The Russia report confirms it: the government had reason to suspect a violation of our democratic processes, and ignored it
The conclusion of the Russia report is damning not for what it says, but for what it cannot. Neither the British government nor intelligence agencies made any effort to investigate the alleged hacking of the UK’s most significant democratic event in generations.
The intelligence and security committee’s (ISC) Russia report does not hold back. It states that “we have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference … in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election”. Its press release is even more blunt, declaring that “the government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016”. The committee duly recommends that the intelligence services “produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum” and publish an unclassified summary.
Predictably, the government has rejected that advice. It has responded that “we have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum”, and given the lack of new information, “a retrospective assessment … is not necessary”.
We should note that many Russia experts doubt a coordinated interference in the Brexitreferendum. Some argue that it vastly overestimates, and indeed flatters, Russian power, casting Vladimir Putin as an omnipotent and organised super-villain, rather than the frequently stymied leader of a chaotic state bureaucracy. Many also note that Russia had both economic and political interests to maintain a strong EU – not least as a bulwark against the US. Much of the consensus suggests that interference was probably low-level and uncoordinated – a moderate nuisance rather than a major attack.
Nevertheless, allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum did not emerge from the ether and were not simply the online ramblings of conspiracy theorists. As the report notes, there is credible evidence that Russian actors have interfered in foreign elections over a period of some years, and the Russian state often views foreign policy as a zero-sum game.
The prospect of Russian interference should therefore have been taken seriously, not dismissed as partisan theatre. As one expert put it to me, “the best way to counter Russia’s influence is to expose it, transparently, without political games”. A government that valued the integrity of its elections and institutions would make every conceivable effort to investigate and combat breaches. This government’s entire approach to the Russia report suggests that it instead privileged its own short-term interests.
Why has the government looked the other way? Frankly, it has simply been consistent. The referendum was compromised in a number of ways. Some, such as the allegations of misspending, were about laws. Others, such as the naked falsehoods published by Vote Leave, were about basic fairness. And yet early on, for whatever reason, the UK government decided that Brexit was the will of the people and that was the end of it. Under the stewardship of Theresa May, the referendum transformed from political moment to religious text. Brexit became our national creed and would not be questioned.
This approach has infected our body politic. As the ISC noted, MI5 has been anxious not to be seen as involving itself in “contentious” politics. Really this reveals the hyper-tribal nature of our modern political landscape. Nothing is, or is seen to be, neutral. Even well-meaning attempts at objectivity are slammed as political point-scoring. But to investigate the workings of the referendum is not to take sides in a political dispute, but to ensure the proper functioning of our democracy. That cannot rely on winning by any means necessary, and no democratic engine can survive without occasionally lifting the bonnet. A British government should not simply want to confirm the legitimacy of our elections. It explicitly needs to.
The fundamental point here is not that we would have remained in the EU if it hadn’t been for shady officials in Moscow, or troll farms in St Petersburg. Even if such a smoking gun exists, it will probably never be found. Rather, the government had reason to suspect a violation of our democratic processes and ignored it. An admission of such a breach would have caused embarrassment. It could have made life even more difficult on the global stage. Worst of all, it would have demanded greater justification for the national self-sabotage our government has resolved, at any cost, to implement.
The scandal revealed today, then, is not that our democracy was corrupted or voided by the actions of a foreign power – it’s that the British establishment didn’t care either way.
• Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the thinktank British Influence
The British government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexitreferendum, according to the long-delayed Russia report.
The damning conclusion is contained within the 50-page document from parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which said ministers in effect turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption.
It said the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time, and it made clear that no serious effort was made to do so.
“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know,” said Stewart Hosie, a Scottish National party MP who sits on the cross-party committee.
“The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered. We were told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn’t looked for it.”
The committee, which scrutinises the work of Britain’s spy agencies, said: “We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference”. It contrasted the response with that of the US.
“This situation is in stark contrast to the US handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public.”
Committee members said they could not definitively conclude whether the Kremlin had or had not successfully interfered in the referendum that led to the UK quitting the European Union because no effort had been made to find out.
“Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe,” said the report.
After the government immediately rebuffed calls for a full investigation, Labour last night accused it of failing in its response to the security threat posed to UK democracy by Russia.
Speaking ahead of an urgent question in parliament on Wednesday, the shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said that “on every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat”.
“This report outlines the scale of the shortcomings of the government’s response to maintaining our national security in the face of what is clearly a growing and significant threat from Russia,” he said.
Drawn up by a cross-party committee of MPs and peers, the report is the product of 18 months’ work involving evidence taken from the UK’s spy agencies and independent experts. Although its long-delayed version is heavily redacted, the thrust of its conclusions – that insufficient attention has been paid to Russian infiltration in British politics and public life – was clear.
Committee members noted that publicly available studies have pointed to “the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories” on the Russia Today and Sputnik TV channels at the time of the vote, and “the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’” on Twitter, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.
There was “credible open source commentary” that Russia undertook “influence campaigns” relating to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but despite this, no effort was made to look at the Kremlin threat to British democracy until after the Brexit vote.
It was only after Russia hacked US Democratic party emails in July 2016 that any assessment appeared to have been made – and the document suggests that some sort of exercise was conducted after the 2017 general election.
“Had the relevant parts of the intelligence community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process,” the report added.
An official UK government response said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum,” and added that there was no need to launch an inquiry because Britain’s spy agencies made “regular assessments” of the Russian threat.
“Given this long-standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary,” it said.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected claims the government had “actively” sought not to delve deeper into the perceived threat of Russian interference.
“We’ve got a long period recognising the enduring, significant threat posed by Russia to the UK, including in cyber. Russia is a top national security priority,” he said.
But Hosie was scathing about the refusal by both Boris Johnson and Theresa May to look at Kremlin interference in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
“No one wanted to test this issue with a 10ft bargepole,” he said, adding that it was an “outrage” the report was not published before last December’s election. Downing Street “took its eye off the ball” over the Russian threat, the MP said, it underestimated the response required and was still trying to play “catch-up”.
Britain has also become “a favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money”, observed the committee, concluding they had become a corrupting force in British public life through their connections.
Citing no names, it also warned that it was “notable that a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state”.
Marina Litvinenko, whose husband, Alexander, was murdered in 2006 in London by Kremlin assassins, said she was “very pleased” by the report, and its mention of Russian oligarchs making political donations.
She said the report demonstrated there was ample evidence of the threat posed by the Kremlin to the UK. “The government has no excuse for being naive. After what happened to my husband in 2006 and to Sergei Skripal in 2018 there are no excuses. There are too many suspicious deaths.”
Ministers had long claimed there were “no successful examples” of Kremlin interference in British politics but abandoned that position last week when Raab, the blamed “Russian actors” for spreading an illegally obtained dossier relating to US-UK trade talks that eventually ended up in the hands of the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the election campaign.
Committee members complained that when they asked for written evidence from MI5 at the start of their inquiry about possible interference in the Brexit vote, the domestic spy agency “initially provided just six lines of text”.Advertisement
The report was completed last October, but was sat on by Johnson before the general election and only declassified and cleared for release by the prime minister in December. It could not be released until No 10 had nominated Conservative members to the committee, although its nominee for the chair, Chris Grayling, was ambushed by opposition members who voted instead for Julian Lewis.
Lewis then had the Conservative whip removed, but the newly independent MP was unrepentant as the report was published, accusing Downing Street of politicising the oversight of the intelligence agencies.
“This committee has been subject to unprecedented delay and dislocation. this must never happen again. the sooner normal relations are established between this government and the committee, the better for all concerned,” the committee chair said.
Russian officials angrily protested the conclusions of the report, accusing the UK of taking a “leading role in Russophobia” and claimed it cleared Moscow of attempts to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum.
“The charges are once again unfounded, unsubstantiated and unconvincing,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s federation council, a lawmaking body, in written remarks on Tuesday.
What does it say about our Government that they turn a blind eye to Russian interference? Power at any cost.
Greta Thunberg has accused EU politicians of failing to acknowledge the scale of the climate crisis and said its €750bn Covid-19 recovery plan does not do enough to tackle the issue.
The climate campaigner said the package of measures agreed by EU leadersproved that politicians were still not treating climate change as an emergency.
“They are still denying the fact and ignoring the fact that we are facing a climate emergency, and the climate crisis has still not once been treated as a crisis,” Thunberg told the Guardian. “As long as the climate crisis is not being treated as a crisis, the changes that are necessary will not happen.”
EU leaders reached agreement on the recovery fund in the early hours of Tuesday and pledged that 30% of the package would go towards climate policies, but few details were given.
Thunberg, 17, and other leaders of the school strikes movement across Europe said the package was inadequate.Advertisement
Luisa Neubauer, 24, a central figure in Germany’s school strikes movement, said young people were becoming increasingly frustrated with politicians.
“We are asking our leaders to take care of the most fundamental thing: the safety of us, the safety of people around the world, the safety of our futures,” Neubauer said. “It is worrying on a democratic level when you ask for such substantial things, which seem so obvious, and yet you see how leaders are widely ignoring it, or not considering it to be as important as other things.”
Another prominent school striker, Adélaïde Charlier, 19, from Belgium, said politicians who adopted the language of climate action without following up with urgent policy measures were worse than climate deniers.
“When leaders minimise the climate crisis, I feel it is more dangerous than leaders that outright deny it … because then we actually feel we can rely on them and we are actually on the right path and that is dangerous and wrong.”
The group has written an open letter to EU leaders demanding they act immediately to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis.
The letter, signed by 80,000 people including some of the world’s leading scientists, argues that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that most leaders are able to act swiftly and decisively when they deem it necessary, but that the same urgency has been missing in the response to climate change.
“It is now clearer than ever that the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, neither from the politicians, media, business nor finance. And the longer we keep pretending that we are on a reliable path to lower emissions and that the actions required to avoid a climate disaster are available within today’s system … the more precious time we will lose,” it says.
The letter argues that the climate and ecological emergency can only be addressed by tackling the underlying “social and racial injustices and oppression that have laid the foundations of our modern world”.
Earlier this year the EU unveiled its green new deal proposals, which it said aimed to transform the bloc from a high- to a low-carbon economy without reducing prosperity and while improving people’s quality of life. The climate strikers dismissed the EU’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 as dangerously unambitious.
Thunberg, who this week was awarded Portugal’s Gulbenkian prize for humanity and pledged the €1m ($1.15m) award to groups working to protect the environment and halt climate change, said it was up to ordinary people to stand up and demand that politicians rise to the challenge.
“I see the hope in democracy and in people,” she said. “If people become aware of what is happening then we can accomplish anything, we can put pressure on people in power … if we just decide we have had enough then that will change everything.”
BRUSSELS — After nearly five days of intense haggling, European Union leaders on Tuesday stepped up to confront one of the gravest challenges in the bloc’s history and agreed to a landmark spending package to rescue their economies from the ravages of the pandemic.
The 750 billion euro ($857 billion) stimulus agreement, spearheaded by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France, sent a strong signal of solidarity even as it exposed deep new fault lines in a bloc reshaped by the British exit.
The deal was notable for its firsts: European countries will raise large sums by selling bonds collectively, rather than individually; and much of that money will be handed out to member nations hardest hit by the pandemic as grants that do not have to be repaid, and not as loans that would swell their national debts.
Those extraordinary steps reflected a difficult consensus arrived at by members that the scale of crisis facing them required groundbreaking measures to ensure the bloc’s legitimacy, stability and prosperity. But the lengthy negotiations in Brussels were notable, too, for their exceptional rancor — and it was clear that the pooling of resources and sovereignty had come at a cost.
A strange kind of political theater, never visited upon European Union summits before, marked the meeting — with leaders donning masks and bumping elbows to greet. They were safely spaced in a vast hall, their entourages trimmed to only the most essential members.
When they convened on Friday, it was their first in-person summit in the five months since the coronavirus took hold in Europe. The meeting was officially scheduled to last until Saturday. By Monday morning, exhausted and angry after bargaining all night, they were still tussling over the details. The start of Monday’s session was twice delayed, and then it spilled into Tuesday morning.
As negotiations broke down over the weekend, so did many precautions the leaders and their teams had taken to protect themselves from the virus, which in most of Europe has been brought down to manageable levels, in any case. As the hours wore on and the talks grew heated, the diplomatic gloves came off, and so did the masks. Breakout groups met in rooms far smaller and less ventilated than the 300-seat auditorium where the general meeting was convened.
While there is no underestimating the importance of the agreement — the generosity of its size and the novelty of its mechanisms — the acrimony and dramatics of the four-day meeting betrayed the new divisions within the bloc. They also signaled where the fractures may lie in future crises.
This time, Ms. Merkel, unusually for a German leader, and holding the E.U.’s rotating presidency, put her finger on the scale on behalf of hard-hit southern countries and did battle with the nations she once championed, the northern members that have been less affected by the virus and are wary of the vast sums being thrown around.
Where Friday’s meeting was marked by joyful greetings and even celebrations of the birthdays of two leaders — Ms. Merkel, now 66, and Prime Minister Antonio Costa of Portugal, who turned 59 — Sunday night’s dinner (a “cold dish” after several sumptuous meals, socially spaced but unmasked) was marked by shouting matches and a nasty atmosphere.
Mr. Macron, for example, yelled at Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria for not only being a tightfisted impediment to the rescue deal but also for leaving the room to take a call. To some leaders’ shock, the French president slapped the table. Mr. Kurz tried to keep his cool, and in a zinger put Mr. Macron’s temper tantrum down to sleep deprivation, diplomats said.
As that meeting broke up without a deal around 6 a.m. Monday, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, told his country’s media that he didn’t care if other leaders mockingly called him “Mr. No” for blocking the agreement. (They did.)
Greece and other smaller economies that are still recovering from the last recession will also be badly affected by the downturn. But heavy debt loads in many of these nations make them reluctant to amass yet more debt, and their budgets aren’t sufficient to self-fund their recoveries. That led them to turn to the European Union for help.
Together with the vast bond-buying program by the European Central Bank, national stimulus plans worth trillions of euros, and other, smaller E.U. support schemes for banks, businesses and workers, European leaders hope to reverse the recession in 2021 and spend their way into a rapid and powerful recovery.
They also agreed on Tuesday on the bloc’s regular budget for the next seven years: €1.1 trillion euros to finance the normal E.U. policies on agriculture, migration and hundreds of other programs.
But the deal came at a heavy price in progressive goals attached to E.U. values and norms. To bring Hungary and Poland on board, E.U. leaders decided to water down the caveat making funding conditional on the rule-of- law benchmarks that the two nations’ illiberal governments are violating.
In another concession to Poland, the bloc’s most coal-dependent nation, a requirement was dropped that would have committed the country to being carbon neutral by 2050 to draw on parts of the funds.
Since its inception, the E.U. has struggled between maintaining nation-state sovereignty and developing joint federal-style structures.
The deal reached on Tuesday is significant in that more creditworthy E.U. nations will be underwriting loans to fund the recoveries of countries that would otherwise face onerous borrowing costs.
The Netherlands and Austria were hostile to the very idea of borrowing money and simply giving much of it to benefit mostly southern, weaker economies.
Under significant pressure at home as elections approach next March, the Dutch prime minister, Mr. Rutte, advocated loudly for fewer handouts to those nations, among them Italy and Spain, that have been hardest hit by the pandemic but that also have structurally weak, unreformed economies.
The Netherlands and other wealthier nations with healthier public finances are concerned that the commonly funded aid would simply go into a bottomless pit of spending that doesn’t truly help these economies recover without changes to make it easier to reduce bureaucracy, create jobs and stimulate growth.
A key argument in favor of offering grants rather than loans has been that Italy and other countries likely to take the aid are already over-indebted, and piling on yet more loans would just worsen their positions.
Mr. Rutte fought successfully for bigger-than-usual rebates, or reimbursements, for his own and other nations that are net contributors to the E.U. budget.
He and the others succeeded in wringing out another concession: Any country that wishes to use the new funds will need to submit a plan for how it intends to spend the money. The other E.U. nations will have a chance to review and object to the plan within three days of its submission and demand that it be tweaked.
Still, that mechanism fell short of the outright veto that Mr. Rutte had demanded, which the Italian and Spanish leaders denounced as an unacceptable encroachment into their authority.
The package will go to the European Parliament for ratification, and is expected to face a serious challenge on the grounds that it does not tackle concerns about how Poland and Hungary’s governments violate the bloc’s standards for democracy and the rule of law.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff is the Brussels correspondent for The New York Times, covering the European Union. She joined The Times after covering East Africa for The Wall Street Journal for five years. @MatinaStevis
Strongman-dominated political systems usually share common traits.
Rooted in a cult of personality, they reinvent reality, define patriotism to serve political ends, and drum up fear about outsiders. They erode democracy, often by elevating one strain of religion, manipulating history, empowering security forces to operate beyond traditional law enforcement frameworks, and corrupting checks on power.
America’s robust legal, political and civilian military structure have constrained many of President Donald Trump’s actions. But his team is increasingly adopting the narratives of autocracy: The President is railing against left-wing “fascists” and warning in racially charged tones of mob violence in US suburbs — the areas where the 2020 election will be won and lost, and which he claims a Joe Biden presidency would “abolish.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week claimed the US way of life was under attack, and that property rights and religious freedom were the country’s foremost founding principles. And in a warning about China’s rise, Attorney General Bill Barr defined patriotism by delivering an ambiguous warning that US universities and companies should not consider themselves “global citizens,” but American first.
White House events are increasingly used to shower praise on Trump, as he pretends that the coronavirus is already vanquished — a false impression pumped by allies in conservative media. And he refuses to uphold basic Constitutional norms: On Sunday, Trump told Fox News that he wouldn’t commit to accepting the results of November’s presidential election.
Warnings that Trump is a dictator-in-waiting have often been hyperbolic. But his administration’s autocratic stylings are not only rhetorical — after Trump warned he would take action to quell unrest in cities across the country, masked federal officers with no identifying badges were videoed operating in Portland, Oregon, in an apparent challenge to the state’s chain of command.
Come the November elections, Trump’s dark view of America may alienate voters. But if they grant him a second term, his increasingly strongman approach to governance could expand even further.
The above article can apply to Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Russia, Belarus and a Johnson led U.K.
Fascism (/ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, as well as strong regimentation of society and of the economy which came to prominence in early 20th-century Europe.
On Wednesday, Johnson admitted he had not read a report on a possible second wave of Covid-19 which could hit the U.K. this winter. This is criminally inept and typical of Trump-clone Johnson.
Also, Johnson’s pick to chair the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, Chris Grayling, was defeated by a 5-4 vote of the committee. This is notable because Conservative Julian Lewis who won the vote joined with the four Labour Party members of the committee to select himself. For his pains Lewis has had the Conservative Whip removed so he is now an Independent MP. It is hoped that the Report on Russian Interference in the Brexit Referendum will now get released by the committee as Johnson has refused to release it himself.
In the U.S. Trump is now attacking the well respected Dr. Anthony Fauci who is the U.S. leading expert on Covid-19.
These right-wingers are driven by ideology and ignore facts that do not suit them
Coronavirus: US disease chief Dr Anthony Fauci calls White House attacks ‘bizarre’
US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has described recent efforts by the Trump administration to discredit him as “bizarre” and “nonsense”.
“Ultimately, it hurts the president to do that,” Dr Fauci said in an interview with The Atlantic. “It doesn’t do anything but reflect poorly on them.”
On Sunday, a White House official shared a list detailing past apparent erroneous comments by Dr Fauci.
But on Wednesday Mr Trump insisted he had a “good relationship” with him.
“We’re all in the same team including Dr Fauci,” he said. “We want to get rid of this mess that China sent us, so everybody’s working on the same line and we’re doing very well.”
From gunslinging Gove to cock-of-the-spads Cummings – there’s no covering up the cost of this performative machismo @MarinaHyde
“The scientific evidence of face coverings … that’s been growing. So I do think that in shops it’s very important to wear a face covering.” “Face covering”! I wonder if Boris called condoms “penis coverings” when he wasn’t wearing those. Over the past long months of dealing with the coronavirus, perhaps the prime minister has often been forced to point out that he is just one of those guys who is too big for masks. Maybe they cut off his circulation or something. Normally, he might suggest, countries prefer the sensation of being governed by a maskless Boris Johnson. So … this feels like it’s your problem, not his?
Either way, please enjoy these naff little euphemisms from people in authority who can’t quite bring themselves to say the word mask. But do also be aware that we are at a stage where even the most conservative estimates confirm that as a result of the coronavirus, 45,000 British people have passed into the next room/lost their battle/travelled beyond the veil.
For now, this government has executed another U-turn so flawless that even the Russian judge is going to give them a perfect 10. Contrary to everything they said before, masks are now going to become mandatory. Not today, or tomorrow – don’t be stupid – but in 10 days’ time. I guess 24 July is the date when the government’s deal with the coronavirus expires, and we will not be negotiating an extension to it. No ifs, no buts.
So we’re now in a sort of mask transition – or the pandemic equivalent of the Christmas Day truce during the first world war, when instead of trying to kill each other, we played football with the virus in no man’s land. Or in Boots, or wherever. An equally sporting reading is that we’re giving the disease a head start. Matt Hancock has fired the starting gun for the virus, and in 10 days it’ll be our turn to get off those blocks.
With a report commissioned by Johnson’s chief scientific adviser warning a second spike this winter could … create 120,000 further sets of angel wingsunless measures are observed, let’s hope that Johnson and his toughs man up and use the word “mask”. At least the UK is not at the levels of toxic mask-ulinity that we have seen in the US. Joe Rogan – a sort of Jordan Peterson for guys who can’t be bothered reading atrocious books – told listeners to his hugely popular podcast: “Masks are for bitches.”Advertisementhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
Perhaps the standout example of comically toxic maskulinity came from some guy running for Congress in Florida, who the other day posted a picture of Donald Trump in his mask with the caption: “I don’t wear face masks, but POTUS is the only man who can pull it off and still look intensely masculine.” A tragedy in 106 characters, there.
Everything’s bigger in That America, of course, but we have our own smaller version in the likes of Michael Gove, who on Sunday cast himself as the sort of frontierland gunslinger who insists masks should be a matter of choice. It’s always instructive to hear from Gove, a throwback to the era where chancellors of the duchy of Lancaster were real men. Think of him as the John Wayne of the cabinet office. Even if John Wayne was largely the creation of John Ford, who many think invented his protege’s persona because he was terrified of his own softer side. “Can’t you walk,” Ford yelled at Wayne on the set of Stagecoach, “instead of skipping like a goddamn fairy?” “Can’t you wash?” he screamed at Wayne during another scene. “You’re just dabbing your face!” Of the director’s deep preference for the company of men, Ford’s biographer remarks: “Male bonding reached inordinate proportions”. Having once walked in on something she wasn’t supposed to, Maureen O’Hara’s autobiography is rather more candid in its reading of Ford’s behaviour.
Back to Westminster, regrettably, where male bonding has reached inordinate proportions in Johnson’s government. Men occupy almost all the important roles, with a report by my colleague Heather Stewart last week showing how the latest Whitehall shake-up had put key decisions in the hands of majority-male or entirely male cabinet committees.
Certainly, my abiding memory of the first movie in what could become the longrunning coronavirus franchise is an endless succession of men at the Downing Street podium, all telling us how great everything is, and by tacit extension how great they are. It’s like being governed by that guy shouting down the girl’s ear in the nightclub.
The excruciating posturing has trickled down. Witness Mark Francois, the former TA reservist who last week grandstanded to Britain’s most senior general: “Cummings is going to come down there and sort you out his own way, and you won’t like it”. Oooooooooooooooh!
But yes, much of this performative machismo feels like it flows from the prime minister’s most powerful adviser. For all his data-this and data-that, Dominic Cummings seems to revel in having finally attained a level of power where he can act like he does and people are no longer allowed to laugh. Consequently he is forever playing the big man, and threatening civil servants by saying things like “a hard rain is going to fall”. My attention was recently drawn to a set of promotional pictures a younger Cummings had commissioned of himself , in which he is smoking in front of Buckingham Palace. I imagine he felt the mood of these snaps was very James Dean, when in fact it was entirely “LOOK AT ME!!! I AM SMOKING IN FRONT OF BUCKINGHAM PALACE!!!!!!!!”
Cock of the spads, Ma. Or as a friend put it this week: “I feel we are all paying the price for a girl laughing at his poem in sixth form.” It could end up quite a price, all tallies considered. And one that no amount of face-covering – or indeed arse-covering – would be able to mask.
‘The limits of populism and denial of basic truths are being laid bare’
Angela Merkel may not scream down the phone at President Donald Trump – but she knows how to insert a dagger.
Trump, as well as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, must have felt his ears burning when the German Chancellor demolished their approaches to the coronavirus in a speech Thursday. “As we are experiencing firsthand, you cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation any more than you can fight it with hate or incitement to hatred,” Merkel said. “The limits of populism and denial of basic truths are being laid bare.”
Merkel and Trump were destined to clash. A former scientist, she is cool, cautious, self-contained, fact-oriented and quiet despite her toughness. Trump is … none of those things. Late in 2016, the outgoing US President, who Merkel sometimes referred to as “Liebe (dear) Barack,” flew to Berlin on a mission — to convince her to run for another term. Once Trump was in the Oval Office, Obama reasoned, Merkel would need to lead the liberal international order.
Ever since, she’s been walking on eggshells with a new President who flouts many of the values that Merkel — who grew up in Communist East Germany — always saw as epitomized by America. One confrontation, in Canada, was captured in an instantly iconic photograph. And CNN’s Carl Bernstein wrote recently that Trump has a habit of haranguing Merkel, even calling her “stupid” on the phone. She reportedly counters his rants with facts.
Merkel has not always lived up to her billing as the West’s moral bulwark. As the EU’s most powerful leader, she shares responsibility for the European project’s wobbles while members battled Covid-19 behind closed borders. And Germany’s complicated history and limited defense budgets — which infuriate Trump — mean it cannot fill the security vacuum left by the US.
But Merkel, who does not plan to run for a fifth term next year, can read the polls. And though she might never say so, she’d love to outlast Trump.
A group of 150 academics, writers and activists have signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine expressing concern that “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” are “[weakening] norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”. Four writers weigh up the issues
Nesrine Malik: Don’t confuse being told you’re wrong with the baying of a mob
The idea of “cancel culture”, the obvious, albeit unnamed, target of this letter, collapses several different phenomena under one pejorative label. It’s puzzling to me that a statement signed by a group of writers, thinkers and journalists, most whom have Ivy League or other prestigious credentials, would fail to at least establish a coherent definition of what it believes cancel culture is before seeming to condemn it.
The fact is that decisions made by corporate HR departments, failings in editing processes at media organisations such as the New York Times, and the demands of movements for social justice to be accorded recognition and respect do not constitute one clear trend. The new climate of “censoriousness”, if there is one, cannot be diagnosed and dispatched this easily.
In my view, the failure to make these distinctions clear is probably less an oversight and more of a convenient fudge. Because outrage about cancel culture can’t be credibly sustained when you start breaking down what it actually consists of. Companies hastily sacking people who have been mobbed online is about the bottom line and fear of bad PR. It raises interesting questions, but these are more about employment rights and the encroachment by bosses into areas of private opinion and conduct. Being piled on online is nasty, but it is broadly a function of how social media in particular and the internet in general has enabled bullying for the hell of it. Sometimes human beings are unpleasant, and certain platforms are designed to bring out the worst in them. That is separate to the demands for change emerging from many marginalised groups.
In not parsing these different patterns clearly, the Harper’s letter commits the same offence it accuses others of doing: indulging in “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.
To those unaccustomed to being questioned, this all feels personal. They have confused a lack of reverence from people who are able to air their views for the very first time with an attack on their right to free speech. They have mistaken the new ways they can be told they are wrong or irrelevant as the baying of a mob, rather than exposure to an audience that has only recently found its voice. The world is changing. It’s not “cancel culture” to point out that, in many respects, it’s not changing quickly enough.
Endorsed by a bulging list of esteemed writers, artists and public intellectuals, this letter might well come to be seen as an inflection point in an argument that has been rumbling away, much of it on social media, for months if not years. And yet, the text hardly reads like some ground-breaking, revolutionary document. Luther’s 95 Theses, it ain’t.
Instead, as one signatory, Anne Applebaum, conceded on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, it consists of a series of statements that are, in themselves, quite “anodyne”. It’s not disparaging to say that the document, like many open letters, represents a lowest common denominator, a bare minimum that would be acceptable – indeed, obvious – to the likes of both Frum and Chomsky. The letter declares, for example, that: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Are there many who would disagree with those words, who would want to make out loud the case for wishing away what they don’t like?
And yet the statement has not been received as a boilerplate recitation of the case for free expression, but has become controversial. That’s partly because of the text itself – which some have read as brimming with thin-skinned privilege, seeing it as a coded attack on marginalised minorities for having the gall to criticise people with power and platforms – but also, as happens often with open letters, because of the names at the bottom. One name in particular has provoked fury: that of JK Rowling, because of her writings on trans rights and gender. At least two signatories have distanced themselves from the letter since its publication.
It’s clear that a number of people believe Rowling should not be included in such statements, that her views have placed her outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. As it happens, the letter speaks of this phenomenon when it describes “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” It seems the Harper’s letter might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
Zoe Williams: There is no such things as pure freedom of expression
“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,” the Harper’s letter concludes. I was about to say I broadly agreed. But wait: broadly? I wholeheartedly agree. How can intellectual inquiry flourish if people can’t express themselves in good faith? Should professional consequences ever be dire for taking what is later considered to be the wrong position in a debate? Then again, this is quite an abstract proposition. Get into the weeds – what counts as good faith, and who decides – and I might find myself on the other side. If David Starkey complained about “so many damn blacks” in good faith, then I’m definitely on the other side. Professional consequences start off dire for the people who are cancelled en masse by structural racism. At least old white dudes get the respect of being cancelled on a case-by-case basis.
This reminds me a lot of the arguments we used to have about religious tolerance in the 90s. Toleration was a good and necessary thing; but what if it meant you had to tolerate people who themselves wouldn’t tolerate you? That would be fine, we’d shrug: how live an issue was that, really? “Very live!” Melanie Philips and others might exclaim. “Look, here’s a preacher who wants you to burn in hell. Eat that, logisticians.” It was part of the remorseless generation of hatred and suspicion towards Muslims, yes: but separate to that, it was a move towards the territory of absolutes. People who are suspicious of, or simply bored by, consensus love to pin liberals down with these paradoxes. It is so droll to watch them flapping about, either side of the wedge.
What we do know is that there is no such thing as total tolerance: it cannot logically tolerate intolerance. And there is no such things as pure freedom of expression either: the expression of some views necessarily encroaches on the dignity and freedom of others. This is partly a failure of speech itself, which has the facility to raise impossible propositions – Eagleton’s unstoppable force meeting an immovable object – but not to resolve them. Mainly it’s a failure of humans. We should think carefully before lining up behind an abstract, on either side – absolutes have a tendency to dissolve on contact with reality. And it’s in reality, of course, with its compromises and discomforts and competing demands, that we actually live.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
Samuel Moyn: Abuse of the power to cancel is why I signed the letter
I am not a free speech absolutist. Language is part of how our world is constituted. It does not operate free from the dangers and hierarchies of real life; it makes them possible. Calls for open debate routinely conceal the endurance of hierarchies. Distinguishing between necessarily helpful speech and potentially harmful acts, as John Stuart Mill did and as free speech absolutists do, will not work. And without necessarily incurring the risk of slippery slopes, we can ban – or even empower the state to do so. We can cancel too.
But these are powers that do risk abuse and overuse. And that is why I signed the letter, and would do so again.
If it is true that hierarchies are in part maintained – not just undone – by speech, and that speech can harm and not just help, it doesn’t follow that more free speech for more people isn’t generally a good cause. It is.
Recent events have, in my opinion, proved that a successful movement – one with which I sympathise – can err and undermine its further inroads into opinion. Mill was wrong about a lot. But he was right that “the wellbeing of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested”. Recent abuse and overuse of our power to ban and cancel, put simply, have sometimes hurt the continuing normalisation of truths we care about.
I don’t have the standing to talk down to or tutor those angry about the letter. But it is also correct that some of the chief victims of excessive policing of speech in history have been those with progressive politics like mine. I didn’t know who else would sign it when I did, but I reserve the right to criticise many of them, not just for their own hypocritical patrolling of speech in the past but also for their regularly disastrous ideas. Supporting economic and geopolitical catastrophe is far worse than participating in evanescent Twitter mobs or even more harmful censorship. And we will have missed an opportunity provided by those now honourably calling for free speech if we do not continue to indict the world their speech has made.
• Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale
As the world speaks out …
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July 7, 2020 The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at firstname.lastname@example.org
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
Elliot Ackerman Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University Martin Amis Anne Applebaum Marie Arana, author Margaret Atwood John Banville Mia Bay, historian Louis Begley, writer Roger Berkowitz, Bard College Paul Berman, writer Sheri Berman, Barnard College Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet Neil Blair, agent David W. Blight, Yale University Jennifer Finney Boylan, author David Bromwich David Brooks, columnist Ian Buruma, Bard College Lea Carpenter Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus) Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University Roger Cohen, writer Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret. Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project Kamel Daoud Meghan Daum, writer Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis Jeffrey Eugenides, writer Dexter Filkins Federico Finchelstein, The New School Caitlin Flanagan Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School Kmele Foster David Frum, journalist Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University Atul Gawande, Harvard University Todd Gitlin, Columbia University Kim Ghattas Malcolm Gladwell Michelle Goldberg, columnist Rebecca Goldstein, writer Anthony Grafton, Princeton University David Greenberg, Rutgers University Linda Greenhouse Rinne B. Groff, playwright Sarah Haider, activist Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern Roya Hakakian, writer Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution Jeet Heer, The Nation Katie Herzog, podcast host Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College Adam Hochschild, author Arlie Russell Hochschild, author Eva Hoffman, writer Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute Michael Ignatieff Zaid Jilani, journalist Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts Wendy Kaminer, writer Matthew Karp, Princeton University Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative Daniel Kehlmann, writer Randall Kennedy Khaled Khalifa, writer Parag Khanna, author Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy Enrique Krauze, historian Anthony Kronman, Yale University Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University Mark Lilla, Columbia University Susie Linfield, New York University Damon Linker, writer Dahlia Lithwick, Slate Steven Lukes, New York University John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writer Greil Marcus Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center Kati Marton, author Debra Mashek, scholar Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago John McWhorter, Columbia University Uday Mehta, City University of New York Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University Yascha Mounk, Persuasion Samuel Moyn, Yale University Meera Nanda, writer and teacher Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer George Packer Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita) Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden Orlando Patterson, Harvard University Steven Pinker, Harvard University Letty Cottin Pogrebin Katha Pollitt, writer Claire Bond Potter, The New School Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation Zia Haider Rahman, writer Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic Neil Roberts, political theorist Melvin Rogers, Brown University Kat Rosenfield, writer Loretta J. Ross, Smith College J.K. Rowling Salman Rushdie, New York University Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University Diana Senechal, teacher and writer Jennifer Senior, columnist Judith Shulevitz, writer Jesse Singal, journalist Anne-Marie Slaughter Andrew Solomon, writer Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer Allison Stanger, Middlebury College Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University Wendell Steavenson, writer Gloria Steinem, writer and activist Nadine Strossen, New York Law School Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama Adaner Usmani, Harvard University Chloe Valdary Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College Helen Vendler, Harvard University Judy B. Walzer Michael Walzer Eric K. Washington, historian Caroline Weber, historian Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers Bari Weiss Sean Wilentz, Princeton University Garry Wills Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer Robert F. Worth, journalist and author Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Matthew Yglesias Emily Yoffe, journalist Cathy Young, journalist Fareed Zakaria