Sajid Javid, the Conservative Home Secretary, announced a report on “extremism” yesterday. According to the mainstream press, he used the opportunity to bemoan the rise of “far right populist movements” around the world, and in particular to condemn President Trump’s recent controversial remarks about a certain group of socialist Democrats that I am led to believe dictate to Congress over in the USA currently.
But therein lies the problem with the word “extremism”: it appears to be entirely based on subjective, or at best relative, ideas on what constitutes extreme views. After all, President Trump was elected by the usual American democratic system for his views, which would appear to make them mainstream by definition. And, as others have pointed out, the much denigrated “populism” has much the same core meaning as “democratic,” that is, representing what the people want. If extreme views are very popular, in what sense are they extreme? Hong Kong’s mass protests are populist and, from the viewpoint of Beijing’s ruling Communist Party, are right-wing and extreme.
Javid, as far as I can see from the press articles, was trying to have his cake and eat it, in that he was careful to say that the frontrunning contender for Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is not an extremist, and that neither is Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party gained most MEPs in the recent European election. Yet both Farage and Johnson have been called “Far-right” by both Labour politicians and BBC journalists, partly because they appear to be allies of President Trump. So Javid’s is merely a subjective (and apparently politically expedient) judgement.
It would appear that Javid’s focus on far-right groups is because they are the extremists who seem most popular here, which again appears to be an example of the self-contradictory idea of the extreme middle of the bell-curve. When it comes to actual acts of far-right terror or violence, it is hard to think of good recent examples in this country (which was the focus of the report). The most prominent ultra-nationalist group that engaged in street-violence, the British National Party, collapsed several years ago.
We’ve had a good number of Islamist outrages with many dead, and street-violence seems a lot more common amongst Antifa-type groups attacking their opponents, leaving many injured. Left wing Green animal rights activists committed violent acts in the past (and by releasing captive Amercican mink caused ecological havoc), but seem to have been imprisoned out of effective existence for now, being replaced by disruptive, but not yet violent, Extinction Rebellion demonstrators.
Although a number of analysts have identified this last group’s underlying self-proclaimed aim as the overthrow of the current world political order, our Prime Minister has fallen over herself to meet them and even pass their radical energy policy into laws unmatched by any other country of the world. So are they “extreme” or not?
But individual political leanings aside, the very essence of identifying extremism is first to identify the centre, and this is the weakest area of such a report. In its coverage, the good old Independent quoted an analyst from Hope Not Hate to talk about the rise of populism in response to the failure to carry through the Brexit referendum vote. But Hope not Hate is a left wing, “anti-fascist” group specifically formed to oppose the right through activism. Unbiased? Centrist?
Javid himself set great store by his reliance on academics and “other experts” in the report. The latter, of course, actually means “pressure groups,” presumably like Hope Not Hate. But the kind of academics interested in such topics are, of course, sociologists. Even when I studied social psychology in Cambridge, sociology was a haven for the New Left. The big thing then was Adorno’s “Authoritarian Personality,” and his “F-scale” (“F” standing for “Fascist”!) appears specifically tailored to target mainstream bourgeois values and, particularly, Christianity.
Since then, here as in the US there has been a more or less total purging of any other viewpoint from the discipline. I can’t remember the exact figures, but a recent US survey showed that something like 98% of sociologists see themselves as politically “left”, and some figure like 37% as Marxists.
How could any such guild be trusted to identify the political centre? It would seem only logical for such people to exaggerate extremes to the right and underplay those to the left. This is evidenced by the way that academics tend to view Antifa violence against non-violent opponents as a justified “normal” response to “extremism.”
Another factor that raises concern about any government report on extremism is the now undeniable existence of the “Westminster Bubble.” All the metropolitan political élites have moved far, far to the left of working people, and therefore regard ordinary people as extremists, whether that be the Labour PM Gordon Brown caught on mic calling a woman who had questioned him politely about uncontrolled immigration “a bigot,” or the present Conservative Chancellor trying to undermine the new Prime Minister’s Brexit options, even before his party’s Euroskeptic membership have voted him in. Javid’s pejorative use of “nationalism” presupposes that “globalism” is the central norm, and that remains highly questionable.
Journalist Robert Peston is one of a number who, astonished by the referendum vote, went out into the “real world” and found that what his class regarded as “normal” was entirely alien to many of the ordinary people. Given these considerations, it is pretty clear that any concept that depends so heavily on subjective judgement as “extremism” is not a good basis for policy-making.
Now, some beliefs are extreme on almost any current reckoning. Solipcism is an extreme view, but who cares that only you exist if you treat me reasonably? Moon-landing conspiracy theories and flat-earthism are extreme, but are hard to regard as in any way harmful… though I suspect they are symptoms of people’s loss of faith in science because of its rampant politicisation over recent decades. I might try to correct such beliefs by dialogue, but why should I worry that people hold them, or commission reports about them?
Belief amongst Muslims that America is the Great Satan and that infidels will perish at the Judgement are pretty common amongst those living in Western nations. But how do we measure these beliefs’ “extremeness”? To a secular westerner, they are certainly well out there. But they are pretty close to what I would take as the plain meaning of my reading of the Quran. Some of the Muslims I’ve met, and even treated when I worked, no doubt believe such things. But so what, unless they show signs of acting on them? If they do, it matters not one whit if they are mainstream or extreme Muslims – they are wrongdoers even if their just punishment leads to civil disorder.
It seems to me the best way to change such beliefs is to remove the grounds for them by living in a godly way myself, and seeking to reform the moral decline of western nations, that makes the “Great Satan” claim plausible.
The last thing I would do is try to make sure I control the school curriculum so that Muslim children grow up into good little secularists despite their parents’ wishes. (Activists are currently seeking to make teaching on female genital mutilation mandatory in primary schools, whilst ironically also mandating teaching on surgical gender transition. I’m not sure how a nine-year old Muslim girl will benefit from knowing in advance that Mum and Dad are taking her on holiday to be cut. Is she supposed to run away from home, or turn her parents in to the police, or just suffer for longer because of her insight into what awaits her?).
No, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought, mean nothing unless I am allowed to be hopelessly, and extremely, wrong about things I believe. Governments do not possess an absolute standard of truth by which to judge deviations in thought – Queen Elizabeth I was wiser than rulers today when she refused to try and make “windows into men’s souls.”
What governments can do, though, is the rather old fashioned thing of preventing, or punishing, violence against other people, whether it comes from right wing extremists, left wing extremists, or profoundly average people who happen to have gone beserk. To quote the Rev Gary Davis, a recording of whose music I featured recently, “I don’t pay no heed to that barkin’ dog – but that bitin’ dog I’m sceered of.”
“The magistrate does not bear the sword in vain.”
It is extreme actions (or more accurately, violent actions), and not extreme views, that are the proper business of government. Violence can be defined in a permanent way – normality cannot.
If you deplatform or put legal bans on what you regard as extreme views, then the most likely outcome is more violence, planned in more secrecy, by more people. By all means use information, that seems to warn of violence from certain people or groups, to guide your policing and security policy.
But spare me your “extremism” along with your “fascism,” “fundamentalism,” or “supremacism” that tell me nothing about those so labelled, but quite a lot, none of it pleasant, about those who use them.