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Saturday, 18 February 2017

An Open Letter To The British Political System

Dear British politics,

Have you ever watched Star Trek : Deep Space Nine ?  I doubt it, since you're an ill-defined abstract entity and not a person. But that's okay, because I have, quite a lot. The central plot revolves around the conflict between the Federation and the evil, all-conquering Dominion, a race of shape-shifters from a distant part of the galaxy. Of particular interest are their local allies, the Cardassians. Don't confuse them with the Kardashians (or vice-versa as I did), because that will cause no end of trouble. Look, I've made you a little guide to clear things up.

The Cardassians are a species our Federation heroes are well acquainted with. Once a fearsome power in the region, their influence has steadily diminished. A recent war brought them to their knees, leaving the conquerors on the verge of becoming themselves the conquered. Then, with classic storybook timing, a rogue, exiled leader returns in a spectacular coup, not only seizing control of Cardassia but forming an alliance with the Dominion. Instantly the tables are turned, and a resurgent Cardassia goes on the warpath. Ultimately of course, because this is Star Trek, this wholly amoral course leaves Cardassia a broken ruin.

The rogue leader is a man named Gul Dukat (pictured above), who is someone the Labour Party should be very familiar with. Sly, duplicitous, eloquent and erudite, a consummate politician and (eventually) wholly corrupted by his own greed and lust for power, but also a man of genuine and deep emotion and great intellect, he signs away Cardassian freedoms to restore his people's former strength. Riding the tiger of his far more powerful ally is a task uniquely suited to a man of Dukat's dark charisma, which his successors are not able to emulate. The whole precarious edifice eventually, inevitably, collapses. Chaos ensues. Our Federation heroes emerge victorious.

A bit crude, but then so is this analysis.

Of course in reality Tony Blair is not Gul Dukat (nor is Theresa May); America is not the Dominion; the alliance didn't leave Britain a devastated wreck. Do not make the common mistake in thinking that analogies are fatally flawed because of their differences - that's why we call them analogies. They are useful to draw attention to similarities but we should not get carried away - we should neither infer that because Gul Dukat wanted to destroy the Bajorans that Tony Blair was on a mission to annihilate his enemies, nor fail to acknowledge similarities and their obvious inferences where they exist. Dukat lied to himself about his goals just as Blair did, but that does not mean Blair is secretly a genocidal maniac. He may really believe in establishing peace as a just cause, but he's delusional if he really believes he's the one to do it.

"Delusion", by the way, is an interesting term. Clinically it is not an absolute. It simply means believing something which is utterly contrary to one's other pre-existing beliefs.

The wheel has turned and turned again since the Blair era. Blair jumped in bed with a hugely unpopular American president (how naive we were !) out of sheer self-serving ego. Theresa May is doing the same but with someone infinitely worse for a more complicated reason. Gul Dukat was wonderfully self-deceiving, genuinely convincing himself he was doing good as a cloak for his own innate evil. Only under immense pressure did the façade finally crack and reveal his true self; Blair's might not even be a façade at all. He isn't hiding some deeper inner darkness, he genuinely and sincerely believes he was doing the right thing.

Bush's America was not much like the Dominion. Trump', at worst, threatens to become more similar. Certainly Trump and his colleague's utter disregard for the virtues of the truth could be cast as analogous to the inherently untrustworthy nature of the shapeshifters. Trump is barely a hair's breadth from post-revelation Dukat or the Dominion leaders, a Bond-esque supervillain hell bent on villainy for villainy's sake.

Yet you, oh British politics, have utterly failed to learn the lessons of this. Like Dukat's successors, our currently leader is far less competent - but determined to try the same trick with a more dangerous and deadly ally. And whereas Blair didn't strengthen the Anglo-American alliance out of desperation like Gul Dukat did, that's exactly what May is doing. Cardassia became an impoverished state through its aggressive military policies; Britain is making itself a pariah through Brexit, which in turn is driving us into the arms of Trump. If you haven't watched Deep Space Nine, now might be a good time to start. You can get in on Netflix and claim it on parliamentary expenses, I expect.

Instead of fighting this self-destructive course, almost the whole of you lot seem determined to win the race to the bottom. "We cannot go against the referendum just because we do not like it", you say. And you are absolutely right ! There are a whole bunch of much better reasons you can go against the vote. Shall I count the ways ? It was non-binding. The campaign was based on lies admitted by the Leavers almost instantly. Most other polls show a preference to remain. The margin of victory was so narrow that Leavers pre-emptively suggested a second referendum if it had not gone their way by the same margin. The decision will have profound repercussions for decades. There was a very strong expert consensus in almost all fields that this is a bad idea. It wasn't known that we'd be making deals with a figure as unpopular and monstrous as Trump as a result of this. There are more, but that should suffice to give any rational individual pause for thought.

Now, only a fool would completely ignore the large disillusionment with the E.U. - the result of the vote must be in some sense "respected". But what you're doing, you the Mother of Parliaments, is far beyond merely respecting people's legitimate concerns about the nature of the E.U. - you are opting for the worst form of Brexit possible. There wasn't any option on the ballot paper for that, there was only the question of E.U. membership. It was up to you to make the best of this situation. And there certainly wasn't any option saying we should sign a deal with the devil.

What you seemed to have got very confused about is the nature of protest. Yes, we have the right to protest over any damn thing we like, be it the poor quality of Vin Diesel's acting or the oppression of minorities - but let's not pretend for one minute that the two are morally comparable. They are not. One is a subjective opinion about entertainment we can easily avoid that does no-one any harm, the other is a factually destructive force. Just because we're offended by bigotry and are protesting about it, it does not follow, as you seem to think, that we are merely angry protesters who can be dismissed as sore losers. This is not whining for the sake of whining or even simply because of strong moral views - it's protesting a course of action which, as sure as anything can ever be, will cause all of us harm. Protesting against xenophobia is not the same as protesting because we're unhappy about closing the local library.

Xenophobia played an enormous role in the Leave campaign, but now you seem absolutely determined to do bugger all about it. Indeed, by embracing any deal with Trump you are also embracing bigotry. The man is a monster; you cannot simply say, "but he's American" as though that was some sort of innately virtuous thing, because it isn't. More on that later.

I reserve especially harsh criticism for you in the Labour party, which I have so long supported. You are fully aware that Brexit will cause economic hardship and moral bankruptcy, and you are nearly all equally aware that your leader is a moronic fool. Yet most of you decided to vote for Brexit anyway. And I do not shirk from ad hominem attacks in the case of both Trump and Corbyn, since my criticism of them is not just aimed at their policies, but directly and specifically at the people themselves. For while it is a good guideline that only small minds discuss people, there must surely be an exception in the case where those people are our leaders and we find their whole character to be wanting.

Trump is a villainous monster. I despise Trump not only because of his policies (which are despicable) but for his whole character : his "special snowflake" temper tantrums, his bigotry, his lying and constant bullshitting, his raging ego and megalomania. Those are qualities I do not want the leader of America to have regardless of his stated policies. In Corbyn's case, the situation is much more extreme. With the notable exception of Brexit it is not his policies I oppose at all, but solely his character. The brown-coated little despot refuses to acknowledge that anyone but himself can have principles, or that those principles could be different from his own. He will not give up power even when he doesn't have any. The man is not a monster like Trump : a more appropriate adjective would be "pathetic". You have to remove him, somehow, otherwise Blair's prediction of annihilation at the next election looks more and more likely. You do not have to rally around him simply because he's your leader.

There is a common theme among all of these problems, which has been gnawing away at me for some time without the ability to adequately express it. An appropriate description finally struck me while reading Plato one morning on the metro. His method of examination by question and answer often employs trivial, even tautologous statements as a beginning. Yet in the process of discussion those seemingly trivial statements are often revealed to be anything but, sometimes shown to contain profound truths while sometimes demonstrated to be self-contradictory.

What I am driving at is this : are freedom and democracy inherently good things ? Plato might suggest the more basic starting questions : don't good actions always lead to good outcomes ? Can any thing be called good which leads to a bad outcome ? And perhaps it might, if that bad outcome eventually led to an overall improvement, if it taught a lesson in how to avoid such things in the future; perhaps the immediate outcome is not the whole story.

We could debate such matters endlessly - and these simple question most certainly do no have simple answers - but my point is that neither freedom nor democracy are necessarily virtuous in themselves. Not if they lead to things which are wholly negative, that cause nothing but suffering. And while it's good to let people make their own mistakes and learn from them, letting them fall off a cliff could hardly be called a sensible way of educating them about gravity. Furthermore, although significant levels of "Bregret" have been expressed in the wake of the vote, there is also a hard core of Brexiteers and Trump supporters who will never learn. They would keep shouting about our glorious future even as everything they sought comes crashing down around them. This is not a cloud with a silver lining, a harsh but necessary lesson, it is simply a disaster. One we should avoid.

Political leaders supporting Brexit are a consequence of thinking that democracy is innately virtuous, and that the more democratic the process, the better the result must be. British MPs supporting Trump are a consequence of thinking that America is innately virtuous. And Labour MPs still supporting Corbyn are a consequence of thinking that their leader is somehow innately virtuous too; if not in character then merely deserving of support because he's the leader, which has much the same outcome.

But these things are not innately virtuous. We should not value freedom and democracy just because they are freedom and democracy, but because we believe those things will enable us to lead good lives that we want to lead. They should be seen as means to an end, not an end in themselves. Freedom that leads you to unjustly hate and demonise those who don't belong to your social group is no virtue at all, nor is such discrimination somehow more palatable because it was enacted by a democratic vote.

There are those who quite rightly raise the issue that trying to suppress freedom of expression is essentially the very thing that we profess to despise about fascists, that if we do this we will be no better than the fascists themselves. I have to disagree. Suppressing bigotry, hatred and intolerance is not morally equivalent to allowing bigotry and intolerance and the infinitely greater suppression of free speech that fascism entails. How hollow it sounds to defend freedom of expression while allowing that freedom to be used to neuter itself !

Or as this article puts it :
To be blunt: Nazism is democracy’s anti-matter. There is nothing about the ideology or its practice that is anything but corrosive to democratic institutions. 
Fascism is a cancer that turns democracy against itself unto death. There is no reasoning with it. It was specifically engineered to attack the weaknesses of democracy and use them to bring down the entire system, arrogating a right to free speech for itself just long enough to take power and wrench it away from everyone else. Simply allowing Nazis onto a stage, as the BBC did when it let British National Party leader Nick Griffin sit and debate with political luminaries on its Question Time program, is to give them an invaluable moral victory.  
In using this tactic, Nazis abuse the democratic forum to illegitimately lend credence to something that is otherwise indefensible, the equality of the stage giving the unforgivable appearance of “two sides” to a position that is anathema to public decency. This is not because Nazis love democracy or free speech, but because they know how to use this strategy to unravel them.
The very election of Trump, a man who inspires white supremacists (intentionally or not, it hardly matters which), demonstrates the flaw in the democratic process. The consistent lies and hatred stirred up by the media demonstrate the flaw in allowing absolute, unrestricted freedom of speech. No, you can't shut people up just because you disagree with them. You can shut them up because they're causing people to suffer needlessly. Actual real people physical suffering. Racism and xenophobia are not things I merely disagree with or dislike, they are things which have been factually proven, time after time after time, to be damaging and destructive. There's no moral superiority to be had by allowing these things to flourish unchecked.

"Flourish unchecked" is a phrase very carefully chosen, for while freedom and democracy are not intrinsically morally perfect, they are certainly preferable to the alternatives. A world of censorship, tyranny and control is the goal of the fascists, not mine. Indeed as a scientist I will tell you that dissenting voices are, ordinarily, not something we have to endure or even merely tolerate, but actively encourage. We should seek out alternative viewpoints so that we may discuss them, investigate them and see if they fare better or worse than our existing ideas.

But these are not normal times. We aren't having heated arguments with people we passionately disagree with - we are in the political equivalent of replacing members of the Royal Society with members of the Flat Earth society. This is not virtuous, this is stupid. At the very least we should not take it for granted that normal responses will extricate us from this radical situation, any more than if we were to propose that "everything will work itself out in the end" if lunatics took over the asylum. It's not that I think the flat Earth is a wrong idea because I don't like it, it's that I don't like it because I know for certain that it's wrong. So it is with the political state of affairs also.

So we must be careful, but not so cautious as to avoid any action for fear of offending the obviously bigoted. The bigoted cry, "political correctness gone mad !" in an attempt to censor anything they do not like, but are all too happy to cry, "freedom of speech !" as a tool of oppression. For God's sake let's stop being so damn timid about the whole thing, especially our MPs who seem insistent on treating bigotry and hatred as though it was something that deserved protecting for the sake of freedom. It isn't. For the sake of freedom, it must be destroyed.

The line must be drawn incredibly carefully and with constant vigilance and re-examination, but it must be drawn. We cannot pretend that simply re-stating our arguments again and again, be they expressed kindly or vitriolically, will somehow eventually start to work and win these people over, for that would only work if they cared about the facts. They do not.

Which is not to say that we will have a better society only by reform of the media or freedom of speech laws. No, that is another task. All I'm asking for here is damage limitation. First we must rescue ourselves from the current crisis before averting the next one.

So my message to you, the political system of Great Britain, is quite simple : grow a bloody backbone. Fight this madness. Don't sell us down the line to a monster. Don't be fooled into thinking that democracy and freedom are their own rewards. Don't let democracy become tyranny by mob rule, for the narrowest of wins in a single vote to determine the course of politics for decades. Don't let the media continue to pour a stream of xenophobic lies in the name of free speech. Seek to end injustice, not support it. That is the ideal to which you must strive : a better world, and though freedom and democracy are critical to that goal, they are not the goal in and of themselves. They are tools, and they must be handled correctly - or fascists will not hesitate to weaponize and pervert them just as they always have.

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