Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Weird Centre: "Rational" Bloggers and the Trumpification of "Sensible" Guys

Super sensible: Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Maajid Nawaz

The Clarion Project is a think tank which, in its own words, exists to expose "the dangers of Islamic extremism while providing a platform for the voices of moderation." In 2008 alone the organisation spent $19 million to this end. Operating at that time under the name Clarion Fund, it distributed millions of DVDs in newspaper supplements to American swing states, detailing the threat of radical Islam to the United States. Clarion has received millions in donations from organisations such as the conservative Donors Capital Fund and is closely linked to the pro-Israeli Settlement group Aish Ha Torah. The former declares it was "formed to safeguard the charitable intent of donors who are dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise."

Clarion's productions have also reached officialdom, with the New York Police Department showing their film The Third Jihad to officers in 2012, Mother Jones reports. The latter documented alleged efforts by radical Muslims to subvert the US constitution. According to the New York Times, Clarion's board included a former Reagan adviser and an ex-CIA official.

Up for particular scrutiny was one Sheldon Adelson, billionaire donor to Clarion and erstwhile Democrat, who had recently poured millions into Newt Gingrich's primary campaign. Gingrich and Adelson shared a deep  distaste for Palestinian statehood, with both dismissing Palestinian nationalism as "invented."

Adelson once considered himself a Democrat, but his strange journey through the world of mega donations brought him from supporting Gingrich in 2012 to endorsing Donal Trump in 2016. Indeed he was Trump's biggest single donor. Despite protesting the direction of policy under Obama, Adelson still describes himself as "liberal on several social issues." So what was he doing donating to both Clarion and Trump?

Clarion sits at the peculiar nexus of conservative political ideology and the interests of the extremely wealthy. Adelson's political trajectory is cited here not because it is exceptional, but because it is increasingly normal. 

Adelson complained about two perceived ills in Obama's America: first, an overweening state bent on socialist reform and second, tolerance of or at least quiet acquiescence to radical extremism. It's in the blurred line between the two - a critique of the bureaucratic, anti-business state which morphs into the patrician, paternalistic, flabby state benignly fostering its own destruction by poisonous "interest groups" - that liberalism and libertarianism shade into conservatism.

Since Trump's election there has been a lot of talk of the "alt-right" as a new threat in mainstream politics. But often unmentioned is the alarming conversion of supposedly rational centrist voices to conservative ideas. Since the War on Terror, one-time liberals have increasingly resorted to violations of human rights in supposed defence of their most cherished values. It is a view that has been widely taken up by those who pose as unideological centrists. Their enemies are most commonly the multicultural "left."

The US comedian and TV show host Bill Maher - supporter of gay marriage, universal health care, ending climate change and other worthy ideals - is also a vehement critic of "radical Islam." His guests have included Maajid Nawaz, the "anti-radicalisation" activist behind the Quilliam foundation. Nawaz's work matches the state's hard power with ideological soft power. He wants to inspire grassroots movements against radicalism. "Why is nobody else doing this?" a bemused Maher asked, apparently forgetting the huge collective efforts of both the US and UK intelligence services during the War on Terror.

Nawaz's organisation was heavily funded by the Blair government and was influential in the setting up of the government's Prevent agenda. Quilliam advocates liberal values by mass violation of Muslim's civil liberties. As Arun Kundnani points out in his book The Muslims are Coming, Muslims living in the west are the most surveilled population in the world. The level of documentation dwarfs that of the Eastern Bloc countries, even if it is more discriminating in its targets.

Nawaz must be distinguished from the likes of new atheist and fellow Maher guest Sam Harris. For the latter Islam is innately violent and war-like; for Nawaz it at least has the potential to be changed. "It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims," Harris has written. The article would appear to imply that a majority of Muslims are extremist because that's how their religion works.

The "anti-radicalisation" narrative's blind spot is of course the total failure of these efforts - the years of anti-extremist propaganda, outreach, infiltration, surveillance, the entire War on Terror - to prevent the spread of violent and reactionary ideologies in the Islamic world or anywhere else. Moreover the terror attacks continue. The suggestion that the spread of religious reaction and terror (the two are not identical) might be caused by decades of instability, war, social upheaval, and death is met consistently with scorn. A term shared by Nawaz, Harris, and ex-leftist writers like Nick Cohen is the "regressive left", used to denote anyone who supposedly "sides" with jihadists against the US. 

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other self-styled "new atheists" use this moniker to characterise all those on the left who in their view have abandoned the classical principles of the Enlightenment. There are two interwoven strands to their argument and it is worth unraveling them. On the one hand, they argue that the left has abandoned its Enlightenment roots and embraced cultural relativism. On the other, these critics have a tendency to say that the left likes to silence debate and crush open dissent. This results in debt-encumbered, multi-racial, working and middle class students who are engaged in anti-racist activism being redesignated "the enemies of tolerance." 

It is clear who these new atheists really take offence to: for all their talk of defending free speech from its authoritarian enemies, what they really want is for these young, often multiracial activists to shut up. Moreover their arguments tend to be highly anecdotal, selective and unrepresentative. They claim the left always supports religious freedom over secularism. But it is precisely the left that has been most forward in critiquing Merkel's cosy arrangements with authoritarian Turkey. They claim the left silently tolerates non-western bigotry and violence on the basis of "cultural relativism." But who on the left has failed to criticise Modi's India or Saudi Arabia? Yes, the left reserves the right to criticise the US in particular, because if the left doesn't nobody else will. This is plainly not the same as making common cause with terrorists.

Clearly the trajectories of Dawkins, Cohen et al. and the likes of Sheldon Adelson are not the same. They start from different premises and end up in different places. But they share a few strands of DNA. Both are almost always critical of "the left" and defensive of the US state. Whilst claiming the heritage of a modest empiricism, they silently endow the US with a profound historical role as bearer of the Enlightenment tradition. Though the conservative right sees "socialism" everywhere it looks, the new atheists see "relativism."

Their concrete convergence is not to be found in their immediate ranks. One can safely assume that Dawkins profoundly and authentically dislikes Donald Trump. Rather it is in the weird, ever-shifting world of internet politics that this peculiar convergence of centrism and the authoritarian right is taking place.

There has been a great proliferation in recent years of YouTube vloggers and Facebook pages dedicated to the notion of political "skepticism." "We come not to praise ideologies, but to bury them," claims The Rationalists' Facebook page, replete with Descartes-in-cool-dude-shades banner. The tone and pose is one of common sense indignation. The pages tend to blame "both sides equally" for what they see as the "stupidity" of public life. Of course, the claim to be against all ideology is an act of ideology par excellence - usually one backed up by anti-systemic, radical conservative assumptions (corrupt politicians; lying academia; clientelistic big business; corporatism etc.). And so it proves. Except the likes of the Rationalist now have a publicly legitimate language in which to argue thanks to the likes of Nawaz and Dawkins and Bill Maher et al.

Their "skepticism" and appeals to "common sense" mask a quite vehement hatred of black student movements, indeed of any form of leftism. As the centre has been dragged to the right over the years, this racially-coded paranoia has been granted a footing in mainstream culture. They talk too about the "regressive left." They invite Nawaz and Cohen onto their TV shows. They hold forth on the authoritarianism implicit in student "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings." They label themselves pro-equality "anti-feminists". They have a most exclusive concept of common sense and they use it exclude any form of left-wing dissent as "irrational." 

It would be easy to see these pages as yet another side to the famous "alt-right," except that they see themselves as the sole defenders of civility, openness and tolerance in a world of extremes. The site RationalWiki documents literally thousands of mini-projects and meme-movements claiming to reclaim the "rational" centre ground from extremists. They don't deny climate change. They're sometimes for "tolerance" of homosexuality - as long as nobody shouts about it publicly. They are dedicated to atheist enlightenment.

The following quote from blogger Jen McCreight is exemplary: “”It’s time for a new wave of atheism ... that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime."

A quiet ontological leap has been made: from "skepticism" of religious belief to "skepticism" of supposedly wild claims about social objectivity. They mean neither the skepticism of empirical science nor the philosophical rationalism of a Descartes, but rather a position of a priori doubt about any claim of injustice. Never mind that 194 black people have been killed by US cops in 2016 alone or that black men are much more likely to be targeted by cops than any other demographic. Because they aren't suffering the worst racial abuse of any minority ever in history, people have no right to complain about these statistics or the wider racially-charged atmosphere of US politics. 

On the more respectable side of the debate are characters like Gad Saad, a professor of marketing and "YouTube celebrity", who spends his time attacking the "thought police" who "control what we can say" and defending "truth and reason" from "infection" by the "grotesque" ideas of postmodernism. Saad has been a guest on Sam Harris's podcast where he defended his right to talk about "biological" and "evolutionary" differences between races. There are few people who would wish to censor research on this topic, but he claims he is being silenced because it isn't politically correct. The likelihood actually is that people object to his drawing unwarranted political conclusions - for example, he is against affirmative action - from his speculations on the evolution of race. 

Saad's Facebook page is filled with attacks by dubious sites like Campus Reform on the apparent intolerance and unreason of modern students. The aforementioned Campus Reform was founded and is owned and funded by the Leadership Institute, a conservative organisation run by millionaires that aims to "identify, train, recruit and place conservatives in the politics, government and media." Do such explicit conservative political intentions themselves pose no risk to Saad's cherished notion of common sense reason? If they do, they seem to be of infinitely less concern than the student left. After all Campus Reform seeks explicitly to make universities less liberal by encouraging waves of discontent aimed at liberal decisions made on campuses. They keep a record of "victories" - including sackings they have successfully induced. Surely no threat to tolerance or reason there.

What seems to particularly annoy Saad about "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" is that they are invoked by people who have not experienced racism or persecution to a historically comparable degree to, say, Jews in Europe or in the Middle East outside of Israel. But that's like saying if I lose my job I should be happy because my boss didn't murder me with his bare hands and bury me under the porch in the name of "streamlining."

It's hard to understand what annoys all these commentators so much about campus safe spaces. After all we all use them. The sharp distinction between public and private is always mediated by various types of semi-public and semi-private space. Like Whatsapp and private messenger, we want to communicate with those we trust via channels that allow us to feel safe. What upsets many of these - mostly white, mostly male - online campaigners is that there might just be somewhere - anywhere, no matter how small - that they're not immediately welcomed and encouraged to speak their mind at tedious length. 

In these wild parts of the blogosphere, you're only ever a few clicks from some complaint about "SJWs" (social justice warriors). But note the difference: the alt-right speaks to a constituency that feels wronged - the "Forgotten Man" of mulchy Americana; the people whose narrow band of status is threatened by any mobility on the part of "the blacks" or migrants. Whereas this strange new breed of common sense centrism wants to believe that the world would be ok if everyone just stopped shouting.

It's worth pointing out the kind of world this rational centrism presupposes. It's one where the world is almost always naturally fair. Where bad shit is just cosmic. Where you put up or shut up. Injustice is highly exceptional. Even in those rare cases it is unlikely to be rectifiable since you can't blame people for doing what they're naturally predisposed to do. Demanding justice is just a form of childish attention seeking. "Quit whining about racial profiling," Saad says. Others have got it worse. Consider yourself lucky the cosmos doesn't rain down actual fiery comets at you. Not only do they not believe in injustice, they don't really believe in justice either. Justice is just a word imposed over a more primal law - the evolutionary law of the jungle. It's an ugly world and there's nothing you can do it about it.

From gender to racial equality, from global terrorism to economic crises - the supposedly rational centre wants the world to speak unanimously or not at all. And the opinions the world should hold should be its own or they should be silent. In effect the centre has been trumpified.

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