Richard Beeston, an exemplary journalist

Oliver Kamm

In common with everyone at The Times, and many beyond it, I’m deeply saddened by the death from cancer of Richard Beeston, our Foreign Editor. His obituary (outside the paywall) is here. It excellently summarises (and can do no more than that) an extraordinary career. Though I came to the newspaper quite recently and with no background in journalism, Richard could not have been more generous with his counsel, wisdom and encouragement in my writing on foreign affairs. I shall miss him greatly. (See also the comment below the obit by Daniel Finkelstein, about Richard’s professionalism and the admiration that he inspired.)

The reference in the obituary to William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent in the Crimean War, nicely illustrates Richard’s own distinctive – even historic - contribution to war reporting. He saw his responsibility as finding things out and giving as objective an account as he could manage of the horrors of the conflicts he covered.

Objectivity doesn’t mean balance: it means telling the truth about what you discover. As one of the first journalists to reach Halabja after Saddam Hussein’s gassing of its Kurdish inhabitants, Richard wrote unsparingly of this monstrous crime and the genocidal campaign of which it was a part. He felt controlled anger at the unwillingness of Western statesmen to admit the facts of such a heinous crime (which they initially blamed on Iran).

Similarly, Richard exposed conditions in the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Western policymakers promoted the destructive fiction that this was a civil war born of intractable ancient hatreds. Like other brave journalists, such as Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian and Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Richard knew better; he eloquently dissected the ferocious xenophobic campaign of the Bosnian Serbs against a constitutional authority. Journalistic objectivity did not mean a refusal to discriminate between oppressor and victim.

The same indignation at injustice moved Richard more recently to report on the barbarous campaign by President Assad against a captive Syrian population. I regret that in a recent radio discussion with Sir Andrew Green, a former ambassador to Damascus, I slapped Green down for his deplorable remarks castigating my profession. I was thinking mainly but not only of Richard, who knew the terrain well and conveyed brilliantly the nature of this humanitarian catastrophe - while Green was till recently, of all things, co-chairman of the British Syria Society with Assad’s father-in-law.

Richard’s death is an immense blow to journalism, to this newspaper and – most of all – to his wife, Natasha, to whom I express my condolences on the loss of a remarkable and exemplary man.

A tragic approach to same-sex marriage

Oliver Kamm

The Times supports same-sex marriage. It’s an editorial stance that I’ve had a role in formulating and a position that I strongly favour. One particular feature of our case ought to appeal to a rational conservative. As argued in our initial leader last year in support of reform, formally acknowledging the validity of homosexual unions “has encouraged gay couples to commit to enduring partnerships, in which many show a devotion, care and disinterested love that do far more to create ordered domesticity than government programmes could ever achieve”.

Not all opposition to gay marriage is prejudiced, but the irrationalism of its supposedly heavyweight critics is hard to miss. I have just noted comments by John Milbank, a prominent British theologian and founder of something called “Radical Orthodoxy”. His argument is summarised in the American religious journal First Things and set out fully here.

Milbank’s prose style is not the crispest, but once you’ve excavated his argument you have to wonder at its paucity. He begins by referring to “the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects”.

I don’t think it’s doing violence to his argument to summarise it this way: “Homosexuality? Ugh!” It’s an aesthetic judgment (at least, that’s the politest thing I can say about it) of no relevance to public debate.

Milbank’s principal point appears to be, however, that: “Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very ‘grammar’ of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.”

Milbank is obscure but I can recognise something here that is no better reasoned than his claim about “squeamishness”. He thinks sex is about having children, and this is essential to marriage. He maintains that “a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage”.

Children and a loving domestic environment in which they can grow up are a benefit of marriage. But they are not the only one. No one disputes the richness of married life for heterosexual couples who are unable to have children. Nor does the State have any business in judging that such a marriage is meaningless. Milbank’s standpoint would be risible if it were not tragic. He defines marriage in such a way that it will exclude homosexuals. That’s not an argument but a manoeuvre.

I once debated with Milbank, on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves. It was an odd experience. He argued for a religion-based common culture. In opposing him, I mentioned the scarcity rather of public rationalism, as evinced by Milbank himself: he’s a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Milbank erupted at this, claiming it was a lie, so note his public support for a group called Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth. Milbank claims to have withdrawn his signature, but it remains in the public domain and he has stated (in an essay entitled Geopolitical Theology: Economy, Religion and Empire after 9/11): “As to the precise causes of 9/11 I remain entirely agnostic.”

Private Eye later reported, completely accurately, that when this live broadcast had ended, Milbank started screaming at me: “You’re going to be dealt with!” He kept this up in the studio, down the corridor, through the lobby and on to the street to our respective waiting cars. But I sleep well.

Britain should welcome, not oppose, immigration

Oliver Kamm

The Conservative Party has an important and historically sometimes dominant strand within it that is internationalist (including pro-Europeanism), pragmatic and in, the broadest sense, liberal. It’s dismaying that, on the evidence of the Queen’s Speech, that current appears to be in abeyance. 

I’m not so worried about the absence from the Speech of legislation for same-sex marriage. I’ve supported that cause for around 20 years (not longer, I’m sorry to say, as I had previously failed to grasp how central the issue was to civil rights and citizenship), and am proud to have helped construct The Times’s recent arguments on it. There are no good arguments for delay and strong conservative reasons for pressing ahead. But I’m confident that this will happen; and when it does, the reform will not only be irreversible but accepted very quickly as a natural and just state of affairs. 

It’s disturbing, however, that the Queen’s Speech dwelt to such an extent on proposals to deter people from coming to the UK. Immigration has economic and social benefits. Immigrants fill gaps in the labour market and, generally being of working age, contribute more to the Exchequer in taxes than they take out in benefits (including education spending). There is some evidence that immigration affects the wages of unskilled workers but that effect is small and there are better remedies than curbing rights of entry. 

It is a dangerous myth that Britain (even under the previous Labour Government, whose record on this issue is creditable) has open borders. Immigration restrictions on people from outside the EU are too onerous. Increased checks, higher age limits for foreign marriage partners and a more bureaucratic visa and work permits scheme do little more than cause inconvenience and in some cases misery. 

Note from our Comment page today an article by Sir Andrew Green, founder of Migration Watch (an innumerate pressure group that continually confuses correlation and causality). Having till recently been co-chairman of the British Syria Society with the father-in-law of President Assad, Sir Andrew does not appear to have a pronounced sense of shame. That deficiency may be the reason for his advancing an argument that others might prefer to keep implicit: “[A]t present immigration levels, the white British might become a minority in as little as 50 years.”

The problem, you see, is the number of black people in Britain. How little has the quality of debate advanced in this country over decades. 

Why Nigel Lawson is wrong about the EU


Oliver Kamm

Asked about Lord Lawson’s argument in The Times today that Britain should leave the EU, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary replied that Lawson was “a terribly clever guy but he’s often wrong on the big issues, like climate change, and this”.

That’s well put. I admire Lord Lawson’s huge memoirs on his time as Chancellor (it’s an outstanding book on applied economics). I’ve debated with him on Europe. He is an intellectually formidable proponent of arguments that are often an unreliable guide to policy.

The best point Lawson makes against EU membership is that the costs of exit are less now than the costs of remaining outside the EEC were 40 years ago. The reason is that international tariff barriers are lower, owing to a general and extremely welcome liberalisation of global trade. But that doesn’t get the argument far.

There would be some immediate financial gains from leaving the EU of about £8 billion, if we no longer made a budgetary contribution. But note that Norway, whom UKIP cite as a possible model, does contribute to the EU budget and accepts almost all EU regulations. It does so because it wants access to the Single Market. And being outside the EU, it has no say in forming its regulations. The nations within the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) have to negotiate their own bilateral trade arrangements rather than be represented by the EU. And they have suffered countervailing duties on important exports (Norwegian salmon, Swiss cheese).

If Britain left the EU, it would moreover suffer a loss of business investment. This would be true even in financial services. The City is highly unlikely to retain its importance as a global financial centre without being part of the EU’s Single Market rules and when sterling is not a reserve currency. Its international competitiveness would also be damaged by the removal of the right of entry to the UK for skilled young workers in finance and IT.

But the main damage to British interests from leaving the EU would be a long-run decline in diplomatic importance. The most important bilateral component of the transatlantic alliance for much of the postwar era has been between the US and Germany, not the US and Britain. Britain outside the EU would be of far less significance in Western foreign policy. We’d be a medium-sized power with a narrower, less liberal ethos. No, thanks.

What’s your view? You can vote in the Times IN/OUT poll here.

A questionable partnership



Oliver Kamm

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph columnist, complains on the Spectator blog about virulent misrepresentations and innuendo. Oddly, he names me as a culprit, for noting sceptical comments made by one David Morrison about the Srebrenica massacre. Morrison is co-author of a recent slim volume with Oborne purporting to explain the pacific character of Iran’s nuclear programme.

I asked why Oborne was associating with a sinister crank. Oborne’s response not only fails to give an answer but compounds the conundrum – for he defends the legitimacy of Morrison’s comments. So far from being a denier of Srebrenica, says Oborne, “Dr Morrison explicitly stated in his article ‘that Bosnian Muslims got massacred in large numbers is not in doubt’ ”.

To understand the feebleness of that comment, recall the disastrous libel action brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 2000 for calling him a Holocaust denier. According to the judgment, “Irving radically modified his position [during the hearing]: he accepted that the killing by shooting had been on a massive scale of between 500,000 and 1,500,000 and that the programme of executions had been carried out in a systematic way and in accordance with orders from Berlin”.

Irving accepted that many Jews had been massacred by the Nazis. But that did not mean that Professor Lipstadt’s description of him as a Holocaust denier was unfair: on the contrary, that’s what Irving was, and the judgment confirmed this.

That’s relevant to our subject, for Srebrenica denial, like Holocaust denial, advances bogus demographics, calumnies against the victims of genocide and exculpation of the perpetrators. Its advocates of course don’t dispute that many Bosnian Muslims were murdered: instead, they deny the massacre that actually took place at Srebrenica in July 1995, namely the systematic murder of 8,000 men and boys in an act of genocide.

We know how many were murdered at Srebrenica, because the bodies have been found. I don’t trouble to argue this point with the deniers; I merely offer to put them in touch with the scientists from the International Commission on Missing Persons who have done the harrowing work of locating and identifying the mortal remains of the victims. They have by now recovered the remains of more than 7,000 victims and identified almost all of them by DNA analysis. They reliably estimate a total of between 8,000 and 8,100 victims.

That evidence of an unspeakable crime was never meant to be discovered. People who maintain that  “the math just doesn’t support the scale of 8,000 killed” utter a lie. Yet those words, by the pro-Serb lobbyist General Lewis MacKenzie, are approvingly cited by Morrison as “the context” of the massacre.

I haven’t troubled here to deal with Morrison’s fantastic additional claim in a Telegraph podcast that “I have never come across a statement from Ahmadinejad saying that the Holocaust didn’t happen”. Oborne acknowledges that the comment was foolish and says that Morrison accepts precisely what he disputed only a few days ago in the podcast. And that’s Oborne’s defence of his co-author.

It’s obvious that Morrison is a hapless incompetent of insanitary opinions. Why a prominent newspaper columnist has published a book with him is a more open question. 

UPDATE: In response to my exposure of his opinions on Srebrenica, Morrison has now added a Delphic and dishonest footnote to his original article. It claims that he has never denied the Srebrenica genocide and says he accepts the estimate of the ICMP for the number of victims.

But of course that’s false. Morrison certainly has denied the Srebrenica massacre, in the very article that I uncovered. It was written in 2005, when the estimated total of Srebrenica victims was long established by all competent researchers, and reproduced an article by General Lewis MacKenzie as “the context” for the Srebrenica massacre. In it, MacKenzie asserted: “Evidence given at The Hague war crimes tribunal casts serious doubt on the figure of ‘up to’ 8,000 Bosnian Muslims massacred.”

Morrison has already demonstrated that in public debate he’s a danger to himself and a liability to his co-author. He may thus not even realise that the evidence of his own website refutes him. 

Khomeini or Thomas Jefferson? Who did more for religious freedom?


Oliver Kamm

In a post last week I noted a new book that purports to expose Western propaganda about Iran’s nuclear programme. Its co-authors are Peter Oborne, the Telegraph columnist, and David Morrison, an obscure figure whose denial of the demonstrated historical facts of the Srebrenica massacre places him on the sinister fringes of political opinion.

Even so, before reading the book, I was prepared to accept that the authors’ depiction of Iran as a civilised country was nothing worse than an unfortunate ambiguity. It is beyond argument that, as a Times leader put it not long ago, “the civilisation of Persia is among the greatest in history”. I had assumed that this is what Oborne and Morrison meant too.

Our argument as a newspaper is that Iran has an historic civilisation and an appalling regime. Now that the publisher has sent me the book, I can see that my assumption that Oborne and Morrison would also make this distinction was wrong. Here is how they explain (pp. 19-20) the breakdown of relations between Iran and the US after the 1979 revolution: “One of the greatest theologians of all time, [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s teaching contained insights which went far deeper than anything the rationalists and materialists of the United States could imagine.”

Oborne and Morrison don’t say what these insights were, but I’m sufficiently hidebound an empiricist to suspect that they fell short of, say, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, stipulating “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

I can understand an argument critical of the diplomatic policies of recent US administrations. But I’m stupefied that Oborne and Morrison favourably contrast the philosophy of a repressive theocrat with that of the author of the seminal argument for religious liberty.

The authors complain (p. 15), by the way, that “western newspapers and television channels have disseminated fabrications which have fuelled hatred and suspicion, and sowed misunderstanding”. Yet one notable fabrication that they refrain from mentioning at all is Holocaust denial, and specifically its espousalby President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

You may feel that this silence about a fraudulent claim that demonstrably fuels hatred and suspicion is an odd omission. I’m afraid it makes complete sense in the narrow universe of this tendentious tract.

Thatcher was world-class on foreign policy

Oliver Kamm

“As an unapologetic supporter of our transatlantic alliance, she knew that with strength and resolve we could win the Cold War and extend freedom’s promise.”

Those words, from President Obama’s statement on the death of Margaret Thatcher, are gracious and accurate. They encapsulate her singular political achievement, which ought to transcend debate on her domestic policies.

I voted Labour in both general elections and a by-election (in Vauxhall) in the 1980s. I would admittedly have thought harder about doing this if the party had had even the slightest chance of forming a government. In retrospect there can surely be little doubt that Thatcher helped the centre-Left come to terms with reality.

If Labour had won in 1979, Michael Foot might well have become Prime Minister on the resignation of James Callaghan. Foot was a decent man who believed in a siege economy, withdrawal from Europe and unilateral nuclear disarmament: a recipe for isolation decline and penury.

Conservative governments, by contrast, did the right thing in focusing macroeconomic policy on breaking Britain’s inflationary problem and ending trade union immunities. It was Thatcher’s apparent indifference to the social costs of these policies and her closeness to business (a lobby like any other) that merited criticism.

On foreign policy, she was a world-class statesman. The main issues she got wrong were her instinctive anti-Europeanism, which drove her to misunderstand completely the rightness of German unification, and her opposition to sanctions (symbolic, but important nonetheless) on apartheid South Africa. Against that, she did sign the Single European Act, which is of great benefit to the UK economy. And, most important, she understood implicitly that the Cold War was not a matter of superpower realpolitik but a fundamental moral issue.

The clash between liberal societies and communism was inevitable, not – as anti-nuclear campaigners of the day believed - owing to Western leaders’ supposed belligerence but because the Soviet Union was an illegitimate regime. Communism had seized power in a putsch and held on to it by repression, famine and terror. Nato and the Warsaw Pact were not equivalent forces: Western European nations were part of an arrangement for collective security by choice, not compulsion.

In the 1980s, the democratic Left in the UK and some European countries overlooked this. In acquiring the Trident independent deterrent, and carrying through Nato’s deployment of Cruise and Pershing missile to counter the Soviet Union’s aggressive deployment of new intermediate-range missiles, Thatcher was right and brave. The transatlantic alliance is stronger for her influence. 

Noam Chomsky’s admirers should consider these statements

Oliver Kamm

Noam Chomsky the theoretical linguist, visited the UK last week to lecture on politics. Some of the admiring commentary has crossed the line to credulousness (see, for example, Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian).

It’s an open question how far Chomsky’s writings on politics and linguistics are linked. The principal commonality seems to be that, in both fields, Chomsky makes grand assertions beyond what the evidence will support. Paul Postal, one of Chomsky’s earliest colleagues, says this of Chomsky’s linguistics: “On the one hand, there is, enormous social success over decades, on the other, a quality of proposal and degree of actual descriptive and theoretical adequacy and success which is hard to underestimate.”

With regard to politics, I invite Chomsky’s admirers to consider these points:

1.       Chomsky defended a Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, in 1979 after Faurisson was given a suspended sentence and fined for defamation and incitement to racial hatred. Chomsky is not a Holocaust denier and he purported to be defending the right to free expression. But his argument, set out here, was far from an unexceptionable libertarian case. (If it had been, I’d agree with it.) Instead Chomsky said that Faurisson appeared to be a “relatively apolitical liberal of some sort”.

2.       In 1977, Chomsky and his collaborator Edward Herman wrote an article for The Nation in which they pointedly referred to  “alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities” in Cambodia, disputed that the rule of Pol Pot was analogous to Nazi Germany, and suggested that it was instead “more nearly correct” to compare Cambodia to “France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war [in Indochina]”.

3.       In 1967, in a panel discussion in New York about political violence, Chomsky noted: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable.” This was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.

4.       In an interview with a Serbian television station in 2006, Chomsky repeated hoary claims that television pictures of Fikret Alic at the Trnopolje camp, in Northern Bosnia, in 1992 had been faked. (The interviewer declares the picture fraudulent; Chomsky says “you remember”.) See what Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, who exposed the inhuman conditions at Trnopolje, had to say about that claim when it was judged libellous at the High Court in 2000.

Why Ed Miliband is wrong on immigration


Oliver Kamm

Though I believed Gordon Brown was unsuited to high office, I voted Labour at the 2010 election. I usually do, depending on the merits of the candidate (there are various Labour candidates I wouldn’t vote for and some, such as Ken Livingstone, whom I’ve voted to defeat). Among the limited number of positive reasons for my preference is that, in government, Labour has presided over important social reforms on issues including abortion, gay rights, and racial and sexual equality.

It’s depressing, therefore, to read Ed Miliband’s declaration in The Sun that “the Labour Party I lead will listen to people’s worries and we will talk about immigration”. It’s a disingenuous as well as illiberal argument.

If there’s one thing that British politics has not lacked in the 45 years since a Labour government passed the discreditable and discriminatory Commonwealth Immigration Act, it’s talk about immigration. (When I was growing up in Leicester in the 1970s, race and immigration made up almost the entire local political debate.)

Miliband says: “We know low-skill immigration has been too high and it should come down.”

No, we don’t. There is some evidence that immigration has pressured the wages of low-wage workers, but it’s not obvious that tighter controls on immigration would help. A more direct and equitable policy would be a subsidy for low-wage employment, as argued by Edmund Phelps, the Nobel laureate.

The debate about immigration’s effects on employment and wage levels is bedevilled by the “lump of labour” fallacy – the notion that a complex economy has a fixed amount of work and that a net inflow of people increases unemployment and reduces wage levels. In fact, inward labour migration often stimulates the creation of more jobs. Immigrants are a source of demand and can be an opportunity for particular sectors to expand.

Miliband’s insistence that public-sector workers speak English is a populist non sequitur. The economy has structural weaknesses but there is scant evidence that this is one of them. As Tim Harford pointed out in the Financial Times on Saturday, if there is any such problem in the public sector, it “will not be fixed by the sticking plaster of Mr Miliband’s ‘simple rule’”.

Immigration controls are not too loose but too tight. In discouraging asylum seekers and imposing higher age limits for foreign marriage partners, legislative changes have had had no good effect while increasing the sum of human unhappiness. 

What Venezuela should have learnt from Brazil

Oliver Kamm

A Times leading article this week contrasted the experience of Venezuela under the late Hugo Chávez with that of Brazil in the past decade. It’s an instructive comparison, in my opinion, because it considers alternative models of Latin American development. It’s clear which is the more effective.

When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected President of Brazil in 2002, many observers expected him to follow populist policies. But he didn’t. He pursued social reforms, to narrow Brazil’s extreme inequalities, within the framework of the market economy. That was a progressive course, because Lula understood that the country’s endemic problem with inflation was itself a regressive tax on the poorest.

As well as controlling inflation, Brazil under Lula pursued a responsible fiscal policy that generated significant surpluses and reduced the country’s foreign debt. That helped economic stability: it ensured that Brazil now can borrow at lower cost and with longer maturities.

Against this economic background, Brazil’s social policies have been effective – not least because of their simplicity, which ensures that they’re not susceptible to corruption. A programme called the Bolsa Escola, which was implemented in Brasilia in the 1990s, provided a model for cash transfers to the poorest families to give them enough to eat. Cash rather than food aid provides dignity as well as buying power.

Brazil has its problems. Growth hasn’t been fast enough, and there is too much trade protectionism (which harms consumers). But it’s a stable, well-governed democracy in which a left-wing government has improved public welfare. Venezuela is different: the main beneficiaries of Chávez’s regime have been the President’s own family.

There are many reasons for the divergent experiences of these two states under different types of government. But one may be particularly significant. Lula is a Marxist who understands politics. His primary concern is with emancipating people from want. He was able to identify and pursue effective means to that end. Chávez wasn’t a politician: he was a military strongman who inflamed the politics of Venezuela when he launched an attempted coup in 1992.

The Left in Latin America, as a continent with great inequality, is an essential force. Left-wing governments in Brazil and (for most of the period since General Pinochet’s defeat in a referendum in 1989) Chile have shown effective governance. Chávez represented a more atavistic and destructive tradition. 

Srebrenica denial just will not die


Oliver Kamm

The Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 was the worst single atrocity in Europe since 1945. Bosnian Serb forces murdered around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in a crime judged by the International Court of Justice at The Hague to be an act of genocide.

That was a sound judgment. The intention in killing every male was to ensure that the Muslim captives could not remain a sustainable population. Many of the victims were blindfolded and then shot in the back. Whatever you call the Srebrenica massacre, there is no legitimate debate about the nature of that abominable crime or the number of its victims.

There are, however, a few extremists who maintain otherwise. Their motivations are obscure but appear to include the belief that the racist, imperialist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade was somehow progressive, and unabashed conspiracy theories about Muslims.

I first noticed this phenomenon of “Srebrenica denial” when the Government of Republika Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia) issued a report in 2002 claiming that the victims amounted to some 2,000, most of them combatants. Lord Ashdown, then international High Representative for Bosnia, rightly dismissed it as “preposterous” and “an insult”. As I argued in this column, the techniques of Srebrenica denial derive from Holocaust denial. Its proponents use bogus demographics, non sequiturs, calumnies and outright fakery.

You won’t find Srebrenica denial in any reputable scholarly forum but, like other conspiracy theories, it spreads on the internet. Its most prominent advocate is Edward Herman, a sometime co-author of Noam Chomsky.

I believe (though am open to correction) that Herman has never visited Bosnia, but he has indefatigably denied the established facts of the Srebrenica massacre. Here is a new piece in which he rubbishes the notion of 8,000 victims (“they had never proved that there were 7,000 or 8,000, even men and boys killed. The bodies in the graves added up to something like 2,500”).

Be aware, if you encounter such material, that it’s baloney. Herman has been using bogus statistics for years. Scientists working with the International Commission on Missing Persons have excavated the remains of more than 7,000 Srebrenica victims from mass graves that were never intended to be discovered. Using DNA analysis, they have managed to identify and name these victims. That is harrowing, vital work. Yet the pernicious lies of the deniers never go away.

That’s why I fight these people. 


Ditch the compassion, Republicans

Oliver Kamm

With the inauguration of President Obama for a second term, Republicans seek an idea that can win back voters. Conservatism in other advanced industrial economies is in a similar quandary. One answer is provided by Gertrude Himmelfarb, the historian, in The Weekly Standard. She argues that conservatives need “to recapture compassion from the liberals, de-sentimentalizing while reaffirming it”.

I don’t think this argument will work to the electoral advantage of conservatives on either side of the Atlantic. Nor is it one that I find appealing.

Conservative modernisers such as David Frum in North America and Daniel Finkelstein in this country argue that a successful centre-right party needs to acclimatise itself to a diverse nation. This is true. And the obligation to deal with society as it is rather than wishing that it conformed to some Arcadian alternative requires acknowledging that people have diverse aims in life. Compassion doesn’t get them there. It’s a recipe for authoritarianism.

In personal relations, compassion is a virtue. In politics, it’s an affectation. Citizens of a complex society, in a market economy, will exercise innumerable choices. Some people will suffer and a fair society will protect the vulnerable. It should also provide citizens with the ability to make autonomous choices. That requires a degree of redistribution to reduce inequalities.

But that’s a principle of equity, not compassion. If the State sets out to be compassionate, there is no inherent limit to its powers. If devout religious believers are offended by the publication of satires on what they hold sacred, I may feel for their hurt on a personal level while insisting that no government has the right to suppress speech in order to make them feel better.

Himmelfarb’s views have had some currency in British politics, notably with her book The Roads to Modernity (which, in its UK edition, carries a foreword by Gordon Brown). She sharply distinguishes the Anglo-Scots and American Enlightenment, which she characterises as being concerned with liberty and small government, and  the French Enlightenment.

This is a misreading of history. The French philosophes admired English liberty. The reforms enacted by the French Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were an historic advance for secularism and the abolition of the hereditary principle. That’s why they gained support from Thomas Jefferson, among many others. There is no sharp break between Enlightenment traditions; conservatives need at last to accept the values of the Enlightenment. 

Can 1,000 Catholic priests be wrong?


Oliver Kamm

The question answers itself, but here’s the context.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter to the Telegraph protesting against same-sex marriage. They maintain that the Government’s forthcoming Equal Marriage Bill heralds a return to religious persecution. The Bishop of Portsmouth maintains that “it is quite Orwellian to try to redefine marriage”, and terms the proposed reform “totalitarian”.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as inflammatory nonsense, because that’s what it is. Even so, two points are worth drawing out.  

First, the clerical opponents of gay marriage continually commit the logical fallacy of begging the question (ie, assuming in their premises the truth of what they’re arguing for). They complain that the Government’s proposals “redefine marriage” – a redefinition that they are conscientiously and by Church teaching bound to oppose.

Yet the argument of the proponents of reform, including The Times, is explicitly that we are not redefining marriage. We merely seek to extend marriage rights to couples who are now barred from them on no better ground than that they are of the same sex. Reforming marriage to enable a woman to own property independently of her husband was a change of far greater scope than same-sex marriage will be. It was opposed on similar grounds of its supposedly being contrary to natural law. And it was obviously right and just. Same-sex marriage is a modest reform of similar type.

Second, because of that point, the Church will damage itself by the vitriol and hyperbole of its campaign. That’s a prediction, not a complaint – indeed it’s a scenario that I welcome and look forward to.

Damian Thompson, the prominent Catholic journalist, comments on his Telegraph blog that “David Cameron is at war not just with fundamentalists, but also with middle-of-the-road clergy and lay people from Britain’s largest and, arguably, best-integrated religious minority”.

I see no reason to doubt this, but draw the opposite inference. The war has been declared by the Church. Religious liberty is an axiom of a free society; but on public policy, the Church is a lobby like any other. It is not a repository of wisdom about the right and the true. Numerous Catholics implicitly acknowledge this by ignoring Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, proscribing artificial contraception.  

The history of civilisation is to a large extent bound up with separating religious from civic authority. By its obduracy, the Catholic Church is hastening the process.

A prominent pacifist

Oliver Kamm

We publish today a letter from Canon Paul Oestreicher criticising a leading article on the Falklands War. Oestreicher insists that, in the political controversy about the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s, the clerics who criticised Margaret Thatcher were motivated not by pacifism but by a wish for an “expression of compassion for the victims on both sides”.

In fact, we didn’t accuse the Church leadership of pacifism, though we did cite the judgment of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant ethicist, on that issue. We observed that the politicians had a surer sense than the bishops of what the nation was giving thanks for: victory in a just war against aggression. But Oestreicher’s intervention gives me an opportunity to relate the background of this prominent clerical campaigner.

Oestreicher is a pacifist. His position illustrates Niebuhr’s point that pacifism ends up either making no judgments at all or having an undue preference for tyranny. Some years ago he wrote a letter to The Guardian comparing the US/UK occupation of Iraq, mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 1483, to the Nazi occupation of France.

In the 1960s Oestreicher was a leading figure in a bizarre exercise of Christian-Marxist dialogue. In the Catholic Herald he recounted the contributions of the “intellectual giant” and French Communist ideologue Roger Garaudy, who later became an indefatigable Holocaust denier, and a “charming and pretty young sociologist from Prague”, who predictably urged Christians to combat “blind and irrational anti-Communism”.

The Marxism in this “dialogue” was unlike the contemporary and creative New Left. It was rank Stalinism. A volume of essays by the participants was co-edited by Oestreicher and James Klugmann, a leading British Communist who had worked clandestinely for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and tailored his own convictions to whatever happened to be the Soviet line of the time. In his own essay, Oestreicher made the pitiful claim that it took as much courage to be a Communist in the US as it did to be a Christian in the USSR.

Oestreicher’s longstanding politics, in short, appear to be not anti-war so much as anti-American and anti-British. 

An unreliable source in Syria

Oliver Kamm

The Daily Mail disturbingly reported this week: “Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian man and fed his body to dogs, according to a nun who says the West is ignoring atrocities committed by Islamic extremists.”

Its source for this claim was Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun in Syria. She maintains that Islamist militants are inflicting atrocities of scarcely conceivable horror on the country’s Christians.

I am not given to underestimating the cruelty that religious absolutists, and specifically Islamist extremists, can inflict. But I’m wary of this source, in this conflict. Reliable information about the violence in Syria is scarce owing to the determination of President Assad to restrict what is known of his crimes. Only yesterday, the UN raised its estimate of the death toll in the uprising to 60,000.

Sister Agnès-Mariam has a notable record, however, of saying things that are convenient to the Assad regime and that do not accord with the conclusions of more reputable investigators. She claimed that the massacre of 100 civilians at Houla was the work of anti-Assad rebels.

It’s unsurprising that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit expelled from Syria after 30 years, was caustic about Sister Agnès-Mariam’s testimony when she was on a trip to Ireland last summer. He told the Irish Times: “I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts.”

Syria’s is unquestionably a brutalising conflict. But there is also much nonsense being circulated by fringe elements on the Right and Left who wish to denigrate the Arab Spring and the case for solidarity. A peculiarly monstrous example, confected by a right-wing conspiracist and Birther website called World Net Daily, also made it to the Daily Mail a few months ago. It was seriously claimed (with literally no documentary evidence, such as a photograph) that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was conducting crucifixions in front of the presidential palace. In Syria’s conflict, a Carmelite nun is suspiciously serving the cause of a murderous despotism. 

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