The Trojan Horse Affair

I’ve recently listened to The Trojan Horse Affair, an unbelievable investigative podcast by two journalists with the New York Times.

It’s a really riveting account of basic questions going unasked in service of an Islamophobic narrative; malicious and willfully dense officials from petty local government up to the Cabinet; and two dogged, likeable men grappling with the nature of their own profession.

A strange letter appears on a city councillor’s desk in Birmingham, England, laying out an elaborate plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The plot has a code name: Operation Trojan Horse. The story soon explodes in the news and kicks off a national panic. By the time it all dies down, the government has launched multiple investigations, beefed up the country’s counterterrorism policy, revamped schools and banned people from education for the rest of their lives.

To Hamza Syed, who is watching the scandal unfold in his city, the whole thing seemed … off. Because through all the official inquiries and heated speeches in Parliament, no one has ever bothered to answer a basic question: Who wrote the letter? And why? The night before Hamza is to start journalism school, he has a chance meeting in Birmingham with the reporter Brian Reed, the host of the hit podcast S-Town. Together they team up to investigate: Who wrote the Trojan Horse letter? They quickly discover that it’s a question people in power do not want them asking.

From Serial Productions and The New York Times comes The Trojan Horse Affair: a mystery in eight parts.

It’s telling that as much as Hamza and Brian uncovered had to come from a Muslim and from a US journalist. British media easily swallowed a moral panic, and largely refuses to rethink it today. It’s not the first or the last time – but it’s unique to have the Kafkaesque twists laid out so well.

Deportation

deportation protesters
PA

There are many things wrong with the recent mass-deportation to Jamaica.

Recently ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid said: ‘We will always do what we can to protect the public. These are all foreign national offenders – they have all received custodial sentences of 12 months or more. They are responsible for crimes like manslaughter, rape, dealing in class A drugs.’

In a previous deportation to Jamaica last year, he’d also claimed that all deportees were convicted of ‘very serious crimes… like rape and murder, firearms offences and drug-trafficking.’ The article continues: ‘But the Home Office said on Wednesday that of the 29 people deported, just one had been found guilty of murder, while 14 had been convicted [f]or drug offences and one was jailed for dangerous driving.’

Similar patterns with the recent case, as the Morning Star reported leading up to the flight:

[A] man who has lived in Britain since he was 11 is set to be separated from his wife and baby daughter when deported on a charter flight to Jamaica tomorrow.

Reshawn Davis, 30, was detained on Friday and told he would be deported on the second charter flight to the Caribbean island since the Windrush scandal two years ago.

Fifty people are set to be on the flight after serving time for various crimes, the Star reported over the weekend. […]

Mr Davis is being removed from the country on the basis that he was convicted for robbery 10 years ago under the now unlawful “joint enterprise” rule — for which he spent two months in prison — according to the Independent.

He lives with his British wife Tonique Kerr and six-month-old daughter in London and has not committed any crime since his conviction.

The Home Office said that it did not believe his family ties were strong enough to warrant him continuing to live in Britain.

Mr Davis said he is terrified at the possibility of being taken away to Jamaica, where he has not been for nearly 20 years. […]

Shadow immigration secretary Bell Ribiero-Addy had told the Star when the charter flight was announced that people scheduled to be removed are “facing a triple punishment” that “would not be applied to their white peers — sentencing, detention and deportation.” […]

A draft copy of the Windrush Lessons Learned report, leaked to the media on Thursday, said ministers should consider ending the practice of deporting people who arrived in Britain as children.

A fellow blogger quotes Malorie Blackman: ‘As S[h]amima Begum has been stripped of her British citizenship despite being born here, if I refuse to pay my council tax or knock someone over – God forbid – and get done for manslaughter, will I then be deported as my mum was born in Barbados? When exactly did I become ‘temporarily British’?’

That someone like Mr Davis who has done their time, not re-offended, and now has a family here can be ejected elsewhere on a flimsy pretext of public safety should be concerning – exactly the sort of thing most people who complain about  ‘big government’ should but won’t be bothered about.

Members of the cabinet are guilty of drug offences, but their right to remain in the country won’t be in doubt. White British ex-cons – reformed or not, violent crime or not – won’t be separated from their families. You see, people are only such a threat to public safety if they can be made another public’s problem, which in turn justifies doing so. If all murderers and rapists were threats to public safety, not just deportable ones, then we’d have to fund probation services and other things that actually help – and extradite Prince Andrew for questioning!

(By the way, I’m not doing the lame thing of saying Gove, etc, should be punished for doing coke. Decriminalisation is still correct, but we can all see that there’s a hypocrisy around who does/n’t get criminalised, rooted in racial bias and elite power.)

In Rees-Mogg’s time – before he fell through that wormhole – hungry-bread-thieves and other vicious fiends could be shipped off to Australia in a neat imperialist double-whammy. These days all the viable landmasses are claimed by recognised states, which makes implementing systemic racism more complicated.

May’s Departure and the ‘Human Level’

May resignation speech

Theresa May has announced her upcoming departure, in a speech (transcript) closing with tearful ‘enormous and enduring gratitude to have had the opportunity to serve the country I love.’

I found her speech really frustrating, and the ‘oh you’ve got to feel sorry for her, on a human level’ responses troubling.

If you feel for May in that moment, I can understand why – but bear with me here. I’m not asking you to harden your heart, but quite the opposite.

First, let’s look a bit at how she ‘served’ the country.

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For many years the great humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton — who saved the lives of hundreds of children by arranging their evacuation from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport — was my constituent in Maidenhead.

At another time of political controversy, a few years before his death, he took me to one side at a local event and gave me a piece of advice.

He said: “Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.”

It’s too easy to harp on May’s pathological stubbornness in the face of that advice, so I’ll focus on the irony of her using this man in particular as anecdote fodder.

The Windrush scandal isn’t something a government rooted in the humanitarian ideals that motivated Kindertransport could be responsible for. British citizens were denied access to healthcare, made redundant, homeless, or deported – thanks in large part to May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which sought to actively make the country unwelcoming, such as by sending vans round telling people to ‘go home’. Lovely!

Politico’s Jack Blanchard puts it plainly: ‘May has been badly exposed by the Windrush affair, which is difficult to see as anything other than the responsibility of whomever was home secretary between 2010 and 2016.’

What’s more, a report this year found that the Home Office was doing ‘as little, rather than as much, as possible to find and help people affected by its actions’. People are still suffering because of this – effectively because they’re the wrong colour.

That this scandal alone didn’t bring May’s career to an immediate and shameful end says something dark about us a nation. We think so little of people who came here, faced enormous prejudice, and spent their lives contributing to society.

I have striven to make the United Kingdom a country that works not just for a privileged few, but for everyone. […] I put proper funding for mental health at the heart of our NHS long-term plan.

Well then, she’s failed utterly, hasn’t she? By pretty much any standard inequality has ballooned. I mean, the DWP made someone starve to death. Even ‘I, Daniel Blake’ didn’t go quite that far.

UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK makes for stark reading, with ‘2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.’

Alston was right to say that ‘The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial [but] many of the problems could readily be solved if the Government were to acknowledge the problems and consider some of the recommendations[.]’ Routinely, May and her ministers shook their heads, laughed, or resorted to misleading stock phrases and massaged stats in response to the opposition et al raising these issues.

With Universal Credit linked to suicide risks, how can May claim to advocate for mental health?

I set up the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower

And the Fire Brigade Union’s response:

‘Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.’

72 deaths, no prosecutions.

the second female prime minister but certainly not the last.

This is a very ‘trickle down’ version of feminism, in which a woman leading is woke regardless of what she does.

The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.

Whatever our background, the colour of our skin, or who we love. We stand together.

This is another purely performative statement. This solidarity applies unless you’re from Windrush, or poor, or disabled, or…

Oh, did you know the government deports LGBT asylum seekers to countries where their lives are at risk and tells them to ‘pretend to be straight’?

Aside from that, Theresa May is on your side.

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Journalist Owen Jones pointed out on Sky News that we should be feeling sympathy for the victims of May’s policies. To which the interviewer said, ‘You can’t just respond on a human level?’ But as Jones said – ‘I have’.

I’ve commented on my issues with civility-centered discourse before, and here it is again.

A political opponent isn’t a member of an opposing sports team, with the codes of sportsmanship and noblesse oblige which that implies. They have different values, and implement policy accordingly. It’s one thing to suggest a role for compromise and mutual understanding in the world, that we recognise the humanity of opponents and work together where appropriate. But if their policy leads to death and misery, we’re supposed to shake their blood-soaked hand at the end of the match as though it didn’t happen?

What is the appropriate way to respond on ‘a human level’ to someone responsible for mass misery and hardship weeping in their resignation speech? What could be appropriate but to center their victims?

YouTuber Mexie has discussed the distinction between the sort of flashy fast violence that’s easy to appreciate as such, and the more systemic, genteel type of violence that happens in offices distant from the scene.

It’s hard to grasp quite what May’s career has involved. This kind of violence can be abstract, passing through the rapid news cycle. Even reading the reports and checking the stats doesn’t do it justice.

Imagine May, during her speech, throwing a grenade into a crowd (selling weapons to Saudia Arabia, despite Yemen). Or imagine she took you from your house in the middle of the night in winter, and locked you in a cage outdoors to die of exposure (soaring homelessness). Or imagine she bundled you in a van and abandoned you in another country (unjust deportations).

Really think about it. See what I mean?

The only differences between the direct violence I’m asking you to imagine, and her government’s ruinous policies, are scale and ‘legitimacy’. It would have been better if May committed direct violence rather than stamping documents, since one person can’t inflict anywhere near as much harm as a state apparatus. The pen is mightier than the sword, after all.

How is lobbing a grenade in a crowd different from arming Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen? The latter kills more people. Would you ‘feel for’ the bomber being arrested? No? So why feel for an arms dealer resigning?

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The thing is, after all that, I still think Theresa May is a human. Of course she is, and due universal inalienable rights as such. Recognising that, though, doesn’t have to imply throwing all perspective out the window, to the point of ignoring the reality of her actions.

It’s hard to genuinely wrestle with the humanity of people you profoundly disagree with, who are responsible for terrible things. It’s much harder than pretending political opponents are just like players on a different sports team, so you can take the real challenge out of ‘love thy enemy’ and still feel magnanimous.

The fault isn’t simply hers, but endemic in a Conservative party which measures human life by market value, despite the performative rhetoric and crumbs from the table. When May sobbed I think she genuinely believed she’d done good, really saw herself as trying to ‘serve the country I love’. That’s tragic and frightening. It shows just how little of an impression reality has on the spin, how little some people count.

Here’s a human level: it’s heartbreaking for all involved that Theresa May never served the country in the way she claims to have wanted to.

Links Post

Some things I’ve found interesting lately:

UK politics/economics – are the Tories really the party for economic responsibility? Not according to this research, The Tories’ Economic Incompetence, or Economics Professor Simon Wren-Lewis in Why are the Conservatives so incompetent at running the economy? (go on, tell us what you really think!).

Philosophy Tube puts out a lot of great content – here he is in Transphobia: An Analysis, introducing the very helpful concept of ‘yer dad’ as the well-meaning liberal who doesn’t quite grasp it.

ContraPoints is well worth listening to for insights and laughs: e.g. her critique of Jordan Peterson, which contains maybe the only good explanation of post-modernism out there.

Briahna Joy Gray features in Current Affairs and The Intercept. In How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left she discusses the misuse of identity politics, and the ‘Bernie-bro’ narrative’s erasure of lefty women and POC. She addresses similar themes in Beware the Race Reductionist, arguing for real intersectionality.

‘Venezuela!’ is being used as a catch-all response to anything even slightly left. Watch Argument ad Venezuelum for a more sophisticated look at the country’s woes.

Current Affairs’ Nathan J. Robinson writes from a libertarian-socialist perspective. Here’s How To Be A Socialist Without Being An Apologist For The Atrocities Of Communist Regimes. ‘If your society manages to have impressively low infant mortality and impressively high literacy, but tortures political prisoners, we might want to adopt your literacy program while declining to recreate your secret police.’

Go a bit more to the bottom left of the political compass than Nathan J. Robinson, and you get to anarchism, an intriguing but widely misunderstood perspective. Here’s Part One and Part Two of an explanation in the form of a response to a Marxist-Leninist.

Book Reviews (5)

The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

This book complements Reni Eddo-Lodge’s (review here) well, reinforcing some of what she said about race in British society while providing some more perspectives, and addressing issues specific to a wider range of ethnic groups.

Vera Chok’s ‘Yellow’ addresses orientalist tropes and the concept of ‘yellow fever’; Wei Ming Kam’s ‘Beyond “Good” Immigrants’ questions the rhetoric of ‘the model minority’. Riz Ahmed discusses constantly getting stopped at airports with wry dry humour. Sarah Sahim’s ‘Perpetuating Casteism’ reveals the significant role of the British Empire in exacerbating the ongoing issues of the caste system in Indian diaspora – British-imposed censuses consciously using divide-and-rule tactics with ongoing impact. There are many other valuable entries.

Vinay Patel’s exploration of his beliefs and fear of death would have been a good essay for a different book, and not all the writers managed quite the analytical slam-dunk Eddo-Lodge’s book pulled off – but a world where everyone engaged with what’s said here, and gained a better understanding of these issues, would certainly be a better one.

The Vorrh – B. Catling

Not entirely sure what happened, to be honest. Something to do with a magic forest. There were various plot threads which didn’t necessarily connect together, and made some sense in their own right but didn’t give you much of a hint what it all meant. Why is that guy trying to cross the forest? Who knows! It sort of works, because he doesn’t seem to either.

This was insanely imaginative, evocative, with an image-dense writing style (which does trip over into purple prose imo). Part of me appreciates the dreamlike, mystic approach, the way characters and readers are both confused, at the mercy of mysterious forces. Another part of me wishes there was more reason to care about the characters, to be invested in whether or not they succeed, have a bit of narrative tension. The dark, peculiar, meandering literary atmosphere has its a e s t h e t i c panache, but don’t go in expecting a standard plot-driven novel.

Catling has some weird unresolved issues, frankly. No normal person writes a long stream-of-consciousness paragraph of a dog’s violent wet dream for literally no reason, or describes what a woman made from Bakelite’s vagina is like in obsessive detail, or… sigh. Dude. Take a cold shower, maybe see a therapist, definitely stay away from kennels.

Some really fantastic ideas, in a highly unique work of fantasy. The experimental approach has its pros and cons.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This is really good. The worldbuilding. The magic system. The sympathetic characters, the nasty ones. The interplay between Kvothe telling his story and the ‘present’ interludes. Rothfuss has written an immersive and suitably epic work of epic fantasy, with humour, pathos, darkness, and excellent magic.

I just struggled with the protagonist, Kvothe. Is he a Gary Stu? It’s fine to have a character be a genius, but figuring out Chronicler’s writing system in a few minutes and learning things in days instead of months gets a bit much. Let him struggle a little bit first. Sheesh. I can buy him being a great musician, too, but not THAT great.

He’s probably exaggerating in places – but the narration doesn’t give a clear sign that he’s an unreliable narrator, and some of his feats definitely happen, in the present interludes. I’d like him more if Rothfuss either made him less over-proficient, or made him a more blatant unreliable narrator.

He isn’t a complete Gary Stu though. He has flaws which cause him real problems – he’s petty, impulsive, and really dumb in certain areas. There are places where he does reveal that he made himself seem more amazing than he actually was through trickery, and they were points I warmed to him much more.

Great story, great world, great supporting cast, mixed feelings for the protagonist.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

A human, Genly Ai, has been sent to the planet Gethen as ambassador of the Ekumen, an alliance of worlds. He struggles with the knotty politics and freezing climate, trying to properly understand the Gethenian’s unique gender status. The natives are neither male nor female, only taking on a sex during a short monthly period of ‘kemmer’. He instinctively applies human gender roles to the ambisexual natives, while they see him as a pervert in permanent kemmer.

Often fictional species are all humans with cosmetic differences, or with some heavy-handed cultural difference leaving little room for them to have divergent personalities. Le Guin managed to write Gethenians as socially and psychologically distinct from humans, and as individuals distinct from each other. The countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn have different political systems and cultures from each other, but both are clearly of Gethen.

The environment, political structures, religions, and particularly the gender element of Gethen’s inhabitants ties deeply and logically into every detail: the various words for snow, the code of hospitality, the lack of aircraft, the rules of prestige. Le Guin crafts an engaging story with rich characters, at the same time as ‘making strange’ aspects of the real world to expose insights into gender, politics, and life.

An excellent work of sci-fi for its imagination, setting, characters, story, and insight. Deserves its acclaim.

Book Reviews (3)

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

As Nathan J Robinson wrote regarding this book in a Current Affairs article on David Brooks: ‘The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race.’

Many angry comments based purely on the title perfectly demonstrate Eddo-Lodge’s point. These people seem to find a provocative choice of title more troubling than, for example, that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to get job interviews. There’s a great deal of serious information in this book about structural racism in British society, and a lot of people who won’t bother reading it because they’re too upset by the title.

Eddo-Lodge points out that ‘this isn’t about good and bad people’, that easy to condemn overt prejudice can distract us from more covert and systematic issues. She links race to issues of gender and class (e.g. discussing the use of the white working class as a prop to divert discussions on race, as though the working class is all white or that we can’t tackle race and class issues together), and lambasts shallow performative wokeness: ‘a safety pin stuck to your lapel […] won’t stop someone from getting deported.’

This book argues very solidly on a range of issues, from colour blindness to white privilege to positive discrimination to white feminism to the Rhodes Must Fall movement and more, skewering weak or disingenuous arguments – certainly changing my mind on various points. There are points where the argument slackens, particularly her failure to interrogate Nick Griffin as sharply as she could have.

The stronger logical thrusts are rather satisfying. On outraged responses to the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond, she comments, ‘This strength of feeling over classic stories being ruined wasn’t around when the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade in a film in which the lead character was cast in the image of a cartoon cat.’

Much more could be said, but really – go read the book.

Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone

The sequel to Last First Snow, with grown-up Caleb as the lead, working for Red King Consolidated to deal with a shadow-thing infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water supply, spilling into a plot of corporate/political machinations with apocalyptic potential.

The pace settles in a happy medium between the breakneck Three Parts Dead and slow-starting Last First Snow, brisk and tense but with time to be reflective. Gladstone deals with the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, exposing more of the brutality underlying a society running on Craft as characters wrestle with whether the system they have can be acceptable, and what a better way might be.

The cast are more compelling than in LFS, particularly adult Caleb, and the world-building is impressive as usual. It might have been interesting to see more of how the Skittersill has changed though.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – Mark Fisher

A short text with a great deal of influence in anti-capitalist circles, in which Fisher outlined the nature and consequences of ‘capitalist realism’ – an ideology presenting capitalism as the only conceivable system, while – significantly – concealing its own place as an ideology, instead treating itself as unassailable natural law and anything except capitalism as ideology run amok.

The basic concept is well stated. Fisher was onto something. There are cogent points about subjects such as the injection of business frameworks into public services, or the treating of mental health as an individual biological issue. He puts ideas from Slavoj Žižek and others to good use, e.g. drawing on the Lacanian idea of the ‘big Other’ in discussing ‘an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring [as opposed to] a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.’

(To be honest, I’d just thought of Žižek as a living meme with a weird thing about anal fisting.)

There was definitely some critical-theory-speak I couldn’t figure out. Sorry Fisher, we haven’t all read Deleuze. Worse, Fisher uses weird dodgy logic on occasions, and severely under-explains. It’s often assumed we know what he’s on about, giving no or limited examples of what he sees as a self-evident (actually rather abstract and difficult to immediately grasp) trend in culture. And referring to a couple films for examples doesn’t always cut it when you’re trying to identify a culture-wide ideological keystone.

‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate[;] on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection[.]’ How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology? This is such a general statement that it’s hard to completely disagree, but also hard to really agree with or pull something meaningful from. It’s frustrating.

As a way to help understand key dynamics of modern mainstream ideology and point towards a 21st century approach for the radical left, this was an interesting and illuminating read. No doubt some of my confusion would ease on a re-read, and again, the central ideas are potent. However, the book too often leaps to big conclusions from little reasoning, and the Theoryese was a struggle.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

A fictional diary of a year in a Dutch care home, this is a poignant, often tragic exploration of ageing, bureaucratic farce, and society’s treatment of the elderly – balanced by dark and light comedy, friendship, and the resistance of anarchic octogenarians determined to enjoy life.

Hendrik forms a group staunchly committed to getting on with life without the negative, passive attitude of many of their fellow ‘inmates’. While their humour, warmth, and refusal to age gracefully lifted the mood, I still found this a bit of a downer.

It’s billed as a comedy, but I didn’t find it that funny generally. A lot of people seem to have found otherwise, so you might find it a bigger laugh. Still a good book, but not what I was expecting.