The Debatable Land #11: A disgraceful Winter Olympics
We cannot pretend we do not know the truth about China. We do.
Hello! Welcome to the eleventh edition of my newsletter. Thanks for being here. It is much appreciated. As always, it would be lovely if you felt like sharing this with friends or family or on social media or wherever. It does help and make a difference. Thank you.
A Five Ring Disgrace
No-one ever accused the Olympic movement of suffering from a surfeit of morality. Even so, the winter games currently taking place in and around Beijing are a disgrace. The sport - even the makey-uppy contests of dubious athletic endeavour - will doubtless be grand but even as we enjoy the circus we might, just occasionally, pause to reflect upon the species-shaming wickedness in awarding the games to a country more than plausibly accused on carrying out a genocidal campaign of extermination against its own people.
The poor damn Uighurs’ suffering is one of those stories lurking at the back of many minds but that is rarely allowed to venture towards the forefront of our consciences. There is only so much pricking we can bear, so it is better to forget or ignore or do whatever it takes to banish such thoughts, lest they become too painful for contemplation.
China knows this. Which is also why China had Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a Uighur cross-country skier, be one of the final bearers of the Olympic torch at last week’s opening ceremony. Look at this, Beijing was saying, and know that we know that you know there is nothing you will do about this. The Uighurs are ours, to do with as we please, and if we wish to make a spectacle of this, the better to rub reality into your face, then a spectacle we shall make. New era; new boss; new reality; big FUCK YOU.
And of course we shall not make much of a fuss. A diplomatic boycott of the games might irritate Beijing but it achieves nothing. In any case, none of us can easily, let alone fully, divest ourselves from China even if we wished to. China is too large and too much and much too much of many other things as well.
Nevertheless, it will not do to say you - me - did not know. For we do. The testimony from the camps in Xinjiang, demands your attention. Here is Gulbahar Haitiwaji, author of the bluntly titled “How I Survived a Chinese Re-Education Camp”:
Sometimes, one or another of us would faint. If she didn’t come round, a guard would yank her to her feet and slap her awake. If she collapsed again, he would drag her out of the room, and we’d never see her again. Ever. At first, this shocked me, but now I was used to it. You can get used to anything, even horror.
It was now June 2017, and I’d been here for three days. After almost five months in the Karamay police cells, between interrogations and random acts of cruelty – at one stage I was chained to my bed for 20 days as punishment, though I never knew what for – I was told I would be going to “school”. I had never heard of these mysterious schools, or the courses they offered. The government has built them to “correct” Uighurs, I was told. The women who shared my cell said it would be like a normal school, with Han teachers. She said that once we had passed, the students would be free to go home.
[…] They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.
In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.
So we know and the least we may do is own our awareness and be quietly ashamed nothing will come from that knowledge. China is too big and too much the future for that. So we shall indulge the pretence of business as usual and nothing to see here even as we know these to be lies. Perhaps they are the lies we need to tell ourselves for otherwise how could be we ever again pretend that when we said ‘Never Again’ we never meant to mean it? If so, we should know and own that too.
Meanwhile, a million miles from earth…
On the other hand, every time you are tempted to agree that, all things being considered and more or less equal, it might be about time to put an end to, well, just about everything, the men and women of our species go off and do something so astonishing, so magnificent, that even jaded minds may think it time to give old homo sapiens another chance.
The James Webb telescope, now in position a million miles from planet earth, is one such enterprise. Nearly thirty years after it was first mooted, it is nearly ready to begin exploring things many of us can scarcely even begin to contemplate. It is readying itself for a voyage into Deep Time. To wit:
The Webb will study the universe in the infrared portion of the spectrum, a region largely outside the range of the Hubble Space Telescope. The location 1 million miles from the radiance of the Earth will help keep the mirrors extraordinarily cold, always shaded by the tennis-court-sized sun shield.
By observing at those cold temperatures, the telescope can capture light emitted just a couple hundred million years after the big bang, estimated at 13.8 billion years ago. It should be able to see the earliest galaxies and study the evolution of the universe. And it will look at objects closer to home, including in our own solar system.
If that can’t fry your mind nothing can. It is all so extraordinary that I don’t quite understand why more has not been made of this staggering, if still incomplete (the telescope still needs to be focused), achievement.
But in an age of wonders, the prospect of spending the next 20 years looking at the beginning of the universe may just be the most giddying of all the accumulated discoveries that have brought us to this moment in time, on this rocky planet, in this part of our solar system.
Why do we invest in such things? Because they are there and because doing so is a means of catching wonder in a bottle. In like fashion, I wholly approve of voyages to Mars. It is there; let’s see it in person. One day. For if the bonds of earth are not to be slipped, we accept a subtle diminution of ourselves. Astral dreams don’t have ceilings.
Can we do God in Scotland?
The New Statesman is on a roll, lately, which is lovely to see. The latest issue features a good piece by my old chum Chris Deerin on Kate Forbes, Scotland’s 31-year-old finance minister and the person Nicola Sturgeon believes is most likely to succeed her as and when the first minister decides the game is no longer worth the candle.
Forbes is, as she allows herself, a “centrist” within the SNP. In Scotland this means she is - in certain respects - actually right-of-centre even if she would not accept that designation herself. But by nationalist standards she is a realist, appreciating the importance of economic growth as A Good Thing. (That this needs to be said tells you much about contemporary Scottish politics, little of it encouraging.)
Forbes is bright and smart and unusual and, perhaps, as much admired outwith the nationalist movement as she is inside it. Indeed, the approval of outsiders must in time make her an object of some suspicion within the SNP.
Be that as it may, the big question surrounding Forbes’ future - and one to which she is acutely alive herself - is whether her Christianity may be reconciled with her political ambitions. For Forbes, unusually in modern Scotland, does not merely nod towards Jesus, she actually, genuinely, believes in him.
This is outré to begin with but a passion made worse - in the eyes of ever-so-unco-guid ‘progressive’ Scotland - by the fact Forbes is a member of the Free Kirk, an organisation of, shall we say, uncompromising views. Scotland is not the radical country many nationalists imagine but the Free Kirk’s views on social and moral issues are rather more bracing than middle Scotland is wholly comfortable with. Forbes has rarely talked about these things but she’s plainly aware of the potential for trouble. She told the BBC last year:
"To be straight, I believe in the person of Jesus Christ.
"I believe that he died for me, he saved me and that my calling is to serve and to love him and to serve and love my neighbours with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.
"So that for me is essential to my being. Politics will pass - I am a person before I was a politician and that person will continue to believe that I am made in the image of God."
This. Is. Very. Unusual. Possibly also even capital-B ‘Brave’. And as she tells Deerin:
“I’ve never tried to hide that faith. You’ve got to judge me on what I do, and I would hope that in a democracy we can have space for lots of different views, lots of different backgrounds, lots of different lifestyles, lots of different choices. But there’s space for debate.
“I think Christians need to be as much a part of that debate as anybody else. These are fine lines to walk, but everybody’s got their own equivalent where they have a particular background or particular views. It is such a risk now in Scottish politics, where we deem some people as beyond the pale, that we just can’t tolerate people with particular views anywhere near the decision-making table. I think Scotland would be far poorer for that.”
Scotland is in many ways a post-Christian, secular, society. The Church of Scotland’s decline may be the most significant social change of the past half century. But there are times when, despite this, the country retains a certain vestigial awareness of its Christian past.
As the cricketer and historian Tom Holland has noted, anti-religious arguments in western countries themselves are formed in an atmosphere itself formed by Christianity. It is a cultural - and intellectual - inheritance from which there is less escape than sometimes seems to be the case.
In this instance, consider this hypothetical: we have two politicians aspiring to lead the national party. One is muslim, the other a devout and evangelical Christian. On subjects such as gay marriage, abortion, and other contested social issues, they have broadly identical views.
I strongly suspect that - in Scotland anyway - serious Christianity would be liable to be more politically contentious than comparable beliefs held within Islam. This would not, I think, be on account of any conscious bias or prejudice. Rather it would reflect a sense - a concern, in some quarters - that while muslims may be devout without consequence, Christians should know better than to allow their faith to influence their politics. We don’t do God here, you understand. Ironically, then, Christian belief is afforded a depth of seriousness even as it is considered beyond the pale; identical beliefs rooted in Islamic teaching are considered less serious, less threatening, less problematic. (Moreover, for other reasons, it would be rude to probe too deeply into these matters.)
If so, it might be easy to say some set of double standards will be applied here. Tim Farron’s experience as Liberal Democrat leader - something I suspect Forbes has paid attention to - might be considered a troubling precedent.
I think it wholly possible to have keenly-felt personal views while accepting that these need not necessarily be part of, or inform, a political agenda. The personal may be distinguished from the professional. This, though, is an unfashionable view in an era in which the personal is very much the political and biography is considered a sufficient substitute for thought.
Still: Forbes may yet challenge Scotland’s idea of itself as an unusually tolerant place. That will be a test worth watching, not least as the national smugness on this front is often and largely unearned. Even so, it is precisely because we swim in Christian waters that a politician such as Kate Forbes may yet be pilloried for daring to take seriously Christian beliefs that all the polite and respectable people were supposed to have ditched long ago.
Lessons from Loved Ones
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, is not exactly disguising his ambition to one day lead the Labour party. A flurry of recent press coverage includes this New Statesman profile in which Streeting, who is only 39, is dubbed a kind of post-Blairite, Blairite. It says much for the mess into which Labour has plunged itself that this could be considered a daring position. Why, heavens, would the party wish to learn something from the most electorally-successful leader in its history?
At the same time, not even Sir Anthony Blair would argue that 2022 is 1997 and nor would he suggest “reheating” Blairism is the key to Labour’s advancement at the next election. Nevertheless, learning something from Blair and adapting those lessons to the present moment is certainly preferable to the 70s nostalgia preferred by much of the Labour left.
Still, perhaps the most telling part of Ailbhe Rea’s profile is this:
Streeting has spoken of being strongly influenced by his paternal grandfather, a former member of the merchant navy and a working-class Tory, in some of his political values, such as his patriotism and his tough law and order stance, as well as his Christian faith.
As the historian Robert Saunders noted in response to this, Clement Attlee was at one point a Conservative and Harold Wilson was married to a Conservative and Tony Blair’s father was a Conservative: “All three understood that good people could vote Conservative, for good reasons, and that Labour had to convince them that their values could be better achieved by the Left.”
You might think this obvious but you should certainly not think it understood by the Labour movement. Last year Richard Burgon, the pride of Leeds, complained that Keir Starmer was busy “chasing votes from people who already have their own party - the Conservative party”. Witness, too, the way in which Corbynite-Labour reacted with horror when Christian Wakefield crossed the floor of the House of Commons, defecting from the Tories to Labour. If Tories could feel comfortable with Starmer’s Labour party there can’t be any meaningful difference between Labour and the Tories.
An astonishing number of Labour people are comfortable with this kind of intellectual self-isolation. Richard Leonard, the former, unlamented, leader of Scottish Labour, once boasted that he didn’t have a single friend who voted Conservative. He thought this self-evidently something of which to be proud rather than, as it actually is, a sign of social and intellectual impoverishment.
So of course it is easy to mock the way in which Starmer must from time to time wrap himself in the Union flag. But it is worth remembering why he must do this: because Jeremy Corbyn obviously would never do such a thing and one reason Corbyn led Labour off a cliff was voters’ well-founded suspicion Corbyn not only did not like, but was actually ashamed of, the country he notionally aspired to lead. Labour cannot succeed unless it considered a patriotic party. (This imposes additional difficulties in Scotland since it requires making a case for the Union as a matter of Janus-faced patriotism, but there we have it. “Best of both worlds” risks seeming glib, especially at the moment, but it is the only space available to Labour.)
Still, divesting yourself of an unearned sense of moral superiority is a good place from which to start. Prick a Tory voter and they bleed too and smart Labour people understand this just as they appreciate that understanding is the first step on the road to conversion.
The Generation That Wasn’t There
Can you judge a book by the quality of writing it inspires? If so, Chuck Klosterman’s “The Nineties” is in deep trouble. This New Yorker review, for instance, is not encouraging. On the other hand, as Klosterman puts it:
Yet one accolade can be applied with conviction. Among the generations that have yet to go extinct, Generation X remains the least annoying.
Well, yay? Perhaps?
But then Generation X - roughly the cohort born between 1965 and 1980 - is unlike its Baby Boomer predecessors and its Millennial successors more surely defined by being neither of those than by anything it actually is itself. It is a missing concern, a generation without a cause - at least, without one in the United States - and without an emblematic leader either. And this, too, is fine? (If Generation X has a punctuation mark, it’s ?)
No American president has been a member of Gen X and it’s possible none will ever be. Here in Britain, David Cameron is Generation X’s prime minister and that may be as sad a piece of commentary as you need (though Rishi Sunak, born 1980, may yet change that, if only a little.)
But! Boringly, centrist-ly, there is something to be said for detachment (though it is better sprinkled with irony than soaked in it) and something to be said for being less annoying than a generation might be - even if, naturally, the boast of non-annoyingness itself may prove a micro-aggression.
Too Many Books
Every few months someone asks me if I’m writing a novel. Henceforth I may simply direct them to this which, although concerning a different genre, makes the point simply enough:
More than 5,000 cookery titles were released into the UK market in 2020, but only 556 sold more than 100 copies and only 48 sold more than 5,000. “It’s hugely hard,” says [Jamie] Oliver, 46. “You can’t look at me and think that’s normal because it’s so far from normal.”
Oliver, this Sunday Times piece reveals, also has a team of people scouring his work to ensure he can’t be accused of “cultural appropriation”. It is mildly depressing that this is, I suppose, a prudent precaution these days.
Does prison work? Well, yes and no. The “yes” bit does not always receive the attention is should. Given that a large proportion of crime is committed by a relatively small number of people - many of whom will reoffend when given the chance to do so - Ed West argues that rather than cutting prison terms we should actually be increasing them. If only, again, for some prisoners. [Substack]
Blair McDougall on the SNP’s weird decision to pretend that in the event of Scottish independence the Scottish state pension will be paid, at least in part, by taxpayers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Good luck with that. [Substack]
“In 2012, two economists from Clemson University analyzed the gender balance of American films from 1920 to 2011 [...] Overall, they found that men accounted for two-thirds of all roles in mainstream movies. For starring roles, however, age is everything. At 20, women play four-fifths of leads: Hollywood is very interested in them at their nubile prime. Fast-forward to 40, and that statistic is reversed. Men utterly dominate the juiciest parts. The male-female gender split then hovers around 80–20 until, well, death.” But this is changing! Helen Lewis explains that the streaming services - Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Apple etc - are producing so much content even middle-aged women can find interesting roles to play. [The Atlantic]
Want to read something life-affirming? Years after a horse-riding accident left her a tetraplegic, Melanie Reid is beginning to regain the use of her left hand. [The Times]
40 minutes of the great, great Emmylou Harris on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977. Marvellous in every way.
That’s all for this week folks. Thanks for reading - and a special shout to those of you who have upgraded to a paid subscription. Writing can’t be considered a side-hustle for me, so your support is greatly appreciated. See you all next time, if we’re spared.
Hi Alex - I am not an uncritical reader yet find myself agreeing with most of your scribblings, rants even. Always a joy to receive the latest edition. Keep up the good work, maybe one day you will convert a majority of my bedfellows.
Tom Holland is a historian too?