George Orwell Versus Alternative Facts

In this edition of the Aidan Project Podcast, Aidan is joined by Richard Keeble, who is none other than the Chairman of the Orwell Society. Richard is a retired Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and has written extensively about Orwell, including a critical assessment of Orwell’s war reporting, and also wrote a chapter in the 2012 book, Orwell Today, which he also edited, looking at Orwell’s complex relationship with the intelligence services. Richard and Aidan look at Orwell’s two most famous works, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (and the latter’s huge spike in sales), and discuss what Orwell would have made of “alternative facts” in the new media age. Would Orwell be blogging online, attacking Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer for their doublethink with his unique command of language? We also discuss Orwell’s life, his schooling, the shooting of an elephant in Burma, being wounded in Spain, his tremendous wit and his untimely death, in addition to discussing separating fact from fiction in his work, and much more besides. He (or she) who listens to this podcast will know the future. But you might not be able to control the past. For more information on The Orwell Society, please visit http://www.orwellsociety.com/

The Art of Terror

In this episode, The Art of Terror, I will be looking at the War on Terror, in addition to Edmund Clark’s thought-provoking exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London, entitled War *of* Terror. This adapted name is quite deliberate, as will become clear within this episode. The artist-photographer, Clark, has visited Guantanamo Bay, along with the homes of persons who have been held under house arrest here in the United Kingdom. In a world in which ISIS and other groups sympathetic to the Jihadist cause are committing regular atrocities in the Middle East and, indeed, much closer to ‘home’, Western-speaking, we must surely offer strong support for robust governmental action to tackle terrorism. But – and this is the key – it needs to be effective and proportionate. Is it really a case of no pain, no gain? Is torture ever morally acceptable? Indeed, can the War on Terror ever be fought with our morals intact? This episode also looks at the West’s best options for tackling extremism; options which, frustratingly, are being suffocated by the ‘regressive left’. Furthermore, and very much linked to the work of would-be reformers, the power of belief in the supernatural is a significant factor in the War on Terror, which this episode explores in detail. Did George W. Bush’s belief in God lead to the invasion of Iraq? Thank you for tuning in. You can follow my work on Twitter @theaidanproject.

History: The Executioner of Bad Ideas

59103_icm_2007_death_penalty_action_1_0
The question of capital punishment has re-emerged following the death sentence passed down to the reprehensible Dylann Roof on 10 January 2017. Roof, 22, had been convicted of the appalling murder of nine African-Americans in a downtown Charleston, South Carolina church on 17 June 2015.

Roof, it seems clear to me, is a hopeless, lost cause, much in the same way as Anders Breivik, who displayed a similar, icy lack of remorse for his crimes. But as hopeless, pathetic, repressed, undeveloped and unfeeling as Roof is, and will likely always remain, to execute a person on the state’s authority is deeply troubling. But this article is not about Dylann Roof, as should become clear.

Death, in some cases, is justified. A death resulting from a legitimate act of self-defence, or the adoption of euthanasia by an informed mind who no longer wishes to suffer are two such examples. But the state, when no longer threatened by the incarcerated individual, has no moral justification to pull the lever or press the button to end a life.

Why do people still wish to see other humans put to death? Is it a religious holdover, which is why it is so prevalent in the more religious countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, than more secular ones, including Norway, home to Brevik, who is serving a life-term? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is typical of biblical vengeance. The prevalence of Sharia Law is undoubtedly the cause of the abhorrent public beheadings in Mecca. For this writer, however, whilst decapitation is more obscene than a lethal injection, it is just that: more obscene. For humans to kill other humans as punishment is an angry display of snarling teeth and misplaced virtue. We feel we are cleansing the planet, but we are simply perpetuating the violence. We are harming our argument that murder is unquestionably wrong. Murder is wrong if I do it in my spare time, or if the state pays me to do it on their time. The legality does not make it right, it simply makes it legal.

If you are reading this article in 3017, I am quite sure you will be baffled at the continuing practice of state execution in this writer’s era. You will doubtless scratch your head at other aspects of our behaviour, too. “I cannot believe you continued to eat animals despite their suffering”, “I cannot believe you continued to burn fossil fuels and that some of you denied climate change”, and “I really cannot believe you elected the celebrity hotel-guy as President.” This is how we, in 2017, look back at the witch trials and in not sailing too far towards the horizon for fear of falling off the other side of the world. Eventually, capital punishment will end, because human development, as slow as it seems to us in our short life-terms, is generally progressive. The rise of religion, especially fundamentalism, and fascism, is very concerning, but for the most part, humans do become better, more enlightened humans in the long passage of time.

Be honest with yourself. You know state executions are wrong. I will be honest with you. If a member of my family were murdered, I would want death for the perpetrator. There is no question about that. Maybe, in a fit of rage, I would seek to enact this personally. But the state should operate on moral principles that set the tone for the society we want for our children. If life is about anything, is it not about making society more progressive and enlightened for our descendants? Keeping a man, or a woman, locked-up for years on end is a huge burden on the state, but morality is priceless. Dylann Roof, in some abstract sense, deserves to die. But the state has no moral authority to execute him. Nobody ever said that morality is inexpensive. Much of what a state does in the public good, such as education, pensions, health care and social security, is expensive. Not killing people is also expensive. But I am quite sure that our reader from 3017 will quite understand, and will wonder why we took so long to form the same opinion.

Aidan

2017: Great Expectations?

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

Christopher Hitchens

hitchens

The world desperately misses Christopher Hitchens. I certainly know that I do. Whilst I never met the man, somehow, in a way that is beyond me to explain, I feel like I did. I certainly wish that I had.

Hitchens possessed a beautifully eloquent, unparalleled ability to speak thought-provoking common sense without any undue reverence to his opponent. The United Kingdom’s embarrassing exit from Europe, and Donald Trump’s evisceration of decency at the highest level would have been meat and drink to Hitchens. Moreover, I am quite certain that Hitchens would have had little patience for the internecine conflict within the left and its ceaseless self-strangulation. This illogical balancing act of many well-intentioned liberals has a lot to answer for, including, I would argue, those two 2016 blockbusters previously mentioned.

Hitchens saw himself as a liberal, broadly defined. But he would not tie himself down to ideology. He was in favour of the Iraq War. He spoke favourably of Margaret Thatcher. And he absolutely loathed Bill Clinton. And I mean really loathed. The latter point would have made Hitchens’ articulate foray into the vacuum of honesty that was the Presidential race all the more fascinating. Although I am quite sure that Hitchens would have abhorred Trump, he would not have taken kindly to Hillary, either, on whose husband he wrote the scathing book, No One Left To Lie To, in 1999.

Hitchens, who was born in England but would later become an American citizen, died of cancer in 2011 at the premature age of 62. Premature not simply for him, but for a world which needs his unique qualities now more than ever. I assume that it is because of this sense of loss, selfish as it is, that I have found myself referring back to so much of his voluminous work in recent months. Reading Hitchens’ polemics or watching him on the debate podium is something of a temporary antidote to the stupidity, ignorance and lies that have blighted 2016. Hitchens versus Nigel Farage? First round knockout for Hitch. If, somehow, the battle made it out of the first round, there would no doubt be a blood stoppage from the referee to save Farage from life-altering injuries. Hitchens could go the distance, but he seldom had to. He was the Muhammad Ali of rational argument. He had swagger, for sure, but his ability to propel his arguments with energy and panache was unmatched. He floated like a liberal, but he stung like a bee.

Nobody had a quip like Christopher Hitchens. He had a return volley for everything. Speaking during one of his countless debates with committed theists, Hitchens said, “We’re half a chromosome away from chimpanzees and it shows. It especially shows in the number of religions we invent to console ourselves or to give us things to quarrel with other primates about.” Hitchens was not afraid to cause offence in the process of putting across his argument, yet he was so gifted an orator, the most offensive aspect about him was simply how damn intelligent he was.

A side of Hitchens that all too many have perhaps not seen, as he is often regarded, unfairly, as simply an angry, atheist intellectual, was his incredible wit. An example of this comedic intelligence is a word game which is featured in his memoirs.  The basis of the game is to replace a word within a well-known book title with a similar, but rather less effective one. The results are non-bestselling titles such as Mister Zhivago, For Whom The Bell Rings, and the unsurpassable Good Expectations.

Back to reality and, indeed, this time of madness, complete as it is with much burying of heads in the sand, I certainly have low expectations. However, if we can be serious about waking up from our collective coma of confusion, then perhaps, inspired by the unapologetic rationality of Hitchens, our expectations can indeed be great. To be sure, he was the greatest.

Aidan

The Collapse: Why Societies Fail

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

Donald Trump
November 6 2012

176615-004-97787209

The US-born civilization scholar, Jared Diamond, says there is not a single, easy answer to the question of why seemingly stable societies collapse. Diamond, educated at Cambridge and Harvard, with an impressive background in evolutionary biology and geography, points more broadly to five common factors that, if left unchecked, precipitate a societal collapse.

Diamond’s not to do list

1. A society ruins its own resources through human impact
2. Unfavourable climate (man-made or otherwise)
3. A lack of support from allies
4. Poor relations with hostile forces (war/trade blocks)
5. Political, economic, social and cultural factors

Diamond argues that whilst it seems incredible that previously successful societies did not take steps to fend off their collapse as problems mounted, it is less remarkable when considered in a modern context. For example, there is no unanimous world view on how to tackle the intertwined points one (resources) and two (climate). Emerging countries are economically motivated to assiduously compete with the West by burning through natural resources, espousing the argument that what was fair game for the West is now fair game for them.

Countries such as China can plausibly argue that it was treated harshly by imposed Western treaty edicts whilst the US and Britain were all-powerful and China was far from becoming the industrial juggernaut of the 21st century. Developing nations do not appreciate being told they should focus greater attention to environmental concerns during their development. Certainly, such concerns did not apply to the nations leading today’s environmental debate back in the time of their industrial ascension. Particularly in the case of China, this issue is complex and divisive – an inconvenient truth, if you will – confounded as it is not only with environmental factors, but also with a delicate political and cultural legacy. Naturally, or indeed, unnaturally, industrialisation, as the much-contested evidence suggests, leads inexorably into that most modern of challenges: climate change.

An undeniably efficient, though frankly less than scientific, way of dealing with the problem is to take the view that it is not a problem at all. With climate change dismissed by the next United States President as propagandist “nonsense”, the future looks bleak unless there is a change of opinion at the top of the incoming administration. It could of course be true that Trump’s populist statements regarding climate change were classic examples of his trademark rabble-rousing. Surely, he does not believe what he said…

Another controversial Donald Trump policy is his stated approach to foreign diplomatic and economic relations, which falls head-first into another of Diamond’s pitfalls. With Trump at the helm, we may see the ushering in of an era of a lack of support from allies, point three on the checklist. Trump’s penchant for isolationism may not be realistic, but if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that anything is possible. It does seem readily apparent that the US is unlikely to work especially well with its southern neighbour, Mexico, unless concessions are made which pull back from the incredible rhetoric of bricks, mortar and cultural stereotypes. According to Thomas Wright, writing in the Financial Times on March 22 2016, an isolationist US under Trump is set to “pose the greatest shock to peace and stability since the 1930s”.

Hostility, which is a tragic, almost numbing, presence in every image we see from Syria, is Diamond’s fourth factor. Statistically, however, we are living through the safest time in human history, though this will be of little comfort to the beleaguered citizens of Aleppo. Whether the Americans, with Trump and Putin taking practical policy action stemming from their supposed mutual admiration, take the fight to ISIS in partnership with Russia remains to be seen. If so, using Diamond’s framework, it could be argued that a proactive détente between the former Cold War rivals (perhaps qualifying as a reversal of point three) would cancel out, or at least mitigate, the factor of increased hostile enemies. We could see the US and Russia gain a new ally – each other – with the cost of a stronger, more determined enemy. This concept is an interesting, uncertain challenge to Diamond’s thesis. However, we can realistically surmise that such a partnership would have implications not only in the Middle East, but across the West, especially in the fertile Islamic extremist ground of central Europe.

Examined in a modern context, Diamond’s fifth factor, political, economic, social and cultural issues, raises seemingly unlimited probing questions. Indeed, with Brexit, mass migration from the Middle East, a new, almost Third Party US President, and Russia’s unpredictable posturing, it is simply too early to fully appreciate the precise challenges that societies will face in the near and longer term.

What we can see, in as far as we can see anything on the subject of unknowns and variables, is that the principles of Diamond’s thesis for a societal collapse are all in play. Arguably this is true only to various degrees in different parts of the world, and it is not necessarily the case that all of Diamond’s factors all sitting ominously on the doorstep of any one society. Regardless, Diamond’s framework uncompromisingly dictates that society as a whole has been summoned to take robust action.

Diamond argues that many societal disasters were a direct consequence of the folly of powerful elites who sacrificed the long-term viability of their domains for short-term, personal gains. This includes corruption and the pursuit of personal glory, factors which are far better understood in the public sphere today than in years past. Of course, the social media age of unlimited information does not seem to disqualify a candidate from running for high office, or even from winning the highest political office imaginable. Electioneering is no longer as simple as saying your opposite number is corrupt. The system has morphed into a bizarre, heightened state of climbing the immoral high ground. A candidate today, whilst they may admit to not being as pure and virtuous as the “Incorruptible” Maximilien Robespierre, will point out, without the slightest hint of shame, that in comparison to their opposing candidate, they are at least less corrupt (or less crooked).

Diamond explains that a society is especially vulnerable to events spiralling out of control when it is unable to adapt, especially from outdated reservoirs of its initial strength. Diamond uses the example of Australia, arguing that its success as a fledgling nation, succeeding against the odds, was derived from its steadfast British identity, but being unable to evolve from this identity has caused it to struggle to keep pace with the developments within Asia. It could be that America finds new strength and vigour in its next leader, but that the nation’s bold, idiosyncratic approach to forging a new path leads it eventually into an unforgiving ravine.

Diamond says that societies must solve all of his five stated problems to avoid disaster. Four out of five will not suffice. The entire framework must be resolved. The good news is that Diamond speaks positively for the chances of such a resolution, despite the challenges. Diamond says that these problems are solvable; that whilst the issues we must face were our making, they can also be “our solving“. But Diamond also warns of another commonality of formerly flourishing societies, one which we would do well to remember. A society, when it has overreached beyond its ability to defeat the five factors of decline, will collapse quickly and ignominiously, with no deference to past achievements. Over. Finished. That’s your lot.

The clock is ticking.

Aidan

Further reading

J. Diamond, Collapse, (New York: Penguin, 2005)