Merkel and Migrants: A Critique

I think that Angela Merkel did a bad job of handling the refugee crisis of late 2015. In addition to its other failings, her approach seems to me to have been about the worst way possible to help Syrians in need of refuge from the ongoing war in their home country. My reasons for thinking these things is based on facts that still seem to be entirely unknown in the English-speaking world, and that do not seem to have made any impression on the narrative concerning these events. The result is that Merkel’s advocates continually make unchallenged claims that are false – and I blame these advocates for a move towards extremism on both sides of the political spectrum throughout the West. Time, then, for a blog post.

Let us begin with some facts. Having followed the issue in major news media, what proportion of applicants for asylum in Germany do you suppose have been Syrian since 2015? 94%? 90%? Or perhaps only 80%?

Taken month-by-month, Syrians have always made up less than 55% of initial asylum applicants in Germany. In fact, they have usually accounted for a still smaller proportion than this: taken year-by-year, Syrians have never made up as much as 37% of initial asylum applications in Germany.

In case you doubt me on this point (and in case I have misread the data), allow me to provide links to my source, which is Germany’s Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge (the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees). Be warned: these links will each download a PDF. In November 2015, there were 55,950 initial asylum applications in Germany, of which 30,398 (54.3%) were from Syrians (see page three). This was the high point. During the migration crisis of 2015-2016, the other relevant months were as follows: in August 2015 initial asylum applicants were 30.2% Syrian; in September 40.9%; in October 53.5%; in December 54.0%; in January 2016 53.7%; February 50.6%; and in March 47.8%.

For each individual year since 2015, the numbers are lower. Here (again) is the link for the data for December 2015. On page two there is an overview for the year. There we learn that in 2015 there were 441,899 initial applications for asylum in Germany. Of these, 158,657 (35.9%) were made by Syrians. In 2016 36.9% of initial asylum applications were made by Syrians. In 2017, 24.7%. In 2018 to the end of November, 27.2%.

As you review the data, you may be struck by an initial thought: this is not the story of the refugee crisis of 2015-2016 as it was told in our major media. According to that story, the migrants during that crisis were overwhelmingly Syrian. Here’s an altogether typical sentence from the Atlantic in early 2016 (I was able to track it down because it stuck in my mind): “more than 1 million people entered Germany last year, the vast majority of them Syrian.” I remembered this sentence because it contains a use of “vast majority” with which I am unfamiliar: we have just seen that Syrians represented 35.9% of asylum applicants in the preceding year, with a high of 54.3% in one month. The information was available at the time (though I only knew about it because I was following the news in German).

There is a more important question than the narrative followed by our media concerning the refugee crisis. The facts about the makeup of asylum claims in Germany seem to me to be heavily laden with consequences for our thinking about the policy followed by the German government. First of all, Germany does not have infinite resources. Every bed that is filled by, say, a migrant from Serbia or Algeria must be unavailable to a refugee from Syria. Every meal consumed, every euro spent, every minute of a volunteer’s or bureaucrat’s time expended on a non-Syrian migrant cannot be given to a Syrian refugee. If our goal is to help Syrians as they flee their country’s civil war, we must find a way to help Syrians preferentially, to bring Syrians in at the expense of other possible migrants. As the numbers show, the Merkel approach – i.e., a general opening of the borders – is a very poor way to achieve this. Having read about the appalling conditions that obtained for some months in many German refugee shelters, which were utterly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people arriving, or about great battles that broke out within certain shelters between people of different national origin/religion/etc., requiring intervention by the police on a significant scale – as I think about this sort of thing, it seems to me it would have been more compassionate to Syrians to allow them in, and to keep many others out.

And look at the matter from another angle: in 2015, four Balkan countries – Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia – accounted for fully one-quarter (113,015 or 25.6%) of all initial asylum applicants in Germany. What war were they fleeing? Were they really as deserving of German resources as Syrians were? A look at the data (page 7 of the December 2015 PDF linked above) shows that 35,235 decisions were made by the German government on asylum applications from Albanians in 2015, of which seven (7) were recognised as refugees. It seems to me that it would have been more compassionate to Syrian refugees to avoid making them wait while the bureaucracy spent its time rejecting 30,000 or so applications from Albanians, who never had much chance of being accepted anyway. (In 2015 there were also 26,801 decisions made on Kosovan applications, of whom thirteen (13) were deemed refugees, 14,451 decisions on Serbian applications, of whom four (4) were refugees, etc.)

There is a way to reduce such inefficiencies to a very considerable degree: borders. Controlled borders allow us to keep some people out while letting other people in. In this case, by keeping control of her borders, Germany could have allowed far more Syrian refugees in, and would have been able to offer each of them greater resources, and thus better treatment, while keeping other, less deserving people, out.

Nor is this the only advantage offered by controlled borders. It is no secret that the great majority of those who arrived during the great migration of 2015-2016 were young men. This is, of course, because young men are most able to endure the rigours of travel required to reach Germany on foot. But consider what this involves: Merkel’s policy produced a situation in which the strongest people, those least in need of help, were given aid, while the weakest were left to themselves. Women, children, the sick, the injured – these were the people least able to make the journey to Germany, and Merkel’s approach tended to do little or nothing for such people. Surely a better approach would have directed aid to those most in need of it, rather than to the strongest (and also the richest: the trip to Europe seems usually to have cost thousands of dollars per person). This could have been achieved by transporting people directly from refugee camps around Syria, which could only have been thinkable if the borders were under control.

So here is an initial point: if all you care about in this whole situation is helping Syrians, Angela Merkel’s policy was quite a bad way to achieve this. In fact, if you begin from the premise that we ought to help Syrians during their country’s civil war, I have a hard time thinking of a worse way to accomplish this aim than the path Merkel took.

A second point concerns the quality of the coverage and commentary provided by our media. For me it is a matter of concern not only that the facts listed above seem to be known almost nowhere in the English-speaking world, but still more that I have never read in English an elementary critique of Merkel’s policy of the sort I just gave in the preceding five paragraphs. Instead, coverage and commentary followed a straightforward narrative: Angela Merkel was a Great Humanitarian trying to help Syrians. I can remember almost no attempt to distinguish genuine refugees from economic migrants (here is a rare exception from Nick Cohen). On the contrary, all those trying to migrate into Germany or Europe were described as ‘refugees’ and were assumed to be mostly Syrian (for good measure, the pictures used tended to be of mothers carrying small children, an image generally at odds with the reality of a migration consisting mostly of young men). We have seen, however, that the arrivals were rarely even as much as 50% Syrian, and this suggests a criticism of Merkel’s policy that I haven’t yet mentioned: why does a civil war in Syria require that Germans allow into their country tens of thousands of young men from Egypt or Pakistan? (or Algeria, or Eritrea, etc.) For it is this that is effectively being asserted by anyone who justifies Merkel’s open-border policy on the basis of the civil war in Syria – and it was just that justification that I encountered again and again on TV and in the papers.

Having criticised Angela Merkel, I want to draw attention to what I think is a mitigating consideration – although the facts here do suggest that she was not a visionary humanitarian pursuing a deliberate policy towards refugees, but instead stumbled unwittingly into that characterisation. Robin Alexander, in his book Die Getriebenen, provides a day-by-day, and sometimes minute-by-minute, look at the actions of the major players in German politics during the six or so months of the Flüchtlingskrise (“refugee crisis”) of late 2015 and early 2016. There are a number of things in the book that might interest English-speaking readers, but I will confine myself to one central incident. Late on September 4th, 2015, Angela Merkel made the decision to open Germany’s borders to a large group of migrants who were effectively stranded in Budapest, having been held back by the Hungarian government. In itself, this decision seems to me to have been humane, and the right thing to do – or rather, would have been, if it had been restricted to a very few days, an emergency exception to the rules of the sort an executive can reasonably make on occasion. The problem is that the border remained open, and this initial group of migrants soon became a vast and continuous flow. Watching events unfold at the time, I can remember reading that after a few days, the German government announced that the border would presently be closed. As Alexander tells it, the order was drawn up for this to happen at 6pm on September 13th, and the German police had the men and materials in place to carry it out, having even brought officers down from the north of the country for the purpose.

And yet… the order was never actually given. Alexander describes the meeting in which the crucial decision to close the border, which has already been taken, is untaken. Civil servants begin to come up with legalistic obstacles to closing the border. Certainly German law allows the government to turn away asylum applicants at the border, but what about the European rules? Is the Dublin Regulation still in effect? Has it not been temporarily suspended by the Chancellor nine days ago? In the meantime, a minister is making repeated calls to the Chancellor’s office, and the Chancellor is now proving indecisive. What would happen, she asks, if hundreds of migrants were to charge police lines at the border with children under their arms? What about the pictures that would result? Soon she gives the impression that she will give the order if Sigmar Gabriel, leader of Germany’s  second-largest party, will provide clear support for it. In fact, he has already agreed earlier in the day, but in the meantime, he has been made aware of concerns from his party about the legality of turning people away at the border. In the end, nobody takes responsibility for the difficult decision; the order to turn people away receives a change of wording that keeps Germany’s borders open for all who claim asylum. The result is that what was meant to be a brief opening of the borders, lasting a few days, lasts instead for six months (to March 9th, 2016). Thus Germany stumbles towards a new position as a humanitarian superpower less as a matter of deliberate decision than through a sort of deliberative incapacity.

I have described the crucial meeting at length because the extreme indecisiveness displayed in it seems to me to point to an underlying cultural reality. It was as though the decision to close the borders was a white-hot fire that nobody wanted to approach too closely. Repeatedly, at the crucial moment, those in the highest positions of responsibility shied away from responsibility, and as a result, a decision that had effectively been taken already was not taken at all. What explains this strange paralysis? Here I am inclined to see the weight of German history. The ghosts of the 20th century still loomed large. Of all the governments on earth, none would find it so difficult to close their country to people allegedly in need, to confront the resulting accusations of a heartlessness towards refugees, or even of xenophobia, as the German. I think Angela Merkel failed an important test of leadership on this occasion, but we do find here some reason to view her failings in a more forgiving light. I am inclined to view those who greeted the resulting mess with rapturous applause in a less forgiving manner, particularly those outside of Germany.

Of course there are plenty of good reasons for a country to maintain control of its borders and its immigration policy; I will not rehearse these here, with one exception: the effect that Merkel’s policy seems to me have had in creating a more extreme political environment throughout the West. I proceed now in a somewhat more speculative manner than above; still, if my thoughts below are even partly correct, they should concern even those who are otherwise inclined to lean toward openness and higher immigration.

The right and the left both have a somewhat irrational tendency to think that those who oppose them represent something more extreme than is in fact the case. So, for example, the left has a tendency to see bigotry and hatred in those on the other side even when it’s not there (which is not to deny that sometimes the left really is opposing true bigotry and hatred). One of the fears on the right, on the other hand, is that their opponents on immigration don’t just want a somewhat more open future, but rather want to abolish borders entirely and bring in an unlimited number of migrants. I once would have considered this fear unfounded, but Merkel and her cheerleaders proved it well-founded indeed. Her policy (if ‘policy’ is the word for a course one stumbles into as described above) was an extreme one, and to such a degree that it is almost a logical extreme: for six months, anyone from a poor country arriving on foot would be allowed into Germany, no questions asked. For such people there would simply be no borders. There would be no limit on the number of arrivals (Merkel was quite explicit about this). This policy could only really have been more extreme by a further extension in time. Here, then, was a major country acting out the absolute worst possible fear of immigration skeptics – and being cheered on by a very large section of the press indeed, as well as many celebrities and politicians. I’m inclined to think that this had an effect.

Imagine you’re someone who has concerns about mass immigration. You’re not necessarily against immigration per se, but you’re worried about the quantity of migrants your country is taking in, as well as the possible difficulties arising from cultural differences. The message Merkel and her supporters effectively sent was, “we don’t care at all about your concerns. We will ignore you as absolutely as we possibly can. Your views will not be represented in any way, shape or form in our policy – and further, we will frame the conversation [inaccurately, as we saw above] so as to represent your concerns as a heartless disregard for people in need.” What effect do you suppose a message along these lines might have?

In Germany, in the summer of 2015, the Alternative für Deutschland party seemed all but dead. If I recall correctly, it even had financial difficulties. Today it is the third largest party federally (polls sometimes put it in second place), with significant influence in a number of state legislatures as well. This is not the place to talk at length about the AfD; I will say only that it seems to be made up to a large degree of people I would not want to see play a major role in government, and that I don’t think it would be anywhere near as popular as it is if Merkel had pursued a more moderate course in 2015.

But I don’t think Merkel’s influence was confined to Germany. Many British voters, as they considered the Brexit referendum, will have been all too aware that such trifles as international treaties and German law had proved utterly incapable of inhibiting the unilateral action of the German state, which had invited vast numbers of people into Europe, all of whom would, in time, be able to move to Britain (i.e., once they had gotten German citizenship). Immigration, of course, was a matter of real concern in the years leading up to the campaign. “Take Back Control” said the campaign slogan, and Merkel’s policy had created the conditions within which such a slogan would have maximum impact.

In similar fashion, I wonder if Obama’s wholehearted and very public support for Merkel did not have an effect on people who soon found themselves considering whether they should cast a vote to make Donald Trump president. Certainly immigration was a significant issue in that campaign, and though the case of Angela Merkel did not break the surface, it surely provided the background music, framing the issue in many minds, and also framing the advocates of a more open immigration policy in those same minds. And something similar is surely the case across Europe, which has seen a surge of support for parties similar to the AfD since 2015, as well as an erosion of support for more mainstream parties. If you seek her monument, look around you.

In many ways I regard this surge as lamentable (I voted for Clinton in 2016), but I have to admit there is a certain logic to it. I now look at 2015 as a moment of fundamental change in political life throughout the West, for it made clear that a profound shift of the Overton window had taken place among a crucially important section of the populace, the intellectual elites. The need to maintain control over a country’s borders had long been accepted as self-evident by all, but now this view faded away among a very large proportion of those in charge of political parties, major media and the conversation in academia. The new view was one of limitless indulgence towards illegal immigrants, and some even moved towards the claim that all immigration was good, period. (A sign of the change is the jarring feel of those videos of Clinton in the 90’s, or Obama a decade ago, speaking in vehement terms about the need to crack down on illegal immigrants – sorry, I believe ‘undocumented’ is the new term.) Those who still held to the old consensus found themselves with no respectable place to register that view, and at the same time found themselves now cast as bigots. I am inclined to view the change as a major driver in the populist surge in much of the West in the past two years – but note that on my account it is the elites who have changed more than the populace.

Finally, lest I be accused of pointing only to problems, and not at all to solutions, allow me to note the approach of the British government. This put quite considerable sums of money into supporting those who had found accommodation in one of the countries bordering Syria, and also flew a limited number to Britain. The British approach did not favour the strong and the rich, but rather those who were deemed most worthy of aid. It did not bring hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing whatever to do with the Syrian war into Britain. It did not unilaterally undo the Dublin Regulation, nor did it attempt to force upon other European countries a new migration policy, or any quantity of refugees. It did not involve the conflation of economic migrants with actual refugees. It did not confirm the worst fears of reasonable immigration skeptics. It did not provide any opportunity for sentimental posturing on the part of those who wish to show what good and compassionate people they are; it focused instead on the matter of actually providing aid. Sober, deliberate, quiet, unpretentious, the British approach was simply superior to the German.


Of Opiates and of Liberty: Thoughts on Dreamland by Sam Quinones

Recently I finished a book about the opioid crisis in the US: Dreamland by Sam Quinones. I found it pretty much unputdownable, and while it’s certainly essential reading for anyone interested in its subject matter, I also found that it provoked thoughts on larger matters, on which I have blogged recently. I’m going to try to give a brief account of those thoughts here.

First, an overview of the book. The problems with opiates started back in the 80’s, when a movement in medicine set out to turn back what was thought an irrational prejudice against prescribing painkillers. Before this, doctors had been taught that patients could easily become addicted to these drugs, and were accordingly quite reluctant to give them out. In the course of the 90’s, however, this reluctance was overcome, thanks not only to the genuine desire of many doctors to help people in pain, but also to a certain laziness in reading the research (more on this below) and funding from drug companies. The result was that doctors came to believe that the addiction risk was not so great as had previously been thought, and began to prescribe opiates on a considerable scale. Unfortunately, the pills actually were quite addictive. Worse yet, they turned out to be an ideal gateway to heroin – OxyContin, the prescription drug with the biggest role in this story, “contained a large whack of a drug virtually identical to heroin.”

Soon, thanks both to honest doctors and to those who ran “pill mills,” dolling out pain medication for a fee to anyone who asked for it, parts of America were awash in prescription pills, and thus in people addicted to painkillers (Quinones tells of how pain pills were so plentiful in Portsmouth Ohio that they actually became a currency with which anything could be bought). Enter the Mexicans. Families from a single town in Mexico called Xalisco began to develop novel heroin-delivery networks across America that brought small amounts of the drug virtually to customers’ doors in the manner of a pizza-delivery service. Eschewing violence, these new dealers avoided major cities where markets in illegal drugs were already controlled by gangs (they also avoided black people, for their prejudices had caused them to believe black people violent). Instead, they set out to develop new markets across the country in places where heroin had scarcely been seen, paying particular attention to those already caught up in the opioid crisis.

The result was an epidemic of addiction in places that had never seen such a thing, one that hit not only poor people in cities, but also rich – and largely white – people in rural settings. Quinones has many sad stories to tell, of the children of lawyers or police officers getting hooked and dying, of college students who can’t kick the habit, of people stealing from their children or even from their dying parents to maintain their addiction. But the epidemic is not only remarkable in claiming victims from such a wide variety of backgrounds, but also in its sheer scale: “the number of Ohioans dead from drug overdoses between 2003 and 2008 was 50 percent higher than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the entire Iraq War. Three times as many people died of prescription pill overdoses between 1999 and 2008 as died in the eight peak years of the crack cocaine epidemic.”

This, then, is the shape of the story Quinones has to tell. There is a lot to think about here, but I found myself returning to one thought in particular: its connection with Patrick Deneen’s book, Why Liberalism Failed, which I wrote about a last month. In that post, I discussed the peculiar conception of freedom that defines what Deneen calls ‘liberalism,’ and this included (and implied) a notion of mastery in modern science, a mastery of the natural world. In that post, I reflected a bit on how this striving for mastery played itself out in environmental concerns (inter alia), but the very same concern with mastery seems to me to lie at the heart of the opioid crisis.

For consider: the decision in medical circles to start taking a different approach to opiates is clearly a decisive moment in the whole story. (At one point, we here of a doctor who suddenly found himself confronted by “what was unthinkable a few years before: rural, white heroin junkies. ‘I’ve yet to find one who didn’t start with OxyContin,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t be selling this quantity of heroin on the street right now if they hadn’t made these decisions in the boardroom.’”) But what was the motive force behind that decision? It might seem tempting to just hang the whole thing on the greed of drug companies – and that greed certainly is part of the story – but Quinones avoids such a simple and easy path, and tells a deeper story, one going back decades:

“World War I had … demonstrated to doctors the merciful painkilling benefits the morphine molecule provided. Fresh, too, in their memory were heroin’s first decades, which showed just as clearly that addiction too often bedeviled those who used opiates. Try as they might—with strategies as varied as farm work, group therapy, or prison—rehabilitation specialists never graduated much more than 10 percent of their addicts to true opiate freedom. The rest relapsed, slaves, it appeared, to the morphine molecule. This seemed a shame to scientists and physicians. Was mankind really doomed to not have it all? Couldn’t it have heaven without hell? Couldn’t the best scientists find a way of extracting the painkilling attributes from the molecule while discarding its miserable addictiveness?”

That is, the dream is of being able simply to escape pain, with no side-effects. This dream is a form of the striving after mastery I discussed in my post on Deneen, the aim of simply liberating ourselves from our natural limits. The story of the opioid crisis is a story of how the pursuit of this goal without sufficient attention to its risks leads to a new sort of hell: as Quinones says, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.” This idea is not at all new, for one repeatedly encounters talk of enslavement to pleasure (or the appetites) in ancient philosophy. What is new is that in a premodern context, such talk can often seem counterintuitive, and usually needs some explanation or thought before it seems an appropriate way to speak; modern science, however, has produced drugs that make it immediately obvious that it is correct to speak of ‘enslavement.’ On this basis, Quinones makes a more general point about human nature: “man’s decay has always begun as soon as he has it all, and is free of friction, pain and the deprivation that temper his behaviour.” This would not be news to the ancients, and it is part of the problem that Deneen sees in certain ideas that have helped drive the West in the last 500 years or so.

Think about what Quinones says about “man’s decay” for a moment, in the context of pain. What is being said is that we need pain. Certainly this is true in a superficial sense – e.g., pain tells us when something is going wrong with our body, and without that we might easily die of internal injuries or by failing to learn to avoid excessive risks, etc. But there is a deeper point here: Quinones speaks of man’s decay and debasement: human dignity disappears as people become enslaved to the escape from pain. That is, the need for pain is not simply instrumental. Our nature as creatures with a certain dignity does not seem to endure a total release from pain. To the extent that we’re capable of liberating ourselves from pain, we seem to become reduced to that attempt at liberation. In describing the search for a non-addictive painkiller, Quinones repeatedly speaks of the “Holy Grail,” a deeply appropriate term in that it suggests a quest for something beyond what is possible for humans.

Of course, the striving after the Holy Grail, the attempt to push beyond what is possible, is remarkable not only for the harm that it directly produces, but also for the humbler, less dangerous pursuit it discourages: Quinones explains how a multidisciplinary, holistic approach to pain, one that would not have produced an opiate crisis, was pushed aside and abandoned for decades because people thought these pills were a straightforward fix.

In the context of all this, I found myself seeing a wisdom in the old “just say no” slogan: not many of us are likely to be stronger than heroin – anyone who uses it a few times is likely to find himself unable to stop, enslaved to it [ed. I’m told it takes more like a month]. However, there is one way that anyone can attain a sort of mastery over heroin, simply by realising that here is something stronger than one’s will, and that one should therefore avoid it. Heroin has no power over such a person: real mastery, real freedom, involves recognising one’s limits and acting within them.

Quinones’ account includes a simply magnificent example of a sort of motivated reasoning (or at least motivated intellectual sloth), which I mention here because it seems to be driven by the striving towards mastery I described above. Those who led the movement to make prescribing painkillers more permissible beginning in the 80’s didn’t have as much evidence as they thought they did. One particularly influential piece of work was known as ‘Porter & Jick,’ which was cited and re-cited in papers and presentations until it seems to have attained a sort of legendary status, in which it bore considerable weight as an argument against the addictive potential of opiates. “Medical professionals,” Quinones tells us, “assumed everyone else had read it,” and it was referred to as “an extensive study” or “a landmark report.” In fact, it was a single paragraph letter to a medical journal, published in 1980; it seems that scarcely anyone had actually bothered to read it. One can imagine that if it had said something unpopular, something that people didn’t want to believe, many would have found time to read it, and read it critically. But of course, everyone wanted to believe that the Holy Grail had been found, that a simple liberation from pain was at hand with no side-effects to worry about – and so Porter and Jick remained unread even as its authority grew.

From the opiate crisis, then, we have another perspective from which to contemplate a truth introduced in my post on Deneen: the striving for a mastery of nature can be a very dangerous matter indeed. There is a need for a moment of acceptance, or perhaps of resignation, a recognition that we are not entirely in control. I’m reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now at the moment (a review will follow in some weeks/months as time permits), and one of my main problems with the book is that it seems to lack precisely this moment of acceptance.

And finally, since my last post was about the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, here’s a short piece of his from a few days ago on the opioid crisis.

University Censorship, 16th Century Edition

In recent years I’ve found that I have ever greater cause to reflect on just how much our political culture has changed in the last decade or two. Things I read about years ago in history books – things that I assumed would stay in history books – are now to be found in the news. Here I want to present one example of this phenomenon, from one of my favourite books, Iberia by James Michener (a must-read for anyone interested in or travelling to Spain). The story he tells in the paragraphs below begins with a description of a place you can still visit at the University of Salamanca…

“…a stone-arched classroom left pretty much as it must have been on that day in December, 1578, when Fray Luis de Leon returned after an absence of some years. The rude benches without backs remain the same and the small windows in the outer walls. The lectern with its canopy is the same as the one at which the professor stood that eventful day. The room was crowded, not only because Fray Luis was the most famous of the Salamanca lecturers, a wise, gentle elderly man of sweet understanding and compassion, but because he had accomplished something that few men of his day could parallel.

In 1572, at the height of a brilliant career as Spain’s leading theologian and humanist, he was attacked by jealous persons in the university, who whispered to the Inquisition, ‘We all know that Fray Luis is half Jewish, so he’s suspect to begin with. But he has now translated King Solomon’s Song of Songs into the vernacular. He invites even the most ordinary man in Salamanca to read it. And that is heresy.’ Especially serious was the additional charge that often, after studying the original Hebrew version of the Bible, he would question the accuracy of the Latin. Fray Luis was apprehended and for several months was under interrogation, after which he was thrown into jail at Valladolid, where he heard only silence. At the end of a year he pleaded to be told what the charges against him were and who his accusers, but he heard nothing. His trial was intermittent and clandestine; all he knew was that he had committed some serious crime bordering on heresy, but its definition he never knew. Finally, after nearly five years of this, he was set free and, what was the more miraculous, allowed to return to his post in Salamanca…

This was the morning of his reappearance, and notable persons came to the university to hear his reaction to his long persecution. As he made his way from his rooms, his gown slightly askew in his usual careless manner, the university plaza was crowded with silent students. Fray Luis walked with his eyes straight forward, not daring to acknowledge the furtive glances of approbation which greeted him. As he entered the cloisters and elbowed his way through the crowd he came at last to the room in which he had taught for so many years, and when he saw its familiar outlines, with his friends perched on the narrow benches, and when he knew that among them must be those whose rumors had caused his imprisonment and who would surrender him again to the Inquisition within a few years (he was to die in disgrace at Madrigal de las Altas Torres), he must have wanted to lash out against the injustice he had suffered and would continue to suffer as a Jew and a humanist. Instead he stepped to the rostrum, took his place behind the lectern, grasped the lapels of his robe, and smiled at the crowd with the compassion that marked all he did, and said in a low, clear voice, ‘As we were saying yesterday…’ And he resumed his lecture at the precise point of its interruption five years before.”

I first read this passage in the 90’s, when it seemed to describe a past that had gone forever. In time I was able to visit the room at the University of Salamanca that Michener describes, and I thought of the story of Fray Luis with the same sense of peering into a long-disappeared world that I had felt looking at the forum in Rome or the cave paintings at Les Eyzies de Tayac. But twenty years later, the case of Fray Luis seems immediately relevant in a way I would not once have believed possible. Who today could possibly say that similar things cannot happen now? Who today could deny that they already do?

Journalism or Left-Wing Activism? The Globe and the Peterson Affair

Back in November, Professor Jordan Peterson took part in a debate on free speech at the University of Toronto. The Globe and Mail’s Simona Chiose reported on the event. Here are the first words of her article: “The claims made by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson on the impact of anti-discrimination legislation are scientifically and legally wrong.”

Here’s a question: whose side do you think Chiose (and the Globe) are on? That is, is the article for or against the position taken by Dr. Peterson? Do you think that that opening sentence represents a sincere attempt to avoid bias while writing a report on a controversial event, or does it rather push the reader in the direction of a particular point of view? (If you click on the link, you’ll see that the sentence actually ends with a subordinate clause: “… a debate at the Toronto university heard on Saturday.” This does mitigate the effect of the whole, but the effect is there nonetheless.)

I was bothered at the time by the article, and I’ve just had reason to think of it again, for last week the same Ms. Chiose wrote another article on Dr. Peterson, this one much longer and more biased than that earlier one (quotations below are from this more recent article unless otherwise noted). This longer piece omits relevant facts and emphasises marginal material so as to create a distorted picture, one that effectively maligns Dr. Peterson’s character. In what follows, I’m going to go through several examples of this tendency (though not all), to show just how far the article falls short of fair and unbiased reporting. Has Ms. Chiose – and with her, the Globe – abandoned reporting and instead plunged headlong into activism? After considering the points I make below, I hope readers will be able to decide for themselves.

The main force of Chiose’s article comes from the connection it attempts to make between Dr. Peterson and certain internet trolls (this includes the ‘KEK’ primer at the end), so let us start with that. These trolls, we are told, say vicious and (perhaps) threatening things about his critics. Chiose tells us that “the existence of this parallel, online space is hardly mentioned in free speech debates or arises only in lateral mentions of concerns about ‘safety on campus.’” What she never makes explicit is why this parallel space should be mentioned in free speech debates. No doubt it is true that there are too many trolls online posting childish, vicious and (possibly) even threatening things; no doubt there is often “misogynist and dehumanizing invective” online. This is awful, but why should it have any bearing on the question of free speech or safety on campus? No evidence has been offered that the trolls in question are on the UofT campus. Neither the UofT, nor the government of Ontario, nor the government of Canada – and certainly not Dr. Peterson – can control what people in “Shanghai and Berlin, St. Petersburg and Pune… and San Francisco” write online. Why on earth should the rantings of some loser in his parents’ basement in, say, Colorado, affect what people may and may not say on a university campus in Toronto? Yes, online trolls can be vile, and it would be nice to be able to treat the problem they present, but they seem to me a red herring when considering freedom of speech on campus. Indeed, they seem to me entirely irrelevant in relation to the matter at the heart of the Peterson affair, namely, these new pronouns, and whether the government or any other institution has the right to force people to use them.

There is one respect, however, in which Ms. Chiose’s focus on internet trolls is not a red herring at all, but drives a point home with some force, and that is the realm of insinuation, of guilt by association. Obviously Dr. Peterson cannot control people typing away in distant cities around the globe, but look at how rotten (or crazy) those people are, those people who support Dr. Peterson – doesn’t that make him look like a rotten person as well? If this thought can, strictly speaking, have no bearing on the matter of pronouns and free speech, still it can have considerable rhetorical force. Empty rhetoric can be effective – in this case, it might encourage those who shout Dr. Peterson down (see below), or those who want a reason to avoid having to confront the force of his arguments, to think that they’re doing the right thing.

It is not only by means of the connection to online trolls, however, that Chiose’s piece paints its picture of Dr. Peterson. As an introduction to her other methods, let us consider some words from Dr. Peterson. At a recent talk at Harvard (video here, the relevant bit is from 6:04) he discusses the behaviour of the UofT’s administration: “the university said that they had received many letters accusing me of making the University of Toronto an unsafe space… they failed to note at the same time that they had received hundreds – perhaps thousands – of letters, as well as a 10,000 signature petition, supporting my stance.” He considers this a falsification by omission.

Chiose’s article suffers from a similar failing. In general, the claims of the UofT administration, as well as accusations against Dr. Peterson, are treated as reliable. Facts that might throw a different, and more positive light upon Dr. Peterson or his cause, repeatedly go unmentioned. For example, we do not hear of the letters of support that he claims to have received from trans-people, who, he says, express their frustration at the fact that a group of activists claim (wrongly) to represent them, and have in fact made their lives more difficult (see here from about 12:43). Is Dr. Peterson making all this up? I don’t know; Chiose might have made an attempt to verify his claims. Instead, the reader is simply left unaware of the possibility of another side to this story.

Consider this sentence as well: “after his application for a federal research grant was turned down this year, Rebel Media… started a crowdfunding effort on its own site on the professor’s behalf.” It would have been worth mentioning at this point that Dr. Peterson claims that his research has been continually highly ranked, and successfully funded, for more than two decades – until this particular grant proposal. If true, it is remarkable that he suddenly failed to get funding the moment he declared himself against the forced use of certain pronouns. This seems to me very relevant indeed to the question of free speech on campus, unlike the internet trolls on whom Chiose lavishes so much attention. Most importantly, we once again see that facts that might have put Dr. Peterson’s cause in a more sympathetic light have been left out.

Consider also the following: “‘no one wanted him to be fired or put in jail…,’ said Cassandra Williams, who was the equity officer for the University of Toronto Students Union throughout the crisis.” Of course, if you have heard Dr. Peterson himself talk about this (see here from about 6:45), you get a different impression: before you fire a professor, there have to be warning letters. He received one, then another. His response was to go for maximum publicity, and he has since been all over YouTube, talking with Gad Saad, with Dave Rubin, with Joe Rogan (among many others), getting millions of hits, and becoming something of an internet celebrity in the process. Having followed this strategy, Peterson was not fired. A teacher in BC, who wanted to remain anonymous, was not so lucky, and was fired. Dr. Peterson was apparently contacted by this anonymous teacher, and advised him, in vain, to follow the publicity route as a means of protection. Did publicity save Dr. Peterson’s job? I don’t know. Maybe Ms. Williams, quoted above, is being entirely accurate. I note only that there was another side to this, and that Ms. Chiose (again) hasn’t mentioned it.

I don’t intend to enumerate every failing in the article, but I will mention one final omission that is particularly serious. Have you seen the videos of Dr. Peterson getting shouted down at McMaster University? (Watch this one from about 3:15) I don’t doubt that there are horrible internet trolls who have taken Dr. Peterson’s side, and behaved reprehensibly in the process (though I also don’t see that there’s much he can do about that – indeed, any issue involving intense disagreement these days is going to be accompanied by people saying vile things online). It is, however, grossly misleading to suggest that this is a problem on only one side of this debate. Indeed, such vile behaviour from so many of Dr. Peterson’s opponents might go some way to explain the reprehensible behaviour of some of his supporters.

Considered in the light of what happened at McMaster, it is simply extraordinary that the article’s subtitle talks of “the fight for ‘free speech,’” putting “free speech” in quotations marks as if this were somehow a dishonest pretense and not the actual substance of Dr. Peterson’s concern. How does that McMaster video not prove that free speech is genuinely at issue here? And, of course, all this takes place in the context of similar episodes elsewhere – go look up the cases of Charles Murray, of Heather Macdonald, or of Bret Weinstein!

It is not only errors of omission that give us a one-sided picture. Both of Chiose’s articles mentioned above contain a rather marvelous example of how language can be chosen so as to suggest that a certain side of a disagreement is at fault, without actually saying as much. In that article from November, we hear of “weeks of controversy on campus over Dr. Peterson’s refusal to use non-gender-specific pronouns when addressing students.” We might instead have heard of “an attempt by activists and the university administration to force the active use of certain words on other people,” but that phrasing would fail to place the onus for the whole business on Dr. Peterson: it is he, not the activists, who is to be seen as the cause of controversy here, even though he was reacting to them (and see the longer article, which I have been focusing on, for a similar choice of phrase in the first sentence). There are plenty of other examples of this sort of thing; try going through the article yourself and looking for them.

Clearly, these are controversial matters, productive of vehement passions, and for that reason, potentially dangerous. Ms. Chiose tells us of people on her side of the debate – and I think she has taken a side – who were willing to speak only on condition of anonymity, and this is no less true of people on the other side (this may shock you, but ‘Babbington’ is not my real name). In such a situation, surely we ought to aim at ratcheting down the tension, and to proceed as dispassionately as possible, so as to consider the case made by either side on its own merits. Ms. Chiose’s piece does something very different: it creates the impression that Dr. Peterson is a bad person. We are not provided with evidence or arguments that correct intellectual mistakes he has made; rather, we are given the impression that he has failed morally, as a person. If someone has failed intellectually, we reason with him; if he has failed morally, we might be inclined to proceed differently.

I think Simona Chiose should have the right to write opinion pieces on this and other matters, but they should be labelled as such. It is one thing to take a side explicitly and argue its case openly, but another altogether to produce a one-sided account of a controversy while writing what appears on the surface to be sand objective piece of reporting (this article is found online under “Home->News->National->Education”). I think the Globe and Mail dropped the ball here. As someone originally from the left (in Canada I have only ever voted for the NDP), I have to say this has made the notion of a “liberal media,” which reports selectively according to a preferred narrative, look rather more plausible than it previously had.


And now for a few words about the larger controversy…

As I have watched this Peterson Affair unfold in recent months, I have repeatedly been impressed by his ability to make his case. For example, watch this video from about 7:30 to at least 19:00: Peterson is faced here with a questioner, who tries to push the other side of the argument, but the questioner is no match for him at all. On the matter of gender, see 24:46 to 28:55 of the same video. After watching him here, it should be obvious why he is not afraid to debate on this subject: he can present his position in a devastatingly effective, and utterly convincing, manner.

I have not been impressed by the arguments of the other side. I would like to see an answer to the points made in the video sections I have just referenced. Unfortunately, Dr. Peterson’s opponents seem to see any and all disagreement as a form of bigotry; overwhelmingly, when I see his opponents, they focus almost entirely on ad hominem attacks and scarcely at all – if at all – on meeting the substance of his arguments. (Which side of that divide do you think Simona Chiose’s article falls on?) Why don’t they just put the personal attacks to one side – heck, we can assume for the sake of argument that he’s an awful person – and refute the substantive points he has made? Why won’t they debate him? I believe this is because they know they cannot answer his arguments. (I am aware of only one debate that has taken place, and it was not impressive for the anti-Peterson side: I thought Christie Blatchford gave a good overview – and note how her piece is marked “COMMENT,” indicating it contains the personal views of its author.)

A final matter: why I am spending so much energy on this? Why, for that matter, are so many people giving him so much money? (as of this writing, he’s over $42k per month) Simona Chiose might like to think that we Peterson supporters are driven by dark motives, but I can offer another reason. Many of us are dismayed by the replacement of a culture of argument and open discussion with a culture of threats and intimidation, with the constant use of accusations of bigotry as a cudgel to silence dissent. Many of us think Dr. Peterson is correct in his warnings about the totalitarian – yes, totalitarian – nature of the way in which all of this is moving.

In a healthy society, universities are not merely repositories of knowledge and practical skills, but also have a civic function: they produce in their students an attitude of critical inquiry and the habit of frank and open debate on matters even of passionate controversy. As those disgraceful, idiot McMaster students so clearly showed, universities today are producing very different attitudes and habits. Newspapers, too, have a civic function fostering informed debate on contentious issues as part of an open society – or at least they once had such a function.

Dr. Peterson has said (I can’t find his exact words), there are, in the end, two ways of dealing with people: either you talk things out, or you use force. University administrations that fail to act against students who behave on campus in a thuggish manner, and the publications that effectively cheer them on, are effectively deciding that we are to have a more violent political culture in the future.

Where we once might have debated contentious matters in a frank and open manner, today it seems that a group of activists decides what the new orthodoxy is to be, and anyone who tries to argue otherwise is denounced and publicly shamed as a bigot. This needs to change, and that, in the end, is why Dr. Peterson is so important. It’s also why I think he deserves every penny he’s receiving. Certainly he has endured appalling abuse and pressure with exceptional grace and goodwill (far more than I would have mustered), but much more importantly, he has stepped in to defend, as best he can, the civic good that universities are now failing uphold as institutions, and that’s something worth far more than he has so far received. That, above all, is why he has received so much support.


UPDATE 26.01.2018

Oops, she did it again! Here’s the opening sentence of a piece written in November by Dr. Chiose on Dr. Peterson:

‘A plan by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson to launch a website that would allow students to identify leftist faculty has “created a climate of fear and intimidation” and is a “threat to [professors] and to the academic mission of the University,” the school’s faculty association says.’ (Note also the headline: ‘Jordan Peterson creating climate of “fear and intimidation”: U of T’s faculty association’)

She used the very same device as in the piece I mentioned at the start of my post: once again, the reader is being nudged in the direction of a particular point of view, and – surprise! – once again, it’s one that paints Dr. Peterson in a particularly bad light.

The last six months have seen me become increasingly distraught with regard to the state of our media. Major media have an important role to play in public deliberation, and increasingly I feel they are failing.

UPDATE 29.12.2018

A final example of Dr. Chiose’s reporting on Dr. Peterson from way back in October 2016, when it seemed impressive to describe him as having “more than 10,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel” and “more than 20,000 Twitter followers” (he now has 1.7 million YouTube subscribers and over a million Twitter followers). Once again, Dr. Chiose provides a master class in how to frame an issue in a manner that directs readers towards a particular stance on an issue while maintaining the pretense of straightforward journalistic reporting. The impression we are given is that opposition to Dr. Peterson is widespread: “from every corner of the university, the criticism has been swift.” We hear from numerous people who disagree with Dr. Peterson: “transgendered students and supporters,” a student in linguistics at UofT, a professor emeritus of philosophy, a physics professor who uses the pronoun ‘they.’ Even what we hear of the university and the chair of Dr. Peterson’s department (psychology) suggests their skepticism towards him. What we do not hear is even one word from a single person who agrees with him. The only nod in that direction begins with the limiting clause, “insofar as Dr. Peterson’s opposition has found support…” The impression given is of a lone individual facing an overwhelming tide of condemnation. In fact, Dr. Chiose makes this all but explicit when she writes, “Dr. Peterson is swimming against a national movement of increased recognition for transgendered students across the country.” (With the benefit of hindsight, we may wonder if this sentence was entirely accurate.)

If readers believe that Dr. Peterson stands alone, that he is “swimming against a national movement,” they will be less likely to declare their support for him. Indeed, it seems to me that people are less inclined to decide at all that they agree with a position that is unpopular. Accordingly, Dr. Chiose has written in a manner likely to depress support for him and to lend support to his opponents. Is this reporting or left-wing activism?

Active Participation

In the past week, as the US presidential election drew near, perhaps bringing catastrophe with it, I found myself thinking again and again of Sebastian Haffner’s book, Geschichte eines Deutschen. (The title means “Story of a German,” but the English translation is sold under the unfortunate title Defying Hitler, there evidently being an imperative to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a book title: Jesus saves, but Hitler sells). The book is a memoire of Haffner’s life growing up in WWI and Weimar Berlin, and then in the early years of the Nazi regime. Together with Haffner’s study of Hitler, it is the best thing I have ever read on Hitler and the Third Reich.

I read Haffner’s memoire more than a decade ago, but a number of particularly vivid passages have long stuck in my mind. Among these is a scene in which Haffner’s father finds himself obliged to express his support for the new Nazi government. I’m going to quote it at length, because it seems to me to touch on something relevant to our own times.

My father himself had retired long ago. He had no official powers any more and he could have done nothing to harm the Nazis, even if he had wanted to. It seemed as though he was out of the line of fire. But one day he too received an official letter. It contained a detailed questionnaire. ‘Under Clause X of the Law for the Re-establishment of the Civil Service, you are required to answer the following questions truthfully and in full… Under Clause Y, refusal to answer will entail loss of pension…’

There were a lot of questions. My father had to state which political parties, organisations and associations he had ever belonged to in his life, he had to list his services to the nation, explain this and excuse that and finally sign a printed declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ In short, having served the state for forty-five years, he was required to humble himself again in order to continue to receive his well-earned pension.

My father stared silently at the questionnaire for a long time.

Next day I saw him seated at his desk, the form in front of him. He was staring past it.

‘Are you going to fill it in?’ I asked.

My father looked at the questionnaire, grimaced and said nothing for a long time. Then he asked, ‘Do you think I should?’


‘I wonder what you and your mother would live on?’ he said at last.

‘I really don’t know,’ he repeated after a while. ‘I don’t even know,’ and he tried to smile, ‘how you will be able to go to Paris to write your thesis.’

There was an uneasy silence. Then my father pushed the questionnaire aside, but he did not put it away.

It lay on his desk for several days. Then one afternoon as I entered the room I saw my father filling it in, slowly and laboriously, like a child writing a school essay. Half an hour later he went out himself and took it to the letter box before he could change his mind. He showed no outward change in his manner and spoke no more excitedly than usual, but it had none the less been too much for him. With people who are used to restraint in word and gesture, some part of the body is invariably affected by severe mental stress. Some have heart attacks in such cases. My father’s weakness was his stomach. He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

Why, you ask, do I find myself thinking about this particular passage?

Item: a bakery run by Christians in Northern Ireland was taken to court for its refusal to produce a cake with the message, “Support Gay Marriage.” The court case recently came to an end, and the bakery lost: by refusing to make the cake, they committed a crime.

Item: a professor in Canada is being persecuted at present because of his objection to new pronouns (ze, zim, zer, and others) which are supposed to replace ‘he’ and ‘she.’ “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” he says, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”

Needless to say, there has been an abundance of commentary on these two items, on either side, but I don’t think any of it has really gotten to the heart of the matter, and I think the Haffner passage I quoted does. In the case of both items, the demand is not that dissenters be required to tolerate others with different opinions, nor is it that they must refrain from criticising the dominant ideology. No, the demand is that people must be compelled to participate actively in support of an ideology they reject.

The question of whether we agree with each end in question is beside the point (me, I’d be happy to produce the gay-marriage-cake, but not to switch pronouns). The fact that these two items line up in the decisive respect with Haffner’s tale from the Third Reich is, I think, a window into a problem of our times. Progressive activists are not usually wicked people, and they act as they do out of a desire to bring about something good. Their myopic focus upon their own ends is to be expected of activists. What should concern us is rather the failure of society more generally to assert the right to dissent from what the majority believe. To the extent that we forget that right, we quickly find ourselves in some very poor company.