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The tyranny of populism

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Himmler (1943)

So, we have a new prime minister Boris Johnson.  Donald Trump has given his endorsement, hardly surprising, and yet rather than having a feeling of optimism that Boris in his inaugural speech in the House of Commons wished to engender amongst the population, his appointment fills me with dread.  Judging from reactions around the country, I’m not the only one, but people voted for him just the same as people voted for Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the recently elected Ukrainian president.

The reasons for their success lie not in a proven ability to do the job but in notions of popularity reinforced by predominantly right-wing rhetoric.  Of real concern, is this rise of right wing populism across Europe and in the United States.  References to ‘letter boxes’ (Johnson, 2018), degrading Muslim women or tweeting ethnic minority political opponents to ‘go back to where they came from’ (Lucas, 2019) seems to cause nothing more than a ripple amongst the general population and such rhetoric is slowly but surely becoming the lingua franca of the new face of politics.  My dread is how long before we hear similar chants to ‘Alle Juden Raus!’ (1990), familiar in 1930s Nazi Germany?

It seems that such politics relies on the ability to appeal to public sentiment around nationalism and public fears around the ‘other’.  The ‘other’ is the unknown in the shadows, people who we do not know but are in some way different.  It is not the doctors and nurses, the care workers, those that work in the hospitality industry or that deliver my Amazon orders.  These are people that are different by virtue of race or colour or creed or language or nationality and, yet we are familiar with them.  It is not those, it is not the ‘decent Jew’ (Himmler, 1943), it is the people like that, it is the rest of them, it is the ‘other’ that we need to fear.

The problems with such popular rhetoric is that it does not deal with the real issues, it is not what the country needs.  John Stuart Mill (1863) was very careful to point out the dangers that lie within the tyranny of the majority.  The now former prime minister Theresa May made a point of stating that she was acting in the national Interest (New Statesman, 2019).  But what is the national interest, how is it best served? As with my university students, it is not always about what people want but what they need.  I could be very popular by giving my students what they want.  The answers to the exam paper, the perfect plan for their essay, providing a verbal precis of a journal article or book chapter, constantly reminding them when assignments are due, turning a blind eye to plagiarism and collusion*.  This may be what they want, but what they need is to learn to be independent, revise for an exam, plan their own essays, read their own journal articles and books, plan their own assignment hand in dates, and understand and acknowledge that cheating has consequences.  What students want has not been thought through, what students need, has.  What students want leads them nowhere, hopefully what students need provides them with the skills and mindset to be successful in life.

What the population wants has not been thought through, the ‘other’ never really exists and ‘empire’ has long gone.  What the country needs should be well thought out and considered, but being popular seems to be more important than delivering.  Being liked requires little substance, doing the job is a whole different matter.

*I am of course generalising and recognise that the more discerning students recognise what they need, albeit that sometimes they may want an easier route through their studies.

Alle Juden Raus (1990) ‘All Jews Out’, Directed by Emanuel Rund. IMDB

Himmler, H. (1943) Speech made at Posen on October 4, 1943, U.S. National Archives, [online] available at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/holocaust/h-posen.htm [accessed 26 July 2019].

Johnson, B. (2018) Denmark has got it wrong. Yes, the burka is oppressive and ridiculous – but that’s still no reason to ban it, The Telegraph, 5th August 2018.

Lucas, A. (2019) Trump tells progressive congresswomen to ‘go back’ to where they came from, CNBC 14 July 2019 [online] available at https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/14/trump-tells-progressive-congresswomen-to-go-back-to-where-they-came-from.html [accessed 26 July 2019]

Mill, J. S. (1863) On Liberty, [online] London: Tickner and Fields, Available from https://play.google.com/store/books [accessed 26 July 2019]

New Statesman (2019) Why those who say they are acting in “the national interest” often aren’t, [online] Available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/01/why-those-who-say-they-are-acting-national-interest-often-arent [accessed 26 July 2019]

Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

The changing face of criminology

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We can profess that those of us in academia get to own a small nugget of knowledge on their chosen subject.  This is how specialism is developed and cultivated.  We start our long journey into knowledge first by learning the discipline as a whole, going through the different theories and issues, becoming aware of the critical debates, before we embrace the next step of in depth understanding.  Little by little knowledge becomes a road full of junctions, intersections and byroads, constantly fueled by one of the most basic but profound parts of human experience, curiosity.  Academia, was originally developed by a person looking up in the wider cosmos and wondering; surely there is more to life than this.  When the recorded experience aligned with imagination it produced results; civilization emerged as a collective testament of being.  Arguably the first ever question, whenever it was posed and however it was phrased, philosophy was born; any attempt to answer it generated reason and logic.

The process of learning is painstaking because education is a process and as such it requires us to grow as we absorb it.  This process is never ending because “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing” to quote Ecclesiastes and therefore learning is lifelong.  In academia, in particular, this thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and because of it we progress our respective disciplines further, constantly expanding the boundaries.  Anyone of us who had a discussion in or out of a classroom will testify that even on the same topic, with the same material, a seminar is never the same.  The main reason for this is, education is active and as a learner I gain from whatever I can relate to and comprehend.  Time and time again, I go back to my own learning as I adapt my pedagogy, because to teach is a dialectic; we impart an idea and we let it flourish to those who shall be taking it further.

There is a reason why I am so reflecting of education on this entry; recently we had a reunion of our alumni and in preparation of the event, I was looking back at the way we taught criminology, what changed and how things have progressed.  Colleagues, moved on as expected and the student demographics may have changed but the subject is still taught.  It is this ongoing process that fascinated me in that reflection.  The curriculum and the ideas behind it.  As an institution we offer a number of subject areas, criminology included, that other institutions around the world do, but no other institution will have the unique blend of what we offer.  This part is quite astounding that in the reproduction of ideas and across the continuity of disciplinary knowledge, there is always a place for originality.

On the day, I could hear the stories from some of our alumni with a latent sense of pride as they spoke with some confidence about their life plans, work commitments and ideas.  These were the same people who some years ago, blushed in a seminar from shyness, were anxious about their exam results and worried about their degree classification.  Now with confidence, they embrace their education with the realisation that they have just made the first step into a terra incognita… their journey into learning continues.  During the next weeks (and hopefully, months), a number of our alumni (and current students) will put pen to paper of their thoughts, on our blog and talk about their experiences and their criminology.  We thank them in advance and are looking forward to read their thoughts.

Leave my country

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One image, one word, one report can generate so much emotion and discussion.  The image of the naked girl running away from a napalm bombed village, the word “paedo” used in tabloids to signal particular cases and reports such as the Hillsborough or the Lamy reports which brought centre stage major social issues that we dare not talk about.*

Regardless of the source, it is those media that make a cultural statement making an impact that in some cases transcends their time and forms our collective consciousness.  There are numerous images, words and reports, and we choose to make some of these symbols that explain our theory of the world around us.

It was in the news that I saw a picture of a broken window, a stone and a sign next to it: “Leave my country”.  The sign was held by an 11 year old refugee with big brown eyes asking why.  This is not the only image that made it to the news this week; some days ago following the fatal car crash in New York the image of a 29 year old suspect from Uzbekistan appeared everywhere.  These two images are of course unconnected across continents and time but there is some semiology worth noting.

We make sense of the world around us by observing.  It is the media that are our eyes helping us to explore this wider world and witness relationships, events and situations that we may never considered possible.  It must have been a very different world when over a century ago news of the sinking of the Titanic came through.  We store images and words that help us define the way our world functions.  In criminology, words are always attached to emotion and prejudice.

I deliberately chose two images: a victimised child and an adult suspect of an act of terror.  They have nothing in common other than both appear foreign in the way I understand those who are not like me.  Of course neither of these images is personally relatable to me but their story is compelling for different reasons.  Then of course as I explore both stories and images, I wonder what is that remains of my understanding of the foreigner?

Last year, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo produced a caricature of what would little Aylan would have done if he was to grow up, presented as a sex pest.  The caricature caused public outcry but at the time, like this week, I started considering the images and their meanings.  Do we put stories together based on the images we see around us?  If that is a way of defining and explaining our social world then the imagery of good and bad foreigners, young and old, victims and villains may merge in a deconstruction of social reality that defines the foreigner.  In that case and at that point the sign next to the 11 year old may not be voiced but it can become an implicit collective objective.

*At this stage I would like to mention that I was considering to write about the media’s “surprise” over the abuse allegations following revelations for a Hollywood producer but decide not to, due to the media’s attempt to saturate one of the most significant social issues of our times with other studies with varying levels of credibility.  We observed a similar situation after the Jimmy Saville case.

 

Is freedom too great a price to pay?

Freedom

The 1st of October was a bad day, I watched the news on television in dismay, as I seem to frequently do these days.  Fifty eight people killed and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas.  Over a few days I thought about this and continued watching news bulletins and the discussion on gun control and the right to bear arms.  I recall previously seeing Barak Obama on television, lamenting the illegal use of guns in the United States and attempting to convince people that gun possession needed to be controlled.  He failed, but from news reports not for the want of trying.  The gun lobby and politics were a powerful block on any movement in that direction.

The present incumbent Donald Trump does not seem to have much to say about the matter other than the usual platitudes that come out at a time of national disaster.  So my thoughts turned to politics and ideology.  I can’t profess to know much about American politics or the American Constitution but as I understand it, the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution. The debate about whether the Second Amendment intended that ordinary citizens had the right to bear arms or the right to bear arms was intended for the militia is one that has continued for many a decade and it seems the courts, not without some dissent, fell on the side of the citizen.

As I continue to try to make sense of it all, I question what was intended by those great people that drafted and redrafted and finally agreed the American Constitution.  If the very people that debated and drafted the constitution were to consider the matter now, in contemporary society, knowing the advanced technology and the damage that firearms have caused across America, including the illegal use of firearms in the name of the law, would they have drafted the second amendment in such a way?

Of course we can think about this concept a little wider and apply it to various ideologies across the world.  Take the concept of free speech, would those that drafted the various constitutions and rights in many a country have foreseen that the concept of free speech would be used to spread hate against various groups of people?  Did they intend that free speech would be used to adulterate and twist religious texts so that hate could be espoused and acted upon?

These rights were drafted and agreed in a different era.  Those that espoused them could perhaps not have conceived that they would be abused to the extent they are now or that the concepts would cause so much damage and misery. If we could bring all those great minds together now, would they amend those rights perhaps putting some stipulations on them?

I have a feeling that many a great mind would turn in their graves at these notions and of course I understand it is not quite so simple but I do just wonder? Is freedom too great a price to pay?

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