All posts by Binoy Kampmark

Burning Gothic: Reflections on Notre-Dame de Paris

But no matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such catastrophes.

— Becky Clark, Church of England director of cathedrals and church buildings, April 17, 2019

The destruction of the sacred will engender moving responses.  But the scope, and the particularity of that response varies.  The conflagration affecting Notre-Dame de Paris, located on the Île de la Cité, has become a twenty-four-hour saturation phenomenon.  Thirteen million annual visitors, a geographical pride of place at the centre of Paris, and vast repository of France in all matters religious, cultural and political, would have ensured that.

The attention given to other sites of sacred worth tends to be limited.  It is unlikely, for instance, that pledges of up to $113 million, promised by François-Henri Pinault to assist in the rebuilding project, are going to be heading the way of the more obscure sites of desecrated or damaged history.  A south Louisiana parish, for instance, is desperate for funding in rebuilding three Black churches of historic significance burned down in “suspicious’ circumstances. “There is clearly something happening in this community,” suggested State Fire Marshal H. Browning. The funding target for the GoFundMe campaign is $1.8 million.  To date, $1.5 million has been secured.

Notre-Dame will do that to the millionaire and billionaire set: draw attention from the well-heeled and a chance for celebrity posterity in the premier culture league.  (Even wineries such as the Château Mouton Rothschild are re-directing money from auctions to the cause.)  While the idea of purchasing a place of heaven is not as popular as it once was, it still exerts some hold in the secular world through the idea of enduring reputation.  Such gestures of financial promise have also stirred the pot of misplaced empathy for the cultural artefacts of a former colonial power.

People, in short, are not permitted their own singular ways of commemorating or grieving over a damaged or lost icon: they are to be scolded into appropriate acknowledgments and qualifications.  A fine, and slightly perverse example of this came in responses to a remark by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who was rebuked for suggesting that Notre-Dame might be considered in the same breath as “art and architecture”.  Former congressman Joe Walsh fulminated.  “It was a house of worship.  A Catholic Cathedral.  It wouldn’t have been difficult for you to acknowledge that.”

Looking at such structures are also exercises of mutual and mass deception.  Gothic architecture did not always share the enchanting mystery that has made structures such as Notre-Dame de Paris the subject of gooey adoration.  Having lapsed into a mysterious, almost barbaric prior life before the preferences towards Romanesque and the Classicist, such architecture was redeemed by the calls of Romanticism.  Victor Hugo’s pen praised the Gothic form for its freedom, its daring, “encouraging license and dissent from authority,” asserts John Sturrock in his introduction to the 1978 translation of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), commonly known in Anglophone circles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Hugo’s pen, in making the cathedral the protagonist, did the trick: interest in restoring the weathered, damaged structure was stimulated, halting the till then relentless drive towards tearing down Gothic Paris.

The fire that went through the Cathedral has been described variously as catastrophic and disastrous, but the nature of such creations is their permanent vulnerability and susceptibility to change.  A scene from Hugo’s own masterpiece is worth retelling, describing flames as the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo attacks the Truands in an effort to save Esmerelda.  “All eyes were raised to the top of the church.  They beheld there an extraordinary sight.  On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time.”

The building is all (well mostly, now) points, sharpness.  It is jagged, skyscraper coherence.  But to suggest that its body and shell was pure in its medieval form is to fall for a common deception perpetuated from the nineteenth century.  The Gothic restoration mania of the period had the effect of turning Notre-Dame into a modern mutilation.

Eugène Emmanuelle Viollet-le-Duc, aided by Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, tended towards heavy restoration between 1845 and 1864 on the grounds that the original Gothic idea of the cathedral needed fuller realisation.  They knew better.  Being somehow in touch with those spirits, they went to work, warned by archaeological preservationist Prosper Mérimée about the dangers of overly keen touching up.  “A restoration may be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.”  Hugo, in the same spirit, observed “the countless defacements and mutilations to which men and time have subjected that venerable monument.”

The now destroyed barbed spire of wood and lead (la flèche) was itself was an addition. Viollet-le-Duc also added a new pulpit; original statues were removed from their resting places of centuries; spectacular gargoyles became a feature; and the south façade’s rose window received undue attention.  Paris-born photographer Danie Aubry aptly observed that the Gothic-mad restorer “should have worked for Disney.”  Ironically enough, Monday’s fire is being “potentially linked” to the $6.8 million renovation work that was already underway.

The visceral and rapid response from French President Emmanuel Macron was one of rebuilding.  Cathedral spokesman André Finot spoke of the structure having suffered “colossal damage”, with the frame obliterated.  Not so, countered an optimistic Macron, taking on board the inspirational guise of Viollet-le-Duc.  The rebuilding project would be grand and hurried.  Forget decades; the President wants the structure to be finished in time for re-opening for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.  “We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years.”  To that end, an international design competition to rebuild parts of the building has been announced.

The Gothic concept was itself an act of daring on the part of Abbot Suger, who embraced lightness and light in his 1137 design for Saint-Denis.  Platonism, Christianity and religious architecture were wed.  The reconstruction of Notre-Dame might dare to be something different, but many expect a simulacrum of the original.

Julian Assange as Neuroses

Julian Assange continues to ripple and roam as a cipher through the political and media scape of the world.  Detained in Belmarsh maximum security prison, the sort of stately abode only reserved for the most dangerous of criminals, many with indeterminate sentences, he electrifies and concerns.

The US political classes continue to simmer with an obsession that has gone feral.  Some moderation can be found in the efforts of Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky), who is seeking a bartering solution. “I think he should be given immunity from prosecution in exchange for coming to the United States and testifying.”  The question of causing harm or otherwise was less significant than what Assange had to offer in terms of information “probably pertinent to the hacking of the Democratic emails”.

It is precisely the issue of harm that obsessives on the Hill fantasize about.  Their rage is that of Caliban before the mirror, and rather than taking issue with US foreign policy, see Assange as an imitator.   Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks of WikiLeaks and its “destructive role by directly interfering in democratic elections and referendums around the world, most troubling of which is WikiLeaks’ collaboration with Russia to directly interfere in the United States presidential election in 2016.”

But Assange’s formalised incarceration has enabled some scrutiny to be cast over the indictment in question. Dell Cameron from Gizmodo is constructively quizzical, suggesting a few holes in the US case against the publisher.  “Assange indicated that he had been trying to crack the password by stating that he had ‘no luck so far’.”  This raises two questions: Did he even venture to do so?  If so, can that very fact be proven?

Cameron goes on to do an admirable job of demonstrating how much of a journalist Assange actually was in engaging Chelsea Manning.  Far from being a freak cavalier with convention, the conduct squared with the more risqué tradition of investigative reporting.  The “acquisition and transmission of classified information” is standard bread and butter stuff for the fourth estate.  “If you have material you believe is newsworthy, please visit our SecureDrop page to learn more about how to safely transmit it to Gizmodo.  We’d be happy to receive it.”

Others are not so confident, and continue to struggle with the label of Assange as journalist, nail bitten that he has been awarded a title that somehow treads on holy ground.  Only some will be admitted; the rest can be dismissed and banged up, deemed the unwashed.

One is Peter Greste, a particularly troublesome case given the work he did for Al Jazeera that landed him, for a time, in an Egyptian prison. “As someone who has been imprisoned by a foreign government for publishing material that it didn’t like, I have a certain sympathy with Assange.  But my support stops there.”

As happens with practitioners, his admission to the world of establishment academe softens both cortex and conviction.  From the summit of UNESCO chair in journalism and communication at the University of Queensland, he lords:  “To be clear, Julian Assange is not a journalist, and WikiLeaks is not a news organisation.  There is an argument to be had about the libertarian ideal of radical transparency that underpins its ethos but that is a separate issue altogether from press freedom.”

Greste falls for the prosecution effort to play the hacker card, tagged to conspiracy.  This stands to reason: the organisation and its publisher are to be refused entry into the pantheon of journalism.  Perhaps this stands to reason, given how WikiLeaks has demonstrated with devastating effect that the journalist, as a term, has been rented into vacuity.  Greste also tut tuts Assange for not “sorting through the hundreds of thousands of files to seek out the most important or relevant and protect the innocent”.  Again, that hoary old chestnut, ignoring the inordinate lengths that WikiLeaks has gone to protect those who have, in fact, disclosed the secrets while blowing the cover on the less savoury elements of power.

As one goes through Greste’s views, a feeling of engaging a dinosaur awaiting the museum comes through. He is incapable of understanding the digital upending that WikiLeaks has encouraged.  The “digital revolution has confused the definitions of what journalism is and its role in a democracy.”  In attempting to treat Assange and the outfit as exceptional, he dangerously endorses wide ranging efforts that can just as easily justify the incarceration and punishment of journalists of all shades.  Greste can confidently split hairs.

The feeble nonsense that passes for intellectual comment on the fourth estate can be gathered in the following remark from journalist hacks turned academic hacks (one, Kathy Kiely, holds the Lee Hills Chair of Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which must be a source of much mirth): “But granting Assange journalist status is beyond problematic: It’s likely to draw more attacks on press freedom such as the Georgia lawmakers’ thinly disguised attempt to sanction and ostracize journalists whose work they don’t like.”

Too hard a basket is the Assange case.  Don’t call him a journalist, because doing so might incite retribution, which is the sort of twisted rationale produced by pro-establishment airings.  The only standard retribution that should follow in such cases is a swift removal of their “chairs” in journalism, upon which they have become very firmly affixed.  The moulded establishment has a habit of doing away with independence, and Assange’s seizure has merely reaffirmed it.

Passing the Parcel: The European Union and Refugees in the Mediterranean

The modern UN Refugee Convention is now so flea-bitten it’s been put out to the garbage tip of history.  At least the enthusiastic fleas think so, given their conduct as political representatives across a range of parliaments keen on barbed wired borders and impenetrable defences.  Across Europe, the issue of refugees arriving by sea – in this case, the Mediterranean – has become a matter of games and deflection. Lacking any coherence whatsoever, the approach to certain, designated arrivals is to push them on to the next port in fits of cruel deflection, hoping that the next recipient will give in.  Such conduct demonstrates how states have adopted notions of penalisation and discrimination against the arrival who seeks sanctuary, positions severely in breach of international humanitarian law.

Australia remains the undisputed pioneer in this, at least in the last two decades.  Incapable of establishing a decent environmental policy, hostage to the gunpoint of the mining lobby, and suspicious of enshrined rights, its backwater parliamentarians have been dazzling with other efforts: finding a suitably bestial policy to repel maritime arrivals, for instance.  Boats have been towed back to Indonesia, a country which many of its representatives grudgingly do business with.  People smugglers, the very same ones demonised as “scum” by Australian politicians, have been paid when and where necessary.  A veil of secrecy has been cast with suffocating effect across the operations of the Royal Australian Navy, and criminal provisions have been passed punishing any whistle-blower who dares disclose the nature of operations in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Countries hugging the Mediterranean are also attempting to make a dash up the premier league of refugee cruelty.  In January, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini bellowed in disdain that rescue ships heading to Italy were provocations. “No one will disembark in Italy.”  This has been accentuated by a change in funding policy.  The European Union has distanced itself from the anti-smuggling Operation Sophia, which ran for four years and involved the rescue of thousands of refugees with the use of EU vessels.  Any united front on the part of EU states has effectively collapsed.

Vessels are now being refused docking rights as a matter of course.  Sixty-two migrants on the German rescue ship Alan Kurdi found themselves being refused and moved on.  Having been rescued on April 3 near Libya, the vessel owned by the German non-governmental organisation Sea-Eye faced a rhetoric, and approach, long favoured in the isolated Australian capital of Canberra.  Those attempting to enter the ports of Malta and Italy were initially refused.  To permit them entry would be tantamount to encouraging human trafficking.

It took 10 days of torment before an agreement was struck: the individuals in question would be allowed to reach Valetta in Malta.  As with everything else, political representatives saw a chance to make hay.  Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed a victory in ending the stand-off, scolding conservatives who believed in abortion.  “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  We are speaking about the same human life, and I can no longer take the hypocrisy in people who have these double standards.”

There was a twist, suggesting that the government could still be selective.  The crew of the Alan Kurdi were refused entry, thereby revealing that Malta was happy to spare the refugee but punish the rescuer.  “We condemn,” a dissatisfied Sea-Eye chairman Gorden Isler claimed, “the abuse of state power and the illegal restriction of our crew members’ freedom, who risked their own health to save lives.”  Captain Werner Czerwinski has proceeded to head to Spain with the express purpose of finding a harbour.  The impediments on its movement have been costly, meaning that it will be unable to embark on its next mission to the central part of the Mediterranean.

A statement from the Maltese government revealed the parcelling scheme: four countries would be involved, divvying out the human misery.  “Through the coordination of the European Commission, with the cooperation of Malta, the migrants on board the NGO vessel Alan Kurdi will be redistributed among four EU states: Germany, France, Portugal and Luxembourg.”  Hardly a stellar outcome, and certainly an ad hoc outcome that bodes ill for any consistency.

“These negotiations,” went a joint statement from Sea-Eye with a host of other rescue organisations, “are illegitimate and unsustainable practices that violate international law, fundamental principles of human rights and disregard the dignity of the rescued.”  The law of the sea, international law more generally speaking, and human rights law, had been flouted in not permitting an immediate disembarkation “at the nearest place of safety.”

The entire system of responding to refugees has become a toxic spread.  Organisations dedicated to the venture of saving potential victims of drowning have been designated a problem as grave as the people they assist.  Those wishing to help are imperilled by the very process of assistance which should be protected by the right to asylum.  There are bureaucratic issues on which waters the refugees might be found in.  Drownings have been inevitable, showing that red tape can be a lethal affair.

In various perverse instances, the rescuers can themselves find themselves facing investigations for actually providing needed assistance.  Miguel Rodan, a Spanish firefighter who found himself helping distressed refugees in June 2017, was duly informed that he, along with his fellow rescuers, were being investigated by officials of the Italian government that they might have been responsible for “facilitating illegal immigration”.

The looming tragedy here is that more numbers are bound to find their way into the waters of the Mediterranean, given the rapid escalation of hostilities in a crippled Libya.  Assessments vary depending on which panicked account is consulted, but a figure of 800,000 migrants has been floated.  The assault on Tripoli by Khalifa Hafter has the potential, according to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the UN-recognised government, to become a “new Syria”, a “war of aggression that will spread its cancer through the Mediterranean, Italy and Europe.”  The language is crudely apt: refugees as a cancerous spread; Europe’s response, a chemotherapeutic, if inconsistent harsh counter.

Shredding Asylum: The Arrest of Julian Assange

The man seemed like a bearded emissary, a holy figure nabbed in his sleep. He looked similarly pale as to how he did in 2013, but he cut a more shocking figure.  Most prisoners would have had room to move in a compound.  The Ecuadorean embassy in London only offered modest space and access to sun light.  Hospitality of late was in short supply.

Julian Assange had been ill.  His advocates had bravely insisted that he needed treatment.  “As a journalist who has worked as media partner of @Wikileaks since 2009,” reflected a near grieving Stefania Maurizi, “it has been so painful to watch Julian Assange’s health completely declining in the last 9 years as a result of confinement with no end in sight, tremendous stress, threats.”  Sir Alan Duncan of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was happy to offer it, provided Assange step out of the embassy.

But Assange’s time had finally come.  The embroiling of the Moreno administration in the INA Papers affair suggested that the president needed an out.  Images of Moreno’s family skirting around the internet in various fora during days of plenty, and the suggestion that he had been profiting from a Panama offshore account, put Assange back in the picture. Who better to blame than a man in confinement, whose communications had been restricted, whose health was failing?  WikiLeaks duly received a tipoff from a “high level source within the Ecuadorean state” that the offshore scandal would be used “as a pretext” to remove difficult tenant.

The writ and run of asylum has been shredded, and the conduct of Ecuador’s president Lenín Moreno is worth noting. In his address explaining the abrupt termination of Assange’s stay, Moreno was a dissembling picture.  Assange, he had been assured by UK authorities, would come to no harm.  He would not be facing torture or the death penalty (a reassuring red herring, given that the death penalty is off the table in extradition matters dealing with the UK in any case).

He had been “discourteous” and “aggressive”, WikiLeaks “hostile and threatening” to Ecuador.  Ecuador had been “generous” and “respectful of the principles of international law, and of the institutions of the right of asylum.”  Self-praise tends to increase in volume the more guilt is assumed, and Moreno made it clear that the law of asylum was a “sovereign right of the Ecuadorean state”.  It was Assange who was the violator of diplomatic protocols, refusing to abide by “the norm of not intervening in the internal affairs of other states.”

Specific reference was made to the leaking of Vatican documents in January 2019; Assange was still “linked” to WikiLeaks. He blocked security cameras; he used “distorting” equipment. He even “confronted and mistreated guards”.  He communicated via a mobile phone “with the outside world.” And he dared taking his case through Ecuadorean legal channels.

Moreno’s justification received much steam from UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who claimed that Assange was “no hero and no one is above the law.  He has hidden from the truth for years.”  (Psychological slip, perhaps?  Is it Assange who is allergic to the truth, or the security establishments he wishes to prize open?). Both Moreno and Ecuador were to be thanked for their cooperation with the Foreign Office “to ensure Assange faces justice.”

President Donald Trump has been even more brazen on the subject of Assange’s arrest, feigning an attack of amnesia.  “I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing.”  During the 2016 campaign, WikiLeaks had been very much Trump’s “thing”, praised some 140 times for revealing email correspondence from the Democratic National Committee.  “Oh, we love WikiLeaks,” he cheered at a North Carolina rally.  No longer.

Critics of WikiLeaks and Assange have always presumed exaggeration.  The narcissist had nothing to fear accept model British justice, the same justice that has gone to extraordinary lengths over the years to affect various, high profile miscarriages.  Skipping bail was tantamount to a parking offence; face the music.  Instead, WikiLeaks was shown to be correct: Assange is facing the full force of an extensive investigation against a publisher by the self-touted leader of the free world.

Ever since the publication of Cablegate, WikiLeaks has been the subject of a multi-organisational investigation by US prosecutors and defence personnel keen to sketch a legal basis for targeting the organisation.  Assange has figured prominently.  Despite the niggling problems associated with the Free speech amendment, legal personnel have been stretching the grounds on how to circumvent it.

Some few hours after Assange was bundled out of the embassy and into a van by the London Metropolitan Police, a US extradition request was revealed.  He would not be prosecuted as a journalist, which would bring up press freedom issues, but as a hacker under the single charge of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.  “Assange, who did not possess a security clearance or need to know, was not authorized to receive classified material from the United States.”

The golden thread in the argument is Chelsea Manning, and four databases “from departments and agencies of the United States.” Both Manning and Assange had entered into an agreement to crack “a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network”.  The alleged conspiracy “was to facilitate Manning’s acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States so that WikiLeaks could publicly disseminate the information on its website.”

Stripped bare, the issue for Assange is this.  Dislike him, loathe him, and feel your skin crawl before him.  Fantasise about what he might or might not have done in Sweden.  Sanctify and scribble hagiography about him.  Speculate about how he might have been as a tenant of asylum.  He remains a publisher and a journalist, unconventional, daring, a vigilante of sorts who sought to etch himself into history while giving the world a very cogent, thrilling idea: opening the darkened corridors of corrupting power and holding them accountable.

As the Centre for Investigate Journalism states, “Whatever your view of its philosophy of radical transparency, WikiLeaks is a publisher.  Any charges now brought in connection with that material, or any attempt to extradite Mr Assange to the United States for prosecution under the deeply flawed cudgel of the Espionage Act 1917 is an attack on all of us.”  Edward Snowden added a concurring voice: Ecuador’s invitation for the UK secret police “to drag a publisher of – like it or not – award winning journalism out of the building are going to end up in the history books.  Assange’s critics may cheer, but this is a dark moment for press freedom.”

Even if he has never been fully accepted within the fraternity of the press, he has, in many ways, led its change. His forensic style of journalism, with its techniques of placing original documentation upon sites for readers to consult, has brought greater scrutiny of sources.  His embrace of secure systems for sending classified material, and his pioneering of international cross-border collaborative reporting, transformed the nature of modern journalism. But pioneers tend to find themselves in the colessum facing the hungry lions of state.

The pursuit of Assange, as British Labour’s Diane Abbott quite accurately assessed, was not done “to protect US national security” but “because he has exposed wrongdoing by US administrations and their military forces.”  Former Greek finance minister and rabble rousing economist Yanis Varoufakis saw the clouds lift on the sham.  “The game is up.  Years of lies exposed. It was never about Sweden, Putin, Trump or Hillary.  Assange was persecuted for exposing war crimes.”  Punish Assange, punish the press.  Punish Assange and condemn the Fourth Estate.

Terrorist Designations: Trump and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps

It’s designed to give the US more leg room in the sanction stakes but may end up having its own hemming consequences.  The designation by the Trump administration of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation was meant to expand options for the US while shutting others out.  While Trump attempts to defrost matters with North Korea, Iran has played the convenient bug bear.

As President Donald Trump outlined in a statement, “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.”

The policy had an inevitable resonance in Israel, where it cheered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the Tuesday national poll.  Designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guards “as a terrorist organization” kept “the world safe from Iran aggression and terrorism”.  Such a consequence may well be wishful thinking.  Jacob Heilbrun opines rather pessimistically that such a policy shift is bound to be disruptive; the president “has allowed himself to be captured by a neocon contingent, housed at the Foundation of Defense for Democracies, that is thirsting for a new crusade to vanquish the mullahs in Tehran.”

The IRGC has certainly made its effective, often bloody mark on Middle Eastern affairs.  As US-led forces blundered in Iraq, leaving a security vacuum rich with opportunity, Iran saw a golden chance to increase its influence and harass the invaders.  The role played by IRGC’s Quds Force in supplying Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs) or Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to militants in Iraq was cited in 2015 as a key reason for US policy makers to abandon the Iran nuclear deal.  “I understand,” claimed Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) in a July 29, 2015 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, “that the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency has a classified list of roughly 500 American soldiers who were murdered by Iranian IEDs.”  US Central Command revealed a different figure: between November 2005 and December 2011, the number of US combatant deaths arising from EFP “events” stood at 196.

Dissecting such figures forensically is less significant for the anti-Iran hawks than reining in the broader effect of Tehran’s influence.  Training to its proxies has been forthcoming and consistent; the Syrian civil war has further opened the gates, leaving Israel jittery.  Washington’s ally, Saudi Arabia, has similarly balked, and seeks to plug the Shia breach in Yemen with bloody resolve.  Operating behind the scenes is the IRGC.

The issue is complicated from another perspective.  In so designating such an arm of the Iranian government a terrorist outfit, it stymies trading done with any Iranian entity from powers in the international scene untidy.  (The IRGC’s economic tentacles are not only thick, but lengthy.)  This is bound to have a localising effect.  In immediate proximity of Iran and Iran’s influence, Lebanese and Iraqi authorities risk being barred from dealing with the IRGC and its surrogate arms.  Asian and European companies, who do not have the same qualms in dealing with the theocracy, also risk facing the ire of Washington.  In Trump’s own words, “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.”

The concept is strikingly simplistic, ignoring the myriad of entanglements that follows from IRGC involvement in the Iranian economy proper.  It also side steps the possibility that the Trump Organization, in signing contracts in 2012 with developers behind the Trump Tower Baku project, had indirect dealings with Azarpassillo, an Iranian construction company controlled by the IRGC.  (Azarpassillo was awarded contracts in 2008 by then Azerbaijani transport minister Ziya Mammadov, who had been the key contact for Trump’s company.)

Till this point, the approach to the IRGC has been one of economic encirclement featuring attempts to get to the organisation via other entities.  The move to target the IGRC was already underway in other branches of the US government.  The Treasury designated the Quds Force in 2007 a supporter of terrorism, sanctioning entities connected with it.  It has assumed pride of place on the US Specially designated Global Terrorist List.  The IGRC itself, as former Under-Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is on record as saying, “is already fully sanctioned”, making the issue one of superfluous classification and needlessly provocative.

Then comes the issue of Iran’s direct response.  What is good for the goose is invariably good for the unfortunate gander.  Various Trump officials, to that end, were none too keen by the decision, claiming that retaliation would follow against US intelligence officers and troops.  Former State Department official Jason Blazakis, who spent his time in the terrorist labelling business, suggested that the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, could well call upon his Shi’ite militias “to take actions against US assets in places like Baghdad’s Green Zone.” In consistently upending fashion, Trump also gave his emissaries in the Middle East very little time to ponder matters, leaving no guidelines as to how to enforce the designation.  On such points, White House national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hold courtly sway.

Rhetorical retaliation was not long in coming and seemed almost casual.  The US was branded as a “state sponsor of terrorism” with its military elements in the Middle East duly designated as “terrorist groups”.  The move, suggested Iranian state TV, had as much to do with US dislike of Tehran’s influence in the region as it did with its success in “fighting Islamic State”.  Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, in calling the move on Trump’s part “a major strategic mistake”, insisted that the new designation by Tehran would include “US military bases and their military forces in the region” and “confronted accordingly”.  Araghchi, like Trump, was merely stating the obvious, and dangerous turn in relations.

Lethal Fluctuations: The Death Penalty in Asia

The Malaysian government last year expressed a surprise change of heart on a policy long held dear; it would reconsider the death penalty. The case of Muhammad Lukman, sentenced to death in August for the purchase and sharing of medicinal marijuana, did much to stimulate outrage.  On October 10th, law minister Liew Vui Keong announced that it would be abolished.  Doing so would leave such last bastions as Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

In other parts, capital punishment is either continuing its grim dance (in Singapore, usage is on the rise; in Vietnam, it remains consistently high) or getting back in business, singing its deadly siren song.  Killing people in the name of state vengeance is becoming vogue even as it retreats in other contexts.  The Kingdom of Brunei, despite having it on the books since the days of being a British protectorate, is only now contemplating, in all seriousness, putting people to death who have a liking for, or find themselves committing, sodomy.  (Lesbian reverie will see a penalty of 40 lashes and a potential prison sentence of 10 years.)

In the Philippines, an aggressive, insistent President Rodrigo Duterte has proven something of a trail blazer, scorching his way through human rights quibbles and filling the morgues.   In July 2017, he explained the rationale for using capital punishment without mercy in his second State of the Nation Address (SONA).  “It is time for us to fulfil our mandate to protect our people.  Tapos na’yan.  For so long we have to act decisively on this contentious issue.  Capital punishment is not only about deterrence, it’s also about retribution.”

Duterte’s view of the penal code is stripped of ornate reasoning.  It is one of vengeance and pessimism, marshalled against any hope of restorative justice or therapeutic reform.  The law, a legacy of the Spaniards and then translated into English, with revisions, “is the essence of retribution.”  The attitude there involved “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  You took life, you must pay with it.  That is the only way to even.  You can’t place a premium on the human mind that he will go straight.”

The result has been one of carnage: over 5,000 deaths between July 1, 2016 and November 30, 2018, if you believe the official figures, or the greater number of 12,000, if you believe in activist assessments.  This pool drew on a total of 164,265 arrests (“drug personalities”, no less) as part of 115,435 anti-drugs operations.

In Sri Lanka, the interest has also been rekindled, inspired, in no small part, by the blood lust of the Philippines leader.  The Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena felt moved by Duterte’s efforts to combat drug trafficking, a true “example to the world”.  “I hope to carry out the first hanging within a month or two.  I appeal to human rights organisations not to try to pressure us on this decision.”  From a prison population of 1299 facing capital punishment, 48 are convicted drug offenders.

The Sri Lankan case had a twist.  While Sirisena had announced an end to the 43-year moratorium on capital punishment for drug-related crimes, complemented by Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale’s clearing of the decks for five drug convicts to be dispatched, a reality started to sink in: the state lacked the necessary trained instruments of death.  The moratorium had been so lengthy so as to make the system rust.  Expertise in breaking necks, in other words, was lacking. The last executioner to reach retirement age left the post in 2014.  Three others have spent short stints gazing at unused gallows without rewarded effort.

Advertisements to fill the vacancy were duly put out for two hangmen.  In the Daily News, a call out for applications with “an excellent moral character” was made.  They would also have to pass a test of “mind and mental strength”.

Such debates about the formalised death penalty in the Philippines and Sri Lanka avoid the obvious point.  Where to with the death squads who have donned extra-judicial uniforms?  Duterte’s encouragement of police brutality and extra-judicial killings (“my only sin,” he claims) is the stuff of legend.  Sri Lanka can also count itself as an enthusiast in the extra-judicial killing game.  In some states, the death penalty, dormant or otherwise, is a reminder about how state operatives go about their business of sowing terror when they prefer to avoid courts.

While the death penalty has, at its core, a flawed philosophy, its attractiveness often lies in its sheer conclusiveness.  Such decisions are final, doing away with the problem.  They are economic – a corpse is less of a strain on the public purse than a living inmate.  To that end, imposing the death penalty can result from trivial impulses.

Such monstrous triviality was recently in play in Thailand. In Phuket, the airport authorities have been entertaining the possibility of grave punishments for those taking “selfies” on Mai Khao Beach, a site known for sightings of low, incoming aircraft.

“People and tourists will not be allowed to enter this area to take photos,” an emphatic Phuket airport chief Wichit Kaeothaithiam has claimed.  He issued further warnings: no drones, no shining lights, quite frankly nothing at all to distract incoming planes, would be tolerated.  Violating the provisions of the Air Navigation Act was a matter, quite literally, of death.  “The maximum penalty is the death sentence.”  Distractive idiocy, the authorities in Phuket suggest, is no excuse.

Terms of Asylum and Distraction: Moreno’s Assange Problem

Political asylum is an accepted if often ignored right. It is also at the mercy of those interests that grant it.  Ecuador’s repeated insistence on conditioning Julian Assange’s stay in its London abode is tantamount to corroding the idea of asylum to vacuity.  You are granted asylum as a political dissident, but political dissident you shall not be, especially when it comes to exposing the secrets of your landlord.

Assange has ventured to test the onerous limits on his conduct that have been imposed by embassy protocols, taking the matter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  His argument has been that the strict rules applied to his stay, entailing a monitoring of visits, control of medical bills, communications, expenses and pet care were a violation of “fundamental rights and freedoms”.  The Commission, as it transpired, did not bite.

The Ecuadorean response was a crowing one, arguing that the state’s treatment of Assange was in accordance with international law, and that their guest’s situation “cannot be extended indefinitely and (Ecuador) expects it to be resolved as soon as possible.”

Ecuador’s Attorney General Íñigo Salvador, summed it up in smug fashion. “The decision was based on the fact that the request filed by Assange did not comply with the requirements of gravity, urgency and irreparable harm provided for in Article 25 of the Rules of Procedure of the IACHR.”  The peculiar twist to this, however, was that such impositions could be justified as protecting, not impairing, Assange’s rights.  “With this decision [by the Commission], the Special Protocol of Visits, Communications and Medical Care remains in force, which guarantees the rights of the asylee.”

Assange has been accused of muddying the stables throughout his stay, but the calls have become more strident over the last eighteen months.  A year of muzzling and limiting Assange’s conduct has become both cruel and comical.  President Lenín Moreno seems to be waiting for the moment where a final stroke of agitation will release him from any sense of restraint.

On Tuesday, that moment might have come. Moreno insisted that Assange had been a serial violator of his terms of asylum. “We should ensure Mr Assange’s life is not at risk but he’s violated the agreement we have with him so many times.”

The Ecuadorean president, in pained tones, claimed that “photos of my bedroom, what I eat and how my wife and daughters and friends dance” had been doing the buzzing rounds on social media.  While Moreno did not explicitly accuse Assange of being behind that spray of material, the accusing voice was unmistakable.  The Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner confirmed it, loudly proclaiming that what WikiLeaks had done was “repugnant”.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs, José Valencia, focused on Assange’s means of communication, arguing that he had been biting the hand that had fed him.

The office of the President has also made a formal, if risible, complaint to Joseph Cannataci, the special rapporteur for the right to privacy based at the UN Human Rights Council, accusing WikiLeaks and other “possible authors” of disseminating private photos and personal information obtained from Moreno’s own computers, tablets and a miscellany of devices.  Cannataci’s good offices are being used, in turn, to deal with claims by WikiLeaks that Ecuador is spying on him.  The dark face continues.

The entire show of puffed indignation seemed an enormous distraction.  Last week, the Ecuadorean National Assembly passed a resolution calling for a corruption probe into Moreno’s affairs regarding the INA Papers.  The INA Investment Corp of Panama fame specialises in minimising (dare one say evading?) tax, and it took a publication by digital news platform La Fuente on February 19 to suggest a link between Moreno, his family and the company.  From that particular haven, it is alleged, ample funds were used from an offshore account to make an assortment of payments covering gifts, furniture purchases, and an apartment in Spain.

In the words of an official statement, “With 74 votes, the National Assembly approved a resolution that requires the Inspection Commission to carry out an analysis of the publication dated Feb. 19, 2018, in a digital platform called ‘The Offshore Labyrinth Of The Presidential Circle.’”

A close reading of the resolution hardly suggests that Moreno is going to be in much trouble; the focus, as María José Carrión of Moreno’s own party, Alianza Pais, has explained, will involve “an analysis of this journalistic publication.  It won’t be an investigation, as it’s not possible for the President to be summoned because the law is clear and for that to happen it must be within the framework of a political trial, which is not the case.”

Fidel Narváez, former consul at the Ecuador embassy in London, has a working and plausible hypothesis: the entire spectacle is being engineered to throw the curious and vigilant off the scent, one that is becoming rather piquant.  Not a single document connected with the INA Papers matter has ever been personally leaked or published by Assange or WikiLeaks.  The Assembly, he charges, has become a place of ludicrous activity in attempting to investigate Assange in the name of protecting “national interests”.

While the increasingly crotchety approach from the Moreno government suggests an imminent decision on his fate, Assange has not been left without some legal ammunition.  The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in a ruling issued on May 30 last year, made it clear that Assange should not only be released but granted safe passage to Ecuador as part of the right to asylum.  The advisory opinion considered the right to seek and receive asylum in a foreign country pursuant to the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 22(7)) and Article XXVII of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

The protection against refoulement, in which a person’s life, integrity, security and/or liberty might be at risk, was held to bind States extraterritorially “whenever authorities exercise their authority or effective control over such persons, as may happen in legations, and that, by their own nature, may be in the territory of another State with that State’s consent and authorization.”  But Moreno, and his colleagues are a desperate bunch, and their latest efforts suggest that scapegoating Assange and readying him for the fall might offer some measure of therapeutic relief, however brief.

A Privileged Education: The US College Admissions Scandal

The oldest idea of history; the perennial problem of station: education.  Get the child as far as possible so that he or she can be propelled, as if from a trebuchet across the ramparts of life.  Nasty obstacles – one being a lack of intellect – will be cleared, and the wretched genetic issue will find itself in sinecures, positions of influence and sat upon the comfortable chairs of the establishment.

Universities should be places of educational exultation.  In practice, they have become creatures of the state, friends of various industrial complexes, and complicit in some of the darker tendencies of society.  Go to university, and understand dankness and rot; go to university, and acquaint yourself with what foul pools of unrefined group-think looks like.  (The very idea of a “school” of thinking is disturbingly boxed in nature.)

It is also clear that any institution which hands caps out in hope of filling them is bound to be influenced by the heaviest contribution, though how that contribution is assessed can be a point of conjecture.  As the issue of Benjamin Franklin’s diamond snuffbox, a present from Louis XVI showed, a gift might be as troublingly influential as a bribe.

Cap filling, in other words, is beyond rebuttal as a university practice.  What is significant is the form it takes.  It can either be subtle, with the old blood and club ties playing a role, greased by donations and a designated background; or it can be more direct, with employees of the university taking a cut, an overt way of exploiting the process.

Yale women’s soccer coach Rudy Meredith, for instance, was of the latter persuasion, supplying what were considered by the university “fraudulent athletic endorsements” for two applicants.  One failed to get in; another was admitted around January 2018, with parents paying Rick Singer, the grand poohbah of the operation, $1.2 million for the facilitation of acceptance.  A good slice of $400,000 went to Meredith.

The Boston US Attorney’s Office got wind of the matter.  A federal grand jury subpoenaed the Yale Office of the General Counsel on November 16, 2018 requesting information about Meredith.  Full details were revealed once the charges were unsealed on March 12 this year.

Singer has made a pretty sum from such transactions in what appears to be the largest, and longest running college admissions scandal in US history, his modus operandi being the counterfeit athletic and exam profile (doctored photos and exam results, bogus special needs certificates).  Other colleges, coaches and parents, have found themselves wading in the pool of accusation, though Southern California seems to be ground zero in that regard.  Half of the 32 parents who found their way into the FBI affidavit filed in the US District Court in Boston are linked to USC, accused of old fashioned bribery of college entrance exam administrators, varsity coaches and administrators responsible for athletics recruitment and using “the façade of a charitable organization to conceal the nature and source of the bribe payments.”

This Monday, former coaches from the University of Southern California and Georgetown University, part of a select dozen, pleaded not guilty to charges that they had participated in the scheme.  The list reads like a thick who’s who of the establishment gone south: former USC women’s soccer coaches Ali Khoroshahin and Laura Janke; former USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic, and Gordon Ernst, Georgetown’s former head tennis coach.  They are said to be part of an enterprise of 50 individuals, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, part of a racketeering project worth $25 million.

As is the nature of such processes, universities retreat behind an assembled body of rules and spectral processes that are supposed to guarantee accountability.  Yale’s attempt to do so in this latest college admissions scandal fails to disappoint. “On the very rare occasion when Yale receives an allegation that a current student included false information in application,” explains the university in a statement, “Yale gives the student the opportunity to address the allegation.”  If the university deems the allegation true, “the student’s admission is rescinded, based on language in the application that requires applicants to affirm that everything in the application is true and complete.”

The university also denies, in an effort to ward off speculation on the subject, that there is “no evidence that a student admitted under this scheme has graduated.”  Traditional, indirect ways of influence tend to be then norm; the recent US college admissions scheme was simply more daring, and brazen, in its implementation.  It was daylight looting.

It all comes down to style and method.  Daniel Golden had already shown in his 2006 publication The Price of Admission, that the wealthy in the US purchase a pathway for under-achieving offspring into elite universities via enormous, tax-deductible donations and the exertion of influence on appropriate university committees.  Take a certain Charles Kushner, New Jersey real estate developer, who pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998.  Son Jared, hardly jaw dropping with his SAT or GPA scores, was duly admitted, the rate of acceptance then being one out of nine.

That decision was greeted with consternation at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ, Jared’s boyhood stomping ground.  “There was,” opined a former official of the school, “no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard.”  The backfill response, often coming from a spokesperson for Kushner Companies, has always been consistent: there was no link between Charles Kushner’s gift, and his son’s admission.

Similar principles, at a stretch, apply to Oxbridge, but the British tend to prefer the subtlety that comes with hypocrisy and class impenetrability. As UK Professor David Andress wondered when looking at the US example, “Why these people didn’t just make strategic donations, perfectly legally, to achieve the same end…”  And so he tails off; thickness can only go so far. What is needed there is an additional good “blag” factor, a heftily billed private school education, and good family ties.  Exaggerated sporting achievement can help.

This is the issue of corruption in universities who, like any bureaucratic institution linked with establishment values, desire money and possess a self-subsisting interest in supporting its favourites.  Where education is not universally free, favours will be done, or at least be seen to be done.  Appropriate backs will be rubbed.  Regulations written in mosaic stone will be broken if needed. In some cases, no law need ever be broken; appearances will triumph.

Disinviting Jordan Peterson: The Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge and Approved Ideas

He has sent so many cliques and groups into titters of anger, and the indignant have attempted to turn on him.  The university environment should be the last place where dangerous ideas, and views, are stifled and stomped upon. In actual fact, we are seeing the reverse; from students unions to middle- and upper-managerial parasites and administrators, the contrarian idea must be boxed, the controversial speaker silenced and sent beyond the pale.  Dissent and disagreement are lethal toxin to such affected notions as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.

It should be very clear that meaningless terms such as diversity and inclusiveness do very little to the content of actual intellectual conversation.  Ideas are there to be debated, not accepted by high caste strictures.  The modern academic environment suggests something quite opposite: a policing rationale, an insistence on thought control that is insidious and all too common in managed structures.  When incorporated into the university structure, the bureaucrat takes precedence over the intellectual, the mindless cherry picker over the polymath.  The more ideas you have, the more of a threat you will be, requiring regulation and the occasional ostracising. In broader public spaces, this may even require you losing a platform altogether.

Which leads us, then, to Jordan Peterson, agent provocateur and psychology professor at University of Toronto who was led to believe that he would be taking up residence for two months at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University in Michaelmas Term.  In a statement to the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity, a University spokesperson confirmed “that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.”

In a bitter irony that should have been apparent, the Canadian academic had his invitation rescinded in the name of “inclusiveness”, a baffling justification given its very opposite interpretation.  In a statement to the Guardian, the University spokesman proclaimed Cambridge “an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles.  There is no place here for anyone who cannot”. Now there speaks the virtue of an intolerant tolerance.

Left hanging with menacing dullness is the entire lack of precision as to what those politburo designated principles are.  Even more to the point, the Faculty of Divinity is left looking buffoonish having extended an invitation in the first place, presumably because it was in the spirit of the University’s values.  Those values, in turn, must have been flipped in an act of feeble mind changing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guide on Freedom of Expression for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales is instructive here.  It notes section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, which places a legal duty on universities and Higher Education Providers more broadly to take “reasonably practicable” steps to protect freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

There is no “right” for any group or speaker to speak to students at Student Unions or HEP premises. But once a speaker has been invited to speak at any meeting or event, he or she “should not be stopped from doing so unless they are likely to express unlawful speech or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks.”

As Peterson tetchily noted, he not only requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity but been extended an invitation.  “You bloody virtue-signalling cowards,” he tweeted.  He also deemed the Faculty of Divinity’s publicity on the issue misrepresentative, having “not equally” publicised “the initial agreement/invitation” while giving the impression that he had gone “cap-in-hand to the school for the fellowship.”

So what is it about Peterson that could possibly fall within those extreme instances?  Causing offense, perhaps, but certainly nothing illegal or criminal.  He had, after all, visited Cambridge last November during the course of a book tour.  He spoke at the Corn Exchange.  He met faculty staff members.  He also recorded videos and podcasts with the noted philosopher and Cambridge don Sir Roger Scruton, presented at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism and Stephen Blackwood, founding President of Ralston College.  But perhaps most importantly, he was invited to address the venerable, and student-run Cambridge Union to a packed house.

The Cambridge University Student Union had a different take.  They were “relieved” at the rescinding of the offer.

It is a political act to associate the University with an academic’s work through offers which legitimise figures such as Peterson.  His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University, but as one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.

The statement is riddled with daft, anti-intellectual claptrap.  It is stingingly parochial.  It is also dangerous.  The only “political act” in this entire affair is one affirming that a speaker with certain views associated or otherwise with the student body cannot take up residence to discuss views that are not approved by prior screening. The CUSU has taken it upon itself to deliberate over what a “valuable contribution” from an academic might look like, suggesting that it already has a set of acceptable, stock ideas that are beyond challenge.  The statement is also vacuous on one fundamental point: to merely allow someone to debate a position is to legitimise him (note – not even the idea, but the person), a position presuming that an attempt at understanding is the same as approval.

Varsity has gone through the supposedly precarious resume that is Peterson’s: his opposition to an anti-discrimination bill adding gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Code in 2016 as an infringement of free speech; his refusal to use any gender neutral pronoun; his claimed defence of white privilege and masculinity.  Even this laundry list is hardly a credible basis for denying him a place to engage in debate; if anything, those card carrying CUSU members, not to mention Faculty staff, might wish to engage and confront Peterson in gladiatorial bouts of the mind.  But not so; far easier to pull the platform away, and simply claim to know the whole truth.

Instead of showing the very resilience that should be encouraged in thinking, the opposite is being fostered by such decisions.  An enfeebled student and academic community is being encouraged, because it is free of controversy and packed with acceptable behavioural norms.  The latter is distinctly geared towards a beastly toadyism at universities, where students prefer to attack certain contrarian ideas rather than the very class that detests them: university management.

When brands are being advertised, names promoted, thoughts only count in a bland, inoffensive sense.  The sweet is preferred over the bitter; the discomforting eschewed in favour of Aldous Huxley’s pneumatic chair.  Any complement of controversial ideas must be approved of in advance.  Given that Peterson has no interest in complying with this diktat, he has become, inadvertently to many, a torch for intellectual freedom.  Attempting to shut, and shutdown the man, is mere confirmation of many of his claims, even if you disagree with a good number of them.

The Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge and Approved Ideas

He has sent so many cliques and groups into titters of anger, and the indignant have attempted to turn on him. The university environment should be the last place where dangerous ideas, and views, are stifled and stomped upon. In actual fact, we are seeing the reverse; from students unions to middle- and upper-managerial parasites and administrators, the contrarian idea must be boxed, the controversial speaker silenced and sent beyond the pale. Dissent and disagreement are lethal toxin to such affected notions as “diversity” and “inclusiveness”.

It should be very clear that meaningless terms such as diversity and inclusiveness do very little to the content of actual intellectual conversation. Ideas are there to be debated, not accepted by high caste strictures. The modern academic environment suggests something quite opposite: a policing rationale, an insistence on thought control that is insidious and all too common in managed structures. When incorporated into the university structure, the bureaucrat takes precedence over the intellectual, the mindless cherry picker over the polymath. The more ideas you have, the more of a threat you will be, requiring regulation and the occasional ostracising. In broader public spaces, this may even require you losing a platform altogether.

Which leads us, then, to Jordan Peterson, agent provocateur and psychology professor at University of Toronto who was led to believe that he would be taking up residence for two months at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge University in Michaelmas Term. In a statement to the Cambridge student newspaper, Varsity, a University spokesperson confirmed “that Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.”

In a bitter irony that should have been apparent, the Canadian academic had his invitation rescinded in the name of “inclusiveness”, a baffling justification given its very opposite interpretation. In a statement to the Guardian, the University spokesman proclaimed Cambridge “an inclusive environment and we expect all our staff and visitors to uphold our principles. There is no place here for anyone who cannot”. Now there speaks the virtue of an intolerant tolerance.

Left hanging with menacing dullness is the entire lack of precision as to what those politburo designated principles are. Even more to the point, the Faculty of Divinity is left looking buffoonish having first extended an invitation in the first place, presumably because it was in the spirit of the University’s values. Those values, in turn, must have been flipped in an act of feeble mind changing.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guide on Freedom of Expression for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales is instructive here. It notes section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, which places a legal duty on universities and Higher Education Providers more broadly to take “reasonably practicable” steps to protect freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

There is no “right” for any group or speaker to speak to students at Student Unions or HEP premises. But once a speaker has been invited to speak at any meeting or event, he or she “should not be stopped from doing so unless they are likely to express unlawful speech or their attendance would lead the host organisation to breach other legal obligations and no reasonably practicable steps can be taken to reduce these risks.”

As Peterson tetchily noted, he not only requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity but been extended an invitation. “You bloody virtue-signalling cowards,” he tweeted. He also deemed the Faculty of Divinity’s publicity on the issue misrepresentative, having “not equally” publicised “the initial agreement/invitation” while giving the impression that he had gone “cap-in-hand to the school for the fellowship.”

So what is it about Peterson that could possibly fall within those extreme instances? Causing offense, perhaps, but certainly nothing illegal or criminal. He had, after all, visited Cambridge last November during the course of a book tour. He spoke at the Corn Exchange. He met faculty staff members. He also recorded videos and podcasts with the noted philosopher and Cambridge don Sir Roger Scruton, presented at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism and Stephen Blackwood, founding President of Ralston College. But perhaps most importantly, he was invited to address the venerable, and student-run Cambridge Union to a packed house.

The Cambridge University Student Union had a different take. They were “relieved” at the rescinding of the offer. “It is a political act to associate the University with an academic’s work through offers which legitimise figures such as Peterson. His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the University, but as one that works in opposition to the principles of the University.”

The statement is riddled with daft, anti-intellectual claptrap. It is stingingly parochial. It is also dangerous. The only “political act” in this entire affair is one affirming that a speaker with certain views associated or otherwise with the student body cannot take up residence to discuss views that are not approved by prior screening. The CUSU has taken it upon itself to deliberate over what a “valuable contribution” from an academic might look like, suggesting that it already has a set of acceptable, stock ideas that are beyond challenge. The statement is also vacuous on one fundamental point: to merely allow someone to debate a position is to legitimise him (note – not even the idea, but the person), a position presuming that an attempt at understanding is the same as approval.

Varsity has gone through the supposedly precarious resume that is Peterson’s: his opposition to an anti-discrimination bill adding gender identity to the Canadian Human Rights Code in 2016 as an infringement of free speech; his refusal to use any gender neutral pronoun; his claimed defence of white privilege and masculinity. Even this laundry list is hardly a credible basis for denying him a place to engage in debate; if anything, those card carrying CUSU members, not to mention Faculty staff, might wish to engage and confront Peterson in gladiatorial bouts of the mind. But not so; far easier to pull the platform away, and simply claim to know the whole truth.

Instead of showing the very resilience that should be encouraged in thinking, the opposite is being fostered by such decisions. An enfeebled student and academic community is being encouraged, because it is free of controversy and packed with acceptable behavioural norms. The latter is distinctly geared towards a beastly toadyism at universities, where students prefer to attack certain contrarian ideas rather than the very class that detests them: university management.

When brands are being advertised, names promoted, thoughts only count in a bland, inoffensive sense. The sweet is preferred over the bitter; the discomforting eschewed in favour of Aldous Huxley’s pneumatic chair. Any complement of controversial ideas must be approved of in advance. Given that Peterson has no interest in complying with this diktat, he has become, inadvertently to many, a torch for intellectual freedom. Attempting to shut, and shutdown the man, is mere confirmation of many of his claims, even if you disagree with a good number of them.

  • Related reads: “The Utility of Jordan Peterson’s Digressions” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5, and Part 6.