Happy New Year! It has been a tumultuous year, and the discussions on Pandaemonium have reflected that tumult, trying to get to grips with issues from Brexit to cultural appropriation, from anti-Semitism to the migrant crisis. Here are some of the highlights of a year of Pandaemonium in 2016. And best wishes to all for 2017.
Populism, Brexit and Trump
It is the issue that has dominated much of the political debate this year. In my end of year essay ‘From the end of history to 2016’, I placed the events of 2016 in a broader historical context and argued that ‘What we are witnessing globally is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it’.
In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, I wrote that ‘Whatever the result, neither popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions, nor the sense among large sections of the electorate of being politically voiceless, is likely to subside’ and argued after the vote that ‘rather than address the fundamental reasons for popular discontent, those on the other side of the political faultline have responded with same kinds of attitudes that led so many to vote Brexit in the first place’. I argued, too, that the referendum results revealed the complex, fragmented character of disaffection with the elite, which expresses itself ‘in different, often contradictory, ways in different regions’ of Britain.
In ‘I want my country back’, I suggested that the phrase, used by both sides in the Brexit debate, shows that ‘both those hostile to immigrants and those hostile to Leave voters don’t want to engage with the real world, but want to live in their own imagined safe space.’ And I gave an interview to the Dutch journalist Marco Visscher about Brexit, migration, democracy, politics, racism and being offensive.
I wrote about Trump’s nomination as Republican Presidential candidate: ‘What drives the Trump phenomenon is not ideology but attitude’. After his election victory, I explored the reasons for that victory and argued that ‘if the rise of Trump to the White House represents anger and disaffection with the elite, it is no popular revolt. It is rather an expression of the absence of real revolt.’ I also argued that what we lack ‘is the imagination to redraw the faultlines, to see the need to challenge the elite without succumbing to bigotry, and to challenge bigotry without defending the elite; the imagination to defend the interests both of migrants and of working class communities, and to recognize that their interests seem opposed largely because of the way that the political faultlines have been drawn.’
I wrote of the real migration dilemma that Europe is facing: ‘On the one hand, any moral and workable immigration policy will not, at least for the moment, possess a democratic mandate; on the other, any policy that has popular support is likely to be immoral and unworkable.’ In the ‘Blindness of EU migration policy’, I argued that ‘perhaps the most immoral aspect of the EU’s policy: at its heart seems to be the idea that dealing with migrants and refugees should be an issue primarily for poor countries’. I published an extract from Richard Rashke’s book Useful Enemies on how the West really treated Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. And I gave a talk at the Battle of Ideas in London in defence of freedom of movement in which I argued that ‘The default position, in discussions such as this, is that immigration controls are the norm and that those advocating free movement have to justify what is seen as an outlandish position. I want to turn this claim on its head. In any public space, humans have, or should have, the right to move as they wish, just as they have, or should have, the right to speak as they wish. In both cases, any attempt to prevent individuals from acting freely must be justified by good reason.’
I gave a talk to the King’s College War Studies Society on ‘Contemporary Understandings about Radicalization’. I summarized my main arguments about the roots of Western jihadism after the Brussels airport bombing, and set out Rik Coolsaet’s arguments about ‘The Fourth Wave of European Jihadis. I also wrote of the distinctive character of contemporary terror: ‘In the past, the distinction between political violence and sociopathic rage was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today to be almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness.’
I began 2016 by looking back on the Charlie Hebdo debate, a year after the slaughter at its offices, suggesting that ‘the actual cartoons in Charlie Hebdo are, paradoxically, irrelevant to the campaign against the magazine. It is what Charlie Hebdo symbolizes as an institution that infuriates its critics. Its real crime is not racism but its challenge to what has become an unbreakable commandment for many contemporary liberals: “Thou shalt not cause offence”.’
In a piece for the New York Times, that looked at attempts to stop, on the one hand, Donald Trump and, on the other, Maryam Namazie, from speaking, I argued that while little links them as political figures, there is much in common in the attempts to silence both. ‘On both sides of the Atlantic’, I argued, ‘we need less censorship, more debate.’
In 2015 I gave the TB Davie lecture on academic freedom at the University of Cape Town. In 2016 I condemned the university for ‘disinviting’ Flemming Rose, former cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten responsible for publishing the Danish cartoons, who was to have given this year’s lecture.
I talked to Google ideas about free speech, was interviewed by Canadian journalist Duncan Pike on free speech and double standards and by the Danish paper Information about Jylannds-Posten’s attempts to gag its culture editor Flemming Rose after he published the Danish cartoons.
I wrote about the lessons I learnt from talks I gave in Sri Lanka: ‘In the relatively open societies of the West, many demand — perversely, in the name of tolerance — the creation of more barriers between groups. In countries where the conditions of freedom are far more fragile, there is a greater recognition of the need for a more open society’.
I pointed out that three centuries before the panic about fake news on Facebook there was a panic about fake news in coffee houses – and considered what lessons we should draw from the history of fake news.
Culture & diversity
I gave a talk at Amsterdam’s Castrum Peregrini exploring how we should live in a diverse society. In another talk, at the Lector in Fabula festival in Italy, I criticised the ‘cultural turn’ in political discourse.
I responded to Trevor Phillips’ Channel 4 documentary on ‘What British Muslims Really think’ and subsequently wrote an essay looking at Trevor Phillips’ pessimism and the optimism of London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
I wrote a critique of the critique of ‘cultural appropriation’ and dissected the furore over Lionel Shriver’s speech about the issue. On the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ debate, I suggested that ‘Whereas the real decolonizers sought to throw off the yoke of history, ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaigners appear to have let the past recolonize them’.
Anti-Semitism & anti-Zionism
I looked at anti-Semitism and the left, arguing that ‘It is not that the left is packed with anti-Semites; it is rather that too many among them have been willing to accommodate bigotry’. And I asked ‘What does anti-Zionism mean today?’
Apart from the Brexit discussions, I wrote a short piece on David Cameron’s legacy (‘Cameron’s legacy is difficult to define because there is little that does define him’), looked at the grammar schools debate, and compared today’s anti-democratic sentiments with those of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century eugenicists
Science & ethics
Art, culture & sport
In a year in which many writers found themselves imprisoned for their work, I published an extract from Egyptian novelist Ahmed Najib’s novel Using Life, for which he was given a two-year prison sentence for ‘injuring public modesty’; and four poems by Ashraf Dayadh, a Palestinian poet and artist living in Saudi Arabia, who was sentenced to death (later commuted to eight years imprisonment and 800 lashes) for apostasy.
I paid tribute to Muhammad Ali, who died in June, suggesting that ‘there is a part of me that thinks that, as affection has washed away the old contempt with which he once was greeted by large sections, especially of American society, we have also lost something of the sense of Ali’s true greatness’.
I reviewed a tremendous exhibition of Russian avant-garde art at the Albertina gallery in Vienna; and I looked at the art of the Tantric tradition in seventeenth century India which appears startlingly modern.
Echoes from the past
I published a series of extracts from my books that explored historical discussions about the dangers of democracy, including the fear of the masses, the racial view of class, the origins of the concept of the underclass and the critique of democracy in Plato’s Republic.
I published a series of photographic posts from Sri Lanka: on the haunting light of the Jaffna coast, coral walls, and the magnificent Buddhas of Dambulla. There was a series of posts, too, on Sicily, including the extraordinary landscape of Mt Etna, the astonishing cathedral of Monreale, and the baroque architecture of the southern cities. A third series of posts came from Scotland: on the desolate beauty of the landscape of Lewis and Harris, a beauty to be felt as much as to be seen, the magic of the standing stones of Calanais, and Scotland’s answer to Route 66.
Other photographic posts were of Dungeness Beach, Karl Marx Hof, the housing complex that stands as a monument to Red Vienna, and the architecture of Riga, from gothic cathedrals to the modernist national library.
I also published the work of two photographers, Yener Torun and Damion Berger, each of whom ‘transforms the way we look upon the world by using colour in almost opposite ways’.
From Fatwa to Jihad
A new edition of From Fatwa to Jihad, with a new Afterword bringing the story up-to-date, will be published in February. I posted an extract from the Preface of the new edition.
And these are the ten most-read posts of last year. Yes, there are actually 15 of them – that is because five of the posts in the top ten (including four of the top five) actually come from previous years (‘Why hate speech should not be banned’, ‘The failure of multiculturalism’, ‘What’s the problem with multiculturalism?’, ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’ and ‘On the Enlightenment’s “race problem”’), so I have added the next five 2016 posts too.
I won the Editorial Intelligence Comment Award for ‘Society and Diversity’ for a series of articles in the Observer. My thanks to Editorial Intelligence for the award and to Robert Yates, comment editor of the Observer, for affording me the space to write on these issues.
Most of all, my thanks to all the readers of, and visitors to, Pandaemonium, and especially to those who have become Patrons. Hopefully more of you will become patrons this year. I hope you continue to read, to visit, and to support Pandaemonium in 2017. And Happy New Year to all.
The painting is one of Lyubov Popova’s’painterly architectonic’ works.