Are we really living in a post-truth world?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at the launch of the Vote Leave bus campaign, in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, in Truro
The Vote Leave campaign bus: evidence of a ‘post-truth’ world?

There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.

Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.

The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.

I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.

Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)

Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.

Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.

Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.

Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.

The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).

Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.

What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.

For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.


Andy Murray and British sporting success

Andy Murray with Rio 2016 gold

Andy Murray is currently my favourite sportsperson. This surprises me, because for many years I could barely stand him. I’ll come to why I think I struggled to warm to him shortly. But right now I feel nothing but admiration. He’s a tremendous tennis player: he’s physically strong and mentally smart, he’s solid, robust and consistent, he has phenomenal talent and the full range of shots. Above all, he’s a supreme competitor; his fighting qualities and will to win are superb and among the very best I have seen in any sport. He may be a tiny bit behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic when it comes to assessing overall greatness, but in the finest era in the history of men’s tennis there’s no shame in that. Murray’s achievements are outstanding (and there’s the promise of more to come—there is every chance that he may dominate the men’s game for the next year or so) and he undoubtedly already belongs among the all-time greats.

I like his personality as much as I like his tennis. Murray refuses to participate in the age of the celebrity. I love the monotonous drone of his voice (which has earned him a reputation as dull—but watch his tennis, which is anything but dull) and his downbeat, dry answers to interviewers’ questions. It all gives the impression that he is simply not bothered by demands to hone a glossier, more media-attractive personality. There is nothing flash or fame-hungry about him. Often attired on court as if he was intending to spend the time lounging in front of the television, he just gets on with the job of being a brilliant tennis player. But pay attention to the interviews: behind the drone is an extremely intelligent, drily humorous man.

Yet for a long time I liked him little. In part this stemmed from my own issues: I was a fairly good tennis player as a child, and for years I liked to imagine that if only my parents had granted my wish to be sent to tennis school in Florida it would have been me, rather than Tim Henman or Murray, who emerged as the finest British player since Fred Perry. I never, of course, seriously believed this, but even as a non-serious fantasy it was the source of a certain amount of envy towards Henman and Murray. (Anyway, having now made public that it could have been me winning Wimbledon—although, somewhat perversely, Roland Garros was always the one I wanted to win since I fancied myself as a clay court specialist despite never having played on clay—I have probably resolved this minor psychological issue.)

But that pathetic twinge of envy on my part was not really the problem. The problem was the hideously manic and frenzied support that surrounded Henman and then Murray. I struggle with unthinking, flag-waving patriotism at the best of times, and when it rears its ugly head at sporting events I get decidedly queasy. My objections to the fervent, enthusiastic support for Henman and Murray are, of course, no more rational than the patriotism I am criticizing. But it all struck me as cloying, sentimental and simple-minded. Many of the fans seemed to me—and I know I am being mean and unfair here—middle-class non-entities who knew little about tennis but wanted a jolly good excuse to wave a flag. I realize that all this makes me come across as an irritating idiot with feelings of superiority—which is doubtless what I was (and possibly still am in the eyes of some). But it meant that I wished for disappointment to descend upon the Union-Jack-emblazoned fans. That I have managed to transcend this petty-mindedness in the case of Murray is an indication of just what a fine tennis player and personality he is. And, perhaps, that I have grown up a bit.

Nevertheless, I still have a problem with the sheer sentimental, stupid guff that attends British sport. My pet hate is the short video productions the BBC likes endlessly to make for almost any significant sporting occasion, always full of empty, staccato-delivered short sentences (‘One man. Born in a land of mountains. Born to a lifetime’s quest. To conquer the ultimate mountain. To be the best. First there was the Swiss maestro. Then the Spanish bull. Then the Serb warrior. And now there is Scotland’s bravest. Britain’s finest. Andy Murray. The world’s number one.’—there, I’ve just scripted one for the BBC; all it needs is some footage of Scottish mountains, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Murray hitting a winner, Murray lifting a trophy, all to the accompaniment of some stirring electronica). These dismal productions think they’re clever and inspirational and artistic, but are truly just utter junk taking up time that might be spent on intelligent analysis. They reduce sport—a brilliant, fascinating human activity—to the intellectual level of toddlers and the sophistication level of the Daily Mail. Yes, they really are that terrible.

It’s all of a piece with the general attitudes to British sporting achievement. I enjoyed the Rio Olympics not because of British sporting success, but despite it. I had no problem with any of the British medallists, and indeed cheered many of them on. But the constant obsession with medal success, with finishing high on the overall medal table, with surpassing Athens and London, was grating—and, in many ways, disturbing. Immense pride was taken in the millions spent on British cycling and the consequent Rio medal haul. All of which suggests some extremely skewed priorities: in a country with growing inequality, poverty and social problems, why are millions being spent just so we can triumph over the French, Germans and Americans in a velodrome once every four years? I value sport, but I’m content that Britain competes; I don’t demand that Britain wins. Watching interesting competition—between anyone, it doesn’t have to involve British competitors—is enough. So why was the Rio Olympics dominated by an obsession with British success?

Back in the Cold War era, countries such as the Soviet Union and East Germany were similarly obsessed with sporting success. And they achieved it (thanks, in part, to vast doping programmes). While their athletes were hoovering up Olympic medals, the economies and societies of these countries veered between impoverished stagnation and the brink of complete meltdown. Sporting achievements gave these countries a veneer of successful functioning. It was, as we know, all an illusion, but one that the Soviet Union, East Germany and others were determined to sustain as long as possible. And that’s why the British determination and obsession with global sporting success is so disturbing: it looks a bit too much like the desperate action of a country that knows, deep down, it is in difficulties, but wants to keep up the fantasy of greatness for as long as it can afford to.

The Rio Olympics came shortly after the EU referendum: here was a country that had just suicidally voted for its own terminal decline into irrelevancy and insignificance getting manically excited about its ability to produce men and women who could ride bikes really fast around a wooden track. I was pleased for Bradley Wiggins and the rest that they did the job the millions of pounds was funding them to do. Although I come across in this post as petty and small-minded, I genuinely did cheer (in a restrained, silent way) the British cyclists on. And then I gave some thought to what it all meant. It meant we could feel good for a few hours and forget about the numerous political, social and economic problems around us, and it meant that the fantasy of British greatness could be sustained just that little bit longer.

Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

Enemy? Or useful ally?

Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.

Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.

There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.

My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.

In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.

I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?

The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.

I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.

But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.

[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]

Pornography and the new illiberalism: the Digital Economy Bill

A 19th-century drawing after Raimondi, illustrating Aretino’s I Modi; access to Aretino’s work was restricted in most countries due to its being placed on the Catholic Church’s Index

One of the unfortunate consequences of the political hurricane that is Brexit and Trump is that, drowned out by the noise and the mayhem, many political and legislative developments have slipped by quietly and largely unnoticed. The passage of the Investigatory Powers Act (which awaits royal assent) and the Digital Economy Bill (which has completed its legislative stages in the House of Commons, and now moves onto the House of Lords, with a view to it passing into law in 2017) is a case in point. Both are appalling pieces of legislation containing numerous problems—yet there has been little public debate about either of them. Here I’m going to discuss only the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation that deals with several broad issues pertaining to digital communications, above all piracy, file sharing, copyright and pornography. At the risk of disappointing readers, I will focus here solely on that driest of topics: pornography.

Perhaps some form of disclosure ought to preface my discussion. In principle I have no problem with pornography. Sex is an (occasionally) enjoyable and important part of being human; the opportunity to enjoy it, think about it and explore it through pornography and erotica is valuable. (I have written elsewhere about pornography’s historical relationship to radicalism, subversion, satire and freedom.) There are no good arguments, but many bad moral arguments, against the depiction of sex. When it comes to pornography, I am not far off being a libertarian. At the same time, however, I think most pornography is dreadful and has helped to create attitudes towards sex and sexuality which I find troubling; and there is no doubt that the pornography industry is frequently exploitative, and often downright nasty (although, to be fair, the same can be said about most industries and occupations). That a large proportion of pornography is boring, dreary, rubbish, horrible, or all four, and that many pornographic performers are exploited, do not, however, constitute reasons to ban pornography; rather, they should be met by artistic and ethical efforts, by good porn, by feminist porn, by ethical porn, by intelligent erotica. I am, I might add, quite a fan of erotica.

The Digital Economy Bill attempts to address a supposedly common source of popular anxiety: the easy accessibility of pornography to children. Whether or not this anxiety is exaggerated and hysterical, and whether it can be found beyond the pages and readers of the Daily Mail, is not something I can discuss with any authority; but moral panics are not unheard of. (What would be the point of the Daily Mail if it didn’t have a good moral panic to scream about?) Nevertheless, I’m led to believe that there evidently is a lot of pornography on the internet within easy reach, and children, being curious creatures, are wont to search for it. It would be trite to suggest that it is the responsibility of parents to manage and obstruct this curiosity; far better, the government and the morally righteous have concluded, would be to get the state to do the job.

The proposed solution to the problem, as outlined in the new legislation, amounts to this: adult material (by which is meant images, videos and audio) will henceforth require age verification (AV) in order to be accessed; a regulator will be appointed to police the internet, with the powers to enforce sites to implement AV, to block sites that do not comply with the legislation, and to fine site owners in contravention of the law (up to £250,000 or 5% of a site’s turnover, whichever is the greater); the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be assigned the Herculean task of determining whether a site contains adult content. It is important to note that the legislation applies only to commercial sites; non-commercial sites (for example, personal blogs and amateur websites) are unaffected. It is also worth noting that pornography and erotica in the form of the written word are also unaffected; those who like to read and write erotica can breathe a sigh of relief.

There is little of merit in these proposals. The bill threatens to have a negative impact on personal freedom; there are numerous potential anomalies in the legislation; and it is highly likely that it will quickly prove unworkable and impractical. My prediction is that it will join such legislative incompetencies as the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (notorious as a poorly considered and kneejerk response to a media-driven panic), and that the proposals on pornography will ultimately be abandoned or repealed. Politicians, often under pressure from both the public and the media, can be inclined to push forward hasty, poor, ill-informed legislation in areas they know little about. Our current set of politicians are neither better nor worse in this respect than their predecessors; history is littered with terrible legislation.

I certainly hope my prediction of abandonment or repeal is correct, because if I am wrong those of us with liberal values have a lot to worry about. Above all, the legislation (especially in tandem with the Investigatory Powers Act) signals a huge expansion in state control of online activity. As well as granting to police and security agencies almost limitless power to snoop on and hack into the digital activity of British citizens (irrespective of whether an individual is suspected of wrongdoing or not), Britain will very soon have the most repressive legislation relating to internet use of any western country. While totalitarianism is not likely in the UK any time soon, what does lie around the corner is some of the basic infrastructure of totalitarianism.

The legislation certainly indicates a chill wind of illiberalism and puritanism is blowing. A striking feature of the bill is its definition of ‘pornographic material’. As might be expected, anything that would receive the BBFC’s R18 classification (i.e. the equivalent of adult movies available only through licensed distributors such as sex shops) is covered—and, to be frank, there is a case for taking some sort of action to prevent this type of material being easily accessible to children. But also designated as content to be restricted is anything that would receive an 18 certificate and was ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’. Welcome to an area that is fifty shades of grey. The main intention is presumably to restrict access to softcore pornographic videos and images. But where does softcore end and erotica begin? Films such as Secretary, Fifty Shades of Grey, Nymphomaniac, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Sex and Lucia, and many, many more in that broad erotic genre, all contain explicit sexual scenes that would not be out of place in most softcore films. The legislation will almost certainly not restrict access to such mainstream films (and we can at least be thankful for that, even if Nymphomaniac is not a film I much want to see again). But it’s going to be a fun job for the BBFC to decide whether a video should be designated as ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’ or not. What would decide the matter? Would the semblance of a plot, competent acting, dialogue about non-sexual matters, and a modicum of production values ensure that a video escapes being restricted? Or does it all come down to that indefinable quality: taste? Similarly, plenty of difficulties will stem from still images. Nudity and mild sexual scenes are acceptable in 15 films; but would nudity be acceptable in an image? Some nudity is sexual, some isn’t, but most stands somewhere in between. It may come down to context: an image on an adult site will be judged differently from the same image on a non-adult site. I foresee endless arguments and appeals against BBFC classifications, and many inconsistencies in their decisions as to what should and should not be restricted.

What is clear from the bill is that a vast range of adult content will potentially be swept up by its definition of pornographic material: everything from the most explicit hardcore pornography to mild erotica. The impact this will have on the production of and access to adult material in the UK is likely to be profound. This has been discussed eloquently and intelligently elsewhere by, among others, Pandora Blake and Girl On The Net, so here I will only note the main points of their arguments.

The bill is likely to force most small, independent producers of adult content to close down their sites due to the prohibitive costs of implementing AV. It will have less of an impact on the big porn players, who will have the means and resources to accommodate the legislation (probably passing on the costs of AV to the consumer) or to ignore it (leading to their site becoming inaccessible in the UK—whether or not to ignore the legislation will depend on whether they see the UK market as worth the hassle and cost of AV). Some producers will inevitably find ways of circumventing the legislation; most such producers will be based overseas, a long way from any legal risk. Doubtless much porn currently easily accessible will find its way to the wild lands of the dark web. The overall effect of the legislation is likely to be a strengthening of the commercial power of the large producers relative to independent producers, many of whom will not survive. Adult material will be less free, less diverse, less likely to cater to niche interests, and there will simply be less of it.

The new legislation will obviously also affect those who wish to access adult material: not only will this be much harder, and much material no longer available (because the producers will no longer be able to operate, or because the site has no AV and is blocked), but there will be much less free content. In addition, all users will need to provide personal data to verify their age (no-one is clear what data will be used and how AV will be implemented yet), with all the attendant risks of this data being lost, stolen, misused, or sold. As well as creating large databases of porn users, accessible to the regulator and attractive to hackers and blackmailers, AV will also open up opportunities for fraudsters to acquire personal details (expect messages such as ‘Free porn! To access it simply enter your credit card details to verify your age and click here’ to be a lucrative branch of cybercrime). For a more detailed and technical discussion of the numerous issues around implementing AV, see Alec Muffett’s blog article, ‘A Sequence of Spankingly Bad Ideas’.

In short, the bill (presumably unintentionally, since its principal aim is to protect children) spells bad news for both producers and adult consumers of pornography, an outcome that will no doubt be welcome to many campaigners, be greeted by others as an acceptable price for protecting children, but be lamented by those who value the freedom to produce, explore and enjoy perfectly legal erotica and pornography.

But will the legislation work? There are several reasons to think (and hope) it will quickly founder on the rocks.

First, Muffett’s article suggests that there is no straightforward way of implementing AV. Any AV has to be robust and secure, as minimally intrusive as possible but sufficiently intrusive to verify a user’s age, and to apply potentially to every single user of the internet throughout the UK. At present, nobody knows what form AV will take, and it could take a long time before any system has been set up. Those without much knowledge of digital technology, such as most politicians, tend to assume that digital projects are relatively straightforward to fulfil; those of us with experience of working on digital projects know that the opposite is the case. (Think of the billions of overspend and huge delays on Iain Duncan Smith’s much touted system of universal credit for an example of the naïve hopes of the politician about IT projects.) Muffett’s analysis is that any system of AV in line with the bill’s proposals is likely to run into various problems. That may lead to it being abandoned; or it may lead to a more comprehensive form of digital ID that every British citizen will be required to have. If the latter, then we will be inching a little closer to an Orwellian dystopia.

Second, it doesn’t take long to find examples of content that will defeat the intentions of the bill. Consider Twitter. Twitter has a comparatively liberal, hands-off approach to adult content; unsurprisingly, Twitter is awash with pornography. To comply with UK legislation, Twitter will either have to implement AV for UK users, or it will have to remove all adult content. It’s almost impossible to envisage it doing either. To add AV to UK Twitter accounts will mean everybody in the UK who wishes to use Twitter will need to supply personal details simply to have access to an account. Moreover, it will presumably mean that Twitter will become 18+ in the UK. Perhaps this will be acceptable to UK users; but I doubt it. The alternative—to remove all adult content—would mean Twitter changing global policy simply to comply with the laws of a single country, letting the BBFC determine for Twitter what is and what is not acceptable content, and diverting resources so that content can be regularly and closely monitored. There is zero chance of that happening.

Third, I have already mentioned the difficulties facing the BBFC in determining whether material should be restricted or not. This will not be made any easier by the fact that the BBFC will be making decisions on every single adult website, and every website that contains adult content, from all over the world (and the regulator will need to determine whether any sites flagged up by the BBFC are commercial or not, before contacting the site and trying to enforce AV). Numerous job opportunities may well be opening up at the BBFC and in the new regulator’s department in the near future; applicants with a knowledge of pornography will have an advantage.

There are also various potential anomalies that will arise. For example, an erotic short story on a commercial site will be unaffected by the legislation; but if an author includes an audio file of that story, then, according to the letter of the law, AV will be needed to access the blog. A curious aspect of the bill is that the same words have a different legal status depending on whether they are written or spoken. Another anomaly: an explicit short story (one that describes, say, sexual torture) on a non-commercial blog will remain accessible to children; some mild nudity on a commercial adult blog will be restricted. Moreover, hardcore pornography will still be accessible on non-commercial sites (personal blogs, for example) without the need for AV. Fortunately for the Daily Mail, there will remain plenty to get worked up about.

It is worth recalling how ineffective politicians have been in dealing with media generally. For years politicians have discussed how to deal with the some of the worst excesses of traditional media, and have even endeavoured from time to time to do something, yet without any noticeable effect. All the measures designed to regulate newspapers, for example, have done little to curb the worst practices of the tabloids. Whether or not that failure is to be welcomed, it may be instructive when assessing the likelihood of successful regulation of digital media.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is the unrealistic, overweening confidence of UK legislators that a national legislative body can provide solutions in an area that is truly global and ever-changing. One might even say the spirit of Brexit can be detected here: rather than view this issue as requiring transnational cooperation, the British blunder forward in the stubborn belief that it can all be solved at the national level. Equally unrealistic is the idea that proposed solutions in 2016 will be relevant even a year or two from now. Digital technology changes rapidly; new devices and platforms will emerge; new problems will arise; current problems will evolve into different ones; ways will be found around out-of-date legislation. In the world of digital communications, legislation and policy have a very short shelf life, such is the rapidity of change in that world.

None of this is to minimize the seriousness of the problem: easy access to pornography shouldn’t be available to children. But a heavy-handed and censorious approach by the state is not likely to work—at least not without serious restrictions on individual freedom (for reference, see North Korea and Saudi Arabia, among other countries, as guides to effective internet restrictions). Far better would be: to begin a wide-ranging, open and public debate about digital communications; to take a more sophisticated approach to the different types of adult material (which would include thinking about that old chestnut, the difference between pornography and erotica); to work transnationally at addressing these issues; and to work and engage closely with digital producers, with social media companies, and, importantly, with producers of adult material. Easy solutions won’t be forthcoming; but a more informed debate and understanding of digital communications will be generated that is more likely to lead to positive outcomes, and less likely to lead to astonishingly illiberal mistakes such as the Digital Economy Bill.

As I’ve suggested above, there are good reasons to suppose the bill will not work. That is not necessarily good news: it may lead to an even more thoroughgoing attempt at censorship, deeper intrusion into privacy, and greater restrictions on personal freedom. And even if the outcome, more positively, will be the abandonment of attempts by the state to expand its monitoring and close policing of its citizens, the situation in the immediate future is not promising: the Digital Economy Bill will inject numerous anomalies and inconsistencies into the digital culture of the UK, it will move towards the establishment of a database of porn users, it will lead to the demise of many independent producers of erotica and pornography, and it will create a puritanical climate in which erotica is policed in an intrusive and heavy-handed way. For those of us who regard erotica and sex as important topics worthy of attention, creativity and freedom, this is a bleak, dismal state of affairs. And for those of us imagining that erotica might be one form of pleasant distraction from the horrors of Brexit, another hope is in danger of being dashed. It’s becoming increasingly hard to find anything to look forward to in Britain right now.

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel (and Trump): Part 2—‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’

The times they are a-changin’

More than four months have passed since I promised this post—which is now written in the light of the election of Donald Trump as US president (something that I superstitiously predicted in the frustrated hope that I would, for once, be wrong about election outcomes). Like Brexit and the presidential election, my writing has been a drawn-out, chaotic process. This post as good as represents a new article rather than an obvious sequel to the first post. Above all, it responds far more to Trump’s election than it does to Brexit—it would, after all, be the height of parochialism to consider the latter anywhere near as significant as the former.

* * * * *

Right now, in the midst of Brexit and so soon after the election of Donald Trump as US president, historical perspective is not likely to yield much that is useful for helping to understand events that have only just begun to unfold. Clearly Trump and Brexit, as well as Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Assad, Isis and much else besides across the world, point to the emergence of a global crisis and a treacherous future. But history will help us little to comprehend any of this in detail, how it may unfold and what may be the route out of the dark and grim cave we find ourselves in. On the other hand, history can provide an important broader perspective—and one that may even provide grounds for optimism.

Like anyone else, historians like to feel useful, so there are inevitably attempts to analyze recent events in light of the wisdom they have acquired from their expertise. One such attempt that garnered some attention (it was originally blogged at and was republished by The Huffington Post) is an article by Tobias Stone entitled (with somewhat hubristic confidence) ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’.

Stone makes two broad points, which turn out to be disconnected, and arguably incompatible. The first is that comparatively small events, such as Brexit, can lead to larger events in a globally connected world. To illustrate the point, he sketches out a scenario in which Brexit is the triggering event in a chain that leads to global nuclear war. This is, of course, speculation rather than a serious claim that this ‘will happen’, and Stone himself concedes that one cannot know for sure what the outcome of Brexit will be, either for Britain or internationally. However, the general claim is sound to the point of being historical commonsense: events lead to other events, invariably in ways that are unforeseen at the time. No historian would dispute this.

Stone’s second main point is that history operates in a cyclical way. The cycle he presents is one in which a period of stability is inevitably followed by a period of destruction, from which society emerges in better shape and achieves stability again, only to descend once more into destruction; and so on. He suggests that most people are unaware of this because their understanding of the past is limited to about 50-100 years; but historians, who have a longer perspective on the past, will soon detect this cyclical pattern. Unfortunately, the only real example of this cycle he presents is one that is itself limited to the previous 100 years, encompassing the two world wars and various other events over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that culminate in the emergence of Putin, Trump and Brexit. Stone does present a disparate list of other historical events—‘the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses, English Civil War’—but without explaining how these wildly different events (including one—the Black Death—that has nothing to do with human agency, and another—the Spanish Inquisition—that was not so much an event as an institution that spanned centuries) illustrate a recurring cycle to the past.

The idea that the past reveals historical cycles is a popular one. It was a common topos among classical writers, and the notion of a wheel of fortune revolving and dictating human affairs has a long pedigree. Nineteenth-century social theorists and historians, fond of understanding society in biological terms, likened human affairs to the life cycle, with inevitable stages of youth, maturity, decline, death, and new life.

But, to put it bluntly, cyclical theory is utter rubbish, based on a groundless, quasi-mystical notion that some kind of metaphysical (or, alternatively, biological) law applies to history. There is no evidence that history works in cycles and that we can use the past and a ‘cyclical model’ to predict what will happen next. Of course, if one tries hard enough (and many historians have) it is possible to impose all sorts of patterns on the past—most notoriously by those historians influenced by Marxist theories on historical development. We have a tendency (and this is arguably a psychological truth) to impose or detect patterns because we prefer seeing comprehensible order rather than incomprehensible chaos. However, these patterns, whether they are Christian providentialist history or Marxist determinism or cyclical history, almost never stand up to real scrutiny. They are fictions, telling us far more about ourselves than they do about the past. The Christian providentialist history, for example, reveals more about the mentality of its author than it does about the past; cyclical theory tells us a lot about the human predisposition to view time and the universe in an anthropocentric way, and about the desire to render history as a science operating according to identifiable laws. There is no requirement to be a postmodernist to cast scepticism upon such grand, and undeniably imaginative, historicizing theories.

One thing that history does teach us is that it is unwise to draw direct comparisons between two historical periods, particularly when they are at significant temporal remove. Any suggestion that our own time might be compared with earlier historical periods is fraught with problems. In almost every area there are fundamental, incomparable differences between our age and any previous age, whether those differences be demographic, cultural, technological, scientific, intellectual, or social. For all that there are things which approximate to constants (or at least admit only tiny change over history)—geography, the environment, biology—difference rather than similarity characterizes the overwhelming part of human life and society when viewed across historical periods. The urban, post-industrial society that we live in today, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize—none of that can be compared with any previous period except in ways that are highly general or superficial. It is, for example, undoubtedly interesting and valuable to consider the modern digital revolution in media and communications with the print revolution of the early modern period, but to approach them from a cyclical perspective—as examples, perhaps, of cycles of technological change—ends up in a ridiculous and misconceived effort to incorporate the vast differences between the two ‘revolutions’ under a single explanatory ‘law’.

The capacity for folly would seem to qualify as a human constant transcending time. However, this folly invariably manifests itself in different ways depending on the historical context. Just because in both 1618 and 1939 Europe descended into profoundly destructive warfare emanating from Germany does not mean the two events are comparable instances of a deeper cyclical law. The Thirty Years’ War and World War II were vastly different conflicts, stemming from vastly different causes, and occurring in vastly different social, political, cultural and intellectual worlds. Similarly, just because the crisis of democracy and liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to totalitarianism, war, genocide and devastation does not mean the same will happen again in the present crisis. The economy, society and culture of interwar Europe resembles our own in few respects. Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may well be ‘fascistic’, and it may be interesting to compare them with Hitler and Mussolini, just as it may be interesting to compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin, but there are significant limits to how far one can take such comparisons. There are far more ways in which Trump differs from Hitler than there are ways in which he resembles him. Likewise, one does not have to be fond of the Republican Party to point out that they are not remotely like the German Nazi Party. To suppose that Hitler and the Nazis, and Trump and the Republicans are fulfilling the same destined cyclical role is a nonsense. In short, cyclical theories of history are junk—entertaining junk perhaps, and revealing of the mental world from which they originate, but junk all the same.

* * * * *

braudel_mediterraneanHistory can nevertheless shed light on contemporary events. A more fertile approach to understanding the past was that of the French historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85). One of the central figures in what has come to be known as the Annales school of historiography—the influence of which on historical research cannot be overstated—Braudel was arguably the greatest historian, and his book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), arguably the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. The importance of The Mediterranean stems in part from its brilliant exposition of sixteenth-century Mediterranean society, economy, culture and politics, but above all from its broader structure. Braudel consciously rejected the traditional approach to history which focused on politics and events. Instead, he understood the past in terms of three different levels of historical time: geographical time, social time, and individual time. The first deals with the extremely slow, almost imperceptible, changes in geography, the environment and climate that shape human history; the second concerns demographic, social, economic and cultural structures and their gradual changes; and the third, individual time, is the domain of ‘events’, those

surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief,  rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions… Resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of these larger movements [of geographical and social time] and explicable only in terms of them. (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. by Siân Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; first published in French, 1949; second revised edn, 1966), p. 21.)

Traditional history fixated on events and individuals: kings and queens, statesmen, diplomats and generals, high politics, wars and revolutions. It is interesting, exciting and entertaining history, but on its own provides little understanding of the past. To understand the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as Braudel endeavoured to do, required attention to the longue durée, the long-term, the arena of geographical and social time. It necessitated understanding the Mediterranean as a sea with its islands and coastline, and the surrounding lands as varying regions of hills, mountains, plains and deserts. For it is this geography and climate which has shaped the social and economic culture of the Mediterranean peoples, fashioning the agriculture, the local and wider economies, the trade routes and financial systems. Only by grasping these features of the Mediterranean world—its geography, its climate, its economy, its society—is it possible to understand the individuals, politics and events that emerge from them.

Braudel’s metaphor of ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’ suggests that most events are little more than froth. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is to offer a Braudelian adaptation of Shakespeare: events, whether wars, revolutions, political upheavals, are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing other than the larger movements of geographical and social time.

A Braudelian perspective, therefore, might regard the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit as surface manifestations of larger movements. An analysis of Trump and Brexit more plausible than the attempt to discern in them the recurrence of a cyclical stage is to consider them as reactions to rapid change (some of which might be described as progress). It is possible, for example, that they are the final, dying twitches of misogyny, white supremacy and blinkered nationalism in a world that increasingly has little place for such things; certainly, demographic, social, cultural and economic evidence suggests that possibility is more likely than that Trump and Brexit are ushering an enduring change in human history. There is a chance that these dying twitches will lead to global devastation and environmental catastrophe. But this is not inevitable, and assuming we manage to avoid such disasters, we may well find an era will follow—in five years or fifty years, who knows?—that once again embraces progressive, liberal and enlightened values suited to the demographically and culturally diverse world we live in.

The point is, to adopt this Braudelian view, that there is a flowing ocean of broad social, cultural and intellectual shifts on which Trump and Brexit are transitory crests of foam. One might consider gender history as an example. The election of Trump is undoubtedly a setback in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But the long history of this struggle shows nothing cyclical about it; rather, it resembles a long and painfully slow story of progress against a background of gradual social, economic and cultural change. Trump is probably no more than a temporary setback, a desperate misogynist backlash, a brief and fleeting political manifestation of the rage and frustrations of men who are dimly aware they are almost certainly on the losing side of history. Even the misogyny of Trump and his supporters is not going to reverse female suffrage, say, or access to higher education. Despite Trump, all the historical signs are that one day in the future women will achieve equality. As Braudel put it, in ‘historical analysis… the long run always wins in the end’ (The Mediterranean, p. 1244). Individual historical actors, such as Trump, and events, such as the 2016 presidential election, are, for all their immediate and foreseeable pain, insignificant in the context of the broader tides of social and cultural change.

Despite the hopes of non-specialists that history may contain the secrets of what will happen in the future, historians have never been good at predicting the future with any precision. Any attempt to read from recent events a future sequence of events and their outcome is no more than speculative guesswork requiring no knowledge of history. Anyone could imagine, say, a scenario in which a terrorist incident on US soil in the name of Islamic fundamentalism early in the Trump presidency leads to virulent Islamophobia; or a win for Marine Le Pen that results in Frexit and further international instability. Equally, however, there may be neither a terrorist attack nor a victory for Le Pen. Whether there are or not, and what possible outcomes may arise, cannot be gleaned by looking at past historical events; they can only be based on an astute and informed assessment of current possibilities and probabilities.

But what history can illuminate are the broader and longer changes that generate events. Climate change, demographic change, social and cultural change, technological change: the long histories of these provide a better context for understanding recent events than a narrow analysis of personalities, political calculations and strategies. A recognition of this may help us avoid the despair of supposing recent events map out a road that ends only in catastrophe. And it certainly makes more sense than to view these events as manifestations of a mysterious historical law according to which humans will periodically enter into phases of self destruction. Not only is such a cyclical view nonsensical fiction, it is also likely to foster an attitude of resigned quietism.

Finally, it is worth stating that the present concerns are fourfold: to understand recent events; to avoid potential global disaster; to keep alive progressive values; and to work towards the acceptance and success of those values. History can help in these tasks, particularly those of understanding events and preserving values. This is because the past does not present a metaphysical law of inevitable cyclical return, but is rather a shared body of experience, knowledge and analysis from which to draw inspiration and understanding. It is for this reason that history, as the discipline concerned with the past, is invaluable in the present.

And since I began my first post with reference to the now deservedly Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, I’ll end this one with a couple of lines worth keeping in mind: ‘For the loser now will be later to win, / For the times they are a-changin’.’