The Attempt to Toxify Debate – Kathleen Stock and the Oxford Uni Fresher’s Fair (15/11/2021)

Earlier this month, Kathleen Stock quit her role as a professor of philosophy at Sussex University. Stock’s gender-critical beliefs had made her the subject of a three-year defamation and harassment campaign led by students and colleagues. That campaign has now succeeded in forcing her out of the institution she has served since 2003. 

Her crime? To assert that biological sex is immutable, that it should sometimes take precedence over gender-identity, and that simply declaring oneself to be the opposite sex does not make it so.

As those well versed in the sex-gender-identity debate will already know, this trifecta of heresies is more than sufficient to be branded a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) by some LGBT campaigners. Student activists at Sussex claimed that Stock ‘endangers’ trans people. When she was awarded an OBE earlier this year for services to higher education, Stock’s opponents published a letter which claimed she was helping to ‘encourage the harassment of gender non-conforming people, and otherwise reinforce the patriarchal status quo’.

But Stock believes that that trans people – like all human beings – have ‘a right to lives free of harassment and discrimination’. She has said this countless times. She is also a lesbian, so hardly gender-conforming herself. As an academic focused on feminism, her career has been dedicated to exposing power-imbalances in a male dominated society. It is safe to assume that she has done little to support the ‘patriarchal status quo’. Nonetheless, Stock faced such persistent harassment that the police advised her to teach her classes remotely, and to install CCTV outside her home. 

In mid-October, the campaign against Stock intensified when nearly one hundred balaclava-wearing members of ‘Anti-TERF Sussex’ gathered on Sussex’s open day to light flares, daub graffiti, and hand out leaflets with messages like this:

“[Stock] is one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes” who contributes to the “dire unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole.”

The statement they released after Stock’s resignation was equally pithy:

“Good f*****g riddance. This is a monumental victory” 

This was accompanied by a meme showing the Wicked Witch of the West and the caption “Ding-dong the witch is dead”.

The students who wrote these messages – and the academics at Sussex who called them ‘intelligent’ –  believe that debating any issues arising from transgenderism equates to a violent threat against trans people’s very right to exist. The language of the protesters is couched in terms of ‘threat’, ‘safety’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘abuse’. But Stock is the opposite of a violent person. Unlike her opponents, she has never sought to defame and harass those she disagrees with.

She wants to ensure that predatory men cannot gain access to women’s-only spaces just by stating that they are the opposite sex. She points out that many of feminism’s achievements are built on levelling a playing field made uneven by biological realities, and that ignoring those realities could threaten that progress. These are not unreasonable positions. That Stock has been chased out of her workplace for espousing them is a disgrace.

Unfortunately, Stock’s case is far from unique. In October, a letter published in The Sunday Times – and signed by 200 academics – claimed that ‘universities are creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for staff and students’. The signatories – from institutions as disparate as Edinburgh, Cambridge, UCL, Essex, King’s College London, York and Manchester – spoke of the death threats and intimidation which routinely accompany the expression of opinions deemed unacceptable by student activists.

Selina Todd – professor of modern history at this university (St Hilda’s) – was one of the signatories. For expressing views similar to Stock’s, Todd has been subject to violent threats from Oxford students. They were judged serious enough for her to be given protection at her lectures. I remember arriving at Oxford as a fresher and immediately being emailed a petition calling for Todd to be ‘removed from student-facing roles’. To refuse to be taught by someone with whom you disagreed struck me as absurdly small-minded.

This instinct – which favours the exclusion and silencing of opponents rather than engagement – was on full display at this year’s Oxford freshers fair. A group of students from the Oxford Feminist Society attacked the stall display of Oxford Students For Life. According to a report from The Oxford Student:

‘The contents of the stall were placed in a black bin which was then dragged outside, before the protestors were loudly and aggressively stopped by security.

As with the anti-Stock protestors, the OU Feminists justified their actions with the language of ‘threat’ and ‘safety’. This is an extract from their statement on the incident:

“Oxford Feminist Society takes a firm stance against the pro-life organisation being promoted at the SU’s Fresher’s Fair. The stalls’ ideology is a threat to the safety, health and autonomy of women.

The argument made by all these student activists – anti-TERF and pro-choice alike – is that debating these issues is dangerous in and of itself. The language of ‘safety’ is designed to toxify debate and elevate the contested topic into a stratosphere beyond regular discourse. The stakes are so high, say the activists, that the normal rules of free expression should not apply. This attitude poses a serious challenge to the principle of free expression.

Defending open debate is important for so many reasons. Here’s just one: There may come a day when you find yourself an outcast, not in the comforting throng of the majority, but a holder of the reviled minority view. Defending free discourse now is a plea for similar magnanimity in future. The students who attempt to silence those they disagree with are assuming that the whip-hand will always lie with them. This is arrogant and short-sighted. If you help to create a society in which people can be judged as ideological heretics, then there are no guarantees that the enforcers of ‘acceptable thought’ will not eventually come hunting for you.

In her statement on the freshers fair incident, the president of Oxford Students For Life did say that most of the stall’s interactions with freshers had been constructive: 

‘Many students from all sides of the abortion debate have engaged positively with our stall over the Fair, and we’ve had a huge amount of compassionate and respectful conversations about these ethical issues’

This, at least, is encouraging. It should make reasonable people even more outraged that a small group thought they had the right to deny that chance for positive engagement to everyone else. Because this is exactly what the enemies of debate intend to do. It is not enough that they have their own right to speak – when it comes to the ‘wrong’ opinions – they want to make sure you don’t have the right to listen. Free expression is a two-sided coin. In its active sense, it grants the right to rebuke, espouse, argue and oppose. It is often forgotten that it also grants the listener the chance to hear, learn, empathise and understand. 

A concerted effort needs to be made to lower the temperature of these campus disputes. Students should realise that the presence of people who hold alternative views does not, in fact, put them in physical danger. The line between cognitive dissonance and actual violence – so blurred by frenzied hyperbole – needs to be reasserted. 

The threat to free expression is now an endemic problem in UK universities. Student unions – including Oxford’s – are pathetically weak in defending the right to hold diverse views. Most university administrations remain feeble in their efforts to stand up to ideological intolerance. 

In the meantime, the hounding of those who hold ‘unsafe’ opinions carries on. At Sussex University, the ‘Anti-TERF’ campaigners are celebrating the resignation of an eminent gay female philosopher. And they call it progress. 

Total Betrayal (1) – Terror of the Taliban

Amidst dusty, jostled screams, a parent hoists their child over the airport razor wire. The wide-eyed infant is lifted from the crush. Below, countless anxious arms wave passports. The arrival of thousands more terrified people compresses the foremost crowds, until some – under a blazing Afghan sun – pass out. A few are dragged away, but others are trodden on and choked by the febrile throng.

At the cordon, British and American soldiers are shouting in their own language. So far, they have held back the crowds with bare hands. But now tear gas is used. The pop of the canisters is barely heard before the white clouds spread their spluttered, salty retching.

From atop captured vehicles the victorious Taliban look on; keeping watch with bladed stares.

How desperate would you have to be to pass your child to a foreign soldier? What fear – the certainty of a dark and dread filled future – would compel you to grip the airframe of a jet as it roared skywards from the earth?

These are measures of pure terror. Each one distilled, recorded and gawped at. Names like Zaki Anwari – a 19 year old member of Afghanistan’s national football squad. Anwari was crushed to death by the retracting undercarriage of the US Air Force C-17 transport plane he was clinging to.

The desperation of those Afghans permits us a glimpse of the Taliban’s true nature. Why did Anwari hang onto the plane? Because he had heard about massacres of the Hazara minority, of interpreters, journalists and comedians butchered, of the shops selling out of burkhas, and of the Taliban’s outspoken determination to return the country to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. The presence of the American-led coalition had shielded the Afghans from this future. The shield has vanished.

Now, the executions will gather pace, the hunt for collaborators intensify, the already lethal crackdown on protestors grow harsher, and Afghanistan’s women will shrink into invisibility. The Taliban’s slick PR messaging – promising ‘inclusivity’ and women’s rights – is exactly what it looks like: canny media management for a West with a dangerously tangled moral compass. It seems to be working: Trump’s still banned from Twitter, but you can follow the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid here.

When we look for a steer on how grim Afghanistan’s future will be, we should examine the scared faces crowding Kabul airport. They know the Taliban’s assurances are nonsense. We should believe their fear.

There are those – safely ensconced in the west – who do not. For example, Owen Jones (The Guardian), Matthew Parris (The Times) and Yannis Varoufakis have all chosen to frame the withdrawal in terms of rejected colonisation. Varoufakis has written that he was glad to see the back of ‘liberal-neocon imperialism’, and encouraged Afghanistan’s women to, ‘hang in there sisters’. All of them argued that the achievements of coalition soldiers in Afghanistan were negligible. This is not true.

The removal of the Taliban government at the end of 2001 allowed almost two million Afghan refugees to immediately return home. They came back in the knowledge that their homeland would be a more stable, less brutal place. Where the playing of music and the flying of kites would no longer earn lashes and jail time. Former soldier Tom Tugundhat MP, has spoken movingly in the House of Commons of the successful efforts he undertook to open girls’ schools:

“The joy it gave parents, seeing their little girl go to school, was extraordinary. I didn’t understand it until I took my own daughters to school about a year ago.”

The removal of the Taliban allowed primary school enrollment to increase ninefold, from less than one million to 9.2 million. Meaningful parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place. A generation of young Afghans have grown up hyper connected and tech-savvy, like you and me. They have attended institutions like the American University in Kabul (est. 2006), which provided a springboard for start-ups and a haven for intellectualism.

Being able to vote, to learn, to work. These are not small rights, and extending them to millions more Afghans – while fighting an insurgency – was no mean feat. It is appalling that so many of our leaders only appear to be grasping the magnitude of these achievements in the wake of their annihilation. A bunch of islamofascist savages will now merrily set to work dismantling that progress. Frontline Taliban commanders are happy to admit that under the new regime, adulterers will be stoned. Mind you, only the female ones.

Watching Biden’s administration address the Taliban like a foreign government they can influence has been laughable, and sickening.

Sec. of State Blinken: “Together with our international partners, we call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee the protection of women and girls and their rights.”

Press Sec. Psaki: “The Taliban also need to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.”

This is what defeat looks like. When your bold ‘America is Back’ foreign policy is reduced to asking nicely for something you won’t get, from people who would never consider listening to what you have to say. 

Total Betrayal (2) – The Future We Chose

Our leaders chose the future playing out in Kabul. This is the worst – but crucial – element of the whole calamity. There was nothing inevitable about the withdrawal. It was not a retreat borne of overwhelming casualties, superior enemy firepower or strategy. The Afghans were abandoned not in accordance with a coherent foreign policy, but because of polling in the United States. The same rationale which possessed Trump now motivates Biden. Both believed that political kudos would be heaped on the man who brought the lengthy intervention to a close. 

Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Korea and North-Eastern Europe. These are examples of places which are now relatively peaceful and prosperous thanks to troop presences lasting multiple decades. Cyprus continues to be patrolled by UN peacekeepers, and has been since 1964. NATO has maintained battlegroups in Germany for decades, and now the alliance’s enhanced forward presence guards the Baltic from Putin. There are still 26,000 American soldiers in South Korea, just in case.And yet, Trump and Biden have repeatedly insisted that Afghanistan’s status as America’s ‘longest war’ – or even (dictionary definitions be damned) a ‘forever war’ – is reason enough to finish up and fulfil that universally popular policy of ‘bringing the troops home’. But it is no reason at all.

Source: US Department of Defence Statistics – Accurate as of June 30th 2021 – https://archive.is/BG3NU 

Conflicts cannot be won on a timetable. Especially not an American schedule. Their firepower is awesome, but their patience is pitiful. And patience is the crucial ingredient in defeating an enemy like the Taliban. They have it in spades.

In the 2021 context, patience from Biden should not have been too much to ask. America’s Afghanistan deployment prior to the withdrawal was a small fraction of the commitment Obama maintained. Yet Biden loves to make out that he inherited a costly, bloody and ineffective American war. This is from his April remarks on Afghanistan:

Section 60 [of Arlington National Cemetery] is where our recent war dead are buried, including many of the women and men who died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no — there’s no comforting distance in history in Section 60. The grief is raw. It’s a visceral reminder of the living cost of war. 

(…) We already have service members doing their duty in Afghanistan today whose parents served in the same war. We have service members who were not yet born when our nation was attacked on 9/11.”

This is clever politicking. Biden implies he is the commander of an endless and costly mission, whose scope has changed little in 20 years. Framing like this helps to justify the withdrawal. But he is being profoundly misleading.

It’s true that between 2008 and 2013 – encompassing the period during which Obama launched ‘the surge’ – the war was costing the US almost $100 billion a year. It’s also true that during those years, US monthly combat fatalities would often climb into dozens. At the height of US involvement, 110,000 American servicemen were deployed.

However, Biden inherited a completely different mission. By the time he was sworn in, American troops were barely fighting a war at all.

Source: Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf
Source: http://icasualties.org/

In 2014, the US mission changed from frontline warfighting (Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’), to a training, advisory, and air support role in support of the Afghan National Army (Operation ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’). This reduced mission was a fraction of the cost for the Americans and the coalition, in both money and lives. Here are the numbers.

2,461 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Just 109 of those deaths have been suffered since January 2015 (13 of which were sustained in the chaotic and bloodsoaked Kabul evacuation – for which Biden is also heavily responsible, more later). 

Minus those 13 recent deaths, the remaining 96 fatalities were all incurred before August 2020 (for the record, you have to go back to 2015 for a British fatality in Afghanistan). Those US fatalities suffered in the Kabul airport attack were the first Afghan combat deaths of Biden’s presidency. Until then, not a single American soldier had died in Afghanistan during his tenure.  

Further, the number of American soldiers deployed immediately prior to the start of the final withdrawal amounted to no more than 4,000 troops, compared to that peak commitment of 110,000. The financial cost of supporting the Afghan military remained significant, about $45 billion a year. Still, that’s less than half the annual cost of the war in 2011, when it approached $100 billion. With an annual defence budget exceeding $700 billion, the $45 billion figure equates to 6.4% of total US military spending. It is no small number, but a wise investment nonetheless. 

With that in mind, Biden’s withdrawal is baffling. The international coalition pulled out at the point where its troops were safest. At the same time, the US’s reduced role had been crucial. The provision of battle-winning air power, training and VIP protection only became more important as the Taliban regrouped. But this was no longer large-scale warfighting by the Americans. The frontline work had been taken over by the Afghans themselves.

Upon this subject, Rory Stewart, former MP, soldier and Afghanistan expert, has been pre-eminently sagacious:

It was a totally random, unnecessary act [the withdrawal]. The West had this very light, sustainable presence. The US/UK were not losing casualties (…) and really they could have stayed for the next 20, 30 years. So it’s very easy for him [Biden/Boris] to pretend that there was this enormous American and British troop presence, that we were haemorrhaging money and lives, and pretend that we were still living in 2009 (…) this is nonsense, we had almost nobody there! All we were doing was providing a bit of air support, and by doing that we were stopping the Taliban taking over the country.”

The fall of Kabul led some politicians to wonder if our leaders were let down by poor military intelligence. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with our spooks. Trump (who really kick-started withdrawal back in 2020), Biden and our own Prime Minister had been warned repeatedly by their respective intelligence services of the speed with which coalition withdrawal would precipitate the Afghan government’s collapse. Shamefully, they chose to press ahead.

Tony Blair has described Biden’s whole Afghan policy as ‘imbecilic’. That’s the perfect word. What is the point of the CIA if the commander in chief ignores their intelligence? Former regional CIA counter-terror chief Douglas London summarised it like this:

“The failure was not due to any lack of warning, but rather the hubris and political risk calculus of decision makers whose choices are too often made in their personal and political interest or with pre-committed policy choices, rather than influenced by (sometimes inconvenient) intelligence assessments and the full interests of the country.”

And what were those personal-political interests? The consistently high support given to ‘ending forever wars’ in domestic polling data. That this is the only way to explain an otherwise indefensible policy is outrageous. It is deeply cynical. It is cowardly in the extreme. It is no way to conduct foreign policy. It should go without saying: Just because a policy is popular, doesn’t make it right. The best leaders have the mettle to make difficult choices in defiance of the public will. Swinging with the polls ends in vacillation and impulsive, uncertain decision making

Biden could have committed to a limited, long-term mission, with the aim of supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban. By doing so, he would have protected the substantial humanitarian progress made in the country, and helped suppress a brutal insurgency. Instead, he decided to honour Trump’s disastrous ‘peace deal’ with the Taliban, and fulfil his own policy priorities. In  attempting to argue that the withdrawal was justified because it allowed US soldiers to return from a distant, foreign and fruitless war, Biden has chosen a path which is distinctly ‘America First’. Ultimately, this policy meant choosing to abandon America’s allies. It meant choosing defeat. 

Biden assumed that if the true military situation – of a small, effective and sustainable deployment – was obfuscated sufficiently in the language of ‘forever wars’, then his electorate wouldn’t know better than to applaud the safe return of their brave boys and girls. Thankfully, the American people are better than the dupes their president takes them for. The chaos in Kabul has caused Biden’s approval ratings to drop to their lowest levels yet. 

To make military decisions in defiance of the intelligence and in pursuit of a poll boost is a terrible betrayal of those who have taken the lead in fighting the Taliban for the last seven years: The Afghans themselves. It is they who will suffer the most, not those who walked away.

Total Betrayal (3) – With Friends Like These

At 3:00 AM local time on the 2nd of July 2021, the last US soldiers at Bagram air base turned out the lights, and left. The airfield, which once hosted 40,000 personnel, was left dark, desolate and empty.

The Afghans had been given no notice of their former ally’s departure. It was hours before General Kohistani – the new base commander – realised the Americans had gone. The effect of the unannounced exit on Kohistani’s troops was immediate. One National Army soldier told the Associated Press that “In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night, without telling the Afghan soldiers”.

To abandon one of the largest military facilities in the country without informing the Afghans is not the act of a conscientious ally. Nor is it the behaviour of a friendly superpower determined to support the government it helped to build.

It is further evidence that the Biden administration’s only priority in Afghanistan was to just leave. To get out, cut ties and run, whatever the consequences. Worst of all, Bagram was only the latest sorry episode in an American betrayal which had begun months before.

Far too little has been made of the appalling so-called ‘peace deal’ signed by the Taliban and the United States in February 2020. In it, the US committed to a complete withdrawal, and – astonishingly – the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. In return, the Taliban were supposed to disentangle themselves from Al-Qaeda, and reduce their campaign of violence. They never intended to do either.

Most sickening of all, this deal – coordinated and promoted by the Trump administration – was negotiated without the elected Afghan government present. The very people the Americans had fought to put in power were not allowed to participate.

General H.R. McMaster, who served as Trump’s national security advisor before leaving over irreconcilable differences with the President, summarised the deal thus:

“We have sided with the Taliban against the Afghan government (…) we have put the Afghan government in an impossible situation (…) it’s disastrous.”

Once the deal was signed, the frequency and ferocity of Taliban violence rose to new heights. They knew that with the US committed to withdrawal, they could press home their offensive against the Afghan without fear of meaningful American retaliation.

But that didn’t mean Afghanistan’s fate was sealed. Biden could have ripped up the Trump surrender deal and reaffirmed his commitment to preventing a Taliban takeover. Instead, he chose to fecklessly trail in Donald’s wake, and honour the agreement’s only real purpose: to provide a pretext for withdrawal.

Given he won the 2020 election on a platform of ‘not being Trump’, any alignment with his predecessor is notable. The depressing truth is that abandoning Afghanistan is a rare area of bipartisan agreement. Isolationism now reigns supreme in American foreign policy thinking.

But merely abandoning the Afghans wasn’t a sufficient betrayal. In a craven attempt to deflect blame from themselves, Biden and his team have sought to insult them at the same time. On the 16th of August, Biden said the following:

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

On the same day, Biden’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan echoed those comments:

“We could not give them the will, and they ultimately decided that they would not fight for Kabul and they would not fight for the country.”

In June 2021, 703 members of the Afghan security forces were killed in battle with the Taliban. An average of 23 fatalities a day; a casualty rate many factors larger than any experienced by the US during its intervention.

So many Afghans did fight. So many died. Almost 70,000 in all. For Biden and Sullivan to claim they lacked will is shameful. It’s disgusting. Especially given that Biden belongs to that minority of American presidents who have never served in uniform.

And to talk of will when it was the United States which fled. That is surely a new Everest of cynicism.

Thousands of Afghan soldiers were desperate to help fend off the Taliban. It was the American withdrawal which robbed them of the means and morale to continue. The testimony of General Sami Sadat – an Afghan commander who led his 15,000 men in unrelenting combat in the months leading up to August – helps to explain just how crippling the US departure was. The loss of 17,000 maintenance contractors inhibited the repair of helicopters essential for resupplying isolated outposts. Sadat tells of having US jets overflying enemy positions, whose pilots were powerless to attack because their new rules of engagement prohibited it. The effect on Afghan morale was catastrophic.

It is astonishing just how long and how ferociously many Afghans did fight. In full knowledge of the odds, and of the likelihood that their families could be punished by a vengeful Taliban, many gave all for the dream that their country would be free of extremism.

The US veteran and author Elliot Ackerman put it like this:

“To accuse our Afghan allies of not fighting hard enough, then to use their alleged incompetence as a smokescreen for our own, is the height of arrogance, and dishonour. To abandon an ally is bad enough. To insult an ally from the East Room of the White House as Biden did in his speech creates a lasting moral injury (…) We should not forget who was the first to leave the battlefield: It was us. Tell the Afghan soldiers who fought until they ran out of ammunition and were then slaughtered by the Taliban in Faryab province [grim footage available] that they didn’t fight hard enough, or perhaps tell the same to the Afghan commandos who fought all summer in desperate battles in Lashkar Gah.”

There is also an international dimension to this betrayal. Given that the coalition chose to stop supporting the Afghan government, how should other allies regard the resolve of the west? Countries like Estonia, Ukraine and Taiwan must exist alongside hostile neighbours every day. Their sovereignty is dependent on the guarantee of full throated support from their fellow democracies.

Just imagine the confidence China and Russia will draw from the resurgence of American isolationism. Ackerman has highlighted how ‘a nation exhausted by war has a difficult time presenting a credible deterrent threat to adversaries’. There is a genuine risk that the betrayal of Afghanistan heralds a whole new era of American withdrawal, in which the US cannot be relied upon to fulfil its protective obligations to vulnerable allies. This was how Rory Stewart summed things up:

“Everybody’s in trouble with the US right now. Biden has basically shown that he doesn’t really care about alliances and relationships. He is signalling an isolationist policy.”

What was most alarming about the US withdrawal was Trump and Biden’s insistence that ‘forever wars’ were not worth fighting. There is a terrible complacency in this approach. For as Charles Moore has eloquently written in The Spectator:

“The defence of American interests – and of western interests more generally – is a forever war”

The world’s pro-democratic forces are under their greatest pressure since the end of the cold war. So far this year, Myanmar and Afghanistan have fallen to dictatorships. One military, the other theocratic. In both cases, international coalitions and supranational bodies like the UN have proved utterly impotent; hamstrung by bureaucracy, apathy and malign Russo-Chinese influence.

There are echoes of the League of Nations here. Last Wednesday – the first of September – was the 82nd anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. It signalled the opening of the European theatre of World War Two, a conflict which would claim over 40 million lives. That war began after a long period of American isolationism, brought on by the US army’s harrowing experience at the tail end of the First World War. It took until December 1941 and Pearl Harbour – 27 months later – for the United States to declare war on the Axis.

The world does not become more stable when the US retreats. For all its faults, the founding code of the American Republic is the antithesis of tyranny. ‘Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’; these values are dictatorship’s kryptonite. A reduced, timid US means an emboldened global array of thugs, psychopaths and tyrants.

Afghanistan was an appalling betrayal in its own right. It was also a warning of the dangers of retreat. 

Total Betrayal (4) – A Bungled Evacuation

“We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately & safely. And we will do it in full coordination with our allies & partners.”

That was how Biden described his plans for the US exit from Afghanistan in April of this year.

By the time the last American troops had departed, over 120,000 Afghans had been brought to safety. It’s certainly an impressive feat. According to the President, it was ‘an extraordinary success’.

Yet the same operation left hundreds of Afghans eligible for UK and US residency at the mercy of the Taliban. So far from being safe and orderly, at least seven Afghans were killed in the suffocating crushes which swelled around the airport gates.

The haste with which it was conducted ensured that billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment was received by a grateful, fledgling tyranny. And the failure to adequately prepare for an airlift of vulnerable civilians left the entire operation hideously exposed to terrorist attack.

That last oversight was ruthlessly exploited on the 26th of August, when a suicide bomber killed over 180, including 13 members of the American armed forces. Those were the first US fatalities in Afghanistan that Biden had overseen. They died as part of an evacuation made necessary by the withdrawal their President ordered.

The volume of American-made equipment now in Taliban hands is staggering. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but the captured arsenal is easily sufficient to make violent resistance to Afghanistan’s new rulers almost impossible. The kit list includes over 300,000 assault rifles, and 64,000 machine guns. Over 22,000 American-made Humvees – each costing $220,000 – are now available to the Taliban. As are dozens of light attack aircraft and military helicopters.

Many assumed that the militants would struggle to get any of those machines airborne. They answered those doubts by flying a UH-60 Black-Hawk helicopter over Kandahar, trailing the white Taliban flag.

The Taliban have wasted no time in putting their new American equipment to effective use. The Times journalist Anthony Lloyd has reported how resistance fighters defending the last free province of Panjshir had to watch columns of Humvees roar towards their positions, all flying the Taliban banner. He bore witness as a captured Panjshiri prisoner was dragged away, his wrists bound with American-made handcuffs:

“I caught his eye just long enough to notice he had the startled surprise of a man on the edge of drowning. I noticed too that his hands were secured behind his back with American handcuffs (…) The fact that his wrists were bonded by steel etched with the words ‘Peerless Handcuff Company, Springfield, Massachusetts’ seemed somehow more grotesque than any other detail beneath the angry blue of the late summer sky as the last pocket of defiance to Taliban rule in Afghanistan was extinguished.”

To have American kit used to crush American allies. That is grotesque indeed.

Most frightening though, was not the loss of weapons and vehicles, but of ‘biometric devices’, which contain the fingerprints, retinal scans, and biographical information of former Afghan army personnel. Gold dust for a vengeful terror group intent on hunting down ‘collaborators’. This revelation was followed by the discovery that American officials had provided the Taliban with a list of Afghans allies they wanted to extract, in the hope that the militants would expedite their passage to Kabul airport. Yes, that’s right. The US handed the Taliban the names of people who had worked with the coalition. If that sounds like an act of madness, then you’re starting to glimpse just how shambolic the evacuation was.

We Brits did not prove more competent. Staff at the British embassy in Kabul were found to have failed in their duty to destroy all documents containing the contact details of Afghans working for the UK. In the rush to leave, papers which identified some of our Afghan allies by name were left lying around, just waiting for the Taliban to find them.

Could the chaos at Kabul airport have been avoided? Keeping Bagram airfield open for longer would certainly have helped. The decision to abandon that base – given how familiar US forces were with its layout and defences – only grows more ludicrous with hindsight. If the goal was to extract as many Afghans as possible, then why not have a second airfield open?  

In the event, American and allied forces had to conduct the entire evacuation from Kabul. The vast majority of the troops involved in the operation were deployed only a couple of days before the Afghan capital’s surrender. That the minds of decision makers only turned to evacuation at the eleventh hour suggests a terrible lack of foresight. Particularly given that British and American intelligence services had identified a rapid Afghan collapse as a ‘possible scenario’. The receipt of that intelligence seemed to produce little urgency amongst our leaders. It did not stop the Foreign Secretary from jetting off to a Cretan beach. Making his holiday doubly cretinous.

Where was the planning? Why were contingency measures for a mass evacuation not being put in place? Could it have been because Biden and co. were unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of the decision to withdraw? Preparing properly for an airlift would have meant taking ownership of the defeat, rather than the kudos that comes with ‘bringing the troops home’. I hope these were not thoughts had by those in the White House, but I suspect they were.

With no time to set up a perimeter which afforded some protection to themselves, American and British troops were forced to check each terrified Afghan with their bare hands, with a jostling crowd just a few feet away. Presented with such a vulnerable target, and a final chance to kill western infidels, the terrorists – in this case ISIS-Khorasan – were never going to let the opportunity slip by. It’s difficult to grasp the explosive power necessary to kill more than 180 people at once.

One of the 13 American dead was 23 year old Marine Corps Sergeant Nicole Gee. She hailed from Sacramento, and had posted an Instagram photo just a few hours before being killed. It showed her cradling an Afghan child, with the caption: ‘I love my job’.

Biden’s response to the suicide bombing was to order drone strikes against ISIS militants. One of the missiles struck an innocent Afghan family, killing 10, including seven children. With the American presence gone from Afghanistan itself, Biden will become even more reliant on tactics like this. Drones, he says, provide an ‘over-the-horizon capability’ which keeps the terrorists distant. But if they carry a heightened risk of civilian casualties, then their increased use will hand propaganda victories to America’s enemies. Just another consequence of a thoughtless withdrawal.

The ISIS attack allowed us a preview of Afghanistan’s future: A Hobbesian state, with iron law. Hobbesian in its chaos, with groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda causing mayhem, and simultaneously governed by the Taliban. A group who don’t blink at amputation for the pettiest of crimes. With followers sadistic enough to kill a teacher who dared to educate girls by disembowelling him, and then tearing his limbs off with motorbikes. No, I didn’t make that punishment up.

These are evil men. And now they run Afghanistan. They have every intention of dismantling the progress achieved in their absence. 8.2 million more children in school. A 75% hike in earnings. Maternal mortality cut by a third. Youth literacy increased by 18%. Secondary school enrolment up from 13 to 54%. An elected national parliament, where 27% of MPs were female.

None of that matters to the Taliban. All they care about is their faith, and enforcing absolute adherence to it. So they’ve told working women to stay at home. They’ve killed the musicians and comedians who’ve dared to defy them. In fact, they’ve re-imposed their total ban on music. For theirs is a death cult, which cannot accommodate joy.

They’ve assassinated many who worked with the coalition, and they’ve massacred members of the Hazara minority. They will go on doing it, as long as no one stops them. That’s the difference between us and them. They choose to take life, often in the most brutal, indiscriminate ways, and then consider it an act of faith, of worship, of piety. People like Sergent Gee choose to save it.

Already, the 13 dead servicemen have been returned home. 13 coffins have been returned to 13 sets of mourners. They will be lowered into 13 trenches, to the echo of gun salutes. And when the coffins come to rest, and the dirt is piled on top, they will leave American military families, doing their quiet best. 

Of this I am sure: At those 13 funerals, there will be crying, maybe singing. What there will not be, is deranged firing into the sky, or crazed ululations or veneration of the fallen martyrs. There will be no shrieks for vengeance, no curses hurled at the foreign infidel.

But thanks to our leaders, nor will there be any justice. There will be only defeat.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/obituaries/quentin-fiore-dead.html

[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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=It29INlFGo4

[2] Article, Judy Klemesrud, New York Times Nov 1st 1976: ‘Donald Trump, Real Estate Promoter, Builds Image as He Buys Buildings’. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/11/01/archives/donald-trump-real-estate-promoter-builds-image-as-he-buys-buildings.html

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