Tales From The Safe Space, Part 57 – Transphobia Inquisitions And A Kafkaesque Nightmare At Wilfrid Laurier University

Lindsay Shepherd - Wilfrid Laurier University Ontario Canada - Academic Freedom - Social Justice - Transgender Pronouns - Jordan Peterson

University professors and diversity officers now haul students to appear before campus Social Justice Star Chambers, imposing disciplinary measures without ever explaining the nature or context of the charges against them

One of the interesting developments in the continued takeover of academia by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is the way that enforcement of the strict new leftist orthodoxies has swung from college students pressuring their professors and university administrators to university professors and newly hired diversity officers now pressuring and bullying the students.

It is as though university faculties and leadership teams were so scared by the wave of occupations, campus protests and media spectacles (not to mention high-profile forced resignations) over the past several years that they became determined to get out ahead of the curve and be part of the identity politics vanguard, becoming the hunters rather than the hunted.

We saw this a few months ago at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where more than one professor saw fit to encircle a conservative student recruiting for her campus political organisation and hurl insults and taunts in her direction. So desperate were these middle-aged professors to be seen as sufficiently “woke” “allies” of various designated victim groups that they ended up behaving in a far more raucous, juvenile way than the poor girl they were tormenting.

But now an even more disturbing case has emerged, this time at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. Graduate student and teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd recently found herself hauled in front of a Star Chamber consisting of two professors and a campus diversity officer after an anonymous complaint was made against her for showing a video – fully within the context of the class she was teaching – of somebody expressing a point of view which did not accept or validate current transgenderism doctrine, specifically the use of alternative pronouns.

From The Star:

Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she ran afoul of school authorities after she aired a clip in two tutorials of a debate on gender-neutral pronouns featuring polarizing University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson.

The excerpt from TVO’s current affairs program The Agendashows Peterson, who has famously refused to use gender pronouns other than “he” or “she,” defending his position against a professor who argued it was necessary to use the pronouns that a person prefers to be called.

Shepherd said she was chastised by her superiors for failing to condemn Peterson’s remarks outright and told her neutral approach to the clip was tantamount to remaining neutral on other objectionable views such as those of Adolf Hitler.

While Global News reports:

She was called into a meeting in which Laurier faculty and administration told her that playing the clip without condemnation legitimizes the viewpoint, which they don’t support.

[..] The meeting, which Shepherd secretly recorded, left her in tears after staff said playing the clip created a toxic environment for transgender students and called her transphobic.

Note: Lindsay Shepherd considers herself a leftist and did not actually agree with the perspective which Professor Jordan Peterson expressed in the now-controversial video. She was hauled before a disciplinary body merely for presenting a different argument in an academic context.

Summaries really do not do the exchange justice, so I strongly encourage you to spend 9 minutes listening to the secret recording of the meeting made by Lindsay Shepherd, or at least to read my transcript below. The purpose of this is not to generate more superficial outrage about “crazy campus SJWs” but to emphasise the degree to which universities are running at full speed away from any commitment to academic freedom and towards uncritically promoting one very particular (and flawed) worldview to the exclusion of all others.

Full transcript below:

PROFESSOR 1: …why that might have been seen as problematic by some of the students, maybe even threatening?

SHEPHERD: Um, I don’t see how someone would rationally think it was threatening. I can see how it might challenge their existing ideas but for me that’s the spirit of the university is challenging ideas that you already have. And I don’t know who this came from, I would be interested to see the original complaint or complaints, because like I don’t really have any context as to what exactly their problem was.

PROFESSOR 1: Sorry, can I, um…

SHEPHERD: The thing is, can you shield people from those ideas? Am I supposed to comfort them and make sure that they are insulated away from this, is that what the point of this is? Cause to me that is so against what a university is about. So against it. I was not taking sides, I was presenting both arguments.

PROFESSOR 1: So the thing is about this is, if you’re presenting something like this, you have to think about the kind of teaching climate that you’re creating, and, um, this is actually, these arguments are counter to Canadian human rights code, ever since – and I know that you talked about, um, C-16, ever since this passed it is discriminatory to be targeting someone due to their gender identity or gender expression. So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, I understand that you’re trying to, like –

SHEPHERD: It was critical. I introduced it critically.

PROFESSOR 1: How so? Like, as in?

SHEPHERD: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. In the spirit of the debate is slightly different to being, like, “this is a problematic idea that we maybe wanna unpack”

SHEPHERD: But that’s taking sides.

PROFESSOR 1: Yes.

SHEPHERD: That’s me being like “oh look at this guy, everything that comes out of his mouth is BS but we’re gonna watch anyway”.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. So I understand the position that you’re coming from and your positionality, but the reality is that it has created a toxic climate for some of the students. Y’know, it’s great that —

SHEPHERD: Who? How many? One?

PROFESSOR 1: Okay. May I speak? It’s —

SHEPHERD: I have no concept of, like, how many people complained, what their complaint was, you haven’t shown me the complaint.

PROFESSOR 1: Yes, I understand that this is upsetting, but there’s also confidentiality matters.

SHEPHERD: The number of people is confidential?

PROFESSOR 1: Yes. It’s one or multiple students who have come forward saying that this is something they were concerned about, and that it made them uncomfortable. You’re perfectly welcome to your own opinions, but when you’re bringing it into the context of the classroom that can become problematic. And that can become something that is – that creates an unsafe learning environment for students.

SHEPHERD: But when they leave the university they’re gonna be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there. And I’m sorry I’m crying, I’m stressed out because this, to me, is so wrong. So wrong.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Can I mention the gender violence – the gender and sexual violence policy?

PROFESSOR 1: Yeah, please.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: So under that, um, gender violence does include sexual violence but it also includes, um targeting folks based on gender, um, so that includes transphobia, biphobia, homophobia, all those sorts of things are protected under the policy, and so those are things that Laurier has upheld as values as well as the Ontario human rights code. Um, and so those are things that we’re responsible for, uh, not impacting our students in that way, and not, um, not spreading transphobia in that way.

SHEPHERD: Okay, so what I have a problem with is I didn’t target anybody. Who did I target?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Trans folks.

SHEPHERD: How? By telling them ideas that are really out there? By telling them that? By telling them? Really?

PROFESSOR 1: It’s not just telling them. In legitimising this as a valid perspective, as this is another valid perspective —

SHEPHERD: In a university all perspectives are valid!

PROFESSOR 1: That’s not necessarily true, and —

SHEPHERD: Well, this is something that’s being intimated in current society and I don’t feel the need to shield people from what’s going on in society. Like, to imagine that this is happening in a university, it’s just…bad.

PROFESSOR 1: Okay, so just to give you a context. Also within all of this that is happening, um, Laurier’s being blanketed with white supremacist posters currently. There’s another debate in society which is whether or not North America should be a set of white nationalist states and that it should be ethnically cleansed of other people. That is also a current debate in society. Would you show something in your tutorial that had, y’know, white supremacist and non white supremacists debating whether or not other people should live in North America? Is that something that you would show?

SHEPHERD: If that was related to the content of the week and we were talking about right wing speakers then maybe. It depends on the content, like, I mean if there’s really ideas that are existing out there like that then, I mean… Look, the thing is I don’t see what’s transphobic about showing a video of Jordan Peterson. He’s a real person. He is out there.

PROFESSOR 1: He is a real person, but he is a real person who has engaged in targeted behaviour or targeting of trans students, um, in the particular, like — basically doxxing them, if you know the term, like giving out their personal information so that they will be attacked, harassed, so that death threats will find them. This is something that he has done to his own students, he has done to other students, um, and this is also something that the students are aware of. So this is, this is basically like playing – not to kind of do the thing where everything is kind of compared to Hitler – but this is like neutrally playing a speech by Hitler or Milo Yiannopoulos from GamerGate. This is the kind of thing that, departmentally, in terms of critical communication studies and in terms of the course, of what we’re trying to do, is diametrically opposed to everything that we have been talking about in the lectures. Was this one of the reasons that you wanted to do this, because it was like, a reaction to the lecture content and, uh…?

SHEPHERD: No, we were talking about gendered language, and I was asking them to structure sentences using “they” or using “his” and “her”. And then we talked about the societal context of it. So I don’t get why I’m being seen as transphobic by virtue, by proxy of me just saying, just stating, just exposing people to an idea. I don’t get how that label is attached to me, I really don’t.

PROFESSOR 1: It’s more about the effect rather than the intention, like obviously that wasn’t your intention, but nevertheless it disturbed and upset students enough —

SHEPHERD: So everything’s about those students who are disturbed? Everything is catered to them?

PROFESSOR 1: [Sighs]

PROFESSOR 2: Can I just offer a different perspective? Um, were you, was this, um, tutorial based on looking at grammar?

SHEPHERD: Uh-huh.

PROFESSOR 2: And it was focused on the use of pronouns and the use of grammar?

SHEPHERD: Uh-huh.

PROFESSOR 2: Um, is grammar not something that’s not really subject to debate?

SHEPHERD: The “they” and the “his” or “her”? It’s a huge debate right now. Can we use “they” in the singular?

PROFESSOR 2: Yeah, but you do know that “they” has actually been used in the singular and —

SHEPHERD: Yeah, and that was in the video I showed to the class, and that was a point I made. The thing is, that’s kind of funny, is I disagree with Jordan Peterson. I disagree. But, um, you guys seem to think that I’m like pro-Jordan Peterson or something. It’s very funny.

PROFESSOR 2: Well, um, do you understand how what happened was contrary to – sorry, what was the policy, the —

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Gender and sexual violence.

PROFESSOR 2: — Gender and sexual violence policy? Like, do you understand how…

SHEPHERD: Sorry, what did I violate in that policy?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Um, so gender-based violence, transphobia in that policy, causing harm to trans students by, uh, bringing their identity as invalid or their, uh, pronouns as invalid.

PROFESSOR 2: Or something like that.

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Potentially invalid.

SHEPHERD: So I caused harm and violence?

DIVERSITY OFFICER: Which is under the Ontario human rights code and a protected thing, and also something that Laurier holds as a value.

SHEPHERD: Okay. So by proxy, me showing a YouTube video, I’m transphobic and I caused harm and violence? So be it. I can’t do anything to control that.

PROFESSOR 2: Okay, so that’s not something that you have an issue with, the fact that that happened? Like, are you sorry that it happened?

SHEPHERD: Like, I mean, I know in my heart and I know I expressed to the class that I’m not transphobic, and if any of them — I don’t know, again, I don’t know what they said — but I made my — I don’t think I gave away any kind of political position of mine. I remained very neutral. And, um —

PROFESSOR 2: And that’s kindof the problem…

[AUDIO ENDS].

Note how the professors are totally unable to distinguish between the idea of raising an idea for critical discussion and targeting a student and inciting hatred or violence against them based on that idea. Time and again, the professors imply (and sometimes outright state) that any idea or argument which deviates from the prevailing transgender orthodoxy can only be discussed if it is first denounced as wrong or even “evil”. Students are not to be exposed to ideas and left to evaluate them in a neutral environment; rather, they will be informed of the “correct” response to such ideas upfront, presumably to avoid “harmful” misunderstandings.

One also wonders how far the professor/inquisitor had to dial down his definition of white supremacy when he made his remarks that the campus is being “blanketed in white supremacist posters”. One imagines that any literature advocating any kind of immigration enforcement at all would now fall into this category, together with any poster bearing the image or advertising the appearance of a prominent mainstream conservative. And when some future Wilfrid Laurier student is hauled before the same Social Justice Star Chamber for illicitly watching a Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren video under the covers at night in the privacy of their dorm room, the definition of racism and white supremacy will be just as expansive and unquestionable as transgender doctrine was at Lindsay Shepherd’s trial.

After all, the professor seriously posits the idea that there is a mainstream debate going on in society over whether North America should be ethnically cleansed of non-white people. These academics are so unhinged, so utterly untethered from reality, that they interpret a far-right argument on the very fringes of society – one which is actually diminishing, not gaining traction over time – and elevate its importance to that of some widespread national movement. This is a childlike catastrophisation of the current situation at best, and brazen intellectual deception at worst.

Listening to the recording, what is really surprising (besides the content) is the fact that at all times it is Lindsay Shepherd, the grad student, who sounds not only more reasonable and measured but more intellectually astute than her inquisitors. Shepherd was apparently being grilled by two professors and a Wilfrid Laurier University diversity officer, and despite being placed in a hugely stressful situation and occasionally fighting back tears as a consequence she sounds poised and articulate while her academic tormentors reach for every worn-out phrase or comparison in the book, frequently having to “tag” one another in and out of the discussion as they are repeatedly stumped and confounded by Shepherd’s logical responses.

Is this what the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics does to academic minds? Did the capacity for reasoning and critical thinking faculties of these professors gradually rot away after they drank too deep from the well of identity politics? Did they jettison independent thought and learn to mindlessly repeat approved orthodoxy so long ago that they now find themselves bested in debate by a scared grad student despite enjoying a 3 to 1 numerical advantage?

These really are third rate academic minds. Who says “positionality” in a sentence? Be under no illusion – this is a thoughtcrime investigation panel, and the judges are so inarticulate that they can only keep restating their blunt, unwavering dictum in occasionally varying language rather than engaging with and rebutting Shepherd’s arguments – hence their heavy overuse of the word “problematic” without any kind of granular explanation as to what was problematic or why it was so. These professors cannot even make a rudimentary case for their own intersectional ideology; all they can do is state and restate its core commandments.

These inquisitors do not deserve the title of “professor” when their snivelling, cowardly attempt to enforce their credo was so comprehensively deconstructed and debunked by a nervous but principled and steadfast grad student. Neither do they deserve to be employed by any academic institution which calls itself a university.

And unless Wilfrid Laurier University rapidly takes steps to publicly sanction those professors and apologise to Lindsay Shepherd, they should no longer be taken seriously as a place of higher education.

 

UPDATE – 20 November

Rod Dreher makes a good point in his own reaction to the Lindsay Shepherd story:

It’s worth listening to the clip to hear how nicey-nice and bland the inquisitors are. These people are destroying academic freedom and the purpose of a university, and they’re doing so in anaesthetic tones that conceal the act of real violence to the core values of a university.

The tone adopted by the two professors and the diversity officer is indeed striking. The language they use is incredibly passive and their voices never become harsh or accusatory. Instead they appear to be trying to undermine Shepherd with bland niceness, to keep hammering home the same illogical message with soft insistence in the hope that she will ultimately break down and state that 2+2=5.

It is worth remembering that the gravest threats to free speech and academic freedom in the West come not from angry student protesters but from the impeccably credentialed, dulcet-toned bureaucrats and functionaries who share their worldview.

 

UPDATE – 23 November

Professor Nathan Rambukkana, Lindsay Shepherd’s inquisitor-in-chief, has apologised to the student in a fairly gracious open letter. Money quote:

Second, this entire occasion, and hearing from so many with passionate views on this issue from across the political spectrum, has made me seriously rethink some of the positions I took in the meeting. I made the argument that first-year students, not studying this topic specifically, might not have the tool kit to unpack or process a controversial view such as Dr. Peterson’s, saying that such material might be better reserved for upper-year or grad courses. While I still think that such material needs to be handled carefully, especially so as to not infringe on the rights of any of our students or make them feel unwelcome in the learning environment, I believe you are right that making a space for controversial or oppositional views is important, and even essential to a university. The trick is how to properly contextualize such material. One way might be through having readings, or a lecture on the subject before discussion, but you are correct that first-years should be eligible to engage with societal debates in this way.

Is the letter perfect? By no means. It still adopts the whole “I’m sorry if you were offended” self-exculpatory language in places, and Rambukkana certainly does not forsake his main positions or his belief in identity politics. But still, better this than nothing at all. And at least there was an apology for the awful Hitler comparison.

Wilfrid Laurier Vice-Chancellor Deborah MacLatchy also took the opportunity to “apologise” via open letter, writing:

After listening to this recording, an apology is in order. The conversation I heard does not reflect the values and practices to which Laurier aspires. I am sorry it occurred in the way that it did and I regret the impact it had on Lindsay Shepherd. I will convey my apology to her directly. Professor Rambukkana has also chosen to apologize to Lindsay Shepherd about the way the meeting was conducted.

I remain troubled by the way faculty, staff and students involved in this situation have been targeted with extreme vitriol. Supports are in place at the university to support them through this situation.

Waah waah waah. Way to make it all about yourself. More:

Let me be clear by stating that Laurier is committed to the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Giving life to these principles while respecting fundamentally important human rights and our institutional values of diversity and inclusion, is not a simple matter. The intense media interest points to a highly polarizing and very complicated set of issues that is affecting universities across the democratic world. The polarizing nature of the current debate does not do justice to the complexity of issues.

Laurier is prepared to engage with these important discussions in a thoughtful and determined way. I have announced a task force to delve into these issues. Further details will be announced in the days ahead. I look forward to the process and I am confident that the outcome will contribute to a better understating of these issues for Laurier and the broader community.

This is a total deflection. Giving life to the principles of free speech and academic freedom is indeed “a simple matter” – it just requires a backbone and a baseline commitment to the basic principles of a university. If MacLatchy feels constrained by the incredibly stultifying Canadian human rights laws then as a university vice-chancellor she should have been vociferously opposing damaging, censorious developments like C-16, not cheering them on from the rafters. MacLatchy needs to go.

 

Lindsay Shepherd - Wilfrid Laurier University Ontario Canada - Academic Freedom - Social Justice - Transgender Pronouns - Jordan Peterson

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Catalonia Independence And Brexit – Not The Same Thing

Catalan Catalunya president Carles Puigdemont speech - declaration of independence

The Catalan declaration of independence does not prove your point, whether you are for or against Brexit

There has been an inevitable tendency among many people to co-opt the events surrounding the recent Catalan independence referendum and resulting declaration of independence from Spain for their own distinct purposes. This is unhelpful. Recent events in Spain illuminate Brexit little more than the election of Donald Trump explains Brexit – in other words, a few headline similarities obscure a wealth of differences.

First, we can all acknowledge that Spain hugely mishandled the entire affair. Whether this is partly due to weaker institutions and the less embedded traditions of democracy in Spain or just sheer incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is not fully clear to me, but the actions of the Spanish government clearly fuelled rather than defused the situation.

Rajoy should have learned from the UK’s experience with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Faced with Scottish separatists with similar delusions of statehood, David Cameron called the bluff of the Scottish National Party. The referendum was held on fair terms and the nationalists lost – despite an awfully dreary and uninspiring “No” campaign which pushed an entirely negative message and had little positive to say about the value of the United Kingdom. And though this led to the rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the arrival of the Tartan Tea Party of SNP MPs in Westminster after the 2015 general election, the nationalist tide has since receded.

Madrid took a different approach, opposing the referendum at every turn. I can’t speak to the legality of the constitutional court’s decision to ban the referendum, but the violent way in which it was put down by the police and Guardia Civil handed the separatists a huge and unnecessary propaganda victory. I can fully believe that the Catalan regional government has behaved reprehensibly and childishly throughout, but a mature national government in Madrid would have handled this in a way which took the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, putting it to bed for a generation. Mariano Rajoy achieved the exact opposite.

The decision of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proceed with a declaration of independence, as ratified by the Catalan parliament, was opportunistic, antidemocratic and immature. Yes, the referendum was violently put down by the Spanish authorities. But the referendum was also deemed illegal  in the first place by the proper Spanish courts, and many of those who would have voted against independence did not go to the polls. To take this botched referendum as a mandate for independence is a huge overstepping of Puigdemont’s authority, and is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Simultaneously, Spain has been far too laid back in dealing with this threat. It was shocking enough that it took until the days before the Scottish independence referendum for anti-independence campaigners to hold a mass rally in London in support of the United Kingdom – but at least it happened. Spain waited until days after the unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence to hold a similar rally in Barcelona. Where was this public outrage and shows of loyalty to Madrid when Carles Puigdemont was prancing around acting like the living embodiment of all Catalan public opinion? It is hard to attribute this to anything but laziness on the part of the citizenry. As he left the US constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an enquirer that he had bequeathed the American people “a Republic, if you can keep it“. At times, the Spanish seemed too lazy to make much of an effort to keep theirs.

How does all of this tangentially relate to Brexit? In one sense, Brexiteers can draw some basic parallels to Catalan independence. Both are primarily cultural movements consisting of people who do not accept the legitimacy of the larger political entity which they seek to leave. But the British EU referendum was conducted under the rule of law and its outcome was legitimate. One can raise valid points about the precise mode of Brexit being unstated and the lack of a plan on the part of the official Leave campaign – all true. But the instruction from voters to the UK government to commence secession from the political entity known as European Union was clear. In the case of Catalonian independence, not so. In many cases, the Catalan government behaved provocatively and with great immaturity. These are not smart, measured people whom anybody should seek to drape their arms around.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the Catalonian separatist movement. Both in Catalonia and Scotland, advocates for independence seek to leave the political purview of Madrid and Westminster respectively, but remain very much part of the European Union. In doing so they engage in a feat of denial and political fancy which exceeds that of the most ignorant of Hard Brexiteers. Leaving Spain means Catalonia leaving the EU, just as leaving the United Kingdom inevitably meant Scotland leaving the EU when Scotland voted back in 2014. In both cases, separatists sought to downplay or even deny this truth. Carles Puigdemont and his followers need to accept this difficult fact if they are to be remotely taken seriously. But they do not accept reality, just as the SNP refused to accept reality.

It is also curious that the separatists are so desperate to escape the clutches of Madrid (one protester today said that Catalonians were currently “oppressed” by Spain) but are entirely comfortably – even eager – to remain under the authority of Brussels, and inevitably as a much smaller and less influential member state were they to be readmitted. I would very much like to read an argument explaining how modern Spain suppresses Catalonian culture and freedom in a way that the EU would not. As an independent country and small EU member state, Catalonia would be much less able to influence EU policymaking than Spain is currently able to do. They would be in an infinitely weaker position to defend and advance Catalonian national interest.

And yet if this is still the choice of the Catalonian people they should be free to make it – through a lawful, democratic and legitimate referendum. If they do so, it will be a clearly cultural and constitutional decision, just as Brexit was. This doesn’t automatically mean that it is the “wrong” decision – it would simply mean that as with Brexit, some things matter more than short term political and economic stability. This is an argument which I have strongly made about Brexit, and which could hold true for Catalonian independence too. If the people of Catalonia genuinely feel that Madrid is hostile to their own interests then they should have the right to secede from Spain and take the consequences and potential benefits upon themselves. I supported Brexit because I do not feel that our cultural affinity to Europe – our sense of ourselves as part of a cohesive European demos – warrants as powerful and extensive a government as we currently have in Brussels. If Catalonians feel the same about Spain then so be it.

But if nothing else good comes from this turmoil in Spain, hopefully it will disabuse separatists throughout Europe of the childlike, naive notion that Brussels is their friend, and that the European Union in any way cares about their freedom or right to self-determination. It most assuredly does not. The European Union has its own journey – toward greater political integration and centralisation – to pursue. Brexit is enough of a bump in the road for EU leaders; they have no desire to see Europe fragmenting further at a time when they are trying to busily absorb everyone into the grand project, even as their undermining of established member states fuels these separatist movements.

Besides that, this is an internal matter for Spain to deal with. One might plausibly consider taking sides from a personal perspective had the referendum been conducted legally under terms agreed by both sides, or if the Catalan government could make an irrefutable case that no further dialogue with Spain was possible for the redress of their grievances. But in the absence of these mitigating factors we ought to refrain from jumping into a foreign debate purely to score cheap political points about matters in our own country.

The Catalan independence movement is not like Brexit, as anybody who supported the continuation of the United Kingdom in 2014 and Brexit in 2017 should have the humility to accept. No matter how low your opinion of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks and Dominic Cummings may be, they did not press ahead with an unlawful referendum and claim (quite) such an implausible mandate from it. And whatever constitutional vandalism the UK government is currently engaged in as it seeks to implement Brexit is nothing to the constitutional vandalism currently being perpetrated in Spain.

At its core, Brexit is about securing the continued relevance and autonomy of the nation state (at least until such time as public opinion shifts more definitively in favour of the kind of supranational government offered by the European Union). And that means keeping our personal opinions about Catalan opinions quite distinct from any other political agenda.

 

Catalonia is not Spain - declaration of independence flag

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Public Service In The Age Of Trump

Donald Trump Ronald Reagan comparison photo

Achieving good outcomes is rightly the key barometer of success in government, but it is not everything – selflessly serving the public with honour and dedication matters too

Today I had the pleasure of attending a London Film Festival screening of “The Final Year”, a documentary by Greg Barker focusing on the last year of President Obama’s administration with a specific focus on foreign policy.

Regular readers will know that foreign policy is not my area of expertise, and rarely discussed on this blog. I only know enough to recognise that I am not qualified to pass blanket judgment on diplomatic and foreign policy issues which are fiendishly complex, rely on tremendously detailed knowledge of foreign cultures and regimes, and often require unbearably difficult decisions to be made in fraught circumstances with competing political demands, imperfect information and no crystal ball to see the future.

But it was difficult to watch the documentary and fail to conclude that the main protagonists – former Secretary of State John Kerry, United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes – discharged their duties diligently and with honour. One may not have agreed with all that these individuals did or the political outlook which guided their actions while serving in the Obama administration, but if so these were mere policy differences, not alleged deficiencies of character or behaviour.

It was also difficult to view the documentary and not feel a pang of shame at the composition and antics of the present administration, which even at its dubious best never seemed as functional as its predecessor, and which will certainly now struggle to attract talented, conscientious public servants given the scandals and negative publicity constantly roiling the White House.

Human beings have a tendency to impugn motives and presume character defects in people in public life based on our political differences with them. If we disagreed with the policies of Barack Obama then he also conveniently happened to be a dangerous socialist interloper who simply doesn’t love America the way that you or I love America. And if we disagreed with Mitt Romney or John McCain it was because they were heartless, selfish individuals devoid of charity or empathy, not due to the fact that these conservatives simply saw a different pathway to achieving a just and prosperous society.

This is not a new phenomenon. Republicans questioned the motives and character of Democrats in the Clinton administration; Democrats questioned the motives and character of Republicans in the Bush administration; Republicans had a very lucrative turn questioning the motives and character of Democrats in the Obama administration, and now everybody but the most partisan loyalists can be found expressing grave doubts about the motives character of many of those serving in the Trump administration.

And historically speaking, many of these negative judgments have been unfair. Most staffers in any administration serve out of a sense of public duty with real respect for the offices which they hold, and to impugn their motives at a time in their lives when they are trying to do good is churlish, particularly when there is no evidence of malfeasance.

But this time it feels different. Be it known or suspected acts of misconduct in office or the very public and unatoned-for personal failings of senior officials, the things we already know about less than nine months into the Trump administration should give us grave concern about the calibre of leadership in Washington, regardless of whether or not we agree with the general thrust of policy.

A few weeks ago, the masterful Peggy Noonan (speechwriter to President Ronald Reagan and a personal hero of mine) wrote a particularly moving column for the Wall Street Journal. In it, she conjured a moment of pure escapist fantasy, an alternate reality where all of the dreadful things we know to be true about people in the Trump administration – from the president on downwards – turned out to be nothing more than silly misunderstandings.

Noonan wrote:

I saw this: The exhausted woman on the shelter cot was surrounded by stressed children when Melania came over, bent down and asked, “How are you doing?” The woman said “Well—hurricane.” She realized who she was talking to and got flustered. “Those are nice shoes,” she said. They were flat ankle-boots, the kind you wear on the street or the park, only of the finest leather. “Thank you,” said Melania. She saw the woman’s soggy sneakers. “What size do you wear?” she asked, “Oh, 9,” said the woman. “They got bigger with the kids.”

Melania took off her boots and put them on the woman’s feet. She did this in a way that was turned away from the press, so they wouldn’t see. The woman’s daughter said, “Mommy, they’re nice.” Melania took from her bag a pair of white sneakers, put them on, and said, “Oh good, these are so comfortable.” They talked some more and Melania left and the mother looked to her kids and said, softly, “These are the first lady’s shoes.”

[..] This happened just before the Mnuchin story got cleared up. The Treasury secretary had not asked for a government plane to take him on his honeymoon. His request got all bollixed up in transmission, but there was a paper trail. It turned out he was waiting at the airport with his new wife when he saw a guy in Army fatigues comforting a young woman in a white and yellow dress. She was crying. Mr. Mnuchin sent over an aide to find out what’s wrong.

The guy in fatigues had literally just flown in from Kabul. He and the woman had just married, in a chapel down the street. They’d been bumped from their honeymoon flight to Bermuda. Mr. Mnuchin said: “Give them my plane. Louise—we’re flying commercial.” They booked seats on the next flight to France and went to duty free, where they bought the best champagne and placed it in her Hermès bag. They wrote a note: “Every soldier on leave deserves a honeymoon, every bride deserves champagne.” The couple discovered the bag on the plush leather seat just as the pilot was saying: “Please be seated and buckle up, we’ve got special clearance.”

The column continued in the same hopeful vein – Trump was shown to be unexpectedly humble and empathetic beneath his braggadocious facade, and at one point Hillary Clinton’s post-election book “What Happened” turned out not to be a self-indulgent, self-exculpatory exercise in blame-shifting but rather a sincere and thoughtful atonement for the collective sins of the American political establishment.

But of course, none of these positive, hopeful things actually happened. In all cases, the facts as first reported by the media turned out to be the depressing truth. Noonan said of her reverie:

It made me feel proud, like there’s hope for our political class.

That is what I saw this week.

I should note—this part is true—that I saw much of it while anesthetized for a minor surgical procedure. For an hour afterward, even knowing it was either a fantasy or a dream, I felt so . . . hopeful. Cheerful. Proud. I give it to you.

It is impossible to read Peggy Noonan’s column without aching for a time when public service was a calling reserved for people of character and principle, even if that time exists only in our imaginations, false memories or old episodes of The West Wing.

This is not to say that the Obama administration represented some high watermark of moral behaviour in office. Former Attorney General Eric Holder was less than truthful more than once in his testimony to Congress, while the IRS under senior executive Lois Lerner was found to be singling out conservative organisations for additional tax scrutiny and harassment. But even adjusting for anti-conservative bias in the media, the Obama administration comported itself with considerably more dignity than has thus far been shown by the constantly rotating cast of Trump officials. And it would take a significant change of trajectory, bordering on the miraculous, for this assessment to change.

Is it really possible that in four or eight years’ time we will look back on the people who serve in the present administration, who now represent the federal government to its citizens and the United States of America to the world, and think of them as sincere, hardworking and well-intentioned (if sometimes flawed and mistaken) public servants?

Is Rex Tillerson – a man who showed little interest in foreign policy beyond its applicability to the oil industry prior to his nomination as Secretary of State – presently losing sleep at night trying to implement a foreign policy vision that he sincerely believes will make America and the world safer and more prosperous, as John Kerry did? Are Trump’s other cabinet secretaries maintaining the dignity of their offices and the commitment to fiscal rectitude which is supposed to be a fundamental Republican selling point, or are they all behaving like former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and current Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, abusing their offices and the public trust by showering themselves with unnecessary perks on the public dime?

And even if Trump apologists, knowing the administration to be deficient in these areas, are willing to sacrifice these qualities for the greater good of bringing down an establishment which ironically seems to be strangely ascendant within the current White House, are the benefits of this governmental shock therapy really worth the side-effects of employing such a motley group of charlatans and opportunists to follow in the footsteps of better men and women?

Watching “The Final Year” at the Odeon Leicester Square today, I could certainly understand how people might feel sceptical or even angry about some of John Kerry’s priorities as Secretary of State and those of his former boss, or be rubbed up the wrong way by the opinionated Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power. Theirs is a specific worldview with which not everybody agrees. But it is also evident that they are patriots one and all, serving the country that they love to the best of their abilities and in line with the values which they believe were twice vindicated by the election of Barack Obama as president. Based on what we know, it would certainly be very difficult to accuse any of these Obama administration alumni of being self-serving, superficial or corrupt in their duties.

I hope that when the time comes to look back on the current presidency, we will be able to say the same of all those who presently serve in the Trump administration.

I sincerely hope so, but I am not optimistic.

 

The Final Year will be released in cinemas in the US & UK in January 2018.

       

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Brexit: The Flight 93 Secession

European union flag

Whether you believe that Brexit is a brave and noble endeavour or a rash, ignoble folly probably depends a lot on your perception of short and long-term risk

Imagine that in some surreal scenario you mysteriously found yourself on board a huge passenger aircraft flying a multi-stop, seemingly never-ending transoceanic journey to nowhere.

As the hours and days tick by onboard this strange vessel you begin to question where the plane is taking everybody, and who set the flight plan. There’s an old framed picture of the airline’s founder, Jean Monnet, hanging at the front of the plane above the sealed cockpit door, but the captain and the other passengers refuse to clearly state the destination themselves, even though they all seem very anxious to get there. Rather than being candid, they make only vague allusions to the potential destination and arrival time, and repeatedly emphasise the importance of travelling together in a big, stable aircraft to keep us safe from turbulence.

Then suppose that one day you question whether you want to be on this flight in the first place – your fellow passengers keep getting sick, the pilot stops randomly at tiny airfields in seedy-looking places to let a whole bunch of extra people climb aboard without even checking their boarding passes, and while every seat comes with its own plastic toy steering wheel giving the childish illusion of individual control, it is plainly apparent that the pilot is the sole person in charge.

You also have strong suspicions that a certain Lederhosen-wearing passenger sitting in First Class is the captain’s special favourite, and that this is why they get to control the cabin air conditioning, select the in-flight movie, dictate the meal choices for everyone sitting in Economy and sometimes even persuade the pilot to change speed and altitude. Back in 2015, a little scrawny passenger owed Lederhosen Guy some money and was being evasive about paying it back – now he rides in the unheated, unpressurised cargo hold.

So you finally speak up and ask why we are on this flight at all, this Airbus A380 on steroids, when out the window we can see other happy families zipping along in their Cessnas and small private jets, travelling together in a loose formation to reach their preferred destination but also preserving their individual ability to climb, descend, stop at an airfield for lunch or set a new destination altogether if they so choose.

And in response, some wiseguy across the aisle says that you have no right to complain because a mysterious benefactor bought your ticket armed with perfect information as to the plane’s ultimate destination. The travel agent certainly never lied to them, making the journey seem shorter and the destination more pleasant than the reality now unfolding – no, your benefactor apparently was apparently very firm in their desire for you to embark on this particular journey, and approved of every subsequent course change made by the captain, tacitly if not explicitly.

Many of the other passengers also take turns lecturing you that the era of private aviation is over, that only a fool would put his life in the hands of Westphalia Private Aviation Corp., that one family in one aircraft cannot possibly complete a safe and successful autonomous journey in this day and age, and that only by abandoning our trusty Learjet and boarding the enormous Airbus can we protect ourselves from dangerous pockets of clear air turbulence and other assorted perils of the sky. And if that means eating the same cheap airline food day after day, and giving the airline pilot total authority over us while in the air then so be it.

This is unacceptable, so you pluck up the courage and deliver an ultimatum: either the captain gives up his absolute powers and pays more attention to the demands of individual passengers – even if that means amending the route – or you will disembark, return to your own aircraft to fly on your own terms with your own companions in your own squadron, and with your own destination in mind. The captain laughs in your face. Lederhosen Guy stares at you with a kind of impassive curiosity, but says nothing. The aircraft continues humming along at cruising altitude.

What to do? You figure that storming the cockpit, relieving the captain of his duties and attempting to land the plane yourself is inherently risky, yet it seems preferable to reaching the plane’s ultimate destination and then realising that all of your worst fears and suspicions were correct – and that there is no return service.

If the aircraft will not change course and you are unwilling to accept the destination (or continued vagueness about the intended destination), then indeed storming the cockpit is the only option left. You don’t want to permanently hijack the plane and steer it exclusively according to your own preferences, nor do you want to thwart the captain and harm others by crashing the plane altogether. You just want to disembark peacefully.

Would it be nice if another Airbus A380 with a more amenable pilot was waiting at the next refuelling stop, ready for you and likeminded passengers to hop aboard and continue your journey in a more collegiate style, agreeing the destination and flight plan together rather than stubbornly navigating according to the old captain’s worn-out, anachronistic 1950s map? Yes, of course it would. But that’s not going to happen today. There is no alternative jet on the tarmac, and for all the money you have given the airline the small print on the back of your ticket is clearly marked “non-exchangeable and non-refundable”.

So you gather what support you can from among the other passengers, count to three, and charge the door.

At one point in 2016, some of the more extreme conservative political pundits in America began referring to the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election“, a reference to the United Airlines plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and mounted a fightback against the Islamist hijackers. This risible, overwrought argument posited that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so damaging to the United States – effectively the equivalent of another 9/11 attack – that it was the duty of every true patriot to “storm the cockpit” of American government by electing Donald Trump president instead.

Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was not quite a “Flight 93 moment”, not only because unlike the 9/11 attackers, the EU’s motivations and trajectory (though severely misguided) are not deliberately malevolent, but also because the speed of European political integration is slow and incremental, not sudden and rapid. Unlike a hijacking situation, we therefore theoretically had time to think and form a more considered plan of escape. Unfortunately Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the ringleaders who nominally led the storming of the cockpit, failed to come up with any kind of coherent plan for what to do when they got their hands on the controls. And now they have handed over command to Theresa May, who sits with white-knuckled grip on the yoke, trying and failing to reassure we the passengers over the intercom by repeating the same worn out banalities. Our position, post storming of the cockpit, is therefore significantly suboptimal.

But ultimately, if the captain will not desist from a reckless and undesirable course of action and an orderly disembarkation is impossible then one is left with little choice other than to forcibly set the plane down, blow the emergency exit, jump down the inflatable slide and walk back to the terminal in search of alternative transportation.

With Brexit, as with all flights, there is an outside chance that the new pilots will crash the plane, resulting in total hull loss and our fiery deaths. There is a slightly higher chance of experiencing a landing so rough that there are multiple injuries, the undercarriage fails and the plane requires lengthy and expensive repairs. Right now there are probably even odds that the landing will be sufficiently bumpy that those who do not have their seatbelts fastened securely will get thrown around the cabin a bit and generally have a bad time. But of course, the corollary to this is that remaining on the aircraft despite not knowing its destination and having no individual control over the plane carries a risk of its own. The next stop may be Warsaw or Bucharest, but eventually the plane might head for Pyongyang, carrying us along with it.

The difference between Remainers and Brexiteers is this: Remainers do not seem to much care where they end up (or at least seem willing to smile and suppress any gnawing doubts that they do have) so long as they can be seen to be travelling happily and in total harmony with all the other passengers on the plane. In support of their position, Remainers can point to all of the aircraft’s previous stopovers – many of which were vaguely pleasant or at least neutral – to suggest that we are participating in a wonderful global excursion and would be mad to spurn the promise of future tropical delights.

By contrast, Brexiteers care deeply about the end destination, strongly disagree with the current direction of travel and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to alter it. Leave voters can bolster their argument by pointing out the unprecedented scope of control passengers have ceded to the captain over time, and noting that ours is the only part of the world where people seem to have lost faith in private aviation and insist on flying together in a single huge aircraft. If abandoning our autonomy and climbing aboard the Airbus is so great, they argue, why are people in Asia, Africa, North and South America not following Europe’s lead?

Neither viewpoint is inherently evil. Rather, each view is formed by a different perception of reality and a varying sensitivity to short and long-term risk.

Or perhaps all Remainers are just flag-hating, anti-patriotic, virtue-signalling traitors who think that supporting the EU is an easy way to check the “internationalist” box on their checklist of trendy-lefty political opinions, and/or every Brexiteer is a harrumphing, xenophobic retired colonel who fetishises the British Empire, hates foreigners and wants to re-impose the social values and norms of the 1950s.

It’s hard to say.

European Union - airplane - Brexit

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Barcelona, Donald Trump And The American Media’s Crisis Of Perspective

There is more to the horrific Barcelona terror attack than Donald Trump’s garbled response, but you wouldn’t know that if you are watching CNN

To get a good sense of just how debased and insular the American news media has become, one need only flick over to CNN and watch their coverage of the horrific Islamist terror attack which took place only hours ago in Barcelona.

What you will find is not detailed coverage of the Barcelona attack and how it transpired, or even the mindless banalities and speculation that has become the hallmark of cable news, but rather a bunch of talking heads agreeing with each other that Donald Trump’s response to the terror attack was all wrong.

This is the age where men, women and children being mown down in the middle of a European city street by a van-driving Islamist is secondary news to whatever inanities various celebrities have to say about the event on Twitter, or the word choice of an American president whom we already know to be rash, unstable and in loose command of the facts (at the best of times).

What really got CNN riled up on this occasion is this tweet by Donald Trump, promulgating an unfounded rumour about the supposed action taken by US Army General John Pershing in response to a Muslim-planned terrorist attack in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century:

The urban legend goes that General Pershing rounded up the culprits and suspects, and had them shot with bullets previously dipped in pigs’ blood. In Trump’s own graphic telling, Pershing shot 49 of the culprits and spared the 50th one so that he could go back and warn others in the movement about America’s swaggering zero-tolerance policy for terrorist shenanigans.

To be clear, there is zero proof that this apocryphal story actually took place, and that the President of the United States would make speeches presenting the tale as fact both during the election campaign and again in the immediate aftermath of an Islamist terror attack on an American ally is bad, wrong and depressing in equal measure.

But for most of the past hour on CNN, the chyron across the bottom of the screen hasn’t reported details of the terror attack, but rather Trump’s entirely typical and unsurprising blustering response to it. That’s not to say that Trump’s actions are unworthy of coverage – and we should certainly never allow ourselves to stop reporting on the president’s misdeeds and objecting to them just because they occur so regularly. But good television news is supposed to educate and inform, not simply encourage people to think myopically about global issues exclusively through the narrow lens of their own country’s political process.

Yet rather than presenting Trump’s dodgy urban myth about General Pershing as one tangential element of the story, CNN did what CNN does best – assemble a multitude of talking heads in boxes, all crammed onto the screen at the same time, to denounce Trump and slot an inconvenient story about terrorist murder in Barcelona into their preferred narrative about Trump’s unfitness for office.

Again – the point is entirely valid, and in an ideal world the President of the United States would neither spread unfounded rumours nor seek to get the more distasteful portions of his base excited by telling them yarns about shooting Muslim terrorists with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. That would be nice. But this is not the main takeaway from the Barcelona terror attack, and yet both Jake Tapper and now Anderson Cooper seem to be leading with it, to the detriment of telling the more important story about the seemingly unstoppable wave of vehicular Islamist terrorism in Europe and the inability (or unwillingness) of political leaders to take any meaningful action to prevent such massacres.

Meanwhile, television news in Britain – itself hardly a fitting successor to the likes of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite – is at least reporting the facts and broadcasting footage and eyewitness statements as they emerge. Decent analysis remains beyond them (or at least beyond their willingness to pay a knowledgeable panel of experts and commentators to schlep into the studio) but at least they aren’t using the tragedy as a means of bashing Prime Minister Theresa May. Yet.

If American political discourse is to improve, restraint has to happen both ways. Just as conservatives need to come to terms with the fact that the Alt-Right is an issue in our own back yard which we must disown and work to discredit, so those on the Left – including much of the mainstream media – need to bring some balance back to their coverage and accept that important as the office of President of the United States is, Donald Trump’s reactions are not always the most important part of a breaking news story.

This de-escalation should not be so hard to achieve among adults, but sadly there are too many adult children on both sides who would rather have the last word and advance their political agenda at all costs, even if it debases the office of the presidency, diminishes trust in the media and rips the country apart at the seams, all at the same time.

Donald Trump - Barcelona terror attack - General Pershing rumour

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