...free to think freely


14th April 2018

Blood, Bullies, and Belligerence

Today, like everyone in the UK, I awoke to learn that during the night, the UK, France and the USA had launched a missile strike against Syrian targets believed to be involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons. It seems the leaders of these three nations see conflict as the only way to deal with a possible violation of human rights and indeed of the conventions governing war. This response came as a delegation from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepared to begin an investigation into the suspected use of such weapons. Exactly what the urgency was to respond so quickly seems unclear, since the investigation was only about to begin. I would generally consider it necessary to check the facts before taking action but, or so we are led to believe, there was no time for that on this occasion. It is hard to see what the cause of the urgency was, other than a possible desire to send a signal to Syria’s ally, Russia, that recent behaviour cannot be tolerated.

Assuming the reports of a chemical weapons attack in Syria are true, it could be argued something had to be done, though what that something should be would need to be carefully thought through, and getting the facts might be thought an essential pre-requisite to such thought. Otherwise it begins to look as if conflict was seen as the only possible response.

Later today I heard the beginning of Radio 4’s controversial commemoration of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, given about 50 years ago next week. The introduction to the speech was indeed shocking for its lack of imagination. Powell claimed he had been told by a constituent that he wanted to flee the country because “In fifteen or twenty years time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man in this country”. Instead of challenging this presumption of racial conflict Powell took the assertion as obviously true and used it to criticise the then Labour government’s Race Relations Bill. He argued that discrimination was a private matter and that it was an intrusion for people to be asked to justify decisions. Powell seems to have been unable to see that relationships between people of different backgrounds do not necessarily consist of competition or conflict, or that differences that matter should be distinguished from those that do not. Moreover, he seems to have failed to recognise that when decisions have a public effect going beyond the private individual, they are no longer purely private in nature. My opinions are private: my treatment of another person is not.

What Messrs Powell, Trump and Putin have in common is their use of uneducated popular opinion to bolster their own popularity, making no effort to educate it, but instead pandering to, and even encouraging, an ignorance of the facts which suits their own popularising narrative. They alike play on the fears and sense of injustice felt by ordinary people to present themselves as saviours when they are actually leading the world into dangerous and destabilising folly. The narrative proceeds from affirming feelings of injustice, and fostering a belief that a champion is needed to stand up to the bullies threatening ordinary people. The speaker then presents himself (or herself) as that champion, and seeks opportunities to be seen to be standing up to the opposing forces, whoever they are alleged to be. This might involve manufacturing conflict in order to be seen to be the defender of the people concerned, since it is difficult to defend people if there is no enemy from which to defend them. Whether it is the American worker who has seen traditional opportunities for work and advancement recede in the face of globalisation or the Russian who has ceased to be a citizen of one of the two global superpowers and now just lives in a mediocre economically small backwater of world trade or, indeed, the German in an inflation-ruined republic which has recently lost a major war, what seems most restorative to hurt pride is a champion strutting on the international stage insisting that the people of that nation will be given their “rightful” place in the sun. In reality, such a person is simply a bully, behaving badly in international relations, but he or she looks good at home.