is much too serious to allow such underhand or stupid practice to go unexposed let alone respected for reasons of being ‘an alternative voice’ or being on the side of an imagined oppressed. It should be countered wherever it is found. The stakes are high.

If you are one of those that smells a floater but isn’t entirely sure why, I hope some of the examples and counter arguments on here help you articulate why the turd is indeed a turd. I’d be thrilled to hear they did. Good luck fishing them out.

The latest edition of Charlie Hebdo included an editorial. The translation I took from Slate and have included excerpts here. They sum it up better than I ever could.

 Still, a question keeps gnawing at us: Are people finally going to banish the dirty words “secular fundamentalists” from their political and intellectual vocabulary? Are they going to stop inventing clever semantic convolutions to qualify assassins and their victims as somehow equivalent?

These last few years we’ve felt a little lonely in our attempt to push back, with the stroke of a pen, against the pure crap and pseudointellectual criticisms that have been thrown in our faces and in the faces of those who firmly defend secularism: Islamophobes, Christianophobes, provocateurs, irresponsible, throwing fuel on the fire, racists, had it coming. Yes, we condemn terrorism, but. Yes, sending cartoonists death threats isn’t good, but. Yes, burning a newspaper is bad, but. We heard it all, and our friends did too. We often tried to laugh about it, since that’s what we do best. But now we’d really like to laugh about something else.

We are going to hope that starting January 7, 2015, a firm defense of secularism will go without saying for everyone, that people will finally stop—whether because of posturing or electoral calculus or cowardice—legitimizing or even tolerating communalism and cultural relativism, which only open the door to one thing: religious totalitarianism. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a reality, yes, international geopolitics is a series of dirty tricks and maneuvers, yes, the social situation of “populations of Muslim origin” in France is profoundly unjust, yes, racism and discrimination must be fought relentlessly. Fortunately, there are several tools that can be used to try to resolve these serious problem, but they’re all useless without secularism. Not positive secularism, not inclusive secularism, not whatever-secularism, secularism period.



There are apologists among us.


Charlie Hebdo Reaction: Part 1, Moral Weakness and the Case For Solidarity

“Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.”

Preamble to the Laws of Cricket.

By the time I had got onto the internet following the Charlie Hebdo attack people had already begun to discuss how to react to those who murder for blasphemy, I quickly wrote a piece on it explaining why I thought it appropriate to reprint the offensive material and why it was unfortunately incumbent on all of us to call those in the media to account for not doing so. I think it has held up quite well. However, the weight of terrorist apologia, victim blaming, misplaced equivalence, intellectual laziness and moral weakness that has been ejaculated onto the web in the subsequent days suggests many people still cannot fathom the real message from this atrocity.

That message is this:

The maintenance of the full spectrum of free speech, except for those common law protections against harm, are an essential aspect of our society which all citizens have a duty to protect. This duty includes sharing the risks endured by those who may use their speech in ways you disapprove of and who express opinions you cannot countenance. The sharing of those risks includes media outlets reprinting offending material, both due to them being newsworthy by definition and because of the effect it will have in rendering attacks less effective. We need to arrive at the point where this position is the norm and any efforts that bring that to pass are required of us all.

How far from this we still are is seen by this Guardian piece addressing the latest cover.  In it Joseph Harker, Assistant Comment Editor at the paper says of Charlie Hebdo:

In depicting the prophet Muhammad it is deliberately offending the vast majority of Muslims around the world. And in caricaturing him holding a “Je suis Charlie” placard, they are adding insult to injury by claiming the prophet would support the values of the magazine, which for years has been widely criticised for targeting Muslims, in particular, under the cover of free speech.

Yes. That is right. He said they have ‘added insult to injury’. Those vile and cruel, mostly-dead bastards. How tasteless of them. How insensitive.

As it happens I think the latest cover is a masterpiece. It is perfectly judged. It shows they will not be cowed by theocratic nutcases, and as Padraig Reidy states in that same Guardian piece:

It is a challenge to those who in the past week, after throat-clearing on the horrendous murder of Charlie’s staff and their protectors, have attempted to switch the focus to the magazine’s supposed Islamophobia.

The very fact that the latest edition exists is remarkable and the fact that many media outlets have actually done the right thing and reprinted its cover is cause for optimism.

But because so many are still not grasping what’s at stake and that, unbelievably, in 2015 the arguments for supporting unfettered free expression still have to be made, this piece sets out from first principles the argument being advanced. This isn’t just an individual taste thing, it’s a wide and universal principle that we must show solidarity with the threatened.

Free speech and its importance:

A Starting Point

I don’t believe in this ‘absolute right of Free Speech’ learned apologists and appeasers keep informing us we do not have. Who does? It is a strawman.

America has it about right. We should have a negative right to freedom from restriction of expression and that traditional common law restrictions such as libel, forgery and incitement are accepted. I think Official Secrets protection is sensible and can accept some restrictions based on obscenity (e.g. child pornography).

The restrictions described above show clear cases of harm prevention and are based around the balancing of opposing rights. There is no right to not be offended and nor should there be. I therefore see no balance required between free speech and preventing offence.

I would add that I’m skeptical about some of the additional restrictions in modern Britain including our hate speech laws. Although supporting the motivation for having them I think the tendency for ‘mission creep’ in their application is real and liable to have detrimental effects. Especially those extending to religion. However it is perhaps not of immediate priority here.

With the above established the rest is a free for all as far as I am concerned. Yes people have a responsibility to be polite in their lives, manners are oil to the gears of life. But this is not a legal responsibility, if you want to be gratuitously offensive, you can. More than that, some people, French satirists for example, will see the generation of material that would be likely to cause offense vital for their cause and their attempts to progress society in their chosen direction. Nobody likes to be mocked or ridiculed and the ability to do so is a powerful weapon of speech. And must be protected. You may well prefer it when it ‘punches upwards’ or ‘afflicts the comfortable’, but that is a taste judgement and irrelevant here.

All this should be uncontroversial and fairly basic. However it is clear others do not agree. People talk of a ‘balance’ required, of ‘responsibility’ and even of ‘consequences’. All fine words on their own but if they contradict the state of affairs I have expressed above then I think them wrong. However, this is not an ‘agree to disagree’ moment. I refuse to ever reach that point on the broad strokes of this issue. Here is why:

Collective Responsibility

In contradiction to the rhetoric from activists of all stripes I think 21st Century Britain provides a relatively easy life compared to most of the world and all of our history.  It can therefore be understood why a person may think that the full spectrum of free speech available to them is a luxury they might do without. You’d be forgiven for thinking you have little need for the right to transgress, provoke or offend and that the loss of that freedom is a price worth paying for the mental comfort of those who may be offended. However, there are three clear problems with this view.

1: It is ahistoric

One of the key reasons our lives are better than most of those who have gone before us is that we have been able to use unpopular speech. Be it gay liberation movements fighting for equality, be it women fighting for suffrage, be it the struggle of rational thinkers against clerical supremacy, causes which have been of benefit to us have progressed through the ability and desire to transgress, provoke and offend.

2: You don’t know what the future holds

You may suggest you are cognisant of its previous worth but think those days of necessity are gone. We haven’t reached an end to history and so nobody knows when they will next have to use such speech which may shock or offend others. Comfort now does not mean comfort later.

3: It isn’t just your right

If you think you have little need for the full range of speech and collude in the trading of it for greater comfort, you aren’t just trading away your rights. You are trading away mine. You may be giving up the rights of somebody being oppressed in ways you are unaware of. This is not acceptable.

The third problem is what I want to concentrate on here and also is perhaps where this argument gets tricky.

When making the case for mass reprinting of offensive material I suggested that all people and not just journalists need to bear their share of the risk. I described us all as non-fighting combatants in the war against those who would murder for speech. This would include office cleaners, IT engineers and other staff. In a subsequent discussion I was asked ‘well what if the cleaning staff don’t believe in free speech’? My short answer was ‘well they don’t have any bloody choice’. I stand by it. They have a collective responsibility to protect free speech and I will endeavour to explain why.

Existential Threat. 

To suggest that free choice and free expression is so important that you have no choice about it seems self-contradictory. It is a paradox. I would compare it to dilemma of when an anti-democratic party that would install a dictatorship is doing well in an election. In this instance there is a clear argument for the suspension of that party’s right to seek election as they would rob from future generations the right and ability to decide their own government.

The imposition of conscription, the suspension of habeas corpus, the curtailment of free speech and the appropriation of property are all things that were seen in the US or/and Britain during World War II. Such actions are extreme and we have to ensure such measures are always temporary and that the threat is real and warranting such action. This is mentioned to establish the principle that some form of compulsion to fulfill societally ascribed duties is an accepted norm when it is deemed necessary for the survival of the state or its peoples.

When not engaged in a general and all out war I believe the maintenance of the full rights to free speech earlier expressed are worthy of something comparable to this compulsion. Not from the state, with penalties, but socially, it should be a basic part of press ethics. To achieve and maintain this we have a duty to call people on not fulfilling their duties. There must be a societal norm and expectation to do so.  Because the prolonged absence of free speech rights is a recipe for such calamity as to be able to be deemed an existential threat to our way of life and eventually our lives. It may not be as an immediate threat, or as clear a threat. But it is a threat,

By way of example of such a threat, imagine a fascist and growing force that is seeking to have some of its ideological basis deemed beyond the bounds of normal expression and able to remain untouched by satire and ridicule. Surely there we can see something constituting an existential threat?

So where it may be a duty both morally and legally during a war to hand over property or provide your labour or fighting ability to the effort, I believe the same applies in peacetime to maintaining free speech and protecting all people’s rights to exercise it free from threat. I think this a primary and universal responsibility.

Injuring the Game

The best analogy I can muster to explain this primary and universal principle is from the game of cricket. The laws of cricket are biblical in length but there in paragraph one, page one, of the Preamble to the Laws of Cricket is the following:

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.

Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.

This opening expresses the realisation that all players who wish to play the game first accept that the game itself is more important than their own ambitions within it. And that without that commitment to the condition of the game itself, the value of the results of their own ambitions is thus diminished. The good condition of the game therefore is the first responsibility and it is shared by all players on opposing sides.

In The Tolerant Society Professor Lee Bollinger states

…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.

So as a society, we must first open the space for a free and rigorous exchange of ideas, we can then move on to bowling bouncers at opponents heads all day in pursuit of the win. But all share that primary responsibility first. A key part of that responsibility is to protect ALL speech. The game itself. Not just the parts that help your team win.

In Manufacturing Consent Noam Chomsky states:

If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.

The use of this cricket analogy is dependent on free speech being vital. I have explained above why I consider it so. I will also add that it is the most important right. I have been looking for some time for a quote I remember hearing and have failed to find it. So the following sentence is a paraphrasing of a thinker whose name escapes me.

Take away all my rights but leave me with free speech and I will use it to regain the others.

The right to free speech is the first and foremost right. It is the very basis for freedom of religious practice, it is the weapon for gaining new rights and is essential for the protection of  rights already won. And all people share an equal burden in maintaining it.

The case for solidarity (reprinting the offending material):

Here is a statement of principle:

Once art/writing/satire is threatened with violence and murder it becomes important beyond its content.

To threaten the production or dissemination of artifacts of free expression with violence and murder is an attack on all free speech. And therefore the approval of the content is not relevant. It is an attack on your most fundamental right even if you despise the speech in question.

I repeat: It doesn’t matter if you agree with the content or not. You are duty bound to protect it.

It seems that the only way so far suggested to counter such attacks is what I describe as ‘option 2’ in my last piece which reiterated what I said in an earlier one on Sony and The Interview. Namely the widespread dissemination of offensive material by all and sundry when threatened. I quote:

the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set.

This proposed action, I suggest will have the following positive effects:

1: When in response to a threat, rather than an attack, it acts to dissipate the risk onto as many shoulders as possible and thus diminishing the benefits of an attack. In short, you can’t kill us all.

2: The Streisand Effect will render threats and attacks counter-productive.

3: When an established norm it will provide the comfort for voices to speak as they wish without fear. This is good for all society.

4: It makes it clear they don’t stand a chance in changing our society in the way they’d hope. It will reiterate that our fundamental rights will be protected no matter what and as a society we are intent on maintaining them. So the required change in behaviour is incumbent on those wishing to silence speech.

5: It works against the trend of infantilising those lumped in with the ‘offended’ group, who are condescendingly presumed to have been victims of controversial thought.

I know of no other suggestion. ‘Option 2’ is all there is. However when we speak of solidarity it must include the reprinting. Not the farcical and fraudulent expression of solidarity like the New Statesmen attempted to get away with. They managed to print an editorial titled Solidarity With Charlie Hebdo, where they proceeded to reprint several of Charlie Hebdo’s more racy covers including the Bishop of Rome in drag dancing at Mardi Gras. The did however manage to miss out printing any of the cartoons that actually got them killed. They are not standing with Charlie as much as affecting a desirable stance that looks like standing with Charlie.

Most other organisations have also failed to stand with Charlie. They have avoided printing newsworthy items because of fear and/or a desire not to offend. This too is unacceptable.

‘Getting to option 2’

There are three types of people in media not printing in solidarity or for news purposes.

Type 1: The first is honest, they won’t print because of fear of offense. These may well be people who revel in offending in other circumstances but they have identified a victim group here so it is a line they cannot cross.

Type 2: The second is dishonest and says they won’t print due to offence but actually it is fear.

Type 3: The third is those that accept they should reprint but do not because of fear.

The first is probably lost to the cause and should be constantly called out on their failure. In my next piece I will try and analyse who these people are and what should be done about them. The latter two are worth trying to get on board and in the right circumstances will do so.

The reaction to the Danish Cartoons Controversy in 2006 was poor. Very few organisations disseminated the cartoons and some that did were pursued in court. It was a moment lost and had an incredible chilling effect on speech on this subject. As evidenced by Mohammed’s depiction being censored in South Park episode ‘201’ in 2010 whereas it hadn’t been in the earlier episode ‘Super Best Friends’ in 2001.

Things almost seemed to get better after the 2010 South Park controversy when Molly Norris proposed ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’. Unfortunately when the going got tough, Molly got going and it appears she is still gone 4 years later. Things were bleak.

The sheer ridiculousness of the Maajid Naawaz retweeting controversy in the UK, culminating in this laughable segment on Newsnight, seemed to help shift opinions. It had tipped into farce. The surrounding debate eventually included Newsnight showing the depiction in question. This was progress.

As depressing as much of the reaction to the attacks has been I think there are signs we have got further towards the goal from where we were in 2006 or 2010. The BBC seems to have amended editorial guidelines, the discussion of the requirement to publish is louder and larger than before and Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack edition increased its print run from 60,000 to 3m. It sold out in minutes and an additional 2 million are being printed. The Streisand effect if you will. This is good. Better still is that the depth of the atrocity combined with the brilliance of the cover means that organisations really looked stupid not publishing it. So many now have.

I’m sure Britain’s major editors have each other’s phone numbers. I am sure they will have used them to discuss such things as Leveson. Has it really been beyond their wits to get together, do the right and proper thing and decide to publish as one? I suggest no. And it is time they did.

I think that the next time this issue arises we will hit the tipping point where the refusal to do this appears so egregious that people will be forced, by others and by their own conscious, to publish. And for the reasons outlined above, I hope this is the case. The chill will begin to thaw.

It seems strange to need another terror attack or threat to achieve one’s goal. But then if there is no further incident, there will be no further problem anyway, rendering this discussion irrelevant. Unfortunately, I know which option my money is on.


I have largely avoided including all the counter arguments and examples of egregious thinking that have been out there. This is entirely due to length and I will deal with them in Part 2. There I will address the nature and tactics of those arguing the various positions that differ from the one expressed here.

I’m not the Doctor

A quick clarification note:

Following my piece “Suicide Pact – You First” I was invited onto the radio to discuss the free speech implications of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I was introduced as Dr David Paxton. I am not a Doctor. The discussion was underway before I was asked to speak. I may have been in error but I didn’t think interrupting the debate to immediately point out the error was best. So I do so here.

By way of explanation, my Twitter handle had me as ‘Dr David Paxton’ for a short while. This was part of a joke shared between several friends on Twitter about a prominent campaigner calling himself Dr and that we shared the view that non medical doctors were often pretentious when using their academic title. I didn’t try to hide this and the discussion about doing it was had on Twitter, in the open.

At no point did I discuss my qualifications with the producer, he suggested the description of my occupation before going on and I stand by that as accurate. The first time I heard them say ‘Doctor’ was sat in the radio studio going out live. Which as you can imagine was slightly embarrassing. If not a little funny.

This then was a simple mistake by the producers caused inadvertently by my rather immature stunt. I didn’t deliberately seek to be seen as a Dr.

I write this to both explain why I am not a fraud and to apologise if I made the producers of the show look bad in any way.

I repeat, I am not a doctor.

Nor am I Mo Ansar.


( Debate starts around 01:06)

Suicide Pact – You First

Originally posted here on January 7th 2015

Despite the forlorn wishes of many, 2015 has begun where 2014 left off. 12 lie dead in Paris and the fight which appeasers and apologists pretend is a mere reaction to the original sin of the West continues to be a multi-generational fight for civilisation. Barbarianism (them) versus enlightenment (us).

However, the Paris attack was not seeking the maximum number of random civilians dead, it was a targeted assault on a specific organisation. Namely the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Anybody with access to news over the last decade won’t be surprised by this. It isn’t quite run-of-the-mill but nor is it the bolt from the blue. And that itself is surely bordering on the surreal. This description bears repeating. Men armed with assault weapons massacred those in the offices of a satirical magazine. In Western Europe, in 2015. A satirical magazine. This is our current reality.

If it had been a maximum random casualty attack you still would have had the same cretinous apologists forgetting that France opposed the Iraq War and gluing the attack onto their narrative of enlightened self hatred.

A few others would have spoken of the alienation of post-colonialist ‘others’ living in France or some such, likewise pushing the blame onto those without their fingers on the triggers. Apart from this there would have been little else other than mass condemnation and the harsh acceptance that this is just how the world is right now. But, this was not a general attack on Western or French society it was, as mentioned, specific. The targets were guilty of religious offence or, in the case of the police, protecting those guilty of religious offence. This specific target causes us to asks specific questions. Journalist and author Guy Walters (@guywalters) posed such a question succinctly and quickly.

If there is an answer it seems to be one of two options. In brief they are:
Option 1: Stop offending Muslims by satirising their religious beliefs and appease the demands of the violent.
Option 2: Show solidarity and publish the offensive articles whenever and wherever possible.

I won’t waste time by explaining why I think Option 1 is a non-starter. I will further state that I know of no Option 3 and am open to suggestions. Option 2 is based on sharing the risk, dissipating it, and in so doing rendering such specific attacks so pointless as to be unworthy of the effort.

In my last piece here I addressed the issues surrounding The Interview being withdrawn by Sony, I said:

Upon reading their press release I was instantly struck by the similarity with the Danish cartoons incident of 2005. Those cartoons may well have been things that most news organisations would not wish to publish, however the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set. However, almost no organisations published the cartoons. And the reason most commonly given was that they had a duty, a paramount interest if you will, to the safety of their staff.

The excellent Stephen Pollard (@stephenpollard), who writes for the Jewish Chronicle, added flesh to the dilemma and shows that my easy announcements are indeed more complicated than perhaps I grant them:

A real fear, though, is that the moment has passed. The Danish cartoons situation was the moment to choose solidarity and not individual Human Resources responsibilities. And it was to that specific situation I lament the lack of a collective response. Perhaps we have already lost?

In general, but with shameful and notable exceptions, the reaction to The Satanic Verses was one closer to Option 2. In general, with the Danish Cartoons, we chose Option 1. A brave and notable exception was Canadian, Jewish and conservative commentator Ezra Levant. He chose to publish the cartoons via his magazine, The Western Standard, and for his troubles was hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission under threat of a publishing ban (for the uninitiated, Canadian Human Rights Commissions are Orwellian ersatz courts arbitrating between various group rights without offering due process by any accepted Common Law norms). I recommend viewing his series of videos from his deposition.

When Yale University Press announced that it was to censor the Danish cartoons of Mohammed from their book about the Danish controversy he wrote a piece which included the following:

I’ve said it before, and this is depressing proof of it: the fatwa against those cartoons, issued on the streets of Damascus and Tehran, did more damage to our North American culture of liberty than did 9/11 itself.
9/11 killed thousands of people and cost countless dollars. But other than those who were killed that day and their families, and those in our volunteer armed forces, 9/11 really didn’t change our lives other than perhaps the frustrating kabuki we go through at airport security. What’s different in our daily lives?
The Danish cartoon riots, though, had an enormous effect. They planted seeds of fear in the minds of thousands of editors, publishers, producers, journalists, professors, politicians and other “public intellectuals” — the dealers in ideas, the opinion leaders. They have chilled the intellectual climate of the West.

He’s onto something. But lamenting the cowardice or/and misjudgment of the past does not answer Guy Walters’s question of what to do today. We are where we are.
Stephen Pollard again:

The second post is apposite. Although I am not anonymous I don’t have the same responsibilities that editors of organisations do. Being a journalist is a pretty cool job. People long to be in the profession, they get to feel warm and fuzzy about themselves and are elevated when asked at a party the recurring question ‘so what do you do?’. They reward themselves for ‘telling truth to power’ but as Mark Steyn said, “If you’re going to be provocative, it’s best to do it with people who can’t be provoked”. The test is how you act when faced with the murderously provocable.

Except, it isn’t just the people that get to feel good about their privileged occupation at risk here. An editor making this decision for free speech is not just endangering the journalists, but their office cleaners, the agency hired IT repair guy, the people milling past the office and the police units that respond. Do they have the right to put them in the path of danger?

Surely we are also asking if they have the right not to? Can they hold the privileged power in our society without making those decisions also, and if I am milling past their office when an attack occurs why am I, as part of this society, not also obligated to take my share of the risk? When the untenable Option 1 is the only other solution we have to accept this risk, do we not? The standard rhetoric that Western civilians targeted in attacks are merely innocent victims never sat entirely easy with me. In taking advantage of our own freedoms we have to accept the risk and responsibilities of exercising them. This isn’t merely a burden passed on to those in uniform we pay or those who write what we read. It is surely the unfortunate price of living un-cowed with the responsibilities of freedom. We are non-fighting combatants. Our enemies have made the choice that our very lifestyles are acts of war. It is wrong, they are wrong, but it is so.

Tough talk, easy to write from my desk, and pronouncements of a shared burden may ring hollow when the risk is disproportionately shared but until I personally fail to live up to it, it must remain my default position. The cellular and rational response of individual priorities is what has helped lead us to this impasse.

Stephen Pollard’s reservations are logical and honest. But to follow them through means we will continue to reward thugs. He knows this.

Again, I can’t claim to have taken a big risk just because I choose to end this piece with a provocative cartoon and use my own name. And employing no journalists I bear no direct responsibility for the lives of others. But if we work on the assumption that we will all do the rational (cowardly) thing as a default where does that leave us? But in calling for this boil to be lanced with acts of solidarity am I not phrasing this as ‘suicide pact, you first’?

Guy Walters also wrote:

Well put. No politician will help initiate a large scale change of approach. If Cameron urges all outlets to publish anything offensive the moment it is threatened surely he would be condemed for incitement from all sides? Is this something that should be cross party agreed? Am I really calling for the deliberate mass publication of everything that is gratuitously offensive the moment it is threatened? Yes. But somebody has to go first.

Today Salman Rushdie said,

I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

What does standing with them look like? Rushdie has done way more than his share. But what do the rest of us do? How do we manifest this fearless disrespect?

In this fight for civilisation, the dead in Paris are footsoldiers. They have fought on our behalf by exercising their rights. Armed only with a pencil, they were rewarded first by accusations of racism and then by death.

‘I am Charlie’ seems a hollow parody when considered beside ‘what right have I to endanger my staff?’ Nobody asked to be put in this position when entering journalism, but shit happens. That’s the power, that’s the responsibility. Who are you to draw pay and call yourself part of a free press if you’re willing to allow a tiny French satirical magazine to bear all the risk? How can any of us expect the rights we take for granted by compartmentalising the risk? That’s cowardice.

The ‘editor’s dilemma’ as Pollard puts it has been around for a decade. Most editors have not. If their editor had put them in that position a decade ago they would merely be continuing the condition when it became their turn. And each new member of the organisation willingly starts their job knowing to be under that threat. That becomes a norm, a tradition if you will. One which the uniformed estates of our society have taken for granted from day one. It has to start somewhere and surely it has to start.

The Telegraph just published a piece on the attacks with an ‘offensive’ picture blurred out. Is this not an example of ‘He’s Spartacus!’. Why should Telegraph staff be crucified alone? What right have they to put their staff at risk? Well what right have they to call themselves part of our press if they don’t?

Can I condemn the Daily Telegraph for not going first? I have to, because what else can we do? I am calling them cowards and doing so in the knowledge that it could well be staffed entirely with individually brave people whom I cannot hold a candle to. I am doing so knowing it is blissfully easy for me to do so, beyond my personal scruples. I am doing so because what other option is there?

Je Suis Charlie

Paramount Interest

Originally posted here on December 18th 2014

“We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theatergoers,”

Employers have responsibilities. But then so do all of us as members of society. What happens when these clash? What interest is in fact, paramount?

So Sony have decided not to put out their film. It is a comedy, it doesn’t seem to be high-brow, of large social import or making a vital political statement. And yet none of that is relevant. The moment Sony were threatened it became important beyond its content.

Upon reading their press release I was instantly struck by the similarity with the Danish cartoons incident of 2005. Those cartoons may well have been things that most news organisations would not wish to publish, however the moment people threatened and indeed proceeded to kill over them, any news organisation worth its name had an obligation to publish. Firstly because it is news, but secondly and I suggest more importantly, as an act of defiance to the threat, of solidarity with the threatened and to ensure that the most ugly of precedents is not set. However, almost no organisations published the cartoons. And the reason most commonly given was that they had a duty, a paramount interest if you will, to the safety of their staff.

When a member of your family is kidnapped, their safe return is of paramount interest to you. Who could make the case to you that the wider picture, namely future kidnap victims, is in fact more important and expect to be agreed with?

Although paying a ransom is not technically illegal in America, to do so to a known terrorist group will leave you open to prosecution for terrorist funding and the Federal government have used this fact to prevent previous attempts at payments. Despite no law preventing the UK and US governments themselves paying, they choose as a matter of policy not to. The US and the UK do not negotiate with kidnappers and terrorists. The last time a group in the UK worked without that assumption was 1980 at Princess Gate. The whole world saw how that ended and it seems plenty of people took note. To reward the behaviour is to encourage it. This is why this doctrine is in place, to prevent repeats.  But once adopted that policy takes backbone, stoicism to maintain. A policy others, the French or Italian governments for example, seem far less well equipped to uphold.

But with a family and a kidnap, their lack of wider moral awareness is easily and instantly accepted. Can we really grant businesses the same latitude? Or conversely, are we able to expect them to take a longer term view like our governments? In corporate culture people have clear roles and responsibilities. They are defined, they come with accompanying flow-charts and diagrams, they are signed for and lawyers are circling ready to jump on any lapses come tribunal time. Nowhere in Sony’s corporate policies will it speak of a moral obligation to uphold the intangibles of the culture of freedom of speech, to not reward the bullying behaviour of autocrats, and certainly not to accept, on behalf of their employees, mortal danger for these reasons.

Their legal responsibilities have been met but surely not their moral ones. They can only be sued for the former however. This is the world of cover-your-arse, of just following orders, of defining the interest most beneficial to themselves in isolation and calling it ‘paramount’.

Sony caved first, they told the cinema chains which they have deals with, that it was ok not to show it as previously agreed. Then “Regal Cinemas, AMC Entertainment and Cinemark Theatres – the top three theatre chains in North America – subsequently announced they were postponing screenings, and Canada’s biggest theatre firms also pulled out, leaving Sony seemingly no choice but to postpone the film.”

If indeed they were thus threatened I would suggest that releasing details of that threat, perhaps a warning with the ticket purchase,  and then allowing cinema goers to choose to take the risk would be an adequate fulfillment of the duty. It would allow the public to demonstrate what they think of threats from bullies. This is not going to happen.

This incident has occurred in the midst of the leak from Sony of a multitude of corporate information following a hack. Unfortunately it may well be that issues around this leak are for Sony the interest most paramount rather than the apparent threat to safety in cinemas. One can only speculate as to whether the film would have been pulled due to a threat without this massive leak. The thing is, now they have pulled the film it is surely only a matter of time before another controversial film garners a threat. Then we will of course find out. But would that make this decision better or worse?

Let us assume the threat to cinema goers is the real reason. If so Sony must release the film for free as soon as possible. That way at least they will both serve their ‘paramount interest’ as they state it, and the actual paramount interest as I do.

The Conspiracy Fallacy

Originally Posted here on September 13th 2013

Writing refutations to the arguments of conspiracy theorists seems as difficult and brave as clubbing seals. But anyone who has ever publicly expressed even moderate support for military intervention has inevitably encountered various leaps of logic from the keyboards of conspiracy theorists.  Their personal imperviousness to sensible debate and their theory’s superbug-like inability to die off suggests there is something to be said for trying to understand their process, if it can be called such. Besides, I like clubbing seals.

Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

This is advice conspiracy theorists simply cannot take.  Everything is deliberate.

Cui bono: “as a benefit to whom?”

This is the logic that says umbrella salesmen make the rain. A conspiracy theorist’s favourite.

Furtive fallacy: Significant facts of history are necessarily sinister

This is a form of paranoia, it’s not the acceptance of conspiracy theories as much as feeling the necessity for them to exist.

The denial of the first example, the overuse of the second and the possible affliction of the third are all common features in conspiracy theory argument. I think another one is also often evident and although related to ‘cui bono’, constitutes a distinct fallacy. This is to be called the factum ut faciat or the made to make fallacy. (I’ve added Latin for extra pretension) It is defined below:

“Faciens hoc ergo factum ut faciat hoc” (“made this, therefore made to make this”) is an informal fallacy (of the questionable cause variety) that states “Since event x caused event y, event x must have been instigated to bring about event y.” The fallacy lies in coming to a conclusion of causality based solely on the outcome of events, rather than taking into account other factors that suggest the outcome is incidental or requiring evidence to demonstrate intention.

The following is a simple example: The chip pan fire caused the house to burn down, therefore the chip pan fire was started with the intention of burning the house down.

A prime example of contemporary usage would be: “America couldn’t have invaded Iraq in 2003 without the public anger from 9-11. Therefore 9-11 was an inside job undertaken to enable the war in Iraq”

So, when you hear something along the lines of  ‘Obama withdrew troops from Iraq and created ISIS deliberately to create the chaos to er…. put them back in’, asserted without evidence, know that this is the factum ut faciat fallacy.

H/T  @jonathanMetzer  for the Latin

PS: If you think one of the many existing informal fallacies would already include this, please let me know.