Holocaust Memorial Day

This’ll be my first post in a while, but, as ever with this blog, I feel I’ve got something to say, and I don’t want it just to reach my Facebook friends (who are probably inundated with posts from me anyway), but I also need more than Twitter’s 140 characters. Still, I’ll try and keep in short and sharp.

Today, 27th Jan, as you might see in the media, is Holocaust Memorial Day. A day when we stop and reflect on the massacre of 11 million Jews, Roma, disabled, Slavs, POWs, LGBT+, and anyone else deemed undesirable by the state of Nazi Germany.

As a historian, I would say today is vital. The primary role of history is arguably to learn from the mistakes, developments, and lessons of the past, and that requires us to grit our teeth and face all the awful things humanity has done.
Yet at the same time, today is not enough. I said the same about International Women’s Day last year – why is it that we devote just one day to institutionally thinking about the historical struggles of women? Why, too, do we deem only one day a year enough to stop and remember the lessons from one of mankind’s darkest hours?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there should be two Holocaust Memorial Days per year, or that it’s pointless to have one. In and of itself, today serves an effective purpose – as does International Women’s Day, etc.
What I’m saying is that to spend one day a year reflecting on those mistakes and then the rest of the year filing them away in the backs of our minds is ludicrous.

You may think that’s an extreme thing to say, but for me it’s simple: we don’t practise the rest of the year what we preach today. This isn’t just about the Holocaust; it’s about all of history. Today, we use rose-tinted textbooks to glorify what should be condemned. More than 4 in 10 Britons think the British empire was a force for good – forgetting that the modern world’s first instances of concentration camps were created by the British colonists in South Africa. And you have political forces like UKIP arguing that we should spend less time teaching about Western slavery of Africans and more time teaching about Arabs taking Brits from the southern coasts. (Huh?!) In the USA, they have rightly begun to start protesting against Columbus day, which covers up the fact that Columbus enslaved and wiped out peoples with the fact that he discovered the Americas. The Japanese government has finally agreed to reparations with South Korea over the ‘comfort women’ issue (one of the many Japanese atrocities in WWII, and South Korea was not the only nation to suffer) – and all the while, its state-funded Meiji Shrine contains a memorial to 1905 – ‘the glorious unification of the two nations’ of Korea and Japan, glossing over what that unification meant for Korea.

Today, politicians across the Western world are pulling this curious magic trick, where with one hand they stuff platitudes about their own opinions of Holocaust Memorial Day down our throats, while with the other, they dehumanize refugees, ignore them, or lock them up – ignoring the fact that both are part of the same process. Right now, David Cameron is being (thankfully) lambasted for speaking about Holocaust Memorial Day and referring to those stuck at Calais as “a bunch of migrants” in sentences within a few minutes of each other. But for the most part, we let it slide! You have the Daily Mail comparing immigrants to rats, Donald Trump basing a campaign on the idea that Mexicans and Muslims should be physically kept out of the United States, and Denmark making it legal to confiscate refugees’ possessions.
And here’s the thing; no big process in humanity has ever been sudden. Horrors like the Holocaust are the culmination of long trends wherein the Overton window – what is acceptable in public discourse and what is not – gradually shifts. The rise of the Nazis is perhaps the shortest, sharpest historical example of this, but today, it’s evident everywhere. The Jews of 1930s Germany are now American Muslims, Syrian refugees, and so many others – still including, in fact, Jewish people in places like Hungary.
Which is why it really irks me to see neo-fascists refute the idea that they’re Nazis. How could they be, especially if they’re from a nation who suffered under the Nazis? Well, no, you’re not Nazis, per se, but you’re just in an earlier stage of exactly the same process, trudging along the same inevitable road that so many humans in history have walked before.

This issue is especially problematic for the USA, UK, and Russia, who have the distinction of having defeated the Nazis. That allows us to say, in our nationalism-twisted memories, that “we’re not Nazis – we beat the Nazis.” Well, yes, we did, but that doesn’t mean we’re not liable to commit exactly the same atrocities – in the same way as, conversely, the nation of Germany has made its way from the Nazis regime to being a global leader in human rights. Again, we hold the legacy of having defeated fascism in one hand, ignoring the all-too-familiar trends and acts we commit with the other.
Somehow, paradoxically, commemoration of the Holocaust has made us blind to when we repeat the same processes. We’re all human, at the end of the day, we’re all the same – and none of us is above committing atrocities; from U.S. internment of Japanese Americans to even the actions of the state of Israel against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Amazingly, through all of this, you know who stands out? Germany. When I visited Berlin last year, I was astounded and inspired by the memorials over the city. This is a country that has made it a goal to face up to the horrors of its past, no matter how difficult the process, and by and large, they’ve succeeded. Every country has its problems, and Germany is not perfect, but it is the country that has taken the lead in the refugee crisis – for which Angela Merkel was awarded Time’s Person of the Year. Historians and sociologists may pick finer points to argue with me over, but for the most part, Germany stands out to me as an example of facing up to, and learning from, all of its history.

Denying history is unacceptable. Setting aside one day for political obfuscation, and then going back to repeating the same mistakes we condemn, is barely a step removed from that.
So yes, niemals vergessen. We should never, ever forget the Holocaust – not for a single day.

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Was Huntington right?

This post is going to be fairly academia/international relations-heavy, but I’ll try and keep it comprehensive and clear.

Basically, in 1993 a renowned academic named Samuel Huntington wrote a piece entitled The Clash of Civilizations. His argument was that, the decline of the threat of communism, the rise in global connections between states, and evidence of nationalist and ethnic alignments now reaching across state borders, meant conflicts in the next generations would occur not along state boundary lines, but between ‘civilizations’. He identified broad categories that could be used to delineate the world:

-European/Western

-Latin/Latin American

-Eastern/Slavic/Orthodox

-Islamic

-Hindu

-Buddhist (sections of Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, and even Tibet)

-Japonic (Japan)

-Sinitic (Chinese, inc. Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, the Chinese diaspora)

-Sub-Saharan African

As far as international relations theory is concerned, this was a rather unusual proposal. For those of you not from that background, in short there are two major defining paradigms (with subcategories) of international relations:
Realism proposes that the state is the highest actor; there is nothing above telling it what to do, and the state’s choices are defined entirely by its own selfish desires. Everything the state does is for its own benefit, even if that just means the detriment of others: alliances exist only to bolster the state’s security, while wars are waged because the state sees some benefit in doing so (either in deterring a potential threat or the potential gains it can make from winning a war). Power, and power over other states, is key. Realists also pay little attention to the ideological/ideational/cultural factors that influence people’s decisions.

Meanwhile, liberalism, and especially neoliberalism, proposes that states actually seek cooperation, and there are higher-level mitigating factors that can influence the actions of a state beyond its own power needs; specifically international organisations/international law and especially money.

Huntington fits into neither paradigm. Instead, his proposition is largely what IR theorists would call ‘social constructivist’ – which proposes that the international power situation and statistics ‘on paper’ alone don’t define what influences a state’s actions, but rather there are cultural and ideological factors (e.g. religion) specific to the actual people who run those countries, and (in a democracy) those cultural factors also extend to the voters those politicians have to answer to.

The thing is, social constructivism is almost universally seen as an insufficient theory. Cultural and ideational factors (e.g. “you believe in a different god to me, so I’m going to kill you”) alone simply cannot explain why conflicts and agreements between states emerge where they do. The quickest example of this that comes to mind is the USA’s enduring alliance with Saudi Arabia, throughout the 90s and 00s into the present despite Saudi Arabia being an absolute monarchy (not democracy) that is very emphatically a Muslim state (y’know, Mecca and Medinah, women can’t drive, and all that). The only explanation is Generally, social constructivism is extremely helpful to emphasise or reinforce what realist or liberal proposals have already demonstrated, but is otherwise not the first option .

For this reason, Huntington’s proposal – that it would be these cultural and ideational divides that defined the next conflicts that would arise – has, though far from fully discredited, broadly been used as fodder for people to disagree with.

Based on my general ‘appeal-to-authority’ tendencies, I also came to disagree with Huntington, mostly based on the fact that I was taught to disagree with him: it’s the prevailing view. There are certainly a lot of flaws in his proposal: for example, it simply overlooks/ignores any examples that counter the argument, such as the fact that you can’t really fit Russia, one of the biggest players on the world stage, neatly into any category. Nor, as any 15 year old geography student can tell you, should you ever treat ‘Africa’ as a single unit, especially given the continuing conflicts within this African civilisation grouping. Moreover, from a theoretical point of view, to imply that there are character traits specific to groupings of humans that ultimately sets them apart from others – what is called “essentialism” – is a fallacious, orientalist, and ultimately racist proposal. Historians have to shoot this kind of point of view down all the time – the idea that Europeans were somehow better predisposed by their character to modernise before the rest of the world, rather than the historical accident: their access to coal (that had been there for millions of years) that enabled the Industrial Revolution. Even in the modern day, we see this idea – that the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/1998 was bound to happen because of those nations’ historical predispositions to bureaucratic corruption. And yet the 2007 global crash, caused almost entirely by American (and British) greed, showed that such a thing was hardly a unique phenomenon. Where you have bureaucracy, you have people in a position to use and abuse their power discretely.

My point is, the general principle behind Huntington’s argument, that civilizations will clash because they have incompatible values with no possibility of compromise, is flawed.

But here comes the tricky part. It’s going to be a little hard to explain, but bear with me and I’ll try and make it clear.

This blog is written entirely from my point of view. It’s about what I believe, what I’ve learned, and what I’ve discovered. This means that I’m very likely to be proven wrong down the line about a number of things. And while I do not believe that Huntington was right, because his argument was flawed,* at the same time, in the sphere beyond my own point of view, he seems to be being proven right.

*This, I believe, is that rare logical bird known as a ‘fallacy fallacy’ : The fallacious idea that because someone’s argument contains logical flaws, they must be wrong overall.

That is to say, I don’t believe he was right, but everyone else (outside the academic world) seems to be buying into his ideas, and in doing so they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rhetoric about foreign policy, around the world, is increasingly turning towards this debate about ‘civilizations’ or indeed ‘values’. In Britain, we have people on Question Time asking “what does it mean for British values when Mohammed is one of the most popular names in Britain?” This question ignores what the facts, the law, and sociology all say – that one’s ethnic and religious background has nothing to do with one’s citizenship. There are a great number of British Muslims who fulfil all the criteria of being both British and Muslim. And yet at the same time, the very fact that this question of ‘British values’ in apposition to Islam is being entertained indicates that people are increasingly aligning themselves along these lines of ‘values’ that are somehow inherent to society.

The rise of the so-called Islamic State is probably the most concrete example of this. They define themselves as a new Caliphate, claiming all of Islam (and therefore Huntington’s ‘Islamic civilization’) under their rule. More generally, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism across Asia further demonstrates this: terrorist attacks range from western China to Bangkok all the way down to Australia. While some terminologies see this as the rise of terrorism as a ‘transnational actor’ (as opposed to the ‘national actors’, nation-states), this may also be seen as civilizations across borders aligning themselves against each other. Indeed, the very fact that the media covers ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ as pretty much synonymous with ‘terrorism’ today shows the extent to which our one civilization is aligning itself against another.

Similarly, we in the ‘West’ have a strong tendency to view ourselves as one civilization; as Akala recently pointed out to Frankie Boyle, we don’t even call Australians, Americans, and Canadians ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’; we treat them as ‘expats’.  When Anders Brevik when on a killing spree in Norway, explicitly motivated by a religious fundamentalist ideology, it took far too long for anyone to first refer to him as a “terrorist”. When a white South African comes to the UK to work, she’s a “South African” who “has immigrated”. When a black South African, Nigerian, Zambian or take-your-pick from-dozens-of-other-distinct-nations arrives, she’s from “Africa”, “Bongo-bongo land”, or simply, “an immigrant”. The difference between “has immigrated” and “immigrant” is slight, but the impact it has is huge.

The migrants/refugees situation has demonstrated a similar tendency to align ourselves as European. Aside from those pricks who simply refuse to help these needy people at all, following politics will tell you that even the staunchest UKIPpers generally concede that we, as Europeans (I hate to say it but the thinking seems to be “we, as white Europeans”) have a certain responsibility to take on migrants, to ‘allow’ to them the ‘benefits’ of our society. Objectively, and I’m not saying I believe this, an equally pertinent option would be to put significant pressure on other Middle Eastern (“Arab”) states, especially those on the peninsula, to take in as many refugees as they can. But there is an undercurrent to the thinking of politicians across Europe: it’s “them” coming and hoping to join “us”. Even in Hungary, where the debate rages furiously over closing borders vs. welcoming, the discourse remains the same: it’s people from another “worse” civilization who want to join us, and it’s all about whether we should let “them”. The multinational status of the refugees, as well as the multinational approach of the European union, demonstrates that this isn’t a state-based consideration, but rather seemingly civilization based.

Most often the far right in Britain likes to point out, when complaining about immigration, that they’re not racist, as the immigrants are white. The use of the word “racist” still applies here, I feel, as I’m going to cover in another blog post: but in the meantime, it serves to highlight the continuing divide between “them” and “us”, as you wouldn’t hear them saying those things about Italians, Danish, or German immigrants; just anyone east of the Czech Republic. That is, the former USSR and eastern Orthodox countries, that the Anglosphere considers to be “Eastern Europe” – another civilization divide that Huntington has pointed out.

This post has focused mostly on the West and Islam, as those are what I’m most familiar with and what the discourse focuses on most heavily, respectively. But there is evidence of this beyond my own sphere: the way American politicians refer to the “hispanic” (as opposed to black/white) vote; naturalized US Spanish-speaking citizens are lumped into the same category as those who’ve immigrated from Latin American countries. Malaysia, meanwhile, is torn between ancient Buddhist influences, a modern-day Islamic demographic, and a large portion of the most influential and well-off citizens being Chinese. These divides are starkly highlighted in the politics and media of the country.

Though I haven’t covered them all, examples seemingly abound. But everything I’ve covered has been about how different communities talk about and view each other, rather than a surge in violent conflict between them. Ultimately, this is a question of discourse (see: Foucault). I don’t think there are inherent insurmountable boundaries between ‘civilizations’ in the world; but I do believe it is possible that we are creating and perpetuating these superficial boundaries with the way we see ourselves and define others.

Was Huntington right? Are people destined to clash along ‘civilization’ boundaries now? I still don’t believe so – I don’t think that’s a logical prediction. But enough people seem to be, unconsciously or not, agreeing with him that they may yet create a world in which he is right.

JH

Understanding the GOP (written by a foreigner)

[TL;DR]: This post is my attempt to propose a good, understandable case for why people in the States vote Republican when it’s so inconceivable to us. Given that America is fairly neatly split down the middle between the political left and right, it may well descend into a diatribe about general left vs. right politics.

I like American politics, a lot. As a (somewhat) British man I sometimes feel like I should focus more on Britain in general, but whereas the circus that is American politics can be fun and exciting to watch, British politics are just depressing. That might be something to do with the level of separation, since I can watch and laugh at, say, Donald Trump’s antics without thinking that I might have to suffer the possibility of that man running my country. (Though I do get to suffer British politics instead. If I’d been two years younger my tuition fees would have tripled – and I’ve always got to keep in mind that I can no longer count on being left alone as long as I obey the law. Cheers, big Dave).

But beyond the entertainment factor, I feel there is a genuine importance in understanding American politics, as it remains for now the most powerful country in the world, and will be pretty safely in that position for another twenty years. Beyond that, it will probably be the most powerful English-speaking country in the world until I die.

So that’s what got me thinking about writing this. I’ve often thought that if the entire world could vote in the U.S. elections, the Democrats would win hands down every time. The Republicans (or Grand Old Party; GOP) and their voter pool come across to us non-Yanks as representative of everything bad about the USA: right-wing bible nuts, corporate greed, and gun-toting maniacs. For so many outside the States, “Republican” means “‘Murica.”

But recently I’ve been thinking more and more about this and I have a few issues.
Firstly: right-wing populism that verges on inciting hate is not unique to American politics in the modern day, not at all. Look at the Front National. Look at the Golden Dawn Party. Look at Julius Goddamn Malema. These are political bodies that have earned a sizeable amount of legitimacy and influence from playing off people’s conservative sides. They cannot simply be dismissed as some unelectable, loud, ‘evil’ voice. The American version of this only takes such a priority in our concerns because, as noted above, America is so powerful. That, and America’s entire self-identity is formed around it being founded on the basis of idealistic philosophy, so primal conservatism in America comes across as more shocking because they so often present themselves as more progressive than traditional European systems. It’s easy to ignore, for example, anti-Semitism in Poland and Hungary, and nobody would be shocked at the idea that some old man named Lord Autumnbottom would vote against marriage equality in the UK, but none of us wants to entertain the idea of a close-minded bigot whose foreign policy consists mainly of inimicizing China as being “the guy with his finger on the button”.

Secondly, and this is the main point of this post: there must be something good about the GOP. I got this idea from watching the West Wing*: early in the second season they introduce a character who’s supremely intelligent, politically competent, idealistic and non-corrupt, and a Republican. I think this was executive producer and screenwriter extraordinnaire Aaron Sorkin, who’s got a reputation for being a bit preachy, seeking to challenge himself, to see if he could write a non-villainous Republican.
*yes, more American politics, but it’s SUCH a good show.

But in doing so he made an excellent point to me, one that is so often lost on us outside the borders of the U.S., probably because of the general slightly left-wing stance of pop culture. Republicans aren’t evil.** The GOP have been a credible, even dominant force, in American politics for 150 years. There’s no way they’re an ‘evil’ party, as it’s statistically impossible that everyone who votes for them – let’s say generally 47-53% of the voting public (or about 25-29% of all Americans) is evil. I personally don’t believe humans are inherently evil or good, so it’s not a case of those who have managed to restrain their evil side through education and practice (as Xunzi taught) being Demmycrats or those who have been led away from their good side by the constraints of society (as Mencius taught) being Republicans. Statistically, there’s about an equal number of ‘good’ Republican voters as Democrats. The nutbags like Dylan Roof and Kim Davis who seem emblematic of the Republican votership are a stark minority: they simply have to be. If they weren’t, then American society would have broken down into sectarian and race wars a long time ago.
**I am aware of how stupid and obvious this sounds; but it’s amazing how easy it is to get that impression of them if you live outside the States.

But that’s not how it comes across to us in other countries. The combined influence of the Christian right and corporate money-lenders in the GOP is hypocritical at best, their policies on gun control make literally everywhere else in the world look progressive, and their media mouthpiece, Fox News, would probably convert to Satanism if Jesus ever came back and endorsed Barack Obama. Basically, so many of their politicians are utter shits (“legitimate rape”, anybody? Committing treason to try and block the Iran deal?)

SO, what on earth would provoke approximately 1 in every 2 voters to vote for them?

Like Sorkin above challenging himself to write a decent Republican character, this is me challenging myself, and will require a bit of mental gymnastics. I’m trying to understand what the other side (not “the enemy”, but “the other side”) thinks.
For this, it may be worth a brief explanation of my own political leanings. I used to be apathetic, and with that apathy came a general dislike of those annoying left-wing activists and protesters. I wasn’t strictly right-wing, but I was a strong believer in the free market and individual freedoms. I didn’t like the phrase “right-wing”; I would definitely have classed myself as a libertarian. I still think Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’ is an extremely well-written book. But over my time at Cambridge, I became much more socially aware. My libertarian ideal of individual rights, I came to believe, had to be extended to those who needed those rights for protection against the injustices of our society: the oppressed, the poor, and anyone who wasn’t white, cisgender, heterosexual, and male. To that end, I started to think, government regulations and safety nets were necessary. Over the course of the last few years, especially the run up to the British election in May 2015, I became pretty much middle-of-the-road left wing (if a bit apathetic still).

So, what reasons can I see for someone to vote Republican in America? (Note: I’m not endorsing these. I’m just trying to put myself in other people’s shoes).
What I’ve realised is that it’s very very often NOT the whole package that your average voter is attracted to. With such contradictions and hypocrisy in the party, there’s no way it could be the whole package: people generally are smart enough to see when they’re being so duped.
No, it’s not the whole package: it’s the fact that everyone has priorities. Some interests supersede others. This was another point illustrated on the West Wing: when one of the main characters argues with his friend, a gay Republican senator who still votes to block marriage equality. When grilled by the main character, which ultimately becomes a question of “how can you be in this Party as a gay man?” the senator responds that he is not, first and foremost, a gay man. He is a strong believer in local government, in a strong national defense, and in the free market, and as a patriotic American, those things are more important to him than his rights as a homosexual. Similarly, from the 1960s to the 1990s, the USA created the most expansive and sufficient middle class in history, and those effects are still around today. Many of the people on the poor side of that middle class are still well-off enough, such that benefits and welfare cuts while the super-rich are getting tax cuts don’t matter to them as much as, say, an assertive foreign policy. Equally, gun rights activists don’t support Republicans for the right to kill people, but they’re attracted by the strong libertarian platform put forward by the GOP (as Ron Swanson put it: a man’s right to fart in his own car) and what that means for gun rights: the rights of the individual over the rights of the state.

It’s also worth considering, from the GOP-voters’ point of view, what the alternative is. If you’re a Christian, like a huuuuuuge number of Americans, even if you’re pretty middle-of-the-road, non-interfering and not a Westboro militant, but still proud of your faith, then voting for the Party who are going to promote and value your faith which means so much to you is probably just as favourable an option as voting for the party who say they’re going to do a better job of feeding the poor (and other Christ-like stuff), but who also say that your religion, as a good American, has as much value to the state as the religion of the people they’re currently carrying out air strikes against.*** If you’re at all against any kinds of liberal values, like drug legalisation, equal rights for the LGBT+ community, or multiculturalism (and a lot of people are against at least one of those kinds of things – NEVER underestimate the pull of social conservatism), then in each instance, the liberal party becomes increasingly unfavourable.
***For the record, there are obviously good Christians on both sides of the aisle. And good Muslims in every country.

Speaking of being increasingly unfavourable, that’s really one of the key sticking points about the left (as I imagine it from the rightist point of view). I remember it in my own case, becoming increasingly left-wing up until half a year ago: as a ‘leftist’, I felt this overarching sense of moral superiority. For a while, I simply couldn’t fathom how people could be voting UKIP, or Tory – couldn’t these people see what they would do to the country? Don’t they care about the poor, the hungry, the refugees? Oh well: if they don’t, they must be morally inferior to me.
But then imagine being on the right-wing side of that. Imagine being constantly bashed on social media for “not caring enough”, when in fact you probably try to care a lot, and try to be what you believe a good person is. It’ll make you resent the other side all the more.
And that’s another problem with the left-wing: conservatism tends to stay in one place on the conservative-progressive spectrum, but it’s really hard to define the other end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of in-fighting in the left, with people holding pretty progressive views being condemned by people who define themselves as even more progressive. I consider myself pretty darn liberal but I do believe there’s a point ultra-progressiveness just becomes a waste of time (a throwback to my right-wing days). Even now, though, I’m hesitant to say exactly what that point is, because I have a lot of ultra-leftist friends for whom it will nevertheless not be enough.
So for people who fall somewhere between ultra-conservatism and ultra-liberalism, like a lot of the Swing States (at least, on the American version of that spectrum), the smug moral superiority and condemnations coming from the left would make them increasingly resentful.

That, I believe, is that. Maybe all of you reading this knew this already: maybe I’m the only one who up until this point couldn’t really get my head around why anyone would vote Republican. But hopefully it has been useful.

I ought to state again that I don’t agree with many of the views I demarcated above. If I were American, I’m fairly certain I’d vote Democrat over and over again. This has been, for me, a discursive exercise.
Moreover, it’s been an important exercise for me politically, because it’s helped me to understand opposing points of view. All opinions are, after all, of equal value – and funnily enough, that’s the most liberal thing I’ve ever said.

JH

P.S. Pointless trivia: there are two Chinese characters – 手 and 毛 – that look really alike. The first one, shou, means “hand”, while the second, mao, means “wool”, “hair”, or “fur”. For a beginner, the easiest way to distinguish them is that in shou the final stroke flicks to the left at the bottom, while in mao the final stroke flicks to the right. That mao is the same character as in 毛泽东 – Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao. Ironically, though Mao was a notorious leftist (to put it lightly), mao is the character that flicks to the right. I always found that funny.

Though why do we refer to these ideologies as “left” and “right”? Maybe one for another blog post. I really need to go to bed.