the bear bites back

The Bear Bites Back!

A British Inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko chaired by retired High Court judge Sir Robert Owen concludes to nobody’ great surprise that Litvinenko was probably murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Owen said that evidence presented in open court made a “strong circumstantial case” that the Russian state was behind the assassination but, taking account of a “considerable quantity” of secret intelligence not aired in open court, he found “that the operation to kill Mr Litvinenko was probably approved by … President Putin”, although the report cited no hard evidence to support this conclusion.

In a statement opening the inquiry, Owen said ‘The reason why it is of great importance to be able to hold at least some … hearings [from which the public, the press and most of the core participants are excluded] is that HM Government holds some documents that are relevant to Mr Litvinenko’s death, but which are of such sensitivity that they cannot be used in open court.’

The British Government was predictably outraged by the Report’s findings, which drew the conclusions which the Government expected to be drawn from the secret intelligence it supplied. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, called Mr. Litvinenko’s death “a blatant and unacceptable breach of the most fundamental tenets of international law and of civilized behavior,”(NYT Jan 21, 2016). Slavish repetition of this confected outrage by Australian print and broadcast media reminded me that, even if we leave their colonial records to one side, Britain and its Western allies have form in the breach of these alleged tenets. We might note, for example, that in September 2015, the Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the RAF had used a drone to kill two British nationals who were alleged to be plotting terrorist attacks on British soil. Along with a third person who was travelling with them and in spite of the partial abolition of the death penalty (for murder) in 1965 and its final abolition (for treason) in1998, they were executed without trial. In February 2004, the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances. Cameron is reported (Aljazeera September 8 2015) to have said. “We took this action because there was no alternative.” Drones have also been used by Israel and the USA to execute without trial individuals identified as their enemies and, in the course of these activities, a number of bystanders suffered extreme collateral damage.

We might also note that a US Senate Committee Report, chaired by the Democrat Frank Church, revealed that there had been several American attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro. The Committee claimed that it substantiated eight attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1960 and 65. Cuban authorities claimed to hae identified 638 American attempts several of them depicted in the Channel 4 documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro (2006)

At the time of writing, theAustralian mainstream media have treated the Report’s findings simply as fact. While it might seem that they are simply following their British counterparts, no serious observer of Australian journalism would have expected more robust treatment. Mainstream Australian media normally do little more than present Reports’ findings, along perhaps with a few reactions from people who might be affected by these findings, in part, no doubt, because it is easier to paraphrase a press release, than it is to seriously question how they have been produced. The supine response to the findings of the Owen Inquiry simply extend this dubious courtesy to a Report produced for the British Government by a retired justice of the High Court.

As luck would have it, the Owen Report landed in Australia only days before the opening of ‘Spotlight’, a film based on the exposure of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in America by team of investigative reporters at The Boston Globe. Australian reviews of the film have been generally positive, celebrating both the film and the courage shown by the Globe’s newsroom in taking on a powerful vested interest. Paul Byrnes’ review in the Fairfax media (January 20) notes that the film ‘left me both enraged and saddened. You could make the same movie here, at least about the church’s behaviour in transferring priests, rather than reporting them to the police. Some courageous reporting in Australia helped lead to the current Royal Commission, but the film’s silent question about the future of newspapers applies here too: for how much longer?’ Nice question. Yet it is worth remembering that the film shows that a lot more than courageous reporting was required to break the story at the Globe; the reporters needed courageous editorial support and a tightly organised newsroom. The day after Byrnes review appeared, his colleague Stephanie Bunbury, writing in the Fairfax weekend metropolitan papers, lamented that ‘they don’t make newspaper offices like this any more’

Unfortunately, while pointing out the hypocrisy of the powerful has an undeniable feelgood effect it is of limited analytical significance. Hypocrisy is a commonplace feature of public life – as it is of other areas (business and private life) – and there is little to be gained from pointing to its presence in any individual case. Rather than continue in the vein of my opening remarks, I want to use the Owen Report to reflect on issues raised in earlier contributions to this blog, particularly my comments on Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities and my Folk Devils paper.

Some of my readers have suggested, in private correspondence, that I may have been too hard on Anderson and, in particular, that he was on to something. I agree that he was on to something but what exactly is not as he thought . Anderson maintains that neither Marxist nor liberal accounts of nationalism have much to say about ‘the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices?’ (1991, 7). In his view, ‘both Marxist and liberal theory have become etiolated in a late Ptolemaic effort to ‘save the phenomena'(1991, 4). The nation, he says,

is imagined as a community, because… [it] is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings (1991, 7)
Leaving aside the question of whether or not it is reasonable to criticise Marxist and liberal theories for not getting this point, it seems clear that the affective quality of nationalism requires that nations are imagined by those who see themselves as its members or, at least, by those who are prepared to kill or die in its name. Yet, it is not so clear what follows from this observation. Should we think of the nation as a real community imagined by those who believe they belong to it? Must we think of it both as a community and as ‘imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’? Anderson goes on to say that ‘[i]n fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.’ (1991, 6). Although he does not say so directly, this suggests that the nation exists only by virtue of its being imagined by its members.

My blog post noted that this view of the nation as both imagined and a community raises serious questions that Anderson fails to address. How do we know that a nation’s members all see it as ‘a deep horizantal comradeship’ and that ‘in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’? Should we assume that they all have the same ‘image’ in their minds? And what happens to the imagined community of the nation if they do not, if its members have divergent images of the community to which they all belong?

We can step away from such difficulties by noting that many of Anderson’s descriptive phrases – ‘horizantal comradeship’, ‘fraternity’ and ‘in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’ – read as if they were adapted from the rhetoric of nationalism, although ‘the image of their communion’ clearly comes from somewhere else. The invocation of unities – nation, class, gender, status or region – that include both speaker and audience is a familiar enough rhetorical strategy. Yet, there is no reason to suppose that there is more to such unities than the rhetorical effectiveness of their invocation. The fact that the nation is invoked as a comradely or fraternal unity, one that lives in the minds of its members, one that they are willing to kill and to die for does not make it so.
Rather than follow Anderson’s account of the nation, we can acknowledge that nations – along with classes, races, taxpayers and many others – have been invoked in certain ways and that in some, but not all, cases these invocations have moved their hearers or readers to action.

Anderson insists that ‘[t]he nation is imagined as limited’ (1991, 7). The other – and sometimes the more prominent – side of the appeal to unity is the invocation of difference or, as Said (1978) and many others have noted, of the Other who is unlike us in significant respects. The nation is always in need of its Others. This point brings us to my ‘Folk Devils’ paper. While I lifted the term ‘Folk Devils’ from Stan Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (1972), I also noted that there were difficulties with the two key concepts in Cohen’s title. The Folk Devils were only too human while ‘Moral Panic’ offered a neat way of understanding what the great and the good were playing at in demonising Mods and Rockers but it left open the question of how they managed to co-ordinate their demonizing rhetorics.

The French sociologist, Emile Durkheim argued that crime was a functional necessity of society and further that “We do not condemn it because it is a crime, but it is a crime because we condemn it.” In his view the rituals of denunciation and punishment served to promote solidarity. We do not have to endorse Durkheim’s functionalist view of society to recognise the importance of his point. The argument can be reworked by means of a focus on rhetorical appeals, as I suggested earlier with regard to Anderson’s account of the nation.

While the rhetorics of condemnation and punishment may invoke, if only indirectly, a sense of national solidarity, one does not have to accept that they produce a shared sense of national ‘horizantal comradeship’ that ‘lives in the minds of its members’. The Mods and Rockers taken together may be regarded as an internal demonic Other while the Moral Panic that both constituted and reacted against them appears as just another ugly nationalist ritual that invoked a sense of British, or English, unity. Similarly, British responses to the Owen Report and the Report itself breathed new life into the Russian bear, an ancient British (and European) demon.   Since its identity had long been absorbed into that of a leading Cold War enemy, at least in British iconography, if not in much of Central and Eastern Europe, it took some time after the end of the Cold War before the bear was able to raise its ugly head in England yet again. In both cases – the Mods & Rockers and the Owen report – Britons and media outlets who stood out in public against these Moral Panics risked becoming targets of similar condemnation.

The focus on rhetoric also allows us to address one of the difficulties in the moral panic literature. The terms Moral Panic and Folk Devil both refer to popular perceptions or sentiments while the evidence provided in Moral Panic research normally consists, according to Cohen’s seminal study, of statements by ‘bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people’ (2002, 1) the odd archbishop, colourful media reports and editorials. There is an obvious gap here between what is presented to the public and its popular reception. The rhetoric may refer to popular outrage, a nation, town or city mourns or some such sentiment. In this case, too, rhetorical invocation is not evidence of what the rhetoric invokes. The most we can say is that police media, archbishops and other public figures work, intentionally or otherwise, to promote a sense of popular outrage or insecurity – a.k.a. Panic – and that they sometimes succeed.
The question remains, how do all these ‘right-thinking people’ manage to get their acts together? There is no reason to invoke a conspiracy theory, suggesting a grand conspiracy to manipulate public opinion. Sometimes, no doubt, editors, reporters and/or politicians do conspire with police to present an agreed demonic angle on a story, but once the rhetorical invocation of popular opinion takes off, other right-thinking people can be expected to jump in as and when the opportunity presents itself

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