Splinters: September – short essays on the here & now
This month: America under fire as Republicans hold their Convention: interview... CLEAN...
The cat on the Tehran mat...
We need more Amitée, her projects...
Where Toby Young draws the line.
This month's splinters:
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
America under fire as Republicans hold their Convention
Samir Gandesha interview
Stephen Quinn (CBC Radio British Columbia) on August 28, 2020: To share his thoughts, Samir Gandesha, Director of the Institute for the Humanities from Simon Fraser University joins us now. Good morning to you. What went through your mind when you heard about the shooting of Jacob Blake earlier this week? I take it you saw the video as well?
Samir Gandesha (SG): It was absolutely horrifying. Here you have a guy who was trying to break up a civil disturbance and ends up getting shot in front of his three kids by an officer who is pulling on his shirt. He is shot several times and now he is paralysed and is handcuffed to his bed in hospital.
SQ: There has been a lot of talk about the contrast in how police treat people. We have 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse who was armed and said he went specifically to a protest to protect property. Three people ended up being shot, two of them fatally, and this is a person who walked towards police with a gun hanging over his shoulder – I think police were handing out bottles of water to some of the armed counter-protesters there.SG: Absolutely. I don't think you could have a better example of what is called 'white privilege'. And more perniciously than that, an article in The Guardian today is about the deep connections between far right militias and law enforcement and armed forces. This is probably a very good example of that.
SQ: One would think and I suppose hope that between the shooting of Jacob Blake and the killing of protesters, the stoppage of major sports leagues and the civil unrest in the nation, a national conversation among the powers that be, people in government, would address any or all of that. But so far the Republican National Convention has talked about the violence in the streets but nothing about the causes of that violence.
SG: No absolutely. And not only that but on the first night they had Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who people will recognise as the famous couple who were toting guns and threatening Black Lives Matter protesters. They were there speaking at the Republican National Convention. This is just outrageous. And you have Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson also, singing the praises of Kyle Rittenhouse. So this is not a national conversation at all. It is a further example of the deepening conflict and division.
It is also sending very clear messages to likeminded individuals and groups that this is OK. This is what is so serious about it and this has happened since Day One of this Trump administration – emboldening and empowering these far right organisations while at the same time demonising those who would challenge them, like Anti-Fa. So I think we are in a very serious situation right now.
SQ: What does it say about a society when you have professional athletes who are forced to take these historic steps because lawmakers and policy makers are failing not only to create change but even to address the issue?
SG: No absolutely. Good on them for doing this, but it is an excellent question and I think the answer has to do perhaps with the relative weakness of the labour movement which would have typically and traditionally stepped up and taken a leadership role in terms of forwarding this kind of national conversation. Now in the absence of that, you have the NBA, the MLB, the tennis players and cricket and National Football League teams stepping up and trying to actually force some change – because there has been a lot of talk but there hasn't been much change forthcoming.
SQ: Can we compare what is happening now to any other time in the American civil rights movement?
SG: We can compare this to the late 1960's when there was massive civil unrest. The riot is the language of the unheard according to Martin Luther King. The protests led by Black Lives Matter has to be understood in these terms. It is a matter of desperation that 'the powers that be' as you put it just don't seem to be listening at every level of government, in the United States but also you could say in this country to some extent as well, and this is what is needed to force badly needed change. If that change doesn't come, one does have to worry and wonder about the future of our societies.
SQ: I wonder, whether Donald Trump wins or loses the election, about what might happen in the United States.How worried are you about that?
SG: I'm very worried. We are seeing all kinds of signs of Trump gearing up for a possible electoral defeat in the aftermath of which he may refuse to cede power to Biden and Harris. This is extremely dangerous given that you have these armed militia groups that may be able and willing to take to the streets. So I can't overestimate or exaggerate how dangerous and combustible things look right now.
SQ: This was not the Trump National Convention: this was the Republican National Convention.He has the party behind him!
SG: Indeed and you can compare that to close to four years ago when the party really was trying its very best to marginalise him. But they couldn't do it. And now they have fallen into line and the levels of extremism now in that party are quite astounding. Just think back to the aftermath of Charlottesville, right. What happened? Steve Bannon was ousted, and that had a connection to some of the things that Trump himself had said about "good people on both sides". Now we have a situation where that kind of extremism has ended up front and centre at the party Convention. It is a law and order agenda: "We stand with those who stand on the thin blue line" as Mike Pence says. It is unapologetic. Not only are they not addressing the causes: they are actually defending some of the sources of the problem which has to do of course with the over-policing and the targeting of black communities in the United States.
See here for the original interview with Stephen Quinn, August 28, 2020, on the Early Edition from CBC Radio British Columbia.
by Leonie Rushforth
The US State Department’s new program The Clean Network, launched in August, offers a masterclass in propaganda. It makes the now-deleted UK Home Office tweet drawing on Dad’s Army graphics and associating ‘activist lawyers’ with abuses of the asylum system look like an amateur business.
In its own words the Network is: a comprehensive approach to safeguarding the nation’s assets including citizens’ privacy and companies’ most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.
It is a seamlessly interlocking sequence of gestures, steps and stated intentions, signaling severally and jointly a complex system of ideas. It is both the act of the chemical bonding of these things with each other and the state, and its completed embodiment designed to set things and people in motion.
Elsewhere, as less nuanced back up, here on Twitter (where some asked both what the point of the tweet was and whether China was not perhaps in fact Maoist), the State Department is putting out this kind of thing:
The Clean Network sets out its purpose more specifically as [addressing]:
the long-term threat to data privacy, security, human rights and principled collaboration posed to the free world from authoritarian malign actors. The Clean Network is rooted in internationally accepted digital trust standards.
It is also securely rooted in racist ideology, in a position alongside ideas of contamination and racial hygiene. We have seen these ideas activated and animated at the White House podium in the phrase the China virus, which the President has performed with relish and a voice designed both to mimic and to convey disgust. Actual images caricaturing Chinese people have not yet appeared in public as official government material as far as I know but cannot be far off.
The Clean Network appears on the screen as a neat arrangement of detergent lozenges, each one covering a separate IT/digital area to be laundered. The presence of Chinese technology in any form in a company or body operating in one of these areas will render it, as the CN says, untrusted:
Untrusted IT vendors will have no access to U.S. State Department systems. We will follow the letter of the law to ensure that we have a clean path for all 5G network traffic coming into all of our facilities. Period.
The law or laws in question are not cited.
Cleanliness is of course next to godliness. The Trump administration is always alert to its dependence on the Christian evangelicals for their votes.
The Clean Network branding is beautifully simple. It says: we have no designs on you. But other dimensions and instances of population management are re-inflated in it and by it. The little blue squares bear some resemblance to the kind of advertising prevalent in the 1950s and would not look out of place on a packet of Daz – the kind of advertising which played a significant role in creating the American housewife of the period. That is, in returning women from the workplace to the domestic sphere after WW2. At this point the word ‘clean’ became an active and virtuous verb; shining formica made cleanliness manifest.
Underpinning the Clean Network is economic anxiety and the hard realities of Chinese superiority in certain areas, notably 5G. It is the expression of an economy used to dominance and bent on restoring it by all means at their disposal. All of them are bullying means and in an escalating order of violence, they lead to war.
The Clean Network will sever American and Chinese tech industries. Eliza Gkritsi, reporter for tech website TechNode, notes that in pursuing this policy, the US is in effect creating its own firewall:
The program, outlined by the US State Department, signifies a monumental shift in US internet policy, moving away from a free web towards a China-like walled garden.
There will of course be Clean Countries invited behind the hygiene shield; this is an important part of its purpose. The State Department claims there are 30 of them signed up already.
But the Clean Network has nothing to do with protecting citizens’ data, as Jason Healey notes in his article for Oodaloop:
If the Administration cares so deeply about safeguarding the privacy of US citizens, surely a better place to start would be a new Federal law for data-security and privacy protection (with the additional benefit of boosting a replacement for the recently overturned EU-U.S. Privacy Shield program for transatlantic data transfer) or data-breach notification, as called for by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission.
There were connotations of innocence and openness in the Old English word claene – but its primary meaning more than a thousand years ago was ‘pure’. It denoted something that was unmixed with foreign or extraneous matter.
The additional sense of ‘whole and entire’ came a little later in the 12/13C and led, by degrees and over centuries, to the idea of a ‘clean sweep’ or ‘cleaning up’ in the sense of taking the lot.
The cat on the Tehran mat
by Christos Tombras
You walk into the room. The first thing you see is that the cat is on the mat. The precious mat you bought at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran, back in what it seems like ages ago. The cat is on the mat –again! – but she shouldn’t be.
The game is lost. Get over it. No matter what you’ll do, you can’t stop the cat from going onto the mat. The cat will defy orders. She will go on the mat, even though she knows perfectly well she mustn’t. And even if she is not on the mat right now, how can you know where she was just minutes ago? How do you know that she will not jump on the mat the very moment you look elsewhere?
It’s tricky. Especially if you are dealing with a mischievous cat, like the one in question here. You can’t do much. You have to catch her in the act. You have to see her with your own eyes. But as we said, the game is already lost. You can’t possibly be there all the time to monitor the mat. The moment you look elsewhere, the cat will jump on it. You know that. Lessons from history.
You could install CCTV, of course. (But then you’ll need someone to monitor the CCTV feed. So, no.)
Or, you could remove the mat. Put it back in the cupboard. Send it back to Tehran. (But it’s a valuable mat and you like it. So, no.)
I have been circling around the concept of truth for some time now. Indeed, I concluded my recent Splinters contributions by stating that we need to look at this concept a bit more closely.
So, let’s pause here for a moment. What is it that we are trying to do?
We have a situation. The cat goes on the mat all the time. She shouldn’t. But she does.
We have a state of affairs involving a disobedient cat and a finely woven Tehran mat. We want to know whether the cat is on the mat. We are trying to establish, that is, whether it is true that “the cat is on the mat”. Or, to put it in terms of formal logic, we have the statement “the cat is on the mat” and we aim to assess its material adequacy or truth-value, i.e., its being “True” or “False”.
How do we do that? Simple: we have a look at the mat.
Any discussion about truth involves one or more states of affair and the truth-value of relevant statements. We postulate that in principle there is some truth-seeking procedure that allows us to assess this. In the case of the mischievous cat and the valuable Tehran mat, we only need to have a look. In the case of Axions which might or might not exist, we need to interpret the excess events observed by the XENON1T Experiment.
If truth-values reflect the material adequacy of statements vis-à-vis a specific state of affairs, what is truth as such? Surely, you cannot assess truth-values unless you know what this is all about. It’s all about truth, of course – I am stating the obvious. What is crucial, is to recognise that truth, as such, is not the same thing as a truth-value. What is it then?
“Truth” is a frame within which we can consider truth-values. Whenever judgements as to whether something is true or false are involved, truth as such is already presupposed. Even though there is, in principle, a way to assess some statement’s truth-value, truth as such can only be presupposed, i.e., taken as given. It cannot be probed.
This might sound counter-intuitive, but it works in much the same way as on a polling day. The fact that you are invited to cast your vote – for a party, a candidate, an opinion, etc.– presupposes the possibility of elections. Elections is the frame within which you vote. It’s described in a constitution and is taken as a given. It’s not one of the choices.
So, to return to where we started from, we can ask ourselves whether the cat is on the mat or not, and we can have some procedure that allows us to answer the question. The truth-value of the statement “The cat is on the mat” can be established by looking to see whether the cat is on the mat or not. Decisions about the material adequacy of other statements are similar.
Whatever we do, however, we invariably find that there is no procedure to decide the content of truth as such. There is no constitution to describe what truth is. In fact, truth has no content at all. Truth is just an empty frame.
There is a problem here, probably an insurmountable one. Our conception of truth turns out to be more shaky than we would want it to be.
This is not what we expected, is it?
We need more Amitée, her projects
by Iain Galbraith
Had it not been for Corona I might never have 'met' Amitée. I should mention that our meeting was online, and that Amitée is her 'trade name', not her given name. Amitée, deriving like Amity from French Amitié (friendship), certainly sits well with her infectious warmth and generous character. We met to discuss a mysteriously far-reaching venture which had immediately caught my imagination. However, it was only when after our meeting I had begun to compare her various business projects (Amitée calls them 'experiments') that I sensed something of the thinking that linked them.
I decided to contact her after a City friend mentioned a cross-departmental online encounter with Amitée hosted by his management consultancy office. The unlikely title of the meeting was Personal Poultry. Was this a paltry gimmick? In what became a webinar, or 'egginar' as my whimsical friend dubbed the teaching phase (consisting of 10 x 10-minute sessions), office staff from the first-year intake through to partners were invited to learn about organic chicken raising and how to run their 'own farm' straight from their laptops. The 'egginar' had been funded by the partners to counter the pervasive, punishing drudgery of zoom meetings which, during Corona, all office staff were forced to endure. If willing, participants could later assume responsibility for a brood of hens. This involved remote, real-world, webcam-supported control of the birds' feeding, security, health and hygiene, and due attention was rewarded with regular deliveries of pasture-range eggs to the participants' doorstep.
According to my friend an astonishing number of office staff have since become hen carers, with duties frequently shared among several colleagues. What is more, welfare, nutrition, healthcare and sharing were now frequent topics of post-lockdown lunchtime and coffee-break conversation. If Amitée had held a talk about the relationship between non-human and human survival in 'our strange and difficult times', would she have enjoyed such success?
It was in healthcare that Amitée first made her mark. Working with a company developing plant-based capsule treatment for the enlarged prostate gland (in men over 50), she had given her name to a product and attractive booklet (containing nettle recipes and easy talk about prostate gland function and enlargement) which the company inserted into each box of capsules. It is known that treatment based on nettle plant extract, a gentle diuretic, can not only counter prostate enlargement, but is beneficial in treating arthritis, seasonal allergies, as well as bladder and kidney problems. More to the point, it is also known that many men feel vulnerable talking – whether to other men, women, or their own children – about this natural but potentially dangerous and often uncomfortable symptom of ageing.
To cut a long story short, the Amitée brand caught on and not only reached older men in their hundreds of thousands, but as a result of the attractive booklet, charmed their families too. Men felt comforted by this kind woman who cared for their troubled prostates and showed them in a touching way how to look after them. In some countries Amitée became a household name, while the vulnerability of older men's urinary and reproductive systems – with digital rectal examinations, residual urine, erectile dysfunction, low sperm-counts and many other previously tabooed subjects – became considerably easier to talk about. At our meeting Amitée put this to me: is it not true that most men in powerful positions in politics, public administration and industry belong to this age group? How can we expect them to care for a planet in distress if they cannot mention their prostate gland or acknowledge their own vulnerability? What better way to reach them as a group, if not by such genuine 'friendship'?
Meanwhile, Amitée finds herself heading a language-learning 'experiment' based in Tunisia which she herself had proposed to a large intergovernmental NGO. It had long been Amitée's belief that almost every child, given the opportunity, can learn 3 languages or more, and that only the colonial and imperialist history of certain countries (and the inherited assumption that their inhabitants were entitled to communicate solely in their own language) could explain why educational planners thought children capable of less. The project is grounded in the apparent contradiction between the enormous resources devoted by these countries to education, and the widespread monolinguality of their inhabitants – in contrast to previously colonised countries where many speak three languages by necessity despite far lower educational budgets. One thousand families from France, the UK and USA had volunteered to take part in this generously funded experiment over a period of 25 years. What might be the benefits to peace, social harmony, worldly happiness and international cooperation at every level, asked Amitée, if many millions of children in the formerly colonial countries grew up learning 5-10 languages? Might toxic nationalist narratives be relativized?
I hope so, and look forward to her next projects.
Where Toby Young draws the line
by Rosemary Bechler
In February, Stephen Edginton interviewed Toby Young for The Sun on his new Free Speech Union (FSU), designed to defend victims of “cancel culture” like himself, from a moral crusade that both consider to be threatening decent livelihoods and innocent lives in the UK.
The core question regarding both free speech and hate speech is who is to judge whom? and Young is pressed twice on this by Edginton. The direct answers yield little by way of definition. Young replies: “If you go up to a black person in a shopping centre and scream the ‘n’ word in their face – then that is a direct incitement to violence and that should be unlawful. But I would draw the line where the framers of the first amendment of the American Constitution drew the line – which is, everything is acceptable within the law providing it is not a direct incitement to violence.” Consequently, for him, Boris Johnson’s “letterboxes joke” scarcely qualifies, since “the evidence is extremely threadbare that people reading that joke… would go out and attack burqa-wearing women”.
Both examples are deeply problematic: the first representing racist ‘incitement to violence’ as speech which provokes black violence rather than speech which incites racist attack; and the second aimed somewhere between humourless anti-Muslims and humourless Muslims, with an uncomfortable echo of an earlier humourless response to “Mohammedan cartoons” that did not end well. But the main problem with drawing the line here is that hate speech legislation has moved on considerably in recent decades, and Young’s reply wipes out in one go, for example, the huge edifice of antisemitic speech accusations with which we now live.
A follow-up question on Tommy Robinson’s suitability as an applicant reveals an FSU “statement of values” closer to current criteria: “in the course of making an argument, we encourage our members not to criticise people for their membership of a particular ethnic or religious or gender group”. Young reluctantly concedes that “the direct link” Robinson has “strongly implied… between being a Muslim and being part of a grooming gang… borders on Islamophobia.” Yet, somehow this scruple is overcome, and Robinson is a FSU member within five days .
Meanwhile, “who is to judge” is covered by the Free Speech Union Board of Directors and Advisory Council, whose full list is overwhelmingly white, male and unwoke: “Before deciding whether to go in and bat for somebody, I’ll be consulting those people and it will be a collective decision.”
Some people – one of Edginton’s favourite categories – might enquire no further.
But an interesting thing happens when the two of them get onto how to ensure that Conservative ideology has the grip that it truly deserves in the UK – one that properly reflects the considerable electoral successes of the country’s far right.
Throughout the interview, “the left” are held responsible for “the Maoist climate of intolerance sweeping through our institutions, particularly the media, universities, public services, politics ” and “poisoning the quality of discourse in our public square”. Edginton is keen to up the ante further by finding “historical similarities… some would argue” between woke culture and the Communist state, a narrative for which Young supplies a hero in the shape of “Sir Roger Scruton” who “risked his liberty to educate people behind the Iron Curtain”, and is now rightly “showered with honours in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia” for it.
However Young is more intent on broadening the appeal of his ‘Union’, from the defence of individual ideologues to a “crowd-funding and counter-mobbing” mass campaign: “My original thought was to limit the members to anyone who makes a living from communicating ideas. But I have now decided that anyone who even just supports the cause can join.” Nor is this broadening confined to numbers: “Free speech isn’t just for protecting white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, Tory Brexit-supporting males like me. It’s for everybody… and particularly for beleaguered minorities.”
He is soon arguing that not only liberals but also leftwingers need to learn Martin Niemöller’s lesson, that when they come for Jacob Rees-Mogg who was no-platformed at the University of the North West of England, today, they will come for you and even Peter Tatchell, Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer or J.K. Rowling (“who is a pal of Gordon Brown’s”) tomorrow. Armed with his new alliance with “second-generation feminists” Young is hoping, like all good hegemonists, to “position the Overton window more to the centre and make it that little bit less narrow”, all in the name of holding open civilised debate.
Quite why the “Trans Taliban” remain excommunicated is unclear, though it may stem from Young’s conviction that “99% of people would challenge… trans women being women”. But might we look forward to an open discussion between Toby Young and Samir Gandesha, say, on ‘critical thinking’ at university? I hope so.
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