Friday, February 17, 2006

More Guardian stupidity

Martin Jacques, a "senior visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore" or, to put it into English, a paid shill for not-a-hereditary-dictator-but-looks-and-quacks-like-one Lee Kwan Yew, has a column in today's Grauniad that demonstrates such an extraordinary degree of self-loathing that charity forces me to assume that he doesn't really believe it.

Europe's contempt for other cultures can't be sustained: A continent that inflicted colonial brutality all over the globe for 200 years has little claim to the superiority of its values.

What we were doing 200 years ago has no relevance to the moral value of what we are doing now. Heck, none of the people now making European policy were alive 200 years ago. In case you haven't noticed, Europe has changed its core values quite dramatically over the last 60 years.

Is the argument over the Danish cartoons really reducible to a matter of free speech? Even if we believe that free speech is a fundamental value, that does not give us carte blanche to say what we like in any context, regardless of consequence or effect. Respect for others, especially in an increasingly interdependent world, is a value of at least equal importance.

If free speech is a fundamental value, then speech is free. That is what "free speech" means, moron. The argument over the Danish cartoons became a matter of free speech when the other side decided to take their anger out on the Danish government for allowing the cartoons to be printed, rather than Jyllands-Posten for printing them. And I won't adopt "respect" as a value until you tell me what it means - after being dragged through the mud by the George Galloway Treason Party and the Jail All Teenagers Party the term has become somewhat debased.

Europe has never had to worry too much about context or effect because for around 200 years it dominated and colonised most of the world. Such was Europe's omnipotence that it never needed to take into account the sensibilities, beliefs and attitudes of those that it colonised, however sacred and sensitive they might have been.

On the contrary, the fact that Europe had large numbers of people on the ground actually governing these countries made it absolutely necessary to take such things into account. Where Europeans did not, the results were pretty unpleasant - see for instance the 1857 Indian Mutiny, provoked by a lack of respect for the dietary taboos of the local religions. There is a monument outside my school with the names of old boys who lost their lives as a result of that screw-up. Damned right we learned the lesson. If we had followed the US model of foreign aggression and dropped bombs from the safety of 30,000 feet we might not have done - the Americans certainly haven't (see Iraq).

On the contrary, European countries imposed their rulers, religion, beliefs, language, racial hierarchy and customs on those to whom they were entirely alien. There is a profound hypocrisy - and deep historical ignorance - when Europeans complain about the problems posed by the ethnic and religious minorities in their midst, for that is exactly what European colonial rule meant for peoples around the world.

This is an example of the tu quoque fallacy. Whether European imperialists undermined African and Asian cultures is irrelevant to the question of whether immigration is undermining European culture. 21st century European culture and the heritage of freedom which underlies it is worth defending, and if Hamza the Hook is a threat to it then we should deal with him, regardless of what happened in Cawnpore in the 19th century.

With one crucial difference, of course: the white minorities ruled the roost, whereas Europe's new ethnic minorities are marginalised, excluded and castigated, as recent events have shown.

Which recent events? I seem to remember the people we castigated were the ones holding placards saying "Death to those who insult Islam" and other rather unpleasant things. Part of living in a free society is that people who want to mock your religion can, whether you are marginal or not. While a right-wing paper with a largely Christian conservative readership like Jyllands-Posten does not print cartoons mocking Christianity, there is no shortage of them out there.

If Martin Jacques wanted to talk about the more general problem that European societies have with integrating recent immigrants, he would at least be right. But "poor, and occasionally beaten up by a small number of nutters on the lunatic fringe who then get sent to jail for a long time" doesn't quite have the ring of "marginalised, excluded and castigated".

But it is no longer possible for Europe to ignore the sensibilities of peoples with very different values, cultures and religions. First, western Europe now has sizeable minorities whose origins are very different from the host population and who are connected with their former homelands in diverse ways. If European societies want to live in some kind of domestic peace and harmony - rather than in a state of Balkanisation and repression - then they must find ways of integrating these minorities on rather more equal terms than, for the most part, they have so far achieved.

Looking at the society that has been most successful in integrating immigrants, the United States, it seems that this will involve selling them on our founding values of freedom, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. To do so we will have to be more, not less, willing to boast about things like free speech.

That must mean, among other things, respect for their values.

Respect for the values of cartoon-banners and embassy-burners is incompatible with upholding our own values. We've been here with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Quakers and diverse other supersitions already: what works is mutual respect for the shared values of a liberal society, not forced respect for the Flying Spaghetti Monster or other equally silly beliefs that various other people may choose to hold.

Second, it is patently clear that, globally speaking, Europe matters far less than it used to - and in the future will count for less and less.

Only if we want it to. I support the European Union precisely because I believe Europe can and should matter more. I believe that a world in which Europe matters more is a better world precisely becaue the founding values of the European Union are good, whereas the founding values of Bush's America, Red China, and Wahabbi Islam are evil.

We must not only learn to share our homelands with people from very different roots, we must also learn to share the world with diverse peoples in a very different kind of way from what has been the European practice.

And one of the best ways to share the world peacefully is for more nations to adopt the values of 21st century Europe, which have done a surprisingly good job of stopping stupid and pointless wars among a group of nations who used to invade each other every 25 years. If "what has been the European practice" is code for aggressive war and imperialism, then that is no longer the European practice. It is, on the other hand, the American and Red Chinese practice.

Europe has little experience of this, and what experience it has is mainly confined to less than half a century. Old attitudes of superiority and disdain - dressed up in terms of free speech, progress or whatever - are still very powerful.

Sometimes free speech is just about freedom. Actually, all the time free speech is just about freedom. I belong to a political tradition that was against imperialism and in favour of free speech (for much the same reasons as 21st century Europe) back in the 1860's. Don't tell me that my support for free speech is about superiority and disdain, because it isn't. Of course, being a paid shill for the Republic of Singapore, you aren't allowed to know what free speech is.

On the contrary, racial bigotry is on the rise, even in countries that have previously been regarded as tolerant. The Danish government depends for its rule on a racist, far-right party that gained 13% of the seats in the last election.

And this type of far-right party is gaining support precisely because far too few people on the left (or, for that matter, the sane right) are prepared to defend European values against cartoon-banners and embassy-burners. Telling people that their white skin and European heritage makes them morally inferior to the wonderfully anti-imperialist scumbags (read the placards) who are driving the outrage over these cartoons is precisely the way to get them to vote nutter.

The decision of Jyllands-Posten to publish the cartoons - and papers in France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere to reprint them - lay not so much in the tradition of free speech but in European contempt for other cultures and religions: it was a deliberate, calculated insult to the beliefs of others, in this case Muslims.

We've been here before. The decision of Jyllands-Posten to comission the cartoons was a response to a specific incident in Denmark, and the decision to republish them (including in a number of lefty papers which have no time for random racism and xenophobia) was a response to an unprecedented global attack on free speech.

This kind of mentality - combining Eurocentrism, old colonial attitudes of supremacism, racism, provincialism and sheer ignorance - will serve our continent ill in the future.

Which kind of mentality? Defence of free speech will not serve us ill in the future, or indeed the present.

Europe must learn to live in and with the world, not to dominate it, nor to assume it is superior or more virtuous.

But where we are more virtuous, we shouldn't be afraid to say so. Democracy and freedom need defending, and are worth defending.

Any continent that has inflicted such brutality on the world over a period of 200 years has not too much to be proud of,

What have the Romans ever done for us? Apart from democracy, modern science, modern medicine, market economics, Shakespeare and international human rights law, I fully agree that Europe has not much to be proud of from history. We can, however, be proud of what we are doing now: we have built a community of 450 million people living together in peace, freedom and prosperity under the rule of law, many of whom had no experience of these things until their countries began the EU accession process.

and much to be modest and humble about

Europe also gave the world facism, communism, and imperialism. Apart from the "People's" "Republic" of China which practices all three from time to time (and which Martin Jacques and his paymasters are awfully sympathetic to), these things have all but vanished. Mostly because of the work Europeans did in getting rid of them.

though this is rarely the way our history is presented in Britain, let alone elsewhere.

Well, British history as taught in schools is entirely about Hitler and the brave British soldiers (not forgetting the women who built the bombs) who defeated him. I don't know whether that counts as presenting "Europe" as good or evil.

It is worth remembering that while parts of Europe have had free speech (and democracy) for many decades, its colonies were granted neither. But when it comes to our "noble values", our colonial record is always written out of the script.

And if I wasn't already aware of this, the fact that you can't turn around nowadays without someone like Martin Jacques or Robert Mugabe lecturing you about the evils of European imperialism would make sure I was. The noble values of the Enlightenment are still noble even if the Europe of the 19th and early 20th century honoured them more in the breach than the observance. They won't be honoured at all going forward if Jacques (and Mugabe, and indeed Lee Kwan Yew) are successful in blaming the dishonourable acts of imperialism on them.

This attitude of disdain, of assumed superiority, will be increasingly difficult to sustain. We are moving into a world in which the west will no longer be able to call the tune as it once did. China and India will become major global players alongside the US, the EU and Japan. For the first time in modern history the west will no longer be overwhelmingly dominant. By the end of this century Europe is likely to pale into insignificance alongside China and India. In such a world, Europe will be forced to observe and respect the sensibilities of others.

India is developing an information-age economy precisely because it has adopted the (originally European, now universal) values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. If India was still a society that took sacred cows seriously enough to demand that we respect them, it wouldn't be a threat. China is an economy based on sweatshops building Barbie dolls - they bought Rover for its "advanced technology" even though it was fifteen years behind the best Western car companies. Even if they do become a major world power, there is no need to respect their values any more than we respected Soviet communism (and we shouldn't).

Few in Europe understand or recognise these trends. A small example is the bitter resistance displayed on the continent to the proposed takeover of Arcelor by Mittal Steel: at root the opposition is based on thinly disguised racism.

Or, more obviously, a general distaste for foreign ownership of "strategic" industries. The Chinese don't let foreign companies own steelworks in China either. The German government tried to stop Vodafone buying Manessman - was that motivated by thinly disguised contempt for beef-eating and discussing the weather?

But Europe had better get used to such a phenomenon: takeovers by Indian and Chinese firms are going to become as common as American ones.

Both are and will be welcomed by liberals and opposed by nationalists and socialists. The race of the acquirer doesn't come into it. We occasionally need to watch out for Chinese companies which are front organisatiosn for a communist dictatorship, of course. But the people opposing the Mittal-Arcelor deal don't like the Americans either.

A profound parochialism grips our continent

And the other five (Antarctica is an exception). Europe, with its tradition of intellectual and economic freedom, is more open to foreign ideas than the Chinese or Islamic cultures which Jacques is so fond of. That people have a deeper understanding of and sympathy for their own culture than for others is part of the human condition.

When Europe called the global tune it did not matter, because what happened in Europe translated itself into a global trend and a global power. No more: now it is simply provincialism.

I don't actually see this provincialism. Europe at both the community level and its individual member states puts huge amounts of effort into engaging with other cultures. Quite often, we learn enough to know that the culture in question is barbaric and does not deserve our respect. Subjugating women, persecuting gays, and parading through the streets with placards saying "Freedom Go to Hell" are all bad signs on this front.

When Europe dominated, there were no or few feedback loops. Or, to put it another way, there were few, if any, consequences for its behaviour towards the non-western world: relations were simply too unequal. Now - and increasingly in the future - it will be very different. And the subject of these feedback loops, or consequences, will concern not just present but also past behaviour.

Something that we are well aware of, which is why Europe does not, as a whole, support stupid and pointless wars of aggression in the way that the United States does. Since we can't change our past behaviour, there is no point in agonising about it.

For 200 years the dominant powers have also been the colonial powers: the European countries, the US and Japan. They have never been required to pay their dues for what they did to those whom they possessed and treated with contempt. Europeans have treated this chapter in their history by choosing to forget.

Actually, we saw the consequences of imperialism quite plainly - imperial rivalry was one of the main things that led Europe into a disasterous century of blood-letting and nuclear terror from which we are only just emerging. We treated this chapter in our history by building a set of institutions which ensure that it will never happen again, of which the European Union is the most successful.

So has Japan, except that in its case its neighbours have not only refused to forget but are also increasingly powerful. As a consequence, Japan's present and future is constantly stalked by its history. This future could also lie in wait for Europe.

What future? Civilised countries such as South Korea respond to Koizumi's war-criminal-worshipping shrine-tomfoolery with mild tut-tutting, because it isn't in their interest to upset the system of peace and free trade that binds all civilised countries. Uncivilised countries like China and North Korea respond with abusive tut-tutting because that is all they are capable of. Neither is a threat to Europe, as long as we remain confident of our own values.

We might think the opium wars are "simply history"; the Chinese (rightly) do not. We might think the Bengal famine belongs in the last century, but Indians do not.

Well, "history" seems to be the obvious term for something that happened 150 years ago between two societies both of which have reformed themselves to the point where the ruling classes that fought the original war (on both sides) no longer exist. If China becomes a civilised society, then it will be about as relevant to Sino-European relations as the Napoleonic wars are to modern Anglo-French relations - i.e. something trotted out for PR purposes when we go through a spat, but no bar to friendship if friendship is in the interest of both sides (as it usually is). If China remains a dictatorship, then the opium war will be used to drum up nationalist fervour when the dictator is unpopular at home. They don't need something that actually happened to do that, lies would work just as well (see the depictions of Jews in any Arab state-owned newspaper).

The Bengal famine is an even better example. It belongs to ancient history precisely because India is now a civilised society. Based on both British and traditional Indian precedents, they have built a set of institutions fully capable of ensuring that nothing like the Bengal famine will ever happen again. (See Amartya Sen's work on famine and democracy for the details.) The computer programmers of Bangalore are unlikely to want to emphasise a past where this was not the case.

Europe is moving into a very different world. How will it react? If something like the attitude of the Danes prevails - a combination of defensiveness, fear, provincialism and arrogance - then one must fear for Europe's ability to learn to live in this new world. There is another way, but the signs are none too hopeful.

Well, actually I can think of two other ways. There is the way Jacques advocates - Europe can sink into a funk of self-hatred, accept its deserved irrelevance, and allow Bush, Bin Laden and Beijing to determine the future of humanity. The right way is to continue with the European project of the second half of the twentieth century.

The values Europe now stands for are universal values. The Muslim population of Turkey are banging on the EU door because they have chosen to adopt freedom, democracy and the rule of law in preference to Shariah, sexism and homophobia. The Chinese students gunned down at Tienamenn Square were part of a tradition that began in Athens and runs via Runymede in 1215, Paris in 1789, and Berlin in 1989. We should defend our values at home, and use our considerable soft power to spread them abroad. The fact that we did the wrong thing in the past is all the more reason to do the right thing now, not a reason to do nothing.

Liberals know this in our bones. The self-interested opposition of the dictators, theocrats and mass murderers of the world make achieving our aims hard enough. The opposition of our own right-wing clowns who think that the West is about whiteness and Christianity, and that brown people and Muslims don't deserve freedom, makes life harder. The misguided opposition of left-wing clowns like Jacques who think that the West shouldn't dare defend freedom out of respect for the cultures which the dictators, theocrats and mass murderers claim to speak for is inexcusable.

If I didn't believe in free speech, Martin Jacques would have been blogged as "Traitor of the Week". Fortunately for both of us, part of living in a civilised society is that the only sanction for sounding off like an idiot is public ridicule. That is why the West should stand up for itself.

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  • At 5:12 pm , Blogger Tristan said...


    The sort of thing being advocated there will result in increased support for petty nationalists.

    It also reminds me of the absurdity of asking for an apology for something like the Indian Mutany which are occasionally heard. How can someone now apologise for something done generations ago? We can say it was wrong, that it should not have happened, but apology is not possible.

  • At 7:39 pm , Blogger Wallyxab said...

    Well done for wading through an entire Martin Jacques article. Normally just seeing his name is enough to make me skip the page. He is in the same vein of misplaced imperial guilt as the Chomskys and Pilgers, and just as blind to the faults of those he purports to defend.

    But it should be expected of the grauniad. The comment editor, Seumas Milne, felt that the 9/11 attackers were striking a blow against American capitalism rather than indulging in superstition fuelled mass murder.

  • At 10:53 am , Blogger Chris Palmer said...

    "It also reminds me of the absurdity of asking for an apology for something like the Indian Mutany which are occasionally heard. How can someone now apologise for something done generations ago? We can say it was wrong, that it should not have happened, but apology is not possible" - Tristan

    It is extremely worrying when some apply the thinking and morals of today to past century's decisions and events. To do so is to go down a dangerous and self-destructive path.

  • At 9:11 pm , Blogger Richard Gadsden said...

    Martin Jacques is a former Trot - wasn't he editor of Living Marxism back when it was run by the Revolutionary Communist Party?

  • At 12:06 am , Blogger Angus J Huck said...

    Martin Jacques was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (the "Euro-Communist" wing thereof) and editor of "Marxism Today" (A CP publication). He had nothing to do with the Revolutionary Communist Party and was not a Trotskyite.

    Now, does Italy have to apologise for the crimes of the Roman Empire? How much compensation can we do them for? Or will it be enough for Berlusconi to prostrate himself at our feet?

    And what about the Gauls, who invaded this country, built hillforts everywhere, enslaved our people and stole our grain? Well, actually, we can't do anything to the Gauls, because they vanished two millenia ago.

    This is where it gets a bit complicated.

    Jacques can hardly argue that the Singapore Chinese didn't benefit from imperialism. After all, Singapore has a per capita income on a par with Europe, China doesn't. So the Chinese who got dumped on that island did pretty well, or at least their descendants did. Anyway, I'm sure Jacques will find some pale-skinned person to blame for something, even if it isn't himself.

    Just a thought. Italians generally have darker skins than the British, so the Romans must have conquered Britain for altruistic motives, to teach us civilisation.

    A question. As a brown-eyed person of Anglo-Saxon origin, do my genes bestow on me a higher standard of ethics than a blue-eyed person of Anglo-Saxon origin? Perhaps Mr Jacques will enlighten me.

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