The Left Will Not Achieve Gun Reform By Using Divisive Culture War Tactics

Gun violence protests - NRA blood on your hands

Going on a moralistic crusade against the NRA and gun rights supporters may be cathartic for the Left, but folding the gun control debate into the ongoing toxic culture war only guarantees bitter polarisation and more deadly inaction

A worrying (but perhaps predictable) new development following the horrific Parkland school shooting has been a concerted effort by many on the anti-gun Left to fold the issue of gun rights and restrictions into the broader, toxic ongoing culture war, in which Americans hunker down within their respective ideological bunkers and instinctively assume the worst of those who disagree.

This trend reached depressing new heights last night during CNN’s town hall on gun control, held in Broward County, Florida, where the shooting took place. This was less a serious debate conducted in the spirit of seeking compromise than it was an inquisition, designed not to foster understanding or brainstorm solutions but rather to provide a cathartic opportunity for gun-control advocates to scream at gun rights supporters and accuse them of complicity in the mass murder of innocent schoolchildren.

Even if there were a shred of truth in these monstrous accusations – and there isn’t – it would remain absolutely terrible politics. Constantly fuming that the other side is selfish and evil only encourages alienation and division, a fact which was true when some Republicans implied that President Obama didn’t “love America” and which applies equally now when some Democrats imply that conservatives don’t care about murdered kids. And it really should be a cause of deep shame for CNN that President Trump of all people was able to moderate a calmer, more respectful and productive listening session on gun control at the White House than Jake Tapper, with all his experience, managed on live television.

(Of course, the US media being the uncritically self-regarding entity that it is, Tapper is receiving praise from all corners for permitting what was effectively open season on Republican senator Marco Rubio and NRA representative Dana Loesch while letting the political activist local sheriff whose department failed to take action against the killer before he struck completely off the hook).

The irony to all of this is that there have actually been some genuinely hopeful signs of movement from gun rights proponents after this latest shooting. Whether it is increased fatigue from even hardened gun-rights activists at witnessing the funerals of more young children or (perhaps more likely) the loud and insistent activism of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students themselves, concessions are now being mooted and offered on areas from bump stocks (though no such device was used in this particular shooting) to increased criminal background and mental health checks.

This much, however, was foreseeable. What seems to be new this time is that efforts are now underway to make gun rights supporters pariahs in the wider American culture and society. We see this most notably with swarms of activists on social media browbeating corporations into disassociating themselves with the National Rifle Association – and gunowners in general, by extension:

 

This, of course, is precisely the same tactic used by the illiberal leftist British organisation Stop Funding Hate, which channels the efforts of a few thousand shrill voices on Twitter to intimidate companies into pulling their advertisements from certain publications or certain publications from their places of business.

Stop Funding Hate has had great success in surgically removing the spines of various corporations in Britain and then bending them to conform to whatever happens to be their moral outrage of the week, nearly always involving the Daily Mail. One does not have to approve of the Daily Mail’s editorial positions or reporting standards to be concerned that leftist efforts to make the personal political are creating dozens of new wedge issues to divide British people from one another rather than uniting us around common values, and co-opting big business in their efforts to do so.

In America, it seems to corporate capitulations are going to be every bit as swift as they have been here in the United Kingdom, with car hire giant Enterprise Rent-A-Car swiftly terminating a deal with the NRA in which offered rental discounts to their members:

 

Note the specific language used here, too. The business relationship was between Enterprise and the NRA, so the spineless amoebas who run the company’s social media accounts could simply have said that they terminated their relationship with the NRA. But they went one step further and specifically pointed out that they were withdrawing their discount for “NRA members”, as though innocent NRA members (none of whom have ever committed one of these mass shootings) are themselves deserving of opprobrium and social sanction.

An intersectional social justice warrior might say that this has the effect of “othering” the large minority of Americans who own guns, but of course such terms are only conferred on designated victim groups, a label which conservative gun-owners will never attract. Those of us who do not wallow 24/7 in victimhood culture might simply point out that appearing to repudiate law-abiding NRA members

Are firms like Enterprise free to advertise or offer affinity partnerships with whatever organisations they please? Of course. Is it necessarily good business to allow a handful of Twitter activists to effectively dictate corporate strategy? It’s arguable, but I have very strong doubts. But is it good for the country for corporations to so clearly take sides on divisive social issues, coming perilously close to suggesting that those who hold more conservative views are effectively personae non gratae? I think it is unambiguously bad and counterproductive to do so.

We have already been through this dismal dance with the media. The mainstream, prestige media’s often soft but near-universal leftward bias on all issues did not have the desired effect of “reprogramming” conservatives into adopting progressive positions; rather, it simply forced conservative news consumers into the arms of right wing talk radio, Fox News and a slew of independent right-wing websites whose journalistic standards and commitment to objectivity are often questionable at best. And freed from the need to cater to that side of the market, the remaining prestige media has had every social and commercial incentive to pander to progressive dogma and groupthink to the extent that many journalists genuinely believe themselves to be objective while displaying degrees of selection bias and epistemic closure which beggar belief.

Has this division been good for American society? Who can argue that it has been anything other than a monumental failure? More than anything, this is what gave the country President Trump. When the legacy news outlets which generally still come closest to reporting objective truth make it plainly clearly that conservative ideas are unwelcome and will be treated with more scepticism than progressive ideas, the very idea of objectivity is poisoned.

Do we really want to replicate this polarisation across all aspects of American life? Do we want to live in a society where the car rental company you use, the airline you fly, the grocery store you shop at or the high-tech goods you buy become an expression of your stance on every hot-button social issue, a flag planted to declare your allegiance in the culture wars?

Nothing good can come of this. Nothing. Have conservatives historically shown far too little sense of urgency in proposing and implementing policy changes in an attempt to reduce the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings, or at least been content to see efforts stall so long as their rights were not threatened? Absolutely. But now they are actually coming to the table, the Left’s response cannot be to paint every gun-owning American as a pariah and refuse to frequent the same places of business.

The Left have a history of achieving social changes – often welcome, sometimes less so – and responding to these victories not with magnanimity toward the conservatives they routed but rather with an unbecoming, snarling vengefulness. It would be a real catastrophe if they now repeat this destructive behaviour as they fight for greater gun control.

APTOPIX School Shooting Florida

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Journalists Buying Fake Twitter Followers, Another Symptom Of Institutional Decay

Journalists buying fake Twitter followers - fraud

Some journalists and political pundits choose to buy artificial Twitter followers because being good at their job matters (and is incentivised) less than appearing like the Next Hot Thing.

I’ll admit it – in earlier years, in my weaker moments as a struggling political writer, I have idly thought about purchasing Twitter followers. But I have not and never will do so, and deplore those in journalism and politics who choose to sell out in this way.

The New York Times recently reported that a company called Devumi was offering dummy Twitter followers (either fabricated individuals or the fruits of identity theft) to those seeking to boost their social media stature for mere cents per follower. A whole swathe of celebrities were implicated (most of whom promptly rolled over and blamed their managers or PR people) but so too were a number of journalists at supposedly respectable outlets of the legacy media.

From the New York Times:

Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.

“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”

In some ways, this temptation is just one of many ways that using social media can warp our behaviours and motivations, as Jacob Brogan writes for Slate:

Twitter is a machine designed to generate ugly feelings. Here everything is subject to quantification: the number of people who like the things you tweet, the number who share your words with their own followers, and, perhaps most of all, the number who follow you. If you spend too much time on the platform, those numbers quickly become an index of your own self-worth, and no matter how high they get, they will always be too small.

Purchasing fake followers is thus rather grubby and slightly pathetic, but perhaps still fair game if you are a TV star looking to make a bit more money sending promotional tweets for haemorrhoid cream. But what if the person deceiving the public is somebody whose job it is to inform, educate and tell the truth? Surely then it becomes quite unambiguously wrong?

Well, lots of political journalists clearly don’t think so, according to NBC News:

Big media outlets have embraced Twitter as a distribution platform but still struggle with how reporters and editors use the social media service, particularly when they appear to be breaching journalism ethics.

This sizable gray area came into clearer focus this week, after a New York Times exposé revealed that more than a dozen news media figures had paid to artificially pump up the number of followers they have on Twitter.

Journalists and commentators, who presumably joined the platform to enhance their stature, instead found themselves grasping to explain why they had paid for counterfeit supporters. When contacted by NBC News, the journalists identified by The Times as having bought Twitter followers had a range of responses: Many ducked requests for comment, others blamed associates, while just one sounded chastened.

This practice doesn’t bother me so much when it takes place in other fields; if you’re a mediocre provincial stand-up comedian who wants to pretend you have an audience of half a million eager people hanging on your every word, so be it. Good luck to you. Same if you’re a B-list actress, a celebrity chef, an unremarkable footballer or a giver of lousy TED-style talks about personal development. I expect no realism from such people, and personalities from these fields who choose to over-inflate their popularity do no real harm.

Not so with journalists and political commentators, both those who parade around beneath the banner of the blue-tick Twitter verified logo and those scrambling for the Ultimate Recognition. Political Twitter is a nasty swamp of obnoxiousness at the best of times, but those of us who choose to lurk within it do so in the vague hope of coming across useful information or commentary once in awhile. And since nobody has time to vet every account that crosses one’s timeline to determine whether they deserve a follow or a clickthrough, a quick glance to see whether they have a decent (or at least a baseline) level of followers is a useful first line of due diligence.

Is this person for real? Well, their profile picture is the default egg icon and they have eleven followers. Hmm, probably not going to click that link or believe their sensational “report” about Theresa and Philip May using a ouija board in the Downing Street basement to seek inspiration and advice from Britain’s failed prime ministers of the past (plausible though that one actually sounds).

Buying Twitter followers makes a mockery of what the rest of us are trying to do, and undermines one of the few metrics left for gauging success (financial reward having long since ceased to be either a possibility or a useful indicator). I have a mere 2,500 followers on Twitter. However, unlike the cheaters, I earned my entire following by providing consistently useful or entertaining (intentionally or otherwise) content to my audience. Whether it is links to my blog, links to bloggers in my circle, flagging news articles of interest, engaging in feuds with trolls or writing in-depth threads on a particular topic, around two thousand people care enough about what I have to say to stay tuned on an ongoing basis (I imagine that many of the remaining 500 are either businesses or largely dormant accounts).

A study from 2016 suggested that of those people who had tweeted once within a six month period, their average number of followers was 707. This figure seems a little high to me, as I routinely interact with people whose following/follower figures are only in the double figures – but this may be a function of swimming almost exclusively in the political niche rather than venturing out into the deeper oceans of celebrity Twitter. Anyhow, the study would suggest that anything over 707 is then a pretty good sign, and in lieu of an affirmative action-gifted writing gig for The Spectator I am proud of my 2,500 followers as a sign that my hours in front of the keyboard are not entirely wasted.

Ultimately, all this predictable scandal tells us is what a fraud so much of journalism and political commentary has become. Portentously spewing words into the void of Twitter knowing that most of your audience is actually imaginary can’t bring positive feelings of journalistic pride, since one would be aware of the fraud. All that those followers can do is burnish one’s reputation and make one seem like an important person to get drinks with or be seen talking to at one of the many insufferable events that take place every day in Westminster or Washington, D.C.

And the problem is that for those journalists who buy Twitter followers, that’s just fine. They don’t want to organically build an engaged audience of followers who find what they say to be genuinely insightful. They may not object were it to happen, but actual professional accomplishment is clearly no longer the prize to these people. What they want is the aura of success, to be seen as uniquely knowledgeable, titillating or controversial without putting in the labour to do it themselves.

We see the same thing with many of our politicians. Twenty months on from the EU referendum and the number of MPs who have even a basic grasp of the technical issues relating to trade arising from Brexit can probably be counted on two hands. An even smaller number have paid much thought to the constitutional ramifications and the opportunities and threats to our future governance, if any at all. The most significant political development to happen in Britain in decades, and only a handful of our parliamentarians have bothered to stop spouting slogans from the referendum campaign to actually master the issues at hand.

Why is this? Because sitting down with books and consulting advisers in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn is boring and unsexy. The personal payoff just isn’t there, particularly when one can do so much more for one’s career by bleating an angsty speech about the Evil Tor-ees in the Commons chamber or going viral on social media with a well-timed quip on Question Time. And the only reason that our star journalists – the ones who pull in the big bucks and now get terribly worked up at the thought that their celebrity pay packets might not be “equal” – have not rumbled the politicians and revealed the extent of their ignorance is because much of the legacy media is in an equally benighted state.

The whole reason our politics are currently so dysfunctional is that being good at your actual job is no longer adequately incentivised. Looking good and frantically maintaining all the appropriate outward signs of success and positive momentum are what matters most, not solid work diligently performed in the spirit of self-improvement. That’s why people cut corners and do things like participate in Twitter follower-purchasing frauds – because they believe, often correctly, that the rewards which flow from mastering an issue or having an original idea are far less than those which flow from being on some insufferable “Westminster’s 100 people to watch in 2018” list.

You can write for months or years before establishment journalists (as I did) that the Tories were going on an ideology-free jaunt into political oblivion, or that Jeremy Corbyn ought to be taken seriously because the public responds to conviction and consistency, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the slightest credit, because nothing has officially been thought or written until it has come from certain approved sources within the Westminster Bubble. And even within the bubble exists a hierarchy, with all of the attendant temptations to level-up by artificially boosting one’s standing.

And that’s why I never have and never will buy Twitter followers. It represents everything that is rotten, sleazy and stupid about modern politics, and the alarming frequency with which people who shouldn’t be within ten promotions from the top of their respective fields end up prancing around at the pinnacle, lording it over the rest of us (be that the prime minister, whole swathes of Parliament, the editors of several newspapers, numerous television news personalities and various assorted celebrity columnists).

We will never live in a perfect meritocracy, and it is stupid to set unrealistic goals which ignore human nature. But one thing you ought to be able to trust in this day and age is that the Very Serious Journalist with the blue “verified” tick next to their Twitter account name is not perpetrating a fundamental fraud every time they broadcast their news, analysis and opinions.

I earned my Twitter audience, and my follower count rises and falls according to the value I deliver. Anything short of this basic standard of behaviour is akin to selling a used car having first tampered with the odometer. And while social media juicing may not be illegal, we should look upon those who engage in it with the same scorn and distrust one might reserve for a convicted fraudster.

 

Twitter for journalists

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The Clinton Foundation – Noble Charity Or Grubby Political Pay-To-Play Scheme?

Hillary Clinton - Bill Clinton - Clinton Foundation - CGI

Hillary and Bill Clinton continue to insist that there is nothing untoward in the way that their Clinton Foundation sought donations or interacted with the State Department when Hillary was Secretary of State. But how much smoke can there possibly be without fire?

It has been three days now since the Associated Press’s big investigative story detailing potentially concerning links between the charitable Clinton Foundation and individuals who managed to secure private meetings with Hillary Clinton during her tenure as Secretary of State.

A flavour of the story:

More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It’s an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press. Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million. At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million.

Donors who were granted time with Clinton included an internationally known economist who asked for her help as the Bangladesh government pressured him to resign from a nonprofit bank he ran; a Wall Street executive who sought Clinton’s help with a visa problem; and Estee Lauder executives who were listed as meeting with Clinton while her department worked with the firm’s corporate charity to counter gender-based violence in South Africa.

The meetings between the Democratic presidential nominee and foundation donors do not appear to violate legal agreements Clinton and former president Bill Clinton signed before she joined the State Department in 2009. But the frequency of the overlaps shows the intermingling of access and donations, and fuels perceptions that giving the foundation money was a price of admission for face time with Clinton.

Obviously, the Clinton campaign sees it slightly differently.

From the Washington Post:

She dismissed as “ridiculous” Trump’s accusation at a rally in Tampa on Wednesday that Clinton had run the State Department like a “Third World country,” doling out favors and access in exchange for donations to the Clinton Foundation.

“My work as secretary of state was not influenced by any outside forces. I made policy decisions based on what I thought was right,” Clinton said. “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”

Last week, the Clinton Foundation announced that it would no longer accept foreign donations or donations from corporations if Clinton is elected president in November.

So something which would be unacceptable if Hillary Clinton were president (taking money from foreign donors and entities) was perfectly fine when she was “only” the nation’s top diplomat?

Lots of smoke and yet no fire, the candidate’s own (rather smug) words.

There’s nothing to see here, we are continually told. Move along. Sleep easy in your beds. Everything about the Clinton Foundation is pure, noble and virtuous. There have never been dubious financial dealings, and nothing which might even fall into a morally grey area. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign isn’t resting on top of a powder keg of suspicion and scandal which could see Donald Trump snatch the election, or at least weaken Clinton to the extent that she effectively becomes an instant lame duck. No, nothing like that. Honest.

The American Conservative’s Patrick Buchanan – perhaps unsurprisingly – disagrees:

The stench is familiar, and all too Clintonian in character.

Recall. On his last day in office, January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton issued a presidential pardon to financier-crook and fugitive from justice Marc Rich, whose wife, Denise, had contributed $450,000 to the Clinton Library.

The Clintons appear belatedly to have recognized their political peril.

Bill has promised that, if Hillary is elected, he will end his big-dog days at the foundation and stop taking checks from foreign regimes and entities, and corporate donors. Cash contributions from wealthy Americans will still be gratefully accepted.

One wonders: will Bill be writing thank-you notes for the millions that will roll in to the family foundation—on White House stationery?

By his actions, Bill is all but conceding that there is a serious conflict of interest between his foundation raking in millions that enhance the family’s prestige and sustain its travel and lifestyle, and providing its big donors with privileged access to the secretary of state.

Yet if Hillary Clinton becomes president, the scheme is unsustainable. Even the Obama-Clinton media might not be able to stomach this.

In one sense, Hillary Clinton is right. At present there is lots of smoke – huge, billowing clouds of the stuff – but not one visible lick of flame. It may well remain like that. It may be that the remaining emails still to be released (and think on that: the world’s superpower having its democracy influenced by shadowy outside actors based on the poor decision-making of one of its presidential candidates) point to more potential tawdry sleaze, but with no smoking gun.

And let’s face it: both Hillary Clinton and her husband are highly accomplished lawyers and politicians – if they did engage in corruption, are they really likely to have left a smoking gun or to have dealt with people who could not be trusted to keep silent? Hardly.

So rather than any concrete ethical scandal which may or may not emerge, I think it again comes down to a question about bad decision-making by Hillary Clinton. The decision to go rogue and conduct State Department business from a bootleg private email server was appalling. Even if the State Department did not have clear protocols in place for how departmental emails should be managed, simply going off on one’s own and setting up a home server is an appalling idea. Under the American system of course there was nobody to stand up to Clinton when she made the decision. In countries like Britain, with a permanent civil service running the show in the background, Clinton’s homebrew server plan would have been slapped down within minutes of it being suggested.

And then there’s the Foundation. I get it: it must be difficult transitioning back to normal life after being president of the United States. One can hardly go back into business working at an ambulance-chasing law firm or a lobbying firm or corporate America. Neither is there an established tradition of ex-presidents seeing out their days as a small town mayor or state governor, charming as the thought may be. After the Oval Office, lesser offices of state understandably seem less appealing.

So what is one to do? Well, George W. Bush provides a very helpful template for us, though sadly too late for Bill Clinton to have followed. After George W. Bush left office with an abysmal 22% job approval rating, he retired to Texas and resolved to see out his days painting unconvincing watercolour pictures of dogs (and some of his less fortunate counterparts and colleagues). Sure he’ll pop up to give a speech every once in awhile, but generally George W. Bush has maintained a dignified and most welcome silence.

Or one can go the other way, and do as Jimmy Carter did, enthusiastically throwing himself into real charitable work – not the running of giant foundations with all the perks that doing so entails (first class or private jet air travel, five star hotels, swanky fundraisers with billionaires, nurturing relationships with the politically active and an occasional conscience-easing cash disbursement to a worthy cause) but rather doing God’s honest work for Habitat for Humanity.

Actually physically building homes for disadvantaged or struggling people – that’s real charitable work. The Clinton Foundation in many respects is quite praiseworthy as some 88% of funding goes on charitable mission, but on $2bn revenue up to 2016 that is still $120 million on “overhead”, which in a family foundation has potential to conceal a whole world of ethical grey areas or outright abuses.

The point, I suppose, is that a family charitable foundation is a perfectly legitimate option for an ex-president and his family who intend to quit the political game after leaving office. But when this is not the case – when Hillary was pursuing senatorial ambitions and later becoming Secretary of State – conflicts of interest are inevitably going to occur.

When one is as rich and well-connected as the Clintons, acquiring more money becomes of limited interest. Instead, the reason for getting up in the morning after having left the White House often becomes the building of power, influence and legacy – and, of course, keeping the family in the style of living to which they have become accustomed (i.e. minimal contact with ordinary people). A family foundation accomplishes all of these objectives wonderfully. But when one or more members of the family are still politically active it is highly questionable.

It would have been far better, when there are still active political careers in play, for the Clintons to have put ego aside and thrown their support behind an alternative, existing foundation – much like Warren Buffett is giving away much of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recognising that it makes little sense to build up his own philanthropic expertise from scratch and create all the overheads which come from a second foundation when a perfectly good one already exists.

Why did the Clintons not take the Warren Buffett approach? Three reasons – ego, power and prestige. It is great that the Clintons are philanthropically active. But nearly all of their philanthropic work is done through the Clinton Foundation ($1 million to the foundation in 2015 and just $42,000 to another charity), meaning they want to do charity on their terms. It is a few distinct shades further away from pure altruism, and more to do with continuing to exercise power after the White House.

When Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in 2001, like a shark he had to keep swimming or surely die. Sitting at home in front of the television was never an option. But neither was Bill Clinton about to show up to work for Bill and Melinda Gates, or Habitat for Humanity. He wanted the benefits of his charitable work to accrue to him and his family, not to the Gates family or anyone else. And so the Clinton Foundation was born.

And since the Clintons choose to conduct philanthropic activities on their own terms and through their own foundation, in a way which aggrandises the Clinton family name and brings them power and influence, it is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about any other “fringe benefits” which Hillary Clinton pursued while holding the immeasurably valuable bargaining chip of being a senior part of the Obama administration. And when there is smoke, it is not churlish or unreasonable for journalists to have lots of questions about these activities.

And yet…

None of this is yet sufficient grounds to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Indeed, it is difficult to say just how large an ethical scandal would have to befall Clinton to make her less preferable as president than Donald Trump, a lying, authoritarian would-be strongman who delights in his own ignorance and capitalises on the ignorance of others.

But while the Clinton Foundation smoke machine is no reason to elect Donald Trump, it does paint an even more worrying picture about the quality of decision making and the ethical firewalls which may or may not exist in a second Clinton White House. And it makes one marvel that the Democrats could not follow Barack Obama with a presidential nominee capable of remaining scandal-free at least until Inauguration Day. Nearly every other heavyweight Democrat was intimidated away from the field because 2016 is, we were constantly told, “Her Turn”.

I can’t help but wonder if the Democrats will yet come to regret granting that extraordinary privilege so carelessly and cheaply.

 

Hillary Clinton

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Top Image: The Atlantic, Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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A Disservice To Our Military

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C)

The Daily Telegraph’s Con Coughlin writes today about the terrible incident in Afghanistan where a US soldier went on the rampage in an Afghan village, killing sixteen civilians, including a number of children.

I read the piece with interest, but the author makes a couple of throwaway comments that I found quite disrespectful. At one point Coughlin writes:

“We all know that soldiers, without the proper training and discipline, can easily degenerate into a murderous rabble that terrorises the local population. We have seen this happen hundreds of times in Africa where armies are no different from the militias who rape, murder and loot at will.”

This is unnecessarily harsh language to use with respect to the armed forces. Are there countless cases where this has happened in various conflicts around the world, yes. But to suggest that the only thing separating the British or American armies from being a ruthless militia with no morals is essentially a PowerPoint presentation on coping under stress is rather glib. He then follows this up with the following:

“After six British soldiers were murdered last week in southern Afghanistan when they were blown up by one of the Taliban’s roadside bombs, it is easy to imagine the murderous thoughts of revenge their fellow soldiers are today feeling towards the Taliban. But the reason they don’t pick up their guns and walk into the neighbouring village and massacre every Afghan they can find is the strict training they receive before they are deployed.”

Excuse me? I’m sure that the fellow soldiers mentioned here are full of many feelings of sadness and anger following the deaths of their colleagues, but I would submit to Con Coughlin that as well as the fact that they received strict training before they were deployed, another reason that they don’t “pick up their guns and walk into the neighbouring village and massacre every Afghan they can find” is because they are decent human beings with the intelligence to understand not only that the general civilian population was not responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but that to do so would make them no better than the forces that they are fighting. To say otherwise, and to suggest that there is little to separate the vast majority of soldiers who are decent and brave individuals from the deranged Staff Sergeant who perpetrated this massacre is not only wrong, but frankly offensive too.

I also don’t think I am imagining things when I detect undertones of class-based superiority from the author, that maybe he views the British soldiers as slightly dim and uneducated, less capable of reason than the average, middle-class Telegraph reader, and therefore in need of this strict training to ensure that their baser, more violent instincts do not come to the fore under stressful circumstances.

It amazes me to observe the difference in tone in terms of how the armed forces are talked about in Britain compared to the United States. Such an article would never have been written by a commentator in the United States, where even President Obama’s apology to the Afghan people for the accidental burning of the Koran by US forces was met with strong criticism, so above reproach is the US military to some on the right.

Honestly, I don’t believe that either country has it quite right. In the United States, I admire how serving soldiers and veterans are acknowledged and given respect in public places such as airports (where they are allowed to stay in USO club lounges while they wait to board their flights) and sports games, where they are frequently applauded before the game. However, sometimes I feel that the almost-worship of the armed forces goes too far, with all returning soldiers being labelled “heroes” whether or not they have seen active combat.

In Britain, on the other hand, I don’t think that we do nearly enough to acknowledge the contribution that our military servicemen and women make for our country, projecting our nation’s force to implement our foreign policy objectives. Hence we see serving soliders being refused permission to stay at an hotel because of an unbelievable “no military” policy, and London’s most sacred war memorial being desecrated by the spoiled, self-entitled son of a rock musician.

But while both of our countries may have some way to go in terms of striking the correct balance in terms of how we view, treat and discuss these topics, I would hope we can all agree that there is a lot more preventing the good men and women of our nations armed forces from becoming mass murdering militias than the training that they receive, important though that may be.