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
I picked a fine time to become an American. It was a grey, overcast morning in Oakland, California. The finest England football team for a generation had just been beaten by the dastardly Croats. And Hurricane Donald Trump was making landfall in London.
Theresa May v Trump had one thing in common with England v Croatia. If in doubt, the other side played the man, not the ball — or, in the case of the prime minister, the woman. “I would have done it [Brexit] much differently,” Trump told The Sun. “I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me.”
(Sound of breaking glass in Downing Street)
“The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one the people voted on. It was not the deal that was in the referendum.”
(Alarm bells start ringing)
“If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the . . . trade deal with the US.”
And what did Trump think of his Old Etonian doppelganger, Boris Johnson, until last Monday the foreign secretary? “I am just saying I think he would be a great prime minister. I think he’s got what it takes.”
Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American, as a 20ft Trump “baby” balloon floated over London, hideously symbolising a new nadir in Anglo-American ties.
Or perhaps not. Down on the ground, slack-jawed Tories studied the government’s Brexit white paper, a substantial number of them thinking pretty much what Trump had so bluntly told The Sun. So when May had said “Brexit means Brexit”, what she actually meant was Britain would become an unhappy cross between Switzerland and Ukraine. Common rule book? Consultation of the European Court of Justice on disputed points of European law? Brexit shmexit.
And this is just the prime minister’s opening pitch. It has taken two years to thrash out within the government and was finalised only at the cost of two cabinet-level resignations. Heaven only knows how many further concessions the EU’s formidable divorce lawyer Monsieur Michel Barnier will demand. And when she brings the further-mutilated compromise back to Westminster, these are the lousy options MPs will have to choose between: swallow fake Brexit (which everyone despises), risk a no-deal hard Brexit (for which no one has prepared) or call another referendum (which no one wants).
Come to think of it, I picked a fine time to become an American.
I was one of 1,094 people of every colour and creed, from 85 nations, beginning with Afghanistan and ending with Yemen. We had gathered, anxiously clutching the requisite documents, outside the rather antique Paramount cinema. I was not the only new citizen of European origin, but we were a distinct minority. Rather to my surprise, the Chinese were the most numerous group, accounting for close to a fifth of the new Americans (how many Americans became Chinese citizens last week?). Next were the Mexicans (more than 150 of them), then the Filipinos, closely followed by the Indians.
Yet it was the sheer range of countries represented that was most marvellous. The young man to my right, immaculately dressed in white, was from Eritrea. He had studied computer science in Swansea and had initially come to California to work for Nasa. Others among us were plainly less well educated. Observing those who had failed to follow the simple instructions to tick the boxes on one last form, I wondered how on earth they had passed the citizenship test, with its occasionally tricky questions on American history and geography.
I approach any encounter with US bureaucracy weighed down by dread. Would this be like the Department of Motor Vehicles, famed for its Soviet-style antagonism to the public? Or would it be more like the implacable, pitiless Internal Revenue Service? In fact the officials of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services could hardly have been more affable. The master of ceremonies was a genial, balding, bespectacled chap who won his audience over with a virtuoso display of multilingualism, chatting to us in what sounded like pretty fluent Spanish, Chinese, French, Hindi and Filipino.
Yet this was very far from a multicultural occasion. Quite the reverse. To get us in the mood for our impending Americanisation, a choir sang a patriotic medley, including a rather baroque setting of the preamble to the constitution, Yankee Doodle and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land.
That did it. The way that song conjures up vast American landscapes (“From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”) always gets me by the throat because, glimpsed in films, such vistas were what first drew me to the United States.
Then came the information about our rights and obligations — specifically our right to vote, our option to obtain a passport and our inextricable link to the social security system. (Nothing — rather disappointingly — about the right to bear arms. And not a word about the spiralling federal debt we were all now on the hook for.)
The ceremony then became more stirring. A “Faces of America” video had a distinctly martial soundtrack. We raised our right hands to swear the oath of allegiance, absolutely and entirely renouncing and abjuring “all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty” and swearing to “bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law”. Then we placed our right hands on our hearts to recite the pledge of allegiance to the national flag “and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”.
It’s heady stuff, even in Oakland on a Thursday morning. And then there he was — eliciting disapproving intakes of breath from some — the Potus himself, much larger than life on the big screen. “This country is now your country,” Trump told us sternly. “Our history is now your history. And our traditions are now your traditions.”
And that wasn’t all: “You now share the obligation to teach our values to others, to help newcomers assimilate to our way of life.” Compare and contrast with the Barack Obama version: “Together, we are a nation united not by any one culture, or ethnicity, or ideology . . .”
The grand finale was God bless the USA, a bombastic country anthem by Lee Greenwood. It too was a call to arms. “And I’m proud to be an American / Where at least I know I’m free / And I won’t forget the men who died / Who gave that right to me / And I’d gladly stand up next to you / And defend her still today.”
More than half a century of being British has made it hard for me not to cringe at this kind of thing. But this hokum is now my hokum. And this president is now my president, until such times as we, the people, vote in another one. Yes, I picked a fine time to become an American — because there is no other kind of time.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
If Germany’s footballers have been the biggest losers of the year to date, then the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been among the biggest winners. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos — only the second he has ever published— has sold more than a million copies. His YouTube channel has 1.26m followers.
The cerebral Spider-Man at the heart of the so-called intellectual dark web (an informal network of academics who have resisted the current campus cultural revolution), Peterson began his rise to fame by opposing a 2016 Canadian bill that proposed to make “gender identity or expression” a prohibited basis for discrimination.
“I will never use words I hate,” Peterson declared, “like the trendy and artificially constructed [gender-neutral pronouns] ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is . . . frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100m people in the 20th century.”
You can imagine how that went down with the diversity police at Toronto University. But Peterson bravely refused to kowtow. “Under the guise of postmodernism,” he lamented, “we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities . . . We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of western civilisation.”
Amen to all that. Amen squared.
Peterson is fearless. His 12 Rules for Life begins by contrasting order and chaos as ideal types to be found in both western and oriental philosophical traditions. Order, he notes, “is typically portrayed, symbolically — imaginatively — as masculine”, whereas chaos “as the antithesis of symbolically masculine order [is] presented imaginatively as feminine . . . Order is the white, masculine serpent; chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.”
This was too much for the media feminists. The New York Times published a crude hit piece that dubbed Peterson the “custodian of the patriarchy” and a proponent of “enforced monogamy”. Cathy Newman’s interview on Channel 4 News was intended to deliver the coup de grace by grotesquely caricaturing Peterson’s views. (“So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there’s nothing we can do about it?”)
Yet, as Nietzsche observed, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. These botched attacks only accelerated Peterson’s rise to fame. British viewers marvelled at his saintly calm in the face of Newman’s tendentious questioning. New Yorkers, who generally act as if Canada doesn’t exist, for the first time took notice of the solemn, brown-suited “prairie populist” whom their local rag had tried and failed to take down.
As if to drive the politically correct into apoplexy, Peterson recently revealed he is an honorary member of the extended family of Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who has given him the name Alestalagie (“Great Seeker”). The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous people of British Columbia. In today’s culture war, having them on your team is quite simply a grandmaster move.
In 12 Rules, Peterson’s central message is that we must “accept the terrible responsibility of life”. Rule No 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Number two is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Yes, it’s self-help as only North America does it, but it’s old school, manly, “grow-the-hell-up” self-help. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.”
“Suffering,” Peterson says, “is built into the structure of being.” Don’t make yourself miserable by pursuing happiness because, he rightly argues, “happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at.”
These are wise words. But there’s some whimsy too. Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Rule 12 is “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” And central to Peterson’s defence of hierarchy (shock horror) is that analogy between humans and lobsters which gave Cathy Newman so much trouble.
There is only one problem with 12 Rules for Life, and that is that it deals only with normal life. It offers no guidance for the most difficult time in all our lives, namely the summer holidays. What follows, by way of a tribute to Peterson, are therefore my own 12 Rules for Summer, the product of more than half a century of immersion in the entirety of human culture:
1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back, unless you are the one carrying all the luggage, including the baby gear.
2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping get some sleep.
3 Make friends with people who want the best wine for you.
4 Compare your holiday destination with the one you went to last year, and not with the one where someone else is this year.
5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Send them to camp instead.
6 Do not bother setting your house in perfect order: one of your older kids will probably throw a party in it while you’re away.
7 Pursue what is edible (not what is recommended on TripAdvisor).
8 Do not tell the truth about how much your holiday cost.
9 Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t, such as the local language.
10 Be precise in your speech. Don’t order 12 beers when you mean two.
11 Bother children when they are on their phones. In fact, take their damned phones away.
12 If abroad, kick a cat when you see one on the street. Only the English really like cats.
“We have to rediscover the eternal values,” Peterson has said, “and then live them out.” Yes, and never more so than during the summer holidays. So here, be my guest, have 12 more rules:
1 Plan your journey to minimise stress. Perhaps order and chaos should fly separately this year.
2 Get off social media. And stay off.
3 Don’t carry your phone around.
4 Learn something new. (I recommend paddleboarding.)
5 Do two hours of work in the morning. It’ll stop you worrying. But otherwise switch off.
6 Read a great novel. (My choice this month is Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma.)
7 Take very long walks, the kind of exercise you seldom have time for.
8 Play a musical instrument, even if it is only a tin whistle.
9 Eat and drink less, not more, than usual.
10 Watch no TV (except the World Cup).
11 Take no more than five photographs and one video. That’s plenty.
12 Above all, stop making lists of rules.
Enjoy the summer, dear readers. By this time next year, the diversity police will have decided that the whole concept of a holiday is politically incorrect. Thankfully, we can count on Jordan Peterson to tell them where to go . . . on vacation.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford