By Surrendering to the Taliban, America Has Betrayed the Afghan People (04/06/2021)

Note: Hopefully a version of this piece will be making its way on to The Oxford Blue website in the next few days. For readers of the blog, this is an early preview.


Last month, the Sayed Ul-Shuhada High School in west Kabul was attacked. 85 people, most of them female students between the ages of 12 and 20, were killed when a suicide-bomber and two improvised explosive devices detonated outside the school gates.

It was planned meticulously. The bomber had approached the school in a Toyota sedan, and timed his explosion to coincide with the end of Saturday afternoon classes. Ul-Shuhuda teaches boys and girls in separate sessions, and he hoped to catch the girls as they left for home.

Sayed Ahmad Hussaini, who had arrived to pick up his two daughters, spotted a man parked in a car near the school. He seemed to be shaking from nervousness, and when Hussaini asked what he was doing, he replied: ‘None of your business’. The car exploded a few moments later. The two IEDs, set off at staggered intervals, were designed to finish the wounded and kill any first-responders brave enough to run towards the carnage.

Until the bombs went off, it had been a pleasant spring afternoon. The photos of the wreckage are filled with a soft evening light. Just outside the school lies what’s left of the bomber’s sedan. It’s a heap of blackened axle and sticky, melted upholstery. Twisted and charred, it looks more like a squashed insect than a car. The sturdy school gates, painted white, have been buckled inwards by the force of the blast. The arch over the gates has been blown clean away.

There are piles of exercise books by the side of the road. They will never be written in again. Some of them have their pages splayed open. Handwriting is visible, perhaps a few ticks from a teacher. Everything is covered in brown grime. Some of the books have ragged punctures in their covers and pages – shrapnel tears. There are also piles of clothes – a pair of pink slip-on shoes has been stained black with dried blood. In one picture, a boy in a grey Nike t-shirt and blue jeans clutches his sister’s backpack with both hands. He looks lost and afraid.

The next day, uncles, brothers and fathers gathered on the hills overlooking Kabul to bury their nieces, sisters and daughters. Not all of the dead had been accounted for. The blast was so powerful that little remained of the people closest to it. ‘Some of them could not be found’, said an Afghan official.

The men dug graves with pickaxes, scooping out the soft brown earth. In full sun, high above the city, it was difficult work. Finally, they offered prayers, and lowered bundles wrapped in colourful blankets into the ground. One uncle described his niece for journalists:

‘She was 15…she was very intelligent and didn’t miss a single day of school. Yesterday her mother told her not to go to school but she said “No, I will go today”…She told the truth, and we buried her here today.’

The attack on Ul-Shuhuda, carried out on the 8th of May, deliberately targeted the Hazara ethnic minority who inhabit the Dasht-e-Barchi district of western Kabul. The Hazara are Shia Muslims, and in the eyes of the Sunni extremists who constitute the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other terrorist networks, they are infidels. So there was a double motivation for the atrocity: not only were the girls killed for daring to aspire to an education, they were killed for being the wrong sort of Muslim.

The high school in Kabul was targeted almost exactly a year after a maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières was attacked in the same neighbourhood. 24 women and babies were murdered, including three mothers in the delivery room. Their unborn children could not be saved. If anything provides an insight into the mind of the terrorist, surely it is this. Their cult of death is so complete that they will deliberately target new life.


In the summer of 2012, a group of men gathered for a meeting in the hills of north-east Afghanistan. They were senior members of the local Taliban leadership, and their topic was the activism of a 15 year old schoolgirl.

The girl had been fronting a high-profile campaign in favour of women’s education in her hometown of Mingora, in the Swat valley of northern Pakistan. After the Taliban seized control of the valley in 2009, she had begun writing a blog for BBC Urdu, documenting life under the militants. In May, the Pakistani military launched an offensive, and succeeded in driving the Taliban across the border to Afghanistan. But an underground insurgency remained active.

By 2012, the girl was making regular press appearances, including on international networks, and her campaign for girl’s education rights was gaining momentum. She had continued her activism despite a stream of death threats from local terrorists. They dumped corpses near her family home, but she was not cowed.

So the local Taliban council had assembled to decide on a course of action. She could not be allowed to continue undermining their ideology – extremist Sunni Wahhabism cannot abide the education of women. The vote was unanimous: for the good of their movement, she would have to die.

The commander, Maulana Fazlullah, gave his orders. A two man hit-squad would intercept the girl on her way home from school. A bullet to the head would finish the job.

Of course, you know the rest. Malala Yousafzai didn’t die on the 9th of October 2012. She survived, and has become one of the world’s foremost women’s rights campaigners.

But take note of what the Pakistani Taliban said about her in the aftermath of their failed assassination: She ‘is a symbol of the infidels and obscenity’, proclaimed their spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. Obscenity. The Taliban believe that a woman who desires an education is obscene.


Five years earlier, the Taliban had succeeded in killing another prominent Pakistani woman: Benazir Bhutto. The former Pakistani President – the first woman to hold the post – is, like Malala, an alumnus of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. On the 27th of December 2007, she was out campaigning in the city of Rawalpindi, in anticipation of the upcoming general elections.

Just after giving a speech, her SUV was sprayed with machine-gun fire before a suicide bomber detonated himself next to the vehicle. In addition to Bhutto, 22 people were killed. This successful assassination came after a failed attempt on Bhutto’s life just two months before. A suicide bomber attacked her motorcade in Karachi. 180 people had died, and over 500 were injured.


The United States has decided that its war – and the war of its allies – is over in Afghanistan. Trump, and now Biden, have all but admitted defeat. The Doha Peace Agreement, signed at the end of February 2020, states that ‘The United States and the (…) Taliban seek positive relations with each other’. Far from being party to a balanced settlement, the Taliban know that they have achieved total victory – the US is leaving. In response to the Doha deal, the Taliban’s multimedia chief declared ‘the imminent defeat of the arrogance of the White House in the face of the white turban’.

A commitment to abandoning Afghanistan appears to be an area of rare bi-partisan agreement in the US. The Doha deal was negotiated by Trump’s administration, and Biden has simply trailed in his predecessor’s wake. His only change has been to announce that the last US troops will leave the country on September 11th; a tasteless attempt to derive some pleasing circularity from a humiliating withdrawal.

It has been clear for months that the peace agreement – upon which the US has justified its exit – is worthless. Even before Biden took office, military experts were warning that the Taliban would not abide by their commitment to reduce violence, or to cut ties with al-Qaeda. Back in November, I reported the comments of former US National Security Advisor H.R McMaster, who called the deal ‘disastrous’. The agreement was negotiated without the elected Afghan government at the table. Given that the Afghan National Army (ANA) has done the vast majority of the fighting and dying for the coalition forces in the war, this was a betrayal. McMaster said as much: ‘We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government’ was his assessment.

Escalating violence in the country as the US draws down its troop presence has proved McMaster right. In May, at least 247 pro-government personnel and 170 Afghan civilians were killed. When Biden announced that US troops would be leaving the country before the end of the year the response from military commanders was distinctly uneasy. They know that the ANA is not yet capable of holding back the Taliban without US support. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the UK defence staff, expressed himself as strongly as he dared by remarking that the commitment to withdraw was ‘not a decision we hoped for’. The Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib has made it clear that his country needs more time to develop its defences, particularly its air force. Even Hilary Clinton has warned of ‘huge consequences’. It is an open secret that the Afghans will not be able to successfully resist the Taliban without US support, and this underscores how negligent the withdrawal really is.

The Doha agreement contained no guarantees of protection for the Afghan people, it only specified that the Taliban will not use the territory they control to launch attacks on US service-personnel or civilians. It is a monument to selfish, short-sighted foreign policy.


28,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in battle with Islamist extremists since 2015. Tens of thousands more have suffered terrible wounds. This year has brought a significant escalation in the violence, as the Taliban seeks to expand the 20% of Afghan territory it already controls. Each month, the ANA loses between 200 and 300 soldiers. Combat losses are incurred every day.

Since 2014, the Afghan army has taken the lead in fighting the Taliban, and the US, UK and other coalition forces have assumed a training and advisory role. As a consequence, US and British casualties have fallen dramatically. British troops ceased combat operations in 2014 and have not lost any personnel in Afghanistan since 2015. In 2020, more US troops died in training accidents in the US than in Afghanistan. For years now, it has been the Afghans who are shedding their blood in defence of their country.

Just 9,600 coalition troops remain. They perform a crucial support role for the Afghan government, and most importantly, they signal to the Taliban that the West is committed to ensuring that their brand of theocratic savagery does not take power again. The low level of coalition casualties only underlines the fact that Biden’s withdrawal is a political rather than a practical measure. The US is not leaving because the Taliban are inflicting terrible damage on its forces. It is leaving because Trump and Biden both judged it would be politically advantageous to be the President who ended ‘America’s longest war’.

And what coalition achievements will be thrown away when the US pulls out? Well, democracy for starters. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held regularly since 2004, in accordance with the Afghan constitution (another achievement of the intervention). The Taliban view democracy as un-Islamic. Should they topple the Afghan government, the Afghan people will lose any influence they have over how their country is run. In addition, the number of children in primary education has risen radically as a consequence of the intervention – from 1.2 million to 9.2 million by some estimates – and those who’ve benefited most have been girls. This has only been made possible by the defeat of the Taliban in most of the country. In achieving this, Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist safe-zone, an extremist paradise where atrocities could be planned unmolested.

Unsurprisingly, as the coalition troop drawdown has accelerated, the terrorists have regained momentum. Some analysts judge that they are now at their greatest strength since the 2001 invasion. Withdrawing completely means accepting a high risk that the achievements of the intervention come to nothing.


It’s not just the US and Britain who have capitulated in Afghanistan, but the entire NATO alliance. The military bloc accounts for 57% of global military expenditure. It is equipped with the most advanced warfighting technology available. All backed by some of the world’s most capable intelligence agencies. And it has been defeated by tribesmen equipped with AK-47s, improvised explosive devices, and suicidal fanaticism.

But what distinguishes the NATO alliance and its terrorist adversaries cannot be measured in military spending. It comes down to patience. At present, the Taliban are simply more committed to their cause, and they are willing to fight for as long as it takes to win. They have learnt that Western states are led by politicians with short-term re-election agendas and populations with even shorter attention spans. Countries like the US and UK find it impossible to maintain focus on a single issue amongst the turmoil of domestic politics.

America should have learnt this lesson in Vietnam. In 1966, the North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong laid bare the difference between the American and Vietnamese will to fight. In an interview with New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury in Hanoi, he remarked:

“How long do you American’s want to fight, Mr Salisbury? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? We shall be glad to accommodate you.”

The comment is chilling in its prescience. America had ceased to fight in Vietnam by 1973, and in 1975, the South fell to the communists.

The Taliban share Van Dong’s attitude. They know that if they remain in the fight, eventually their Western foe will give up and go home. If the US and its allies wish to defeat organisations like the Taliban, then they must be able to shift their strategic thinking from short to long-term as well.


Nation building, the task that the NATO forces in Afghanistan have been engaged in since the invasion of 2001, is far more difficult than winning an open war. But for there to be any chance of Afghanistan emerging as a stable country, then the insurgency which kills civilians and soldiers on a daily basis has to be suppressed. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, has rightly pointed out that with casualty figures amongst Western nations so low, there’s no good reason to not maintain a military presence in the country. And crucially, making sure that the Afghan government are able to call upon overwhelming US air power delivers them a decisive battlefield advantage.

Biden appears to believe that Afghanistan’s status as ‘America’s longest war’ is reason enough to end it. It is no reason at all. It is an approach which refuses to pay attention to the deteriorating situation on the ground. If America fails to realise that patience is what they lack against groups like the Taliban, then it will always lose eventually. Short-termism threatens not just the Afghans, but the citizens of Europe and America as well. As General McMaster has made clear, if they are left unsuppressed, ‘threats from transnational terrorists do not remain in particular regions’. The Taliban and al-Qaeda see themselves as locked in perpetual conflict with the infidel. We should not be surprised if they seek to visit their violence on the West once again.


What is it that the Taliban want? And what will an Afghanistan returned to their control look like? The first question has a very simple answer. They want the country to be governed by an extremist interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law. The Taliban have no sympathy for ANA personnel they kill – even though they are fellow Muslims – because they believe the Afghan army is defending a regime that is insufficiently devout.

If they topple the government in Kabul, then they will have control over the lives of 30 million people. We should expect them to re-establish the Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi An al-Munkar, or ‘Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’: the Religious Police. In the late ‘90s, this organisation gained notoriety for enforcing its dictates on women’s dress with street beatings. Although according to the Taliban decrees issued after the fall of Kabul in 1996, ideally women should not leave the home at all.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is a place where pleasure and female education are criminalised;  where kite-flying and music are banned, and where you can be slammed in jail for sporting too short a beard. And it is also a world of arbitrary execution, and of the all-pervasive fear that it creates.

For ethnic minorities like the Hazara – the community targeted in the school-bombing – Taliban control means the threat of genocide. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, the community suffered pogroms and massacres at the hands of Taliban militants.

Victory for the terrorists would doom the country to more years stuck with a medieval rural economy and some of the lowest levels of development in the world. Afghanistan has a shocking infant mortality rate of 107 deaths/1,000 live births, but one can’t see the Taliban doing much to fix that.

But most of all, the fall of the Kabul government and the installation of a Taliban regime would be a victory for vicious theocracy over reason. Taliban-run Afghanistan is a world where the security forces don’t try to bring psychopathic murderers to justice, instead they recruit them to their cause. It means that tens of millions would be subject to the whims of men who believe that blowing yourself up in a crowd of schoolgirls is not an atrocity, or a war-crime, but instead an act of worship. These men do not believe that killing innocents is blasphemous, they believe it glorifies their god.

Often, when people use the word evil, it can seem naïve or hyperbolic. It has its place though. Surely men like this are worthy of the adjective.


In summer 2005, the author Christopher Hitchens addressed a crowd in a Washington bookstore. It was just after the 7/7 bombings in London, and he was asked a question about what he made of the atrocity. He finished his answer like this:

“They will rue the day, we will out-live, and out-kill and out-fight them. They say they prefer death to life. Maybe they do. If they want to be martyrs we’re here to help. Really, here to help. But our love for London will outlive their hatred and their love for death.” (Timestamp: 44:00)

But their love for death has won.

America’s leaders have lost their nerve, amid a nauseous cocktail of apathy and defeatism. Many in the West – a majority even – no longer have any time or attention for the murder of children in Afghanistan. There are marches and protests for the tragic deaths of Palestinian children killed in Israeli airstrikes targeting terrorist rocket sites, but when scores of schoolgirls are deliberately massacred: nothing. There will be no social media posts, or petitions, no outraged television interviews or even calls of sympathy.

The political class across most of the West has decided that distant Afghanistan is simply too difficult a problem to solve. If the Taliban do take the country, it will also be a victory for selfish cynicism. The kind that sees the plight of the Afghans and assumes that stepping in would just be too much bother – too much hassle. ‘Anyway, the Taliban are too fanatical’, say some, ‘they’re just too committed’, ‘how can we hope to beat them?’

What does Biden think the most powerful military in the world should be used for? Does he not regard combatting international terrorism and protecting the lives of innocent civilians to be worthwhile? What more pressing priority would he offer?

Leaving Afghanistan means acquiescing to the Taliban, and all they represent. The Afghan people know it. The Taliban know it too. I’m sure Biden’s White House knows it as well. But they are pretending they do not.


The BBC has done an interview with the families of one of the victims of the Kabul high school bombing earlier this month. The murdered girl was called Basgul, and she was 14 years old. In the video, her older sister – who only narrowly survived – reads some of her Basgul’s poetry. Her mother, Kubra, told the camera that Basgul – like so many children in the UK – had been bitterly disappointed at not being able to attend school during the height of the Covid pandemic. “She was so sad” her mother said, but she started “studying even harder, she was so passionate”.

The mother of a 16 year old killed in the same attack said that “You need to be brave to send them to school”, but if they do not go, “they will remain without a future”. If the Taliban gain control, Hazaras like her daughter will have no chance at any future.

The international response to the ruthless persistence of Afghanistan’s extremists has been to walk away. To leave the country and the people to whatever fate awaits them. A future of unbridled savagery, administered by men who see the deaths of children as noble blows struck against the infidel. A future of death squads, torturers and rapists for hire.

We will watch Afghanistan become that place. And the politicians will say that they did all they could. That the international community tried its best. But they will be lying. The Afghans, in all their suffering, will know the truth. 

SATIRE ALERT: The Student Union Presidency – A Parable of Wokeness – By Russel Alanbridger (08/04/2021)

Dear reader, welcome. I bring glad tidings. Do you remember that orange man across the sea? Yes, that one. Do you remember how he lost an election and then tried to overturn the result? You do? Oh good. He didn’t manage it in the end. His loss is our gain. Because it turns out that the student leadership of Oxford University is much more effective at nullifying elections than the President of the United States. We should all be so proud. If you’re sitting comfortably, then do please read on…

A cursory glance at her presidential manifesto might suggest that the ex-president-elect Rashmi Samant is not a bigot. But don’t let that deceive you. Our beloved university has had a narrow escape from a racist transphobic Nazi.

I can’t tell how relieved I was to hear that our wise student leadership had stepped in to overturn Samant’s landslide overall majority last February, particularly as the election received the highest turnout in the student union’s history. We should applaud the efforts of the tiny minority courageous enough to spy the naked bigotry in each of the 1,966 people who voted for her. For those people to make the wrong choice of president was appalling. This goes to show that people can only make good democratic choices when the candidates are vetted beforehand. Just ask Xi Jinping.

Of course, some simpletons might argue that Samant’s platform was actually progressive. It’s clear this was merely a cover for her blatant fascism. When she stated that her number one priority was “decolonisation and inclusivity”, what she actually meant was ‘apartheid is bae’. When she argued that “belongingness is something that should come naturally”, she was obviously referring to how ‘naturally’ she felt her politics ‘belonged’ to that of the Third Reich. Her support for the “decolonisation of syllabi”, and her belief that “it’s just very white and male now” was plainly misdirection to distract from admiration for Edward Colston. In fact, her advocacy for the removal of all statues proven to be imperialist can only be interpreted as a ploy to enlarge her private collection of marble slave-owners. Her commitment to “tackle institutional homophobia and transphobia” disguised a hidden love of conversion therapy. And when she proclaimed that she dreamed of a time when “five of five [presidential candidates would] be female”, I for one was devastated that she did not demand a higher number, say 10 from 10. This puts it beyond all doubt that her internalised misogyny is rampant.

And then we come to the social media posts which the keen-eyed guardians of our safe spaces were able to leverage like a giant trapdoor beneath the unsuspecting bigot’s feet. I don’t know about you, but I regularly go through the social media archives of my political enemies. As a hobby, I can’t recommend it enough. And thank goodness my passion is shared by my fellow students, who had the time and will to excavate the four year old posts which allowed us to cancel this elected-representative once and for all.

When questioned about one post from 2017 referencing Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, Samant told her accuser that “I completely condemn the Holocaust (…), I am by the end of the day [sic] a non-Native English speaker”. Luckily, our allies in justice saw through this feeble gaslighting, and spied the bigot beneath the obfuscation. Anyway, why should we give Samant any leeway for her lingual ineptitude? Foreigners should never be able to hold any position unless they can speak the Queen’s English. The eastern Europeans who clean my house are all required to recite ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou from memory. Failure to do so means a 50% cut of their wages.

Another post which rightly drew the ire of our brave comrades used the caption ‘Ching Chang’ beneath a photo of Samant in Malaysia. Samant claimed it was a linguistic joke about plants. Hah! That old biscuit. A likely story. Given we already know that her manifesto could only have been constructed by a raving Sinophobe, it’s clear that this is just more evidence of her bigotry. Thank goodness a warrior for social justice tracked down this smoking gun.

Samant was also rightly condemned for comparing Cecil Rhodes to Hitler. I couldn’t agree more, she missed a golden opportunity to compare Rhodes to someone much worse, like JK Rowling.

Perhaps most incriminating of all, Samant used one post to pledge her support for “women [and], transwomen”. As any ally knows, to celebrate women and transwomen separately is morally equivalent to declaring a fatwa against Ru Paul. Of course, intent is immaterial. She may have meant to be supportive of trans people, but as long as we are able to perceive Samant as a bigot, then she is one. Case closed.

Of course, when her crimes were discovered, Samant hoped to find cover behind her democratic mandate, and a grovelling apology. Naturally, those offended by Samant deemed the statement in which she pledged to “make the utmost efforts to unlearn and relearn nuances of every diverse community” as “not sincere”. Duh! How could anyone who starts their apology with “I sincerely apologise” really be sincere?

As any true member of Gen Z knows, forgiveness is weakness, and retribution is justice. This is a faultless creed, as pure as avocado toast. For Samant, no forgiveness was offered, and justice was done.

Thus, her apology curried no favour and her resignation followed. All of us who had labelled her a transphobic racist rejoiced at the news that we’d cancelled the first Indian woman to hold the student union presidency; it was as if we had vanquished an anti-Christ version of Kamala Harris (peace be upon her). Racial progress is only progress when we say it is. Obvs.

Here is the truth: Samant tried to be woke. But she was found out. Oxford saw through the façade to the fascism beneath. Her manifesto reveals imperialist discriminatory racist misogynistic cis-heteronormative tendencies that only the most well trained bigot-spotters can identity. But they’re there. We have had a lucky escape. Just imagine the harm she could have done to our university if this self-proclaimed advocate for better mental health and decarbonisation had been let loose.

Our university’s democracy is immeasurably strengthened when candidates who dupe the electorate can be removed post-ballot. Ultimately, it would be rash to entrust something as important as selecting our leaders to the general student body. Self-appointed activists do a much better job.

Rightly, Samant was unable to claim the rewards for those who pledge themselves to our faith. The Woke Faith. Absolute purity of ideology, or wokegasm, as I like to call it, awaits all those who follow the approved path. Far from an impossible task, achieving wokegasm simply means never offending anyone ever in your life. Easy.

It goes without saying that the next president-elect will have no trouble meeting this standard. But, in the unlikely event they don’t measure up either, we now know what justice will be dispensed. And what perfect justice it is. Personally, I can’t see any potential candidates being discouraged by Samant’s experience. After all, it is literally impossible for anti-racists to be mistaken for racists. Samant was just a racist in disguise as an anti-racist. The difference is easy to spot.

By the way, as I wrote this piece, I heard some bigoted bloke on the radio quote some bigoted poet’s bigoted prose:

‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’ – W. B. Yeats.                                                                                                                   

But hey, even Samant knew that there are too many ‘white males’ like Yeats on the curriculum. There’s sod all we could learn from him.

We have been shown that for counter-revolutionaries like Samant there is no place to hide. The true-believers will continue their long march towards a better Oxford, and a brighter world. 

Debra Soh deserves to be heard (19/02/2021)

This afternoon the sexologist, neuroscientist and journalist Dr Debra Soh will speak at the Oxford Union. Her inclusion on this term’s roster of speakers caused quite the furore when the Union’s term card was announced. Soh’s scientific, and now journalistic career has centred on such fraught, controversial topics as gender identity, sexual orientation, gender dysphoria, trans issues, and relations between the sexes. For those on the political left (like Soh) these are arenas of public discourse where only the bravest dare to stray from progressive orthodoxy. Soh is one of these brave people.

At the time, I suspected that the many outraged column inches aimed at Soh by student activists were written without much scrutiny of her work. Not wanting to emulate them, I have taken the time to read Soh’s book, The End of Gender (2020). It is a meticulously researched, if bewildering examination of the most contentious areas of today’s culture wars. Upon reading it, a stark disparity between two Debra Sohs emerged: There was the transphobic bigot I had been told was coming to speak to the Union, and the considered, conscientious scientist who calmly lays out her position in the book.

The End of Gender is constructed as a catalogue of myth busting, with each chapter taking aim at common misconceptions in the realms of sex, gender and sexuality. For example: ‘Myth #1 – Biological Sex is a Spectrum’, ‘Myth #2 – Gender Is a Social Construct’, ‘Myth #6 – No Differences Exist Between Trans Women and Women who were born Women’, ‘Myth #8 – Gender-Neutral Parenting Works’.

With a PhD in psychology and years of research as a sexologist, Soh is extremely well qualified to explore these subjects. Furthermore, any suggestion that her conclusions might be drawn from prejudice are quickly debunked. She writes that ‘equal rights for the transgender community’ is ‘something I fully support’. Growing up in Toronto, most of her male friends were gay, as a result, she proclaims that ‘Nowhere am I more at home than at a gay club’. She describes herself as a political liberal. As an advocate for sex-positivity, she has regularly had to do battle with the prudish wing of the conservative right. The book features interviews with icons of the LGBTQ+ community like Buck Angel. In short, The End of Gender is the work of a former scientist, concerned that her field of sexology is being co-opted by an anti-scientific style of activism. It is not the product of a political reactionary.

The first myths to be tackled are those surrounding sex and gender. Soh makes clear that because humans only produce two gamete types: sperm and eggs, sex is binary. Far from being ‘assigned at birth’, sex can be observed in the womb. Similarly, gender is not socially constructed, nor does it exist on a spectrum, but is a binary determined by ‘prenatal hormone exposure’. This, Soh reminds us, is the overwhelming consensus of the scientists in the relevant fields.

Soh also points to strong evidence demonstrating that sexuality and gender expression are heavily influenced by biological factors. She cites the research of Simon LeVay, which found consistent differences in the size of the hypothalamus between gay men and straight men. Moreover, gender non-conforming activity in childhood (for example, a boy who enjoys playing with dolls) is, she reports, ‘one of the strongest predictors of being gay in adulthood’. It is evidence like this which has allowed researchers to conclude that ‘sexual orientation is inborn and unchangeable’. The activists who insist that sexuality is totally fluid, risk undermining the ‘born this way’ progress that movements for gay rights have won in the last half century. Attempting to prove that who you went to bed with was a ‘lifestyle-choice’ used to be a favourite campaign of the conservative right. It is ironic that hard-left activists are now attempting to achieve the very same.

In the section on gender dysphoria, Soh is quick to identify the risks posed to gender non-conforming young people by a culture which supports affirming gender dysphoria above all. She reports a study which states that ‘roughly 75 percent of boys demonstrating childhood gender nonconformity will grow up to be gay or bisexual’. Of those young people who come to believe that they were born in the wrong body, Soh argues that the data is clear: ‘Across all eleven long-term studies ever done on gender dysphoric children, between 60 and 90 percent desist by puberty’. With this data in mind, the danger of unnecessarily medicalising children from too early an age becomes obvious. In addition, there is considerable risk that the gender non-conforming behaviour of children likely to grow up to be gay adults is incorrectly attributed to gender-dysphoria.

Far from progressive, the most militant wing of the trans-activist lobby risks encouraging a new form of conversion therapy, where young gays and lesbians are encouraged to escape struggles with their sexuality by joining the fashionable club of transgenderism. Soh’s conclusion here is devastatingly adroit: ‘The most regressive view is that anyone who enjoys dressing like the opposite sex or who feels as though they are mix of male and female must really be another gender altogether’.

Unlike sexual orientation, no evidence has yet been found that gender dysphoria is biologically innate. Soh cites the work of Lisa Littman, a professor at Brown University, which suggests that for those young people who experience rapid onset gender dysphoria, a friendship with a person already identifying as trans can be a contributing factor. Simply stating findings like these is enough for people like Soh to be labelled transphobes, but she repeatedly emphasises that the last thing she wants is for the science to be used by genuine bigots as the basis for discrimination: ‘What I don’t want is for people to take the information in this book and use it to deny transgender people their rights [and] legal protections’.

However, her wish to ensure that the rights of trans people remain protected stands at odds with the aims of activists who appear determined to erode legal protections for women. For example, in the name of inclusion, the English language is being purged of female gendered nouns. Now, it is not uncommon to see women described as ‘pregnant people’, ‘birthing parents’ or ‘menstruators’ by woke corporations and politicians. Earlier this year, Nancy Pelosi proposed eliminating the word ‘mother’ from the legislative dictionary of the House of Representatives. It is worth asking who really gains from actions like these. If women cannot be referred to as a distinct group, then they cannot be protected in law. And why is it predominantly women, not men, who are having their identity redefined in the name of tolerance? Why should the burden of adaptation fall to just one sex? Again, Soh cuts right to the point: ‘there is nothing wrong with advocating for meaningful and fair opportunities for everyone. They should not come at the cost of prioritising one group over another’.

The latter sections of the book discuss the biological realities which underpin relations between the sexes. Despite what radical feminist theory might tell you, Soh makes it clear that men and women are not the same. One difference is the heightened selectivity of women when it comes to potential partners. This trait is by evolutionary design, and reflects the fact that the act of sex ‘comes with a greater cost to women, due to the possibility of becoming pregnant’. With this in mind, if men want to appear attractive, argues Soh, then they should demonstrate a willingness to invest in a relationship. She encourages men to be the one to make the first move and even (shock horror!) pay for meals in those early dates. Her advice to women is that ‘requiring men to, at minimum, initiate interest will help to weed out those who are just going to waste your time. It also means that he values you’. This advice might be less applicable to casual hook-ups, but if it’s a serious relationship you’re after, Soh recommends ditching everything you’ve heard about men and women being identical, and instead rely on evolutionary hardwiring built on the experience of countless generations.

The outrage that was provoked merely by inviting Soh to speak at Oxford demonstrates that we currently find it extremely difficult to have frank, evidence based conversations about the topics outlined above. This helps no one. Soh’s own experience in the academy has been of clinicians and researchers ‘bullied and intimidated into silence’, leading to therapeutic practice that does not promote the best outcomes for those with conditions like gender-dysphoria. Simultaneously, the ideological homogeneity of the university environment does not encourage academics to voice dissenting opinions. Those at this university who have attempted to paint Soh as an aggressive transphobe should consider whether such tactics are consistent with principles of reasonable debate, or even of respect for the truth.

Soh’s position towards those within the vanguard of ‘woke’ ideology is a humane and rational one. Essentially, people should be able to identify as whatever they like, and should certainly never face discrimination as a result. However, she makes the case that legislators must think very carefully before acceding to demands that the law change in order to accommodate versions of human existence which are not necessarily grounded in scientific fact, especially given the risks of infringing the rights of others.

Soh’s last, and most important point is this: ‘There is activism and there is science. Activist science, no matter how passionate or well intentioned, is not science’. Science is and must remain an apolitical endeavour. If a scientific field is pressured and co-opted by a particular ideology, then no guarantees can be made about the accuracy of its conclusions. It is astonishing to me that the same activists will sing the praises of science on an issue like climate change, but will simultaneously argue that the field of sexology is pure pseudo-science. As Soh states in the closing chapter of The End of Gender, ‘The propensity for science denial will always be there, because the truth about who we are is uncomfortable’. That the truth is often uncomfortable is beyond doubt, but that should never render us unable to face it. 

The End of Gender is published by Simon and Schuster and the cover design pictured is by Jason Gabbert.

The Medium is the Massage; the effect of technology on communication, forgiveness and politics. (15/12/2020)

‘The major advances in civilisation are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur’.

A.N. Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher, co-author of the Principia Mathematica (1913).

The Medium is the Massage (1967) opens with the above quote. It is no throwaway line. The book’s authors: Marshal McLuhan (words) and Quentin Fiore (graphics) had set out to convey just how disruptive they believed the coming digital revolution would be. Today, their work is astonishingly prophetic.

In just 160 pages and no more than 4,000 words, the book lays out McLuhan’s thesis for humanity’s relationship with technology. Which is, in short, that the medium for information, be it a book, cartoon, television or app, is just as, if not more important in determining the effect of that information on those who consume it than the information itself. The title of the book was intended to be The Medium is the Message, but a mistake at the typesetters changed it to ‘massage’. When confronted with the error, McLuhan apparently insisted on preserving it, believing it was effective in underlining his argument that mediums of communication ‘massaged’ the mind of the consumer.

In order to convey this core message that presentation impacts the consumer just as much as content, The Medium has its text printed in unique ways: intercut with striking imagery which occupies whole pages, in countless different font sizes, sometimes upside down, and once back to front (so that the text can only be read in a mirror). Masterminded by graphic designer Quentin Fiore, this technique sought to underline McLuhan’s belief that how we consume information is paramount. Thanks to Fiore, the experience of reading The Medium imparts McLuhan’s argument both intellectually (through the text) and literally (through the varied presentation of that text): The medium is the massage.

In fact, The Medium was so shockingly unorthodox in its print design that it was taken by some as a sign of the moral degeneration of the ‘60s. In a 1992 interview with writer J. Abbot Miller, Fiore related the claims of moralists at the time, who complained that the book “promoted illiteracy, encouraged drug use, [that] it corrupted the morals of the American youth, [and that] it was anti-intellectual.”[1]

Moralists aside, by suggesting that once created our electronic technologies exert influence back upon our own behaviour (and societies), McLuhan has helped to provide a modern take on the field of technological determinism (TD). Originally a Marxist strain of thought which considered the impact of the industrial revolution on society, TD has now expanded to consider the impact of the digital revolution. There can be no doubt that McLuhan was instrumental in bringing about that shift.

What is most striking about The Medium is the unnerving accuracy of the predictions it makes about the digital age we all live in now. Written while computer technology was only just emerging from infancy, the book foresees today’s web-based environment of hyper-connectivity. McLuhan was the first to coin the phrase ‘global village’; to describe the shrinking of spatial and temporal boundaries between previously disparate human communities brought about by the new connectivity:

‘Electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon instantly and continuously the concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale.’

‘We have become so involved with each other, now that all of us have become the unwitting workforce for social change.’

‘Ours is a brand new world of allatonceness. “Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. Now we live in a global village…a simultaneous happening.’

From this foundational assessment, McLuhan was able to deduce a number of prescient corollaries in The Medium:  

  1. That the introduction of the new technology would usher in a new generational divide in computational competence, between those who had been inculcated in the new world from birth, and those who have to adapt to it: ‘Youth instinctively understands the present environment.’
  2. That the new age of hyper-connected communication would favour easy to consume memes/bites of information over long-form writing. A world wide web would mean final victory for the cynical remark over the considered essay: ‘A perceptive of incisive joke can be more meaningful than platitudes lying between two covers.’
  3. That the new technology would equip the governments of the world with surveillance capabilities Big Brother could only dream of: ‘Electrical information devices for universal womb-tomb surveillance are causing a very serious dilemma between our claim to privacy and the community’s need to know.’
  4. That superpower conflict would shift from the fighting of direct or proxy wars into cyberspace: ‘Real, total war has become information war. It is being fought by subtle electric informational media.’
  5. That the so-called ‘democratisation’ of truth would bring unintended consequences. Not least the fact that now, anyone, literally anyone, through countless online mediums, not least a blog like the one you are reading now, can eject their opinion into the ether without filter or oversight: ‘The family circle has widened. The whirlpool of information fathered by electric media (…) Character is no longer shaped by only two earnest, fumbling experts [parents]. Now all the world’s a sage.’

However, for me McLuhan’s most fascinating insight comes on page 12 of The Medium when he briefly touches on the effect the new technologies may have on our human capacity to forgive. The extract in question is as follows:

‘The older, traditional ideas of private, isolated thoughts and actions – the patterns of mechanistic technologies – are very seriously threatened by new methods of instantaneous electric information retrieval, by the electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early “mistakes”.’

This is a chilling thought. A significant part of our capacity to forgive does stem from a degree of forgetfulness. For P. G. Wodehouse’s accident prone Bertie Wooster, ‘Time’ is often called upon as ‘the great healer’. The hope is that fading memories will erase the worst of an offence, and so make rehabilitation with the individual/family/community/society more feasible. If McLuhan is right (and I think that it is already obvious he is), then the eternal memory of our computers has rendered this process impossible (or at least much harder than it was).

This is bad news for humanity. Fortunately, while he may have been the first to put these concerns to paper, McLuhan is not alone. In his 2019 book, The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray explores the same issue:

‘Part of forgiveness is the ability to forget. And yet the internet will never forget. Everything can always be summoned up afresh by new people.’[2]

Murray recognises that there are some events, like ‘being tried in a courtroom or going to prison’[3] that have long been permanent additions to a person’s record. But what is new about today is that the same permanence is applied to actions which are not criminal:

‘Living in world where non-crimes have the same effect [as real crimes] is especially deranging.’[4]

The practical impact of this has become clear. Today, students are warned that they should sanitize their social media feeds for future employers, to ensure that nothing which isn’t kosher, even if it originates from years gone by, is picked up in a background check. The past few years have been filled with high profile examples of celebrity ‘cancellation’; a messy and misused term no-doubt, but one which accurately captures modern technology’s tendency to concentrate our more vengeful characteristics in lieu of forgiving ones. Murray provides the examples of Quinn Norton and Toby Young, who were forced out of appointments at The New York Times and a government advisory board on higher education respectively after embarrassing comments from their past were brought to new light. And of course, what is considered acceptable and what isn’t, and who the arbitrators of acceptability are, changes almost daily. For those in the public sphere, to avoid nicking any one of today’s numerous ideological trip-wires and so avoiding social retribution (with the promise of eternal damnation that eternal digital memory provides) requires relentless vigilance and extreme care. It is hardly an environment conducive to dynamic debate or a diverse array of viewpoints.

To underscore his argument, Murray draws on one of the greatest political theorists of the 20th century: Hannah Arendt. He quotes from a lecture she gave in November 1964 entitled ‘Labour, Work, Action’ from a conference on ‘Christianity and Economic Man: Moral Decisions in an Affluent Society’. Arendt eloquently highlights the fundamental role our ‘faculty of forgiving’ plays in society:

‘Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act, would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victim of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.’[5]

If today’s hyper-connected, ultra-memorable technology poses a risk to our capacity to forgive, then that’s a fundamental problem which needs addressing. It is a problem, Murray points out, compounded by the ‘death of God’ and the 20th century’s collapse in regular adherence to the Christian faith. Here, Murray draws on another intellectual giant, Friedrich Nietzsche:

‘As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered.’[6]

Christianity has many serious flaws, but it does try to address the big issues (this is surely one of the reasons for its persistence). One of those big issues is how to get along with people who have wronged us. The New Testament offers the answer: To turn the other cheek. If we want the society of the future to be one where we are able to turn the other cheek to each other, then the simultaneous introduction of technology which discourages forgiveness, and loss of faith in one of the religions which espouses forgiveness above all, is not a good combination.

Crucially, we must be able to forgive not just individuals, but whole groups as well. In perhaps his most alarming prophecy, McLuhan explores the new technology’s capacity to encourage ‘mass guilt’:

‘The new feeling that people have about guilt is not something that can be privately assigned to some individual, but is rather, something shared by everybody, in some mysterious way.’

If one of the by-products of a hyper-connected age is that we are no longer able to treat each person as an individual, with their own merits and failings, then that is not good. Such a phenomenon can only encourage the use of generalisations and stereotypes. Taken to the extreme, the attribution of ‘mass guilt’ could clearly have disastrous consequences. If we intend to avoid the mistakes of the 20th century, and desist from scapegoating the most convenient ethnic/religious/political group for our problems, then this is one of McLuhan’s prophecies which must not come to pass.

Science Fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, and it is true that today’s technological world makes countless wonderful things possible: You can order almost anything online and have it delivered to your door, call a taxi from your mobile and be on your way in minutes, and be within constant easy contact of friends and family. I can write this and have it read by people I have never met. But one of the flipsides of this technological coin may be that we find it harder to forgive each other. For a society to survive, its citizens must be able to get along. For citizens to get along, they must be able to forgive each other for whatever wrongs they commit. What McLuhan managed to point out in 1967, was that a hyper-connected world might not necessarily make this crucial process easier. Just how severe the impact of our new ways of communicating will be on our discourses, society and politics, we still have yet to see.

McLuhan once again, in The Medium is the Massage:

‘Its [technology’s] message is Total Change, ending psychic, social, economic, and political parochialism. The old civic, state and national groupings have become unworkable. Nothing can be further from the spirit of the new technology than “a place for everything and everything in its place.” You can’t go home again.’

[1] Quentin Fiore, Who Made the Medium His Message, Dies at 99, K. Q. Seelye, May 1st 2019, The New York Times.

[2] The Madness of Crowds, D. Murray, Bloomsbury (2019) p176.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Labour, Work, Action’, in The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin, 2000, p.180-1.

[6] The Madness of Crowds, D. Murray, Bloomsbury (2019) p182.

Cover design for photo by YES.

Cover photograph by Peter Moore.

What does ‘American Psycho’ tell us about Donald Trump? (17th of July 2020)

In Brett Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel, his protagonist, the Wall Street lawyer Patrick Bateman, cares about very few people. He certainly does not care about his girlfriend Evelyn, and definitely not his co-workers, one of whom he chops to death with an axe. But there is one person that literature’s nastiest serial killer looks up to: Donald Trump.

Bateman is obsessed with Trump. The property tycoon is mentioned over 40 times in the novel. Bateman wants to know where Trump’s eating dinner, what clothes he wears, and at multiple points he mistakenly believes he’s caught a glimpse of him. At one point, Bateman ranks getting ‘myself invited to the Trump Christmas party aboard their yacht’ as a crucial personal goal. As he careens through New York, leaving death in his wake, he inexplicably wanders up to Trump tower, as if seeking guidance from a holy site.

So why did Ellis decide to include this Trumpian obsession in his book? Well, American Psycho is based in no small degree on the author’s own experience of living in New York in the 1980’s (also the period in which the book is set). Following the success of his debut novel Less Than Zero in 1985, Ellis became a member of the so-called literary ‘Brat-Pack’, and entered New York’s social elite. It didn’t suit him, and he became disillusioned with the highly materialistic world he had gained membership to. In very basic terms, American Psycho is a satire of the culture he discovered, but Bateman’s preoccupation with Trump is based upon Ellis’ own interaction with Wall Street hotshots while he was a member of the East-Coast’s literati. For some reason, these smart, ambitious graduates of Ivy League colleges looked up to the Donald. This from an interview with Ellis in 2019:

‘He was ubiquitous, he was kind’ve all over New York (…) He bothered me because I couldn’t understand why all of these Wall Street guys aspired to be him (…) Trump was their idol (…) a father figure.’[1]

And this from Ellis’ book White (2019):

‘The young men, Wall Street Guys, (…) were enthralled by him. Trump was an inspirational figure, which troubled me’.

Ellis thought that Trump’s popularity with the New York elite was amusing, which is why it makes its way into American Psycho as a running gag (by the way, the book is a comedy). The joke works because to many, Trump personifies an 80s culture which valued narcissism, selfishness and materialism. Naturally, these are Bateman’s core values as well.

However, the fact that Trump was well liked by young professionals in New York should give those of us who dislike him (of whom I am one) food for thought. Trump was considerably older than those Ellis recalls looking up to him (he was into his 40s by the mid-80s), and he was already exhibiting his uniquely buffoonish qualities. Yet still they liked him. It seems Trump was masterful at cultivating his own image. This from a 1976 New York Times profile:

‘He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.’[2]

Today, the Times’ editorial line is habitually hostile to Trump (in fact, boringly so), which makes this line bizarre reading. But back then, the current president was able to convince them that he was the man to watch. This, combined with the popularity Ellis alludes to, should serve as a warning to those who remain convinced that Trump is stupid. He isn’t. He is unusually talented at appealing to particular groups, and is extremely good as discerning what stance/issue will boost/damage support from his base. Admittedly, he doesn’t do any of this elegantly, with any verbal eloquence, or with any regard for common decency, but he does it nonetheless.

A little digging into the president’s past even provides evidence that he has skills beyond polishing his image. For high school, he attended the New York Military Academy, and his yearbook shows that he rose to the post of supply captain, making him among the most highly ranked cadets in his year group. His classmates remember a peer who was both academically sharp, and athletically gifted [his yearbook also shows he played varsity baseball, football and soccer]. And though it’s important to note that given their fellow alumni’s present job, they might be embroidering their memories for effect, I think it’s safe to conclude that Trump has more going on between the ears than his enemies give him credit for.

Ellis’ book should remind us that Trump has long managed to gain disciples within groups that aren’t natural supporters. All of this should be borne in mind by Joe Biden and Co. as November approaches. Democrats are far too easily given to despising Trump (to be fair, that’s not hard to do). But as Michael Corleone says in The Godfather: ‘never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement’[3]. For him to be beaten, Trump must be recognised for the skilful political maneuverer that he is, rather than just a foolish bigot. Acknowledging this is difficult, not least because it actually makes him scarier. But it is also necessary. With Biden currently ahead in the polls, it would be easy for the Dems to assume victory. That happened last time, and for the sake of America, it mustn’t happen again.

[1] Interview with Dion Fanning for Ireland Unfiltered podcast – 6th of May 2019

[2] Article, Judy Klemesrud, New York Times Nov 1st 1976: ‘Donald Trump, Real Estate Promoter, Builds Image as He Buys Buildings’.

[3] The Godfather: Part III (1990), Paramount Pictures and Zoetrope Studios, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

I hope university teaches me to think, but I’m not so sure it will. (15th July 2020)

Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the Oxford manner’, is ‘the ability to play with ideas gracefully’. All being well with my (teacher assessed) A-Levels, I hope to begin my time as a student at Oxford this October. I couldn’t be more excited about this, but recent trends regarding the free exchange of ideas at universities worldwide, and the current political zeitgeist we find ourselves in, have made me wonder if university will actually help me become a more able and independent thinker.

What’s made me apprehensive? A few things. Firstly, a tendency to place limits upon the free exchange of ideas has become a creeping trend in UK and US universities for quite some years now. And Oxford leads the way. In 2018, Spiked Onlines Free Speech University Rankings placed Oxford alongside Edinburgh as the most restrictive institution in the country for free speech. Official OUSU policy includes a commitment to prohibit advertising by pro-life campaign group LIFE, the discouragement of ‘bad taste’ party themes (whatever the hell that means), and a proclamation that all OUSU events ‘should consider trigger warnings, content notes and pronoun circles to be regular practice’. In 2015, a new student magazine called No Offence, which sought to ‘promote debate and publicise ideas people are afraid to express’ was promptly banned from being distributed at Fresher’s Fair.

Similar examples can be found across American unis, with Ivy League institutions like Yale and Brown among the worst offenders. Why is this happening? The transformation of students from budding intellectuals to a monetary commodity certainly has something to do with it. The introduction of tuition fees in the UK has pushed our academic institutions down a path of lazy capitalism, where a new customer service mentality dictates that students must have a good time, lest a Uni gain a reputation for demanding work and exacting scholarship.

Of course in the Ivy League this has been true for some time, and it is borne out by new university marketing which emphasises the comfortable ‘homely’ atmosphere of institutions. The weight placed on the student experience inevitably necessitates the elimination of any offensive argument or idea, stifling free debate.

However, those of the academic old guard know that this new system does not work. Hannah Grey, President of Chicago University between 1978 and 1993 has this to say:

‘Universities have increasingly come to be seen as paternalistic welfare states. Education is not supposed to make people comfortable, it is there to make them think.’

Ruth Simmons, who was President of Brown University between 2001 and 2012 and the first African American president of an Ivy League institution goes further, stating that ‘learning is the antithesis of comfort’. She is so right. To learn is to expand our knowledge into murky, unknown waters, and we are likely to make mistakes and feel out of our depth. But exploring new ideas is what improves our capacity to think deeply about the world, and to entertain arguments we might be opposed to, without railing violently against them. It is this clash of viewpoints which allows universities to fulfil their sacred role as identified by another Chicago President, Robert Maynard Hutchins, namely, ‘to develop intellectual power’.

It’s important to acknowledge that this is no easy skill. My sense is that it does not come naturally to our tribal sensibilities. It must be learned, and thus taught. It’s no accident that Aristotle remarked that ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. But safe spaces, supposed micro-aggressions, and the cancelling of invited speakers do nothing to cultivate this valuable skill. When encountering a controversial idea, instead of being taught to ‘entertain it’, students are encouraged to either ignore its existence, or silence those who advocate it. This does not teach young people to think, only to oppose ideological diversity with tyranny.

Our academic institutions play a crucial role in turning know-it-all teenagers into mature adults. Breaking down the presuppositions of adolescence is fundamental if a willingness to consider new arguments and ideas is ever going to thrive. I know, I’m an opinionated and argumentative 18 year old who often needs taking down a peg or two. But I’d like to think that I recognise the process of debate and confrontation as one of growth, where bad arguments are discarded and better ones chiselled into shape. This (often painful) mechanism allows me to become a better thinker.

But if institutions do not provide students with the opportunity to challenge opposing views, and instead cocoon them in the prevailing liberal zeitgeist, then it’s quite possible they will be less capable of engaging in meaningful discourse when they leave Uni than when they arrived. They will have been, as Douglas Murray is fond of saying, ‘educated into imbecility’.

A climate of conformity and censorship is not just boring, it’s entirely unlike the real world. To quote that great moral philosopher Sylvester Stallone, ‘the world is a mean and nasty place’ – it is. Encountering people with whom who profoundly disagree is very likely. You may well come across bigoted and racist people. But do you think you would be better prepared to defeat their arguments if you had confronted their ideas before, and picked them apart in rigorous debate, or if you had pretended they did not exist at all? This is one of the great tragedies of declining ideological diversity and the rise of cancel culture on campuses: In seeking to create ideological conformity, our academic institutions make it less likely that genuine bigotry will be challenged effectively.

And the decline in ideological diversity is real (especially in the humanities). Research by Professor Jonathan Haidt and the Heterodox Academy (which works to counteract a lack of viewpoint diversity on US campuses) have demonstrated that conservatives in social research fields are underrepresented by about 80% when compared to broader US society[1]. Haidt also quotes a 2007 study (Gross and Simmons) which found that 80% of psychology professors were Democrats, outnumbering Republicans by nearly 12:1[2]. There is no reason to believe the trends are different in the UK. This lack of differing opinion in universities undermines the goal of teaching students to consider a wide variety of ideas. If dogmatism is reinforced by conformity among academics, then no one is being taught to think. Robert Maynard Hutchins was right to champion ideological diversity at Chicago when he said that ‘if everybody thinks it’s great, then the chances are it’s going to hell’.

How should we combat this? Well students themselves must be willing to open up to new ideas, but the administrative bodies of our institutions could do a lot more to stand up to the illiberal tendencies of their radical student unions (it’s just that at present, the income from tuition fees is so enormous, that universities fear upsetting their woke cash-cows).

Today, as the BLM movement sweeps across the UK and the USA, activists are making strong arguments on police reform, the legacy of slavery, and the memorialisation of our history. These are crucial debates to have, but if they are to be meaningful, everyone must be included within them. In Oxford, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, like the wider BLM movement, also includes attacks on meritocracy and capitalism. A few days ago, RMF told me via my social media that I should no longer use the word ‘exotic’. Will I be able to challenge these views at Oxford? I hope so. But I am increasingly concerned that many students are unwilling to acknowledge that their ideological adversaries might be well-meaning, instead believing that they are evil by nature. If we are unable to disagree well, or to put it another way, ‘play gracefully with ideas’, then civil discourse cannot function.

The consequences of the breakdown in dialogue between opposing groups are already visible: A more polarised political and media environment; evidenced just this morning by the departure of centrist columnist Bari Weiss from the New York Times[3]. This is not good for democracy (speaking of which, Jonathan Haidt has predicted that in ‘in the next 30 years we will have a catastrophic failure of our democracy’[4]). Again, Robert Maynard Hutchins was bang on the money: ‘Education is a matter of life and death to any society’.

These are the stakes. Universities must reclaim their sacred position as outlined by the 1975 Woodward Report, as places to ‘think the unthinkable’ and ‘challenge the unchallengeable’.

So Oxford, please teach me to think.

Further Resources:

Jonathan Haidt’s fascinating TED-Talk on ‘The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives’.

Rob Montz’s series of documentaries on campus free speech in the US:


[1] Musa al-Gharbi, May 23rd 2018 –

[2] Gross and Simmons – 2007 –

[3] Bari Weiss’ resignation letter.

[4] Kelly, Paul, ‘America’s Uncivil War on Democracy’ – July 20th 2019, The Australian

Dispatches by Michael Herr – War as Pure Experience (July 2020)

Publisher: Picador Cover design: Illustration by Joanna Thomson, Picador Art Dep

Our machine was devastating and versatile, it could do anything but stop.

For every prayer there was a counter-prayer – and it was hard to see who had the edge.

There were plenty of people who believed that we were nothing more than glorified war profiteers. And perhaps we were. Those of us who didn’t get killed or wounded or otherwise fucked up.

There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was ‘really doing there.

Even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind.

You drown in this book. You are meant to. The language of the Vietnam War is afforded no translation: Charlie, Grunt, Grease, Cav, Kill Ratio, Get Some, Far Out, Psywar, Loach and Huey. It’s your job to understand, the author is not there to make it easier. Add to this, Herr’s use of endless descriptive sentences, like this example on helicopters:

‘A collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right-hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door gun fire out the other, fuel, heat, vitality, and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.’

Such use of language is immersive and relentless, just like war itself.

Dispatches (1977) was called ‘the best book I have read on men and war in our time’ by John Le Carré. Herr’s book is visceral, totally uncensored and often cited as the most accurate account of the soldier’s experience in Vietnam. And an account of experience it is, not a written history of the war. While the book documents some key events such as the siege of Khe Sanh and the Tet Offensive, it does not chart the course of the war. It is instead pure memory and emotion, as Herr says, ‘the madness, the bitterness, the horror and the doom of it’.

Broken into six chapters (Breathing in, Hell Sucks, Khe Sanh, Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out) Dispatches is often a string of anecdotes; Herr’s memories one after the other. There’s the depiction of Saigon, beautiful and dreadful: ‘Sitting in Saigon was like sitting in the petals of a poisonous flower’. The NVA sniper who earned the affection of the Khe Sanh marines after surviving a napalm attack: ‘After that, no one wanted anything to happen to him’. The self-medication common to the army: ‘Going out at night, the medics gave you pills’. The sign hanging on the wire surrounding a Special Forces outpost: ‘If you kill for money you’re a mercenary. If you kill for pleasure you’re a sadist. If you kill for both you’re a Green Beret’.

Grim humour like that fills Dispatches. In Vietnam, for many ordinary soldiers, it was all they had. Names scrawled on helmets are particularly illuminating: Far from Fearless, Avenger V, Hell Sucks, Time is on My Side, Born to Lose, Born to Raise Hell, Born to Kill, Born to Die. Furthermore, Herr quotes verbatim multiple conversations between the soldiers he encountered. Not only is the dialogue uncensored, but it is recorded phonetically. So ‘Shit’ is ‘Sheet’, ‘told’ is ‘tol’ and ‘let me’ is ‘lemme’. In this way, the lived experience of the troops is put to paper with no refinement. This doesn’t make the book easier to read, but I doubt Herr was aiming to achieve a relaxing reading experience, rather a vivid and true to life one.

So, based on Herr’s true to life depiction, what was the Vietnam War like? The answer: Madness. A futile conflict infused with the ballooning pop culture of the 60’s (there is a full page of song credits at the back of Dispatches for the all the famous tunes Herr references), and widespread substance abuse. It’s no accident that much of the book feels hallucinogenic. And so it’s not surprising that Herr was used as a screenwriter for the narration of that most hallucinogenic of films, Apocalypse Now (Herr also has a screenplay credit for Full Metal Jacket).

The futility of war (and of the Vietnam War in particular) is certainly a central theme. The resilience of the North Vietnamese in the face of the American war machine is remarked on multiple times: ‘They didn’t seem depleted, let alone exhausted’. While Despatches is very much a depiction of the American experience in Vietnam, Herr alludes to the wider (and far more massive) tragedy it inflicted on the Vietnamese (58,318 Americans died in Vietnam, estimations of total military and civilian Vietnamese casualties exceed 3 million). Yet, Herr implies that this avoidable human suffering was caused in an atmosphere of total futility: ‘A lot of people knew the country could never be won, only destroyed’. Vietnam seemed like a fruitless enterprise with little purpose to Herr: ‘There were the times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed’. Herr makes you wonder if stepping into Vietnam in 1968 really was like entering a world without hope, without reason.

But despite the apparent pointlessness, the great Army propaganda machine kept on churning, and it is in describing this that Herr achieves his most effective indictment of the American military establishment. His anger at the unreasonable cheerfulness of the higher echelons of command is palpable: ‘[Optimism] seemed to be the only kind of talk that any of them were capable of. “Excellent”, “real fine”, “outstanding”, “first rate”’. The army’s misleading use of jargon in briefings is also lampooned: ‘friendly casualties’ (not very friendly), ‘meeting engagement’ (ambush), ‘discreet burst’ (often uncontrolled fire). To Herr, it’s clear the military lost all credibility in Vietnam.

‘The spokesman spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world.’

‘“Oh two hundred isn’t anything. We lost more than that in an hour on Guadalcanal” (…) you heard that talk all the time, as though it could invalidate the deaths at Khe Sanh, render them somehow less dead than the dead at Guadalcanal, as though light losses didn’t lie as still as moderate losses or heavy losses.’

The disconnect between press briefings and the situation on the ground contributed to Herr’s decision to abandon Saigon altogether for much of his time in-country. Instead he careened around the countryside with colleagues like Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone (both of whom would be captured and killed by the communists). His decision to embed with front line troops was undoubtedly crucial in collecting the depth of experience he relays in Dispatches.

But the difference between propaganda and reality is just one of the contradictions of war Herr highlights. Like the best writing on war, Dispatches complicates rather than simplifies your perceptions. It leaves you with a clearer appreciation for the men who were there, but a more complicated picture of the nature of fighting. For example, while terrifying, war could, according to Herr, also be a thing of beauty:

‘How lovely .50-calibre tracer could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel total serenity.’

The allure of war is a theme repeated in books like Anthony Swafford’s Jarhead (2003). Both Herr and Swafford recognise the fact that far from being reluctant participants, some soldiers lust for fighting and its all-encompassing purpose, and far from devaluing any anti-war message, this only makes the books more terrifying. Literary comparisons can also be made to Joe Haldeman’s 1974 fictional work The Forever War (which after all is based on the Vietnam experiences of its author). Dispatches shares the same grim humour for army logic/propaganda as The Forever War. Plus they treat death in the same matter of fact, comfortless, and sometimes darkly humorous way. This from Dispatches:

‘“Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”

I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story.

Herr reported from Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire magazine. A fact that raised eyebrows then and would be unthinkable in today’s world of cash-strapped journalism. His credentials are mocked in one of the books funnier moments by a marine:

‘And Esquire, wow, they, got a guy over here, what the fuck for, you tell’em what we’re wearing?’

But the truth that Herr manages to convey is that while the Vietnam War was in many ways laughable in its madness, it was very, very, unfunny. For Herr, the scars of his own experience were deep. 18 months after returning to the states he suffered a nervous breakdown, and it was only five years after he stopped reporting from Vietnam that he was able to write Dispatches. Herr says that ‘My life and death got mixed up with their lives and deaths’. This intermingling of the reporter and reported is also alluded to in British war photographer Don McCullin’s autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour (1990):

‘The ghosts in my filing cabinets seem to shock me – the ghosts of all those dead in all those wars (…)

              With this book, perhaps they will be set free.’

Herr died in 2016 aged 76. I hope that writing Dispatches was an exorcism for himself, in the same way McCullin hoped Unreasonable Behaviour would be for him. The end result of Herr’s work is a staggering account of what it means to be a soldier, with all the terror, beauty and humour. Above all, Dispatches feels real, totally, unnervingly real.

Those of us who remember the past are condemned to repeat it too, that’s a little history joke.’

‘Common Sense’ and the Life of Thomas Paine – The work of the forgotten Founding Father (July 2020)

Publisher: Penguin (Great Ideas Series) Cover Artwork: Phil Baines

The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.’

‘The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth’.

‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’.

“I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any Church that I know of. My own mind is my own church” (not actually from Common Sense, instead from The Age of Reason).

The most talented writer of the revolutionary period, even, for my money, of the enlightenment period, was born in Thetford, England in 1737. Thomas Paine was born to the son of a corset maker, and left school at age 12 to become his father’s apprentice. Having briefly been to sea as a privateer, his wife and child died in childbirth when he was 22. By age 37 he was financially ruined by debt. Paine was middle aged, but had achieved nothing. It was hardly an auspicious start. But, he did have one ace; years before, he had met Benjamin Franklin by chance in London, and the future Founding Father was so impressed by the young man that he wrote him a letter of recommendation (it seems Paine’s proclivity of oratory was evident). So, he left England behind and sailed to America. Two years later he had written Common Sense and changed the course of history.

Common Sense (first published anonymously on the 10th of January 1776) was a rallying cry to American Revolutionaries on the brink of war and is an inspirational call to arms which retains its relevance to this day. So important were these 77 pages of text in prompting America’s declaration of independence, that John Adams attested that ‘without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain’. Within a few months of its publication, over 150,000 copies were distributed across America, making it, proportionally, the nation’s greatest best-seller ever (it’s still in print by the way). This is no surprise, given Paine’s accessible yet eloquent style of prose; which combines clear reasoning with verbal-agility and humour. In fact he specifically endeavoured to ensure that his writing was as accessible as possible, remarking that ‘I shall avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet’. This makes his work remarkably readable when compared to similar political treatises of the enlightenment period.

In Common Sense, Paine advocates not just the arguments for independence from Great Britain, but a number of enlightenment-era principles, such as a democratically elected assembly, religious freedom, and the rule of law. In doing so, he helps to lay the groundwork for the American constitution, and the principles which still lie at the nation’s core. But despite all this, Paine is rarely remembered alongside the Founding Fathers.

Paine seeks to define the purpose of government, describing it as a ‘necessary evil’, produced ‘by our wickedness’. The primary function of government, according to Paine, is security. If mankind was naturally good, there would be no need for a government to enforce order. However, ‘that not being the case’, each man ‘finds it necessary to surrender up part of his property to furnish means of the protection of the rest’. Hence, as Paine eloquently puts it, government is ‘the badge of lost innocence’, as it indicates our collective acceptance that man’s more harmful qualities must be kept in check. In fact, Paine, in one of his more famous quotations, states that ‘a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all’.

And yet, argues Paine, Great Britain’s ‘grievous’ oppression of the American colonies, amounting to ‘a long and violent abuse of power’, means that the British, in their position as rulers, have not fulfilled this purpose of government. He goes on to critique the principle of hereditary succession in the British monarchy, railing against how ‘a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest’, and in so doing begins his advocacy for the equality of all men, which was to define much of his contribution to enlightenment-era thinking.

And now, dear reader, if you’ll indulge some sketchy comparative history, I posit that correlations with Brexit in Paine’s writing are evident. For example, within Common Sense’s arguments for independence he points out the numerous trading opportunities with Europe that will become available following America’s departure from a British monopoly. He assures doubters that ‘our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe’. Much like the proponents of Brexit today, Paine is forced to assuage doubts that independence will lead to economic damage, instead highlighting the opportunities it presents. In its present state, ‘the trade of America goes to ruin, because of its connection with Britain’ he writes.

What also becomes clear from Common Sense, is that Paine wrote the piece amidst an intense debate about the future of America (just as debate over Brexit has been divisive in the UK), and that he was attempting to rebuke a significant faction who favoured reconciliation, not war. To them, he puts the following arguments: 1) That the prolonging of a union would only allow King George to continue the subjugation of the American peoples in a subtler way, giving him the opportunity to ‘accomplish by craft (…) in the long run, what he cannot do by violence (…) in the short one’.  2) That even the best terms achieved in any reconciliation would amount merely to a ‘temporary expedient’, and that ‘emigrants of property would not come to a country whose government hangs but by a thread’. 3) That delaying the declaration of independence risks the splitting of the Americas into a civil war between revolutionaries and loyalists, ‘which may be far more fatal than all the malice of Britain’.

Towards the end of Common Sense Paine lays out a vision for what a liberated American government would look like, and it is not so different from the system we have today. Paine suggests annual congressional assemblies with a single president, elected by congressmen. Through such a congress, laws demanding a three fifths super-majority would be passed. Paine claims that these representatives, united together, and elected by ‘as many qualified voters as shall think proper to attend’, will create a whole which will have ‘truly legal authority’.

Finally, for his time, Paine had truly radical things to say on religion, as highlighted by the fourth quote at the top of this article. He paints a vision of a liberal, progressive state, one which secures ‘freedom and property to all men’. And in particular, one where religious freedom is a reality. ‘There should be diversity of religious opinion among us: It affords a larger field our Christian kind-ness’ he writes. Paine’s belief in the toleration of all Christian denominations would have been revolutionary in many quarters, and only highlights his deeply liberal and progressive principles.

In Common Sense the atmosphere of trepidation felt on the eve of the declaration of independence is palpable, but so is Paine’s bravery to assert what he believes is morally right: Rejection of tyranny, government by the people, security as the first function of the state, and economic and religious freedom. But above all, the rule of law, for as Paine states, ‘THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other’. No one has ever put it better.

Common Sense is a masterpiece. It is a hugely readable, eloquently written, and inspiring book which altered the course of history by being a driving force behind the declaration of independence, and by laying out many of the principles the world’s most powerful nation still lives by. The values of religious tolerance and the rule of law, are principles we rightly hold dear, and lose at our peril. The great tragedy of Paine, is that he never attained the recognition of his fellow revolutionaries, or enlightenment philosophers. His revolutionary (and popular) politics was feared by William (the younger) Pitt’s government, and he faced a slander campaign made even more toxic by his position as an English revolutionary traitor. His enemy’s went so far as to say he sodomised cats. That even manages to put the cage fights of today’s politics into perspective.

The tragedy is that Pitt’s tactics worked. On top of this, his fellow revolutionaries disowned him. It seems he was too much of a firebrand even for them, plus, it’s clear they envied his way with words. And, as they were second or third generation colonists and Paine wasn’t, it also seems possible they resented this upstart Englishman helping to run their revolution. Jefferson went so far as to ban his correspondence with Paine from being printed. When Mercy Otis Warren wrote the official history of the revolution (after Paine turned down the chance to do so), her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) literally reduced Paine’s contribution to a footnote. Thus, he died in relative obscurity, and just six mourners attended his funeral.

Yet this was a man almost unparalleled in his literary influence during the revolutionary period, whose desire to bring about justice was unquenchable. Franklin once said that “Where liberty is, there is my country,” to which Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is my country”. And John Adams, while he disliked Paine, was ultimately forced to remark that ‘I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine’, adding, ‘call it then the Age of Paine’. Not bad for the son of a corset maker from Thetford.

So go on, read Common Sense – you won’t regret it.

Appendix I – For those who want a bit more evidence for why Paine was the greatest orator of his generation, I attach the opening paragraph of The American Crisis. This pamphlet was his second most significant contribution to the revolutionary war after Common Sense. It was written in sections between 1776 and 1783. Paine wrote what you see below on the eve of the Battle of Trenton (26th December 1776). At this point of the war, fortunes are firmly against the revolutionaries. Having just retreated across New Jersey, Washington is about to attempt a night time crossing of the frozen Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on Trenton. Washington ordered that Paine read these words to his troops. The next day, they won a decisive victory…

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

Appendix II – Considerable inspiration and factual material for this piece was drawn from Jill Lepore’s superb articles on Paine and the revolution for The New Yorker. They can be found here:

And here:

Discussion of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ – July 2020

Publisher: Pax Librorum Publishing House Cover design: Sebestyen, employing the image ‘Chinese Dragon’ by Lihui from

‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’

‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt, if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.’

‘The good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.’

‘Hence the enlightened ruler be heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.’

Sun Tzu is believed to have lived between 544 and 496 BCE (dying at the age of 47 or 48). He was a military general and tactician, as well as a writer and philosopher during the Eastern Zhou period of Ancient China. His name literally means, ‘master sun’. Little is known about his life, and details are so patchy that some contemporary scholars have suggested he may not have existed at all. If he did though, the scant evidence which is available suggests he drew inspiration for The Art of War from successful campaigns fighting for King Helü of Wu (537 – 493 BCE), starting during 512 BCE (Wu was a state located on China’s eastern seaboard, at the mouth of the Yangtze river, which existed between the 12th and mid-fourth century BCE).

The influence of The Art of War as a work of military strategy is difficult to overstate. Quite apart from becoming among the most widely read military treatise to circulate during the ‘Warring States’ period (475-221 BCE) of Chinese history, the book continues to be a touchstone for military and political strategists today, though perhaps it is now read more for its legend, than for its usefulness.

For a 2,500 year old treatise on Chinese military strategy, the book has become remarkably ubiquitous in popular culture; even a clichéd byword for strategic genius. Film and TV productions to have referenced it include Wall Street (1987), Die Another Day (2002), The Sopranos and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even in Michael Bay’s 1996 action film The Rock, the status of Sean Connery’s imprisoned British spy as a masterful tactician is (not so) subtly communicated via the inclusion of The Art of War on the bookshelf of his cell.

But popular culture aside, what is it about the work which has made it so persistent in the minds of so many contemporary leaders (which include Mao Zedong, Võ Nguyên Giáp, Douglas McArthur, Colin Powell and Dominic Cummings)? And how useful is it really? After all, being able to quote a pithy line from the Art of War might succeed in mildly impressing an easily thrilled acquaintance, but the internalisation and application of Sun Tzu’s often vague and dated teachings is far harder.

Well, the first comprehensive English translation was provided by British sinologist Lionel Giles in 1910, and the book was divided into 13 chapters:

1)Laying plans, 2)Waging War, 3)Attack by Stratagem, 4)Tactical Dispositions, 5)Energy, 6)Weak Points and Strong, 7) Manoeuvring, 8)Variation in Tactics, 9)The Army on the March, 10)Terrain, 11)The Nine Situations, 12)The Attack by Fire, 13) The Use of Spies.

In each section, Sun Tzu lays out what he considers to be the most crucial factors determining the successful conduct of war. For example, in the opening chapter he identifies ‘five constant factors’, which are 1) The Moral Law (the support a ruler enjoys from his people), 2) Heaven (which refers to environmental factors such as temperature and the seasons), 3) Earth (physical factors like distance and terrain), 4) The Commander (whom Sun Tzu decrees must stand for the virtues of ‘wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness’) and 5) Method and discipline (relatively self-explanatory: the proper administration of an army and its supporting apparatus).

All of that seems like common sense. Commanders should be brave and decisive, the army must be disciplined and obedient. Environmental and physical factors can obviously be fundamental to the course of a battle/war. And ultimate success in conflict depends in large part upon the moral justification and hence support for it. Much of The Art of War is pretty common sense stuff, it’s not hard to understand: ‘He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents will be captured by them’. ‘You should occupy the raised and sunny spots and wait for [the enemy] to come up’, ‘Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh to the fight’.

Clearly, a large part of the book’s longevity is merely the fact that it was one of the first works to collate fundamental truisms of war in a single document – its popularity today is then a product of age creating a vague and fuzzy aura of ancient-mystic-wisdom.

That being said, as war is now drastically different to that known by Sun Tzu (for example, where decisive pitched battles between foes at a particular ‘field’ no longer take place), what practical advice have his modern disciples gleaned from his writings?

The answer: Sun Tzu’s golden gobbets on unconventional and guerrilla warfare: ‘He overawes his opponents, and their allies are prevented from joining against him’. ‘At first, exhibit the coyness of a maiden, until the enemy gives you an opening, afterwards emulate the rapidity of a running hare’. ‘Carry false tidings to the enemy’. ‘The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy’. ‘Though the enemy may be stronger in numbers, we may prevent him from fighting’. ‘Let your plans be as dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’ ‘Force him to reveal himself, so as to find his vulnerable spots’. And perhaps most famously: ‘Winning without fighting is the highest form of warfare’.

These lines hold within them the central tenets of unconventional warfare as adopted by guerrilla leaders like Mao and Giáp. These are essentially: secrecy, deception, agility and piecemeal engagement/harassment, rather than pitched battle. It is these teachings which have allowed Sun Tzu to remain relevant even while conventional modes of warfare morphed and mutated alongside countless civilisations. Sun Tzu’s teachings are no less applicable to politics (in fact particularly so, as they often concern obtaining victory with minimal violence). Dominic Cumming’s has made no secret of the fact that he is a fan of The Art of War, and his deployment of the now infamous £350 million statistic as part of Vote Leave’s political insurgency is a superb example of the use of deceptive tactics to unbalance an opponent (Following the unveiling of the bus, the Remain campaign spent considerable energy debunking the stat, which only provided it with increased airtime and underlined the UK’s status as a net contributor to the EU in even bolder pen).

Given the often shadowy and underhand nature of the tactics Sun Tzu subscribes to, his continued popularity in political circles should do nothing to reassure those concerned about the healthy functioning of our democracies. But this only serves to make The Art of War more fascinating, and at only 55 pages it can be read in well under a couple of hours. Very few books have influenced the policies of states and leaders for so long, and while its clear articulation of the plain truths of warfare would be significant by itself, its championing of unconventional tactics is what has allowed it to transcend the military traditions of the period in which it was written.

June 2020 – At the Mountains of Madness – H.P Lovecraft (1936)

Publisher: Penguin (English Library series) Cover design: Coralie Bickford-Smith; Illustration: Despotica

‘I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why’.

‘The nervous system was so complex and highly developed as to leave Lake aghast.’

‘Little by little however, they rose grimly into the western sky; allowing us to distinguish various bare, bleak, blackish summits, and to catch the curious sense of fantasy which they inspired as seen in the reddish Antarctic light against the provocative background of iridescent ice-dust clouds. In the whole spectacle there was a persistent, pervasive hint of stupendous secrecy and potential revelation; as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things – mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.’

‘The effect of the monstrous sight was indescribable, for some fiendish violation of known natural law seemed certain from the outset.’

‘It was very clearly, the blasphemous city of the mirage in stark, objective and ineluctable reality.’

H.P Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890. His best work – including some sixty or so short stories – was published from 1923 onwards, mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales. At the Mountains of Madness was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories. Lovecraft died in 1937, in poverty and virtually unknown. He is now recognised as the one of the most significant horror-fiction writers in history, and the interlinked universe of his work, known as the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, established the genre of ‘Lovecraftian horror’ (also known as ‘cosmic horror’) and has gone on to influence countless authors after him. The Cthulhu Mythos is significant as an early example of an interlinked storytelling universe which predates the MCU by over seven decades. His stories are often reinterpreted, with particular emphasis placed on righting the racism present in some of his work.

At the Mountains of Madness is a first person description of an Antarctic expedition, from the perspective of one of the expedition leaders: Geologist William Dyer. A sense of foreboding is established at the outset as Dyer makes clear he has been moved to recount his Antarctic experiences as an attempt to prevent others from following in his footsteps. In particular to prevent the departure of the supposedly imminent ‘Stark-Maryweather’ excursion. What follows is a detailed description of Dyer’s expedition, and the discovery of the ‘Mountains of Madness’ and the civilisation it shelters; a civilisation which appears to have been home for cosmic beings the explorers label ‘Old Ones’.

The novella is gripping from page one. Lovecraft grounds the narrative in reality by referencing real expeditions (Amundson, Shackleton) and pieces of equipment (like Dornier aircraft), as well as by recounting the detail of the expedition’s preparations, equipment, financial backers and reporting newspapers so as to lend as much legitimacy as possible to the story. In addition, Lovecraft’s insertion of fictional scientific sources in the academic knowledge of his explorers (such as the book, Necronomicon) helps to create what the author himself describes as ‘a background of evil verisimilitude’. Because it is made clear that the expedition was ill-fated right at the beginning of the book, a sense of foreboding only grows as it unfolds, and it is fed by Dyer’s descriptions of menacing Antarctic landscapes. A battle between the scientific urge to explore, and the need to leave alone what must not be disturbed – also lies at the centre of the narrative. As Dyer and his team follow their scientific instincts, the terrible nature of their impending discovery is skilfully signposted.

At the Mountains of Madness is a prime example of Lovecraft’s ‘cosmic horror’; a genre which seeks to frighten readers not with gore or monsters or violence (not that Mountains is short of those) but instead with the vastness of the universe, and the unfathomable alien forces which might govern it. Cosmic horror has been described as the ‘fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance’[1]. An equally effective description of the genre is that it is a ‘contemplation of mankind’s place in the vast, comfortless universe revealed by modern science’ in which the horror springs from ‘the discovery of appalling truth’[2]. Dyer’s description of the discovery of forbidden lands and creatures, and of lifting the lid on a truly ancient form of life totally alien to humanity is very effective in providing this cosmic horror. The scale and nature of the world Dyer and his compatriots glimpse is also aided through Lovecraft’s expert use of description to create vivid images. Furthermore, the use of the first person forces us to view each discovery with Dyer, not as a passive observer but as a fellow explorer, and this helps make the terrible significance of his revelations all the more immediate and inescapable.

The overall message of the book seems to be one discouraging scientific exploration, for fear that is may uncover terrible alien forces. In this way, Mountains can be placed in the genre of similar alien horror stories such as Who Goes There? (1938 novella by John W. Campbell Jr which formed the basis for The Thing series) and Alien. In these stories human endeavours in far flung worlds uncover terrifying and deadly enemy’s, not scientific progress. In fact, while Lovecraft’s influence on some authors via the Cthulhu mythos is well documented, it seems likely that Mountains may have also influenced The Thing. Mountains was published in 1936 in the magazine Astounding Stories, and Who Goes There? Was published in the same magazine two years later. Given that both stories concern Antarctic expeditions discovering vicious aliens which lay waste to their crew members, some influence by Lovecraft upon Campbell seems possible.

Overall, At the Mountains of Madness is a fantastic page turner, and highly readable given its fast paced narrative and short 123 page length. Totally gripping, and a classic of influential Lovecraftian horror.

An issue of Astounding Stories magazine (now called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) containing part of At the Mountains of Madness. Astounding Stories serialised Lovecraft’s tale between February and April 1936.

[1] Ralickas, V. “‘Cosmic Horror’ and the Question of the Sublime in Lovecraft.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18, no. 3 (2008): 364.

[2] The Greenwood encyclopedia of science fiction and fantasy : themes, works, and wonders. Greenwood Press. 2005. p. 393.