There are autocrats. Look around. According to Freedom House, a quarter of the world’s states are “not free”. More than a third of the world’s population lives in those states. From Venezuela, the least free state in the Americas, all the way to Vladivostok, an even larger share of the world’s land area is ruled by autocrats of one sort or another: presidents for life, hereditary monarchs, ayatollahs, dear leaders.
“Undemocratic regime kills journalist” is a headline that, most of the time, vies with “Dog bites man” for the bottom right-hand corner of page 5. However, the fate of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 — has become front-page news. Why?
Cynical commentators have been reminded of Stalin’s observation that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic”. After all, the Saudi regime has been killing a great many people in Yemen, where its armed forces have been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. Only on a very slow news day does that war make the front pages.
Yet this misses the real point. Democratic states also go to war from time to time and generally kill plenty of people when they do. Making war is not a peculiarity of autocrats. But democratic politicians cannot order the assassination of journalists (even if they may sometimes fantasise about doing so).
The real question here is why Khashoggi’s fate is attracting so much more attention than that of, say, Ibrahim al-Munjar, a correspondent for the Syrian news website Sy24, who was shot and killed in the city of Saida on the morning of May 17.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Khashoggi’s death would make him the 45th journalist killed this year; 27 of them were murdered. Ten of the victims were journalists working in Afghanistan, under a government that depends on US military support. I’ll bet you can’t name a single one of them.
The explanation of the storm around Khashoggi is simple. First, he worked for The Washington Post. Second, the strong suspicion that he has been murdered at the orders of the Saudi government is highly embarrassing to the administration of Donald Trump — if not to the president himself, who is of course incapable of being embarrassed — because resuscitating the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been central to its strategy in the Middle East.
It is embarrassing, too, for the very large number of western businessmen and journalists who over the past year have accepted the invitations of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). That clicking sound you hear is hundreds of emails being sent to cancel the earlier acceptances of invitations to MBS’s Future Investment Initiative (“Davos in the desert”), which is due to take place later this month.
It should go without saying that I deplore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, if that was indeed the fate that befell him. But I deplore all murders, not just the murders of journalists who work for The Washington Post. I am also quite strongly opposed to wrongful imprisonment. The government currently pointing the accusing finger at Saudi Arabia is none other than Turkey’s. Right now, 68 journalists are serving jail sentences in Turkey, with a further 169 held awaiting trial.
In Washington the chorus of the permanently indignant — after a brief pause to digest its failure to derail the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh — is now demanding that the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, join the boycott of Davos in the desert. But some Republicans are also up in arms. On Thursday the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, said America should impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia if Khashoggi has indeed been murdered.
Wait a second. The Turks say they have audio and video evidence to prove their allegation. Let’s see it first, shall we? Because I no more trust the Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, than I do MBS. And Erdogan has no shortage of motives for skulduggery of his own. He has every reason to mistrust his Russian spouse-of-convenience, Vladimir Putin, when it comes to Syria. His currency just fell off a cliff and his banks are in trouble, so he could use some help from the International Monetary Fund. Funny how the Khashoggi story broke a few days before the Turks released the US pastor Andrew Brunson this weekend.
As I said, there are autocrats — lots of them, especially in and around the Middle East. When it comes to press freedom, it’s a really close ugliness contest. Is the US supposed to have diplomatic relations only with liberal democracies? If so, that means just Israel in that part of the world. Hands up, all those in favour of that approach. (At this point Jeremy Corbyn and all those on the left who share his deep antipathy to Israel start hissing.)
The problem is not a new one: it is as old as American foreign policy. You can’t be a great power, much less a superpower, and not have dealings — and sometimes alliances — with nasty, undemocratic regimes. And the mere fact you form alliances with them won’t make them change their ways.
You would think by now this simple truth would be obvious. But no. There will always be a market for hacks wanting to write “J’accuse” articles about any president or secretary of state (so long as he’s Republican) who has “blood on his hands” because he shook the hands of dictators.
What’s more irritating is the inability of the authors of such articles ever to get the orders of magnitude right. For reasons that are hard to fathom, Henry Kissinger has been condemned over and over again for having conveyed American support to General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, yet he has been praised to the skies just as frequently for having brought Richard Nixon to China to shake the hand of Mao Tse-tung. Which dictator killed more people? There’s no contest.
I’m still waiting for the “J’accuse” about the Obama administration’s restoration of military aid to Egypt in 2015 — two years after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the bloody repression of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In 2013-14, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, eight journalists were killed in Egypt, two in crossfire. Since 2013 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has imprisoned 20 journalists. Where were the headlines when the F-16 fighters were delivered to Cairo in 2015?
In foreign policy, sad to relate, the measure of success is not the cleanness of the hands you shake; it’s how far the strategy you pursue achieves its intended goals. I still rate the Trump administration’s strategy higher than that of Obama, because confronting Iran with a broad coalition — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — makes more sense than betting on good behaviour by Tehran, which was the essence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Will this strategy make the Arab autocrats nicer people? Did the Iran deal made the ayatollahs any sweeter?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Rosa Klebb is back — as a hacker. In April the heirs of 007’s foe attempted to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, after it had exposed Moscow’s use of chemical weapons in an attempted assassination. The Russians also tried to get into the email accounts of anti-doping organisations.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have slipped microchips into the motherboards of servers used by the Pentagon, the CIA and the US navy — not to mention dozens of companies. The servers were made by Supermicro of San Jose, California, and sold by Elemental, based in Portland, Oregon. But the pin-sized chips were inserted by agents of the People’s Liberation Army embedded with manufacturing subcontractors in China. A probe by Amazon identified the chips, which created a stealth doorway into any network connected to the Supermicro servers.
In other news, Facebook announced last month that it had suffered yet another massive hack, affecting at least 50m users. It raises the possibility that Facebook Connect — the tool that allows users to log in to other sites via Facebook — has been compromised. The attackers have yet to be identified.
Yes, my fellow netizens (or “data cows”, as you are known to the folk who milk you for your personal information, contacts list and browsing history): cyber-war is here and we are all under attack, even if most of us don’t yet know it.
Yet none of the above was the biggest hack revealed last week. Raise a glass to my new heroes, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. In an article published on Tuesday, Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship, the trio revealed that they had pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of academia.
In the space of 10 months they dashed off 20 spoof articles and submitted them to established journals in the fields of cultural studies, identity studies and critical theory. As Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian say, their papers were all “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways”. Each contained “some little bit of lunacy or depravity”. The hack was devastating in its success. No fewer than seven of their articles were accepted for publication and four were actually published before the hoaxers were rumbled (by the Twitter account Real Peer Review and The Wall Street Journal).
It’s hard to choose a favourite. But let’s start with “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, published under the fake name Helen Wilson in Gender, Place & Culture, “a journal of feminist geography” owned by Taylor & Francis, an illustrious British brand.
The abstract gives a flavour of the authors’ genius: “This article addresses questions in . . . the geographies of sexuality by drawing upon one year of embedded in situ observations of dogs and their human companions at three public dog parks in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of this research is to uncover emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks to better understand human a-/moral decision-making in public spaces and uncover bias and emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality.”
“Dr Wilson” posed three questions, each of them ludicrous:
■ How do human companions manage, contribute and respond to violence in dogs?
■ What issues surround queer performativity and human reaction to homosexual sex between and among dogs?
■ Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?
The goal of the article was to “suggest practical applications that disrupts [sic] hegemonic masculinities”. But the authors’ implicit proposal was “to train men like we do dogs — to prevent rape culture”. This drivel was praised to the skies by academic peer reviewers (“a wonderful paper — incredibly innovative, rich in analysis and extremely well-written”) and recognised by the editors as one of the 12 best articles in their journal’s 25-year history.
Another article, published in Fat Studies (“an interdisciplinary journal of body weight and society”, also a Taylor & Francis title), was “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding”. This Swiftian piece proposed “a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicised performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding”.
Avid readers of Sex Roles (a Springer journal) were treated to “An ethnography of breastaurant masculinity: themes of objectification, sexual conquest, male control, and masculine toughness in a sexually objectifying restaurant”.
The journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia (Wiley) asked the fictional Dr Maria Gonzalez of the equally fictional Feminist Activist Collective for Truth (FACT) to resubmit a paper arguing that white males in college should not be allowed to speak in class, but should instead be made to sit in the floor in chains to “experience reparations”.
Sexuality & Culture (Springer) published “Going in through the back door: challenging straight male homohysteria and transphobia through receptive penetrative sex toy use”.
Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian are not professional pranksters. Pluckrose is a scholar of English literature. Lindsay is a mathematician. Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. Nor are they conservatives; they are self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals”, which makes their verdict on the whole field of what they call “grievance studies” all the more damning. The fact that they were able to get “seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically biased papers into respectable journals” suggests to them that “these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while . . . pushing a kind of social snake oil”.
The hoax articles are, of course, very funny. Much less funny are the non-phoney articles published alongside them. Much less funny are the affiliations of the editors of these journals. For example, two of the three editors of Gender, Place & Culture hold positions at UK universities. Both have had their research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Yes, cyber-warfare is scary. But I have long believed that our most dangerous enemies are within. The monstrous regiment of grievance studies has established bases in nearly all the universities of the western world, not merely tolerated by administrators, but enthusiastically funded by governments and credulous donors. Now that’s what I call a successful hack.
The friends of the closed society are also hard at work. The rubbish they publish is the counterpart of the rubbish they teach, and the people they teach then graduate with rubbish degrees and live among us.
You could see some of them in Washington last week, carrying signs saying “We believe all survivors” and “Respect female existence or expect our resistance” and making believe that they were the heirs of Rosa Parks — as opposed to unwitting allies of the other Rosa’s hacker heirs.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Tom Wolfe couldn’t have written it better. According to her testimony before the Senate judicial committee on Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford’s memory of being sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh in 1982 was shared and recorded for the first time in 2012 — 30 years after the event — because she wanted her remodelled house to have two front doors. As her husband disagreed with this unconventional suggestion, the couple sought counselling. It was during the counselling that she described the assault, although Kavanaugh was not named in the therapist’s notes.
Six years later, when Kavanaugh’s name was said to be on the shortlist for the Supreme Court, she confided her story to The Washington Post and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and then to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Six weeks after receiving a letter from Ford, Feinstein revealed its existence to other members of the committee. By some mysterious process, Ford’s name and her allegation then appeared in the press.
Finally on Thursday, after much negotiation, it happened: Ford v Kavanaugh — the personification of the schism at the heart of American life today. Not so much woman v man as Democrat v Republican.
It is true that in the past week other accusations of sexual misconduct have been levelled at Kavanaugh. But none of these stories, including Ford’s, would stand up in a court of law because there is not a shred of evidence to corroborate the recollections of those telling them.
Having watched Ford testify, I have little doubt she believes what she said is true. But as a historian who has spent many long hours interviewing people about past events, including highly personal matters, I do not regard that as good enough to destroy the reputation of a distinguished judge.
Human memory is, generally, bad at history. Were I writing Brett Kavanaugh’s biography I could not possibly depict him, on the basis of uncorroborated testimony provided long after the fact, as a man who attempted rape in his youth and lied about it later. His memory is also unlikely to be perfect. But his story — that as a young man he glugged beer and had the usual Catholic hang-ups about sex — is more plausible.
“Maybe so,” comes the response, “but the Republicans used devious delaying tactics to keep Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court.” The difference is that Garland’s reputation was not destroyed in the process.
The #MeToo movement is revolutionary feminism. Like all revolutionary movements, it favours summary justice. Since April 2017 more than 200 prominent men have been publicly accused of a sexual misdemeanour, ranging from rape to inappropriate language. A few seem likely to have committed crimes and are being prosecuted accordingly — notably the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who denies all allegations of non-consensual sex. But #MeToo seems to have elided rape, assault, clumsy passes and banter into a single, catch-all crime. Reputations have been destroyed and careers ended. “I believe her” are the fateful words that, if uttered by enough people, perform the roles of judge and jury.
Sexual harassment is bad, no question. Yet a much bigger threat to women’s rights is largely ignored by western feminists. As my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, likes to point out, verse 2:282 of the Koran states that a woman’s testimony is worth only half of a man’s testimony in court. (Some people want the opposite to apply in Ford v Kavanaugh.)
Wherever sharia is imposed — from the armed camps of Isis to the sharia courts found in Muslim-majority countries — it is women who lose out. Do Senate Democrats care? No. When my wife testified on this subject last year, they ignored her.
The character assassination of Kavanaugh is of course part of a wider campaign against Donald Trump. The evidence of the president’s groping and infidelity is undeniably abundant, but it forms only part of a much broader case against him that encompasses collusion with the Russian government, encouragement of white supremacists, sympathy for authoritarian rulers and plain incompetence.
It’s working. The Trump administration is presiding over the strongest performance by the US economy since the century began. And yet the president has the approval of only around 44% of voters and his party is widely expected to lose its majority in the lower house of Congress at the mid-term elections in early November.
For the first time in its history the United States is seriously threatened with being overtaken economically and technologically by another country. And yet when Trump seeks to check China’s rise by the few means that remain to hand, he is condemned by foreign policy experts for disrupting what they call the “liberal international order”.
International order is preferable to the alternative, obviously. The 20th century was a bloodbath. But it ended with a victory for the free world over another one-party state with a talent for stealing our intellectual property. That victory was won because the United States — regardless of which party was in power — stood firm against Soviet communism.
Whatever international order emerged from the Cold War, it deserves to be called conservative as much as liberal. It represented the triumph of the ideals of economic and political freedom — and their bedrock, the rule of law — that owe as much to Tories as to Whigs. Today, alas, we appear intent on throwing the victories of 1989 away and I do not accept that the populists of the right are solely to blame.
Let me offer two hypotheses about why we are in this mess. The first is that the world’s elite educational institutions are now so dominated by self-styled liberals and progressives that an ever-rising proportion of people in other elite institutions — business, the media, government agencies — now subscribe to all or part of their ideology.
Ask today’s graduate trainees if they think there should be limits to free speech so that people “feel safe”. Ask them if “implicit bias” is something all white men suffer from. Ask them if the achievement of “diversity” matters more than promotion on merit. The answers will mostly be yes. Campus politics is spreading. Soon you, too, will be asked to state your preferred pronouns at the start of each meeting. Perhaps you, too, will be accused of a 30-year-old sex crime.
My second hypothesis is that the rise of internet platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter has disastrously worsened the polarisation of the United States. For it is on so-called social media that the show trials of our time are now held, as anyone knows who followed Thursday’s hearing on Twitter.
The rule of law can be killed in more than one way. In liberal nightmares a despotic president sweeps aside the constitution in the manner of a Latin American caudillo. But in conservative nightmares the graduates of Yale Law School agree that social justice would be best served by discarding the presumption of innocence and relying on Twitter polls to determine guilt.
If only Tom Wolfe were still around to write The Bonfire of the Legalities.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Roughly 99.9% of economists regard President Donald Trump’s trade war against China as idiotic. Doesn’t he get that American consumers will pay the costs of the tariffs on Chinese imports in the form of higher prices? Doesn’t he realise that a trade deficit is not equivalent to a loss in business?
When he studied at Wharton business school, Trump evidently missed the class on David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. But somewhere along the way he picked up an intuitive understanding of power.
A visit to Beijing last week revealed to me a governing elite scrambling to formulate a strategy for a trade war they thought would be over months ago, an economic elite divided about the consequences of the “Trump shock” and a middle class increasingly ambivalent about the government of President Xi Jinping.
China has few good options. It has imposed retaliatory tariffs, but it knows that Chinese imports of US goods are much less than US imports of Chinese goods. The idea of sending another delegation to Washington has been quietly abandoned. Last week the former finance minister Lou Jiwei called for export restrictions on US companies such as Apple, but everyone I spoke to dismissed him as a “loose cannon”. And no one thinks that a significant weakening of the Chinese currency would work.
Optimists in Beijing argue that the trade war has created an opportunity for the government to speed up economic reform. Pessimists admit that the US tariffs pose a significant threat. They worry that, far from accelerating reform, the trade war could lead to its postponement. China is supposed to be grappling with the mounting debts of its corporate sector, overcapacity in heavy industry and a financial system infested by shadow banks. But to offset the effects of the trade war, China’s rulers look like restarting their debt-propelled infrastructure investment machine.
The most striking feature of China today is the division at the top. As one hugely successful businessman put it to me, there are three Chinas: the “New New China” of the dynamic technology sector, the “New Old China” of the most profitable state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as banks and telecoms, and the “Old Old China” of the heavy industrial, rust-belt SOEs.
There is growing pressure on New New China from the government, which regards the big tech companies as having grown so large as to pose a political threat. Jack Ma’s recent announcement that he intends to step down as executive chairman of Alibaba (the Chinese Amazon) has been the subject of febrile speculation. Rumour has it that Ma was told to step down with immediate effect but was able to negotiate a postponement.
Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution argued in a recent article in the US magazine Foreign Affairs that the key to China’s future was the attitude of its vast new middle class. I agree. The question is whether criticism of China’s leadership — which has focused on the escalation of the trade war but relates to other issues, including Xi’s abolition of term limits — will mutate into resentment of American bullying.
I wonder. My impression is that many educated Chinese people view the government’s foreign policy with derision. The recent media coverage of Xi in the People’s Daily has been comically old-fashioned, with innumerable boilerplate reports of his meetings with obscure heads of state, the majority from Africa. Last Sunday, for a change, the front pages pictured Xi with Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan dictator, and Vladimir Putin. A popular meme on social media is a WeChat message contrasting China’s history of conflict with Russia with its history of good relations with the United States.
There is much about Xi Jinping’s China that brings to mind the French Second Empire, proclaimed in Paris 166 years ago. The emperor, Napoleon III, was a modernising autocrat, a living advertisement for the benefits of strong leadership over democracy. Like Xi, Napoleon III pursued a free trade policy, exemplified by the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier trade treaty with the UK. Like Xi, he was a bold urban planner. During his reign Paris was transformed into the spacious city we know today, just as Beijing is being shorn of its migrant workers’ slums.
As in China today, the bourgeoisie in Second Empire France was, on the whole, content with its lot as long as the good times rolled. There was a railway construction boom. The department stores of Paris, such as Le Bon Marché, were a sensation. But, like their Chinese counterparts, they held dear the gains of their enterprise. Property rights were sacrosanct, and threats to them were unpopular. If the threat was posed by corrupt officials, the reaction took the form of a liberalism that asserted the benefits of limited government, the rule of law and representative institutions.
The Second Empire grew ossified. Growth slowed. Foreign policy reverses culminated in the Franco-German War of 1870, in which French forces were swiftly defeated by the superior Prussian army. After a revolutionary interlude (the Paris Commune), the Third Republic was proclaimed. The lesson of history is that an autocratic regime that brings into being a large middle class runs a certain risk, one that Karl Marx — a keen observer of the events described above — understood well.
Xi Jinping is a student of Marx. He must therefore be aware of the risks he is running. For that reason I expect him to do whatever it takes to avoid a significant slowdown in Chinese growth. I also expect him to avoid the sort of head-on confrontation with his geopolitical rival that undid Napoleon III. But that leaves him in a very uncomfortable position if Trump presses on with his trade war.
Unlike Kim Jong-un, Xi is not able to give Trump a symbolic victory by conceding to his demands at a showy summit, although the North Korean leader has demonstrated the ease of reneging when the cable TV cameras move on. Even if Xi were sure that China’s trade policy could remain unchanged after such a summit, he still would not risk the associated loss of face.
Jack Ma took a small piece of revenge on his political master last week by reflecting that the US-China trade war might last 20 years. That is the stuff of nightmares in Zhongnanhai, the compound inhabited by today’s Chinese emperor.
Sure, Trump’s tariffs violate the theory that free trade is a “win-win” process, but they make a good deal more political sense than is generally realised. With his uncanny instinct for the weak spot of the counter-party, Trump has found the Chinese leadership’s principal vulnerability.
How far this weakness may lead to real economic problems for China remains to be seen. But it is already causing real political problems to Xi, six months after the decision to extend his term in office sine die. Future historians may be as impressed by the Trump shock as today’s economists are contemptuous of it.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing