On resisting “bubble thinking”

From Gary Lineker through Brexit to women’s rights via Timothy Snyder

***Long read***

Let’s go back in time and give some attention to how we got here, and how we might go about getting to a better place.

This is a discussion about a YouTube clip from Channel Four, of Krishnan Guru-Murthy talking to Timothy Snyder about democracy and the rule of law. I find it interesting because I have plenty of disagreements with the usual stance of mainstream news programmes, and indeed with Snyder’s line, on a lot of the topics they touch on – but there are some excellent talking points here, points worth more than the passing attention they get on a news programme.

The clip is three years old, and the big current issues they would have had at the front of their minds were Brexit in the UK, and the goings on around Trump’s last months as President in the USA. See what you think…

I almost passed over that clip straight away – mainstream news reporter talks to white American in suit – because I’ve come across Snyder before, saying things I don’t agree with – but I didn’t, for some social-media-scrolling unknown reason. I stopped and listened. I could have listened halfway, then said FFS and clicked away in disgust when they got to the bit about the importance of supporting (by paying for) mainstream newspapers – but I didn’t, because that first exchange caught my interest, so I went the distance…

On saying “offensive” things

KGM: You seem to argue that there is a real threat of fascism … a lot of people find that mere proposition offensive…

TS: I think the moment where we move immediately to emotions like “offense” is the moment where democracy really is in trouble.

We do not have the right to not be offended

I don’t generally watch Match of the Day, in fact I hardly ever watch mainstream television at all, so I didn’t have any trouble joining in the boycott of Match of the Day in solidarity with Gary Lineker, who’d been disciplined by the BBC for likening the language used by some MPs about our government’s shabby (and probably illegal) plans for dealing with refugees to ‘the 1930s’.

We don’t have the right to not hear offensive things. I totally agree with Snyder here, and I personally am reminded of a million and one accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘transphobia’ which, when investigated, turn out to be people objecting to others saying things they disagree with. The latter becomes an absolute crescendo whenever women with a high public profile make any statements about women’s sex-based rights. The answer, in Maya Forestater’s words, is “we can’t have laws that we’re not allowed to talk about”.

The PROBLEM is that Snyder’s statement, and many others like it, are stacked up by right-wing politicians as excuses for being downright rude and oppressive – as Suella Braverman is for example, when she speaks of desperate asylum seekers as a ‘surge’, or an ‘invasion’, as many Trump-following Americans did at that time when they felt ‘oppressed’ by the Black Lives Matter movement.

That doesn’t make what Snyder said wrong though, and it needs thinking about. Someone being rude to you is not a hate-crime. Even if they make nasty comments about your age, sex, or disability. If, however, they say something like that then whack you over the head, that is a hate crime. We do not have a legal right not to be offended. We do have protected characteristics, and if people’s words demonstrate that they have committed a crime out of hate on those topics, that is a hate crime. We have a right not to be CRIMINALLY MISTREATED or DISCRIMINATED AGAINST because of those things. It’s the crime that counts in law, not the “offensive” words.

On democracy and mentioning the 1930s

TS: Democracy and the rule of law require constant human effort. … In the 1920s and 1930s, neither the US or the UK were perhaps as pretty as we like to remember them having been.

Fascism has happened and can happen again. The emotive, rabble-rousing nonsenses that feed it have been visible in many countries at many times. Personally, I think “not perhaps as pretty” is a tremendous fudge, when referring to the dishonest and oppressive nature of our two countries for most of their history. These things need talking about. They need talking about often enough that we’ve all got our minds on, for example, what it was Gary Lineker (in fact many of us) worry about (our government’s poor, and possibly illegal, treatment of asylum seekers) rather than just being briefly swept up in the fun of the Lineker/Match of the Day story.

How does fascism get started?

KGM: asks what the tactics are that Snyder and others could see (mainly in reference to the Brexit campaigns, and in Trumpism).

TS: talks about rhetorical devices, political propaganda, simple slogans repeated over and over, that divide people into us and them, friends and enemies.

Oh my, yes. How about “Take back control” in the UK, and “stop the steal” and “Make America Great Again” in the US. The first was used in the UK to sweep over a million unknowns, and sell the idea that leaving the EU would make Britain strong and independent. “Stop the steal” was used in the US to sweep over a million unknowns, and sell the idea (in advance of results announcements) that if Trump didn’t win that election, someone had cheated. “MAGA” was so deliciously unspecific that it glued together a mass of people with random discontents and resentments into a temporarily unstoppable mob that could do massive damage.

TS: The far right, the populist right, assigns all agency to “the other side”.

This is an extension of the popular media ploy of blaming everything on “them”. For most of my life, those grey, anonymous sneak-thieves known as “them” were in Brussels, pulling strings that messed up our lives via EU directives. Lately, it would appear that those poor, freezing, terrified people we see washed up on the beaches, the ones who citizens here on the south coast go running down to the sea to help – apparently, they are now “them”, and if we stop the boats, everything will be alright.

Come to think of it, I’ve had experience of being a villain recently, since the “transwomen are women” brigade have started declaring that “terfs have blood on their hands” and so forth. They don’t have to listen to me because, as a “terf” I am “one of them”, so they go on imagining I believe terrible things. Go on – if you’re still puzzled by that one, ask a “terf” — and listen to them. You may not agree with them 100% but you might just learn something, and so might they.

The rule of law

TS: Ever since Anglo-Saxon law, since the Magna Carta, law comes before the king. Law comes before the momentary urges of the ruler.

This is something I can remember believing  in when I was a kid, and I remember my parents believing in it. I can remember watching hairy hippies (they were “them”, when I was a small child) doing something on telly, and my gran saying ‘throw them in jail!’ and my dad saying, somewhat regretfully, ‘they can’t mum, they haven’t broken the law.’

People used to believe that. I think it got lost, somewhere along the way between David Cameron and Boris Johnson. We should restore it, we really must, but I also remember being embarrassed and frustrated as child, by just about every piece of fiction that appeared on television – be they films, plays, comedies or dramas series, they nearly all seemed to be about bullies and/or rich people getting away with breaking the rules, and the rest of us not having such luck.

TS: [summary] the rule of law needs a factual background. The US and the UK need to regenerate that expectation. We do it by supporting local news reporting, by making journalism an honourable occupation. Currently, journalism is lost to us, producing nothing more than “appeals to identity”, propaganda, supporting that vacuum of responsibility on your side, telling you someone somewhere far away is doing something bad.

KGM: Asks what we can do about it. Is there a kit of tools we can use?

TS:  This stuff depends on citizens feeling powerless, waiting for someone else to sort it out.

Yep – we on the left waited for Corbyn to do it. Those over on the right thought Nigel Farage, or their ‘Bojo’ would. In the States, many hoped Bernie Saunders would do it. Now, we’re waiting for Mick Lynch, or perhaps Gary Lineker to sort it out.  What should we be doing, Mr Snyder?

TS: [Summary] We need to decide what we care about, and do something about it every day. This could be speaking up in the pub, it could be buying a newspaper, it could be modelling humanizing language and behaviours in the face of political disagreements….

Well okay Mr Snyder, I went for women’s rights and saving the NHS, and I do something about those things every day but my goodness, I am not going to pay for those newspapers that spread the lies that led us to where we are just now – That is my main point of disagreement about ‘return to the rule of law’. My childhood self didn’t believe we’d ever achieved that. It reminds me of all those US citizens who spent the Trump years trying to ‘get back’ to how things were under Obama, until someone pointed out that how things were under Obama was the situation that led to Trump.

Now, I’m asking you

Democracy, the rule of law, a factual base: this is the voice, and those are the ideas, I was brought up to believe in. I think we have lost a large proportion of our civilization, and so of our safety, in the last few decades, as those ideas slipped away – but also, over the last few decades, I’ve learned that the doubts I had as a kid were worthy of note. I know now that the law has never worked for women, it’s never worked for Black people, it’s always advantaged the rich rather than the poor.

We were perhaps at the best point we’d ever reached round about the mid-seventies, with our social contract, and trade unions with teeth, but look what happened. In the age of global billionaire-backed PR, those revered ideas – use reason rather than emotion, respect the rule of law, check that your politics is fact-based, not sloganeering, avoid “us and them” blame games –  those ideas are worth something, but they don’t win. We were nowhere near home and dry. Being there, where we were in the 1970s, led us to being here where those things are in disarray so – er… What do you think?


If I was Black, or if I was primarily an anti-racist campaigner, I would say “the law” has always been a very biddable creature for certain sections of the population, that “the law” didn’t stop the Windrush abuses, nor the relentless criminalization of kids. If I was primarily an anti-poverty campaigner, I’d say that that base in fact never really reached far enough to allow the same security in housing, education or health to be provided for the poorest in our society, it never kept them out of jail. If I was primarily a campaigner for refugee support, I’d point to what our government is doing this very week, and ask why opposition parties are so muted in their challenges to government law-breaking…


I am primarily a women’s rights campaigner, and I know that although respect for the rule of law, and of a factual background are good ideas, going back to the times Timothy Snyder is reaching for would not be much help to women and girls.

We need more than that, and we would have more, if the world would listen to the Rojava women, who have found that every political role needs to be held by a woman and a man, working together, and that all politicians need a sound political education; if the world would listen to the women in Iran, in India, in South America, in all the places (and it’s most places) where women are struggling for something better.

Last year, I listened to a woman in Afghanistan who said “no, we aren’t left without education or work, we step out of the light and do it ourselves, do it for each other.” — And they disappear from the world’s conversations, because the world chooses its facts, and applies its laws in a way that doesn’t shake the tyrannies of sex, race and class.

Supporting newspapers and the BBC?

I never cruise around social media for long without finding one of those eternal arguments people have been having for years over whether Russell Brand is “a narcissist”, whether Julian Assange is “an ego-maniac” who should answer to “allegations of rape”, and whether Jeremy Corbyn is “unelectable” and/or “anti-Semitic”, and more recently which famous woman is “a transphobe”. As soon as I see those particular words attached to those particular people, I know this is an argument amongst Guardian readers because I remember when that “news”paper diligently fed the collocation of those particular words with those particular names — day after day, week after week they repeated them so no, I am not going to pick up a mainstream paper and “make sure I pay for it” in an attempt to return us to a base in fact.

Listen more, listen differently

I’m writing this particular blog because I’m glad I went against those “momentary urges”, I’m glad I ignored inner “appeals to identity” that told me this wasn’t a video for me — Snyder was right about that part. If you listen to people you don’t entirely agree with, you learn things. There’s no need to fear losing your own knowledge. Listening tests and improves on your knowledge. Listen well, listen critically – but listen. Really try out their ideas, and see how far they fit what you know. Let’s learn more from each other, and change the world. If we don’t, the world will continue to be changed by billionaires with global-scale PR machines pulling the strings of those who ignore, or seek to destroy, anyone they don’t 100% agree with.


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2 responses to “On resisting “bubble thinking””

  1. I am so glad you posted this, I am so glad I also (inexplicably) chose to watch the video, he had some tremendous things to say, and I also objected to his paying for news thing. I gave my TV (the square eyed loon maker) a flying lesson in the early 90’s, one of my better decisions in life. Thank you for your usual thoughtful and insightful commentary, it’s much appreciated. I can’t see any progress in the world until women and men stand side by side as equals, in word and deed. I have always preferred women counsellors in therapy, because I know those differences in perspective that exist between us are too valuable to miss… and I never see them coming (that’s gold).

    Liked by 1 person

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