Jackboots and Paper Tigers

paper tiger

Ask people what they see as the greatest threat to their way of life and top of their list is unlikely to be the sort of natural or environmental catastrophe I looked at in Bubble Trouble. More probably they’ll talk about terrorism, or mass immigration, or hostile alien cultures – in other words, outside but very human threats.

From long before the Bubble inflated there were outside military threats to Europe. The continent has the unfortunate geographical attribute of being at the end of a sort of funnel for people displaced from further east. But as Western culture became pre-eminent, these dangers faded away, as did any form of competition from non-western civilisations. By the 19th century, the only trouble came from ‘restless natives’ in the various European empires, or native Americans objecting to their lands being stolen.

Then in the 20th century there emerged two real challenges to the Western democracies, and both of them came from the inside; two ideologies with very European roots, commonly known as fascism and communism.

It’s probably going too far to say that these two 20th century ‘–isms’ were basically one and the same thing; however, it is interesting to note that both considered themselves to be ‘socialist’. The National Socialists, or Nazis, thrived on a particularly virulent form of aggressive nationalism, fuelled by ideas of racial superiority.  The Soviet version was supposedly international, but equally intolerant to those it considered ‘class enemies’, i.e. anyone who didn’t support them wholeheartedly and without question (and even if you did, you weren’t always safe).

Both of these ideologies gave rise to their own repellent leader and security system and both had a frightening self-belief and ruthlessness. But their real similarity lay in their glorification of the collective. In neither did the individual matter tuppence. Each ‘Arian’ or ‘worker’ was just there to live – and die – for the Fatherland or the Party in its struggle for some vaguely-defined goal that would supposedly benefit them all, eventually. Human rights and justice meant nothing.

These characteristics are nothing strange or unique. What fascism and communism had in common was little more than what has always been the case outside the Bubble – the pre-eminence of the monolithic machine and the insignificance of the individual cogs that make it work. Fascism and communism were really just the same old oppressive empires seen since the Neolithic, dressed up in fancy uniforms and slogans and using modern technology.

It would certainly be a mistake to think that these systems were the created by a monstrous individual, or that a basically good ideology was distorted by such an individual or by unfortunate events. Every monstrous, oppressive empire needs a monstrous belief system and a monstrous emperor. Such men exist and such a man will quickly elbow himself to the fore when conditions are favourable; it has always been so. Let’s be clear about it; communism and fascism weren’t exceptional, it’s the West that’s exceptional – indeed, unique.

Perhaps it was inevitable that these two competing thugocracies would end up at each others’ throats, but we can only be grateful that they did. The Soviet Union went on to stand eyeball to eyeball with the West, the slightest hiccup or misunderstanding enough, so we were assured, to fry us all several times over.

It never happened; nobody was stupid enough to press the self-destruct button, and the cumbersome, increasingly moribund giant eventually collapsed under its own internal contradictions, much to the relief of its oppressed citizens. One interesting thing about monolithic empires is that they just don’t cut it in the modern world. For all their pretentious posturing and appeals to ‘modernity’, neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany was economically, socially or politically efficient in the least.

But it seems we can’t be without an external enemy for long. After the ‘End of History’ – a briefly popular and silly idea, a new bogeyman was smartly marched to centre stage. Nowadays, our nightmares come courtesy of radical Islam.

Now, Islamic fundamentalism is clearly a real and dangerous phenomenon, as recent events in Belgium make tragically clear. There is a widespread hatred of the West throughout the Islamic world and some are very ready to express their hatred with extreme violence.  Recently, that violence has reached levels of sadism that would make even the most perverted of medieval Catholic inquisitors sigh in satisfaction.

The West’s naïve ineptitude when dealing with the Middle East is painfully obvious. However, the level of hatred we see so often surely has deeper origins than a series of ham-fisted, but not notably brutal interventions. Most of us can remember the grandmotherly Palestinian woman whooping with joy in the street when she heard of the twin towers attack. We sense that a great many inhabitants of the Muslim world loathe us with an unwavering, simmering passion. They wish us dead.

There’s a lot of history between Islam and the West and grievances both old and new. But with its oil wealth you might now expect the Middle East to be immune from Western meddling and able to pursue its own path to a modern, prosperous society. Unfortunately, the wealth found its way into the hands of the corrupt few at the top, leaving most people just as poor as ever.

Poor, uneducated and resentful people are what every power-hungry demagogue dreams of – all you need then is some highly-emotional, simplistic belief system to pull people into line and, bingo, there’s your vehicle for achieving and holding on to power. In other words, what you need is a religion. The two thuggish empires of the twentieth century had to invent and/or embellish their own religions; in the Middle East there was an authoritarian, militant and well-established religion just waiting to be dusted down and taken off the shelf.

The unusual thing about the resurgence of Islam is that its hatred was turned less onto the corrupt secular regimes making people’s lives a misery, and more in the direction of the West. To be sure, the extremists had no love for their nasty, irreligious rulers but, ironically, it was often the Western powers that toppled the dictators, such as Saddam Hussein, who kept a lid on the situation. The religious extremists just stepped into the power vacuum and had a convenient whipping-boy in the shape of satanic, infidel GIs on the streets, or demonic, none too accurate bombers in the sky.

And now that hatred is believed to be germinating in our own societies, where terrorists randomly kill infidels without mercy; where mobs of young Muslim men feel free to sexually molest women under the noses of the police. Even the great majority of law-abiding Muslims are thought to want medieval Sharia law established in their adopted homes and to think any insult to their religion should be made a crime punishable by death.

So, more and more, Islam is seen as being fundamentally incompatible with Western values. People’s largely unspoken fear is that the West, or at least Europe, will be left open by spineless politicians to such a massive wave of Muslim immigration that the extremists will get what they want – an Islamic caliphate throughout Europe.

But before succumbing to hysteria, let’s consider how much we in the Bubble genuinely have to fear from Islam in the 21st century. Is the apparently virulently anti-western attitude of the Islamic world a sign of rejuvenated, unstoppable power and confidence? Or is it, perhaps, just the opposite?

Islam erupted onto the scene in the 7th century AD and for a thousand years vied with Christian Europe on an equal footing. Indeed, during its early centuries the Islamic world was superior in practically every intellectual field – in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and architecture. In terms of technology and military might they were often more than a match. In addition, Islam was far more tolerant and open than Christian lands. Better by far to be a Jew in Aleppo than Madrid.

As late as 1683 an Ottoman army was at the gates of Vienna. But then the Western Bubble expanded and the game was over. The Islamic world became a backwater; the old Ottoman Empire an increasingly pathetic football, kicked around by competing European powers. And now we have the sorry spectacle of the once cutting-edge Islamic world like a rich but dozy imbecile, dependent on the West to service the modern military and industrial equipment that its oil wealth can buy from abroad.

So the hatred of the West in the Islamic world surely results in large part from a feeling of baffled humiliation. They have been left behind comprehensively and don’t really understand why. What’s more, the influence of the West is seen everywhere, supporting the hated Israel and behind every devious plot and scheme, real or imagined.

Perhaps worst of all is the pervasive influence of Western culture and values. The insidious thing about Western culture is that everyone craves it; there’s no need for an occupying army, just a little marketing. It’s a love-hate relationship, to be sure, but left to themselves, young Muslims of both sexes would disport themselves in jeans and weird haircuts and dance in nightclubs to the latest western music. The West is cool with a capital ’C’.

The reversion to ultra-conservative religion has been quite successful in putting a stop to that hideous prospect. To give it its due, Islam is one of the very few cultures in the world to hold out against western influence. However, this can’t disguise the fact that it’s a last stand against a rising tide of westernisation. Closing your mind and retreating into the past is not a long-term solution to an external challenge.

But what about the tsunami of Muslim immigration set to bring Sharia law to the West? What about the brutal terrorism that will force us to submit to the holy Koran?

I’m very much in favour of immigration – and I don’t mean millionaires seeking tax-breaks or doctors poached from places where they’re really needed. Anybody willing to uproot and start again in an alien country is likely to bring with them energy, ideas and optimism. It’s sometimes said that in Britain everyone is an immigrant, but this is true of any country in contact with the outside world. Being English, French, Italian or American isn’t genetic, it’s a frame of mind, and often immigrants, especially refugees fleeing to safety, are more supportive and proud of the traditions and culture of their adopted home than the ‘native’ population.

People arriving from strange cultures, especially if they also look different, can come in  for some pretty nasty and sustained racism, but in reality it’s hard for a nation to have too many hard-working, motivated people and I would guess that the number of immigrants a country is able to absorb without major disruption is very high. Immigrants bring dynamism to an economy and that creates far more jobs than are ever ‘stolen’ from the resident population. If they themselves don’t make an immediate success of their new lives, they are normally determined that their children will.

There is an obvious caveat. Immigrants must feel a fondness, or at least a respect, for their new home and want to fit in. If the population of a country see immigrants who are freeloaders and parasites or, worse still, actively antagonistic to the culture they are in, then they will become very angry indeed. Suggestions that this is racist are not only weasel words, but also counter-productive. If you want to convince someone to vote for an extreme nationalist party, tell him his fears are imaginary and he’s a stupid bigot.

And, unfortunately, there is a growing feeling that Muslims living in the West are hostile and anti-western. It’s well worth watching this programme by Trevor Phillips on Britain’s Channel 4. The survey commissioned for the programme shows a substantial divergence in British Muslims’ attitudes from those of the non-Muslim majority on a number of issues; notably homosexuality, the role of women and freedom of speech where Islam is concerned.

There is certainly an idea in Britain that many Muslims just aren’t interested in being part of the mainstream culture, and the programme highlights this. The recent influx of refugees from Syria has also shown that when people are displaced the dregs of society sometimes come along for the ride. On top of that, it seems highly likely that a number of fundamentalists with evil intentions have taken the opportunity to get into the West.

There ‘s no doubt that this has created a potentially stormy situation, but no matter how much distrust and unease such things bring, in the longer term I don’t think they matter at all. True, some Muslims feel alienated from the Western countries where they live, but if the lure of the West is powerful in Cairo, how much more must it be in Manchester or Hamburg? Frankly, I feel that the fears Phillips expresses are overstated. The survey clearly shows that most Muslims feel that Britain is their home and have affection for it. Interestingly, 4% said they had some sympathy with terrorist acts in the name of Islam, which mean that 96% have no sympathy at all.

Trevor Phillips points out that some areas and schools are predominently Muslim and suggests some form of ‘active integration’ should be introduced. I have some sympathy for this, but as he also states, of the three million Muslims in Britain, half were born abroad. It seems remarkable to me that so many of them have so quickly adapted to a Western culture.

So when radical Muslims talk about how the growing Muslim population of Europe will naturally lead to a European caliphate, my response is to remind them they’re going to be too old and feeble to stop their grand-daughters going clubbing in hot-pants. Even if you send children to a ‘faith school’, it’s impossible to isolate them from the society they’re growing up in. If not your children, then your grandchildren will become ordinary Western kids with a slightly unusual surname. Your culture will become a fond but increasingly quaint family memory and your religion the gentle preserve of the elderly.

Any radical Muslim emigrating to the West has lost the battle the moment he arrives; the West chews up and swallows incoming cultures after a very short historical time. Usually it doesn’t even burp.

The greatest fear in people’s minds, of course, is Islamic terrorism. The sight of sudden, extreme violence striking at the heart of Western cities certainly is terrifying; people feel they are under unrelenting attack and at risk of being slaughtered at any moment. The idea of terrorism is just that – to terrorise a population so much that irresistible pressure comes onto the government to give in to the terrorists’ demands.  It helps, of course, if you have the support of more than 4% of the minority community  you claim to represent.

But what are the Islamic terrorists’ demands? Basically, the dismantling of Western civilisation and the setting up of an Islamic government of the kind we see in areas controlled by ISIS or the Taliban. As a negotiating posture, this is somewhat flawed. There are two possible reactions from your enemies; a) sit back and hope the whole thing goes away, or b) do everything possible to crush the fanatics like repulsive cockroaches. Having tried out option a, it seems that western governments are gradually coming round to b.

But imagine the worst case scenario – that it proves impossible to eliminate Islamic terrorism in the West. Would that put the existence of our society was in peril? The answer must surely be no. There can’t be any doubt that if the organisers and instigators of the attacks could arrange one every week, or every day, they would. What we see is their best effort, and that comes down to an atrocity somewhere in the western world every few months at most. Even accounting for attacks foiled by security services that we never hear about, that’s a pretty pathetic batting average.  The main-stream media in their thirst for a story now resort to reporting on any deranged individual waving a knife around and shouting about Allah. Terrorist actions shake people, but in a matter of days or weeks they get back to their ordinary lives and just add one more vague worry to all the rest.

The main strength of Islamic terrorists, their fanatical desire to kill without pity and a willingness – even eagerness – to be killed themselves, is also their chief weakness. There might be a fair number of young Muslims in the West who talk the talk of martyrdom, but there are many fewer willing to walk the walk. It’s pretty hard to find people daft enough to kill themselves on the say-so of a hate-filled mullah, no matter how clever and manipulative such a reptile might be. You have to find gullible people with an immense desire to ‘belong’ and to find some meaning to their vacuous lives. You have to groom and indoctrinate them over months or years, overcoming any qualms they might have about becoming monsters. You have to convince them of some fairytale about receiving a wonderful reward after they die.

Then, bang, your investment is gone. Suicide terrorists can cause quite a stir if targeted well, but they are a limited resource. Even in post-Saddam Iraq, where there was a large pool of poor, uneducated believers, the initial spate of suicide bombings rapidly declined from several a week to the occasional one or two. The ammunition runs out faily quick; the use of women and children in this role shows how desperately the barrel is being scraped.

In the West, the pool of recruits is even more limited, which is why the suicide terrorists now tend to be unintelligent, resentful drop-outs with a past in petty crime. Unsurprisingly, people like that tend not to be highly efficient. There is a good chance that, in their eagerness to get to paradise, they will launch the attack or detonate themselves at the wrong time or in the wrong place.

There is a possible new development which, if it’s true, is very interesting. The most fanatical and dedicated member of the suicide team often fails to do the deed after supposedly getting ‘cold feet’ at the last moment.  Could this personage be a more valuable asset, never intended to die, whose job is to gee up and bully his dim brethren into doing what he knows he won’t have to? He can then go on to organise the next band of dupes. A cynical ploy and a tacit admission that the suicide weapon is an unreliable one.

But perhaps the clearest sign that the Islamic attack on the West is floundering is the sheer barbarity of their actions. We thought that the Taliban were awful, but then came the totally ruthless, hate-filled Al Qaeda. And now, in case we thought Al Qaeda was too namby-pamby, along comes ISIS. The ratcheting up of nastiness signals the fury of fanatics who sense things are slipping away from them. They are right.

You have to have a strong stomach and a weak imagination to relate to ISIS as heroes. Nevertheless, some young Muslims in the West seem to have managed it. A fair number even go so far as to travel to the Middle East as ISIS volunteers. It’s blackly amusing to hear of them, after a month or so, realising that they’ve arrived in hell.

A few, of course, take to it like a duck to water. Whenever torture, serial rape and sickening violence are condoned, a surprising number of psychopaths and sadists will emerge from their ordinary, hum-drum lives to lap it up.

But for the rest of us, ordinary Muslims at least as much as anyone else, the violence of ISIS is a massive turn-off. Their atrocities alienate people who would normally feel sympathetic and are therefore counter-productive – ISIS really does give repressive, medieval theocracy a bad name. In their fanaticism, they have also managed the difficult feat of uniting the West, Russia and China against them. The military tide is now running strongly against ISIS and, hopefully, their days are numbered.

So what next? Can the Islamic world possibly descend any lower than ISIS? I’d like to think not, but perhaps my imagination just isn’t warped enough. Having lost its territory, ISIS is likely to go underground and continue its fight in a more dispersed fashion. In any case, this level of barbarity is surely the enraged, malicious writhings of a dying monster. Even if radical Islam somehow becomes even more evil, I just can’t see it as an existential threat to the Bubble. Sooner or later it will burn itself out, perhaps in some climactic act of suicidal violence.

It is in our nature to focus so hard on an existing threat that we miss the new one winging out of left field, but in terms of outside aggression there doesn’t seem to be much on the horizon besides Islam. You have to be insane to challenge the West militarily, and only fundamentalist Islam and North Korea would seem to fit the bill. The latter would be funny if real people weren’t being starved and beaten to death by their porcine emperor.

Nuclear weapons are still in existence and could still potentially destroy humankind. The tubby Korean psychopath is now posturing with them and plenty of other nasties would love to get involved, but these minnows’ capabilities will remain very limited. Barring some colossal incompetence, it’s hard to imagine how a nuclear holocaust could now come about.

Of course, not all threats to the Bubble are violent or military in nature. The leaders of China are far from insane and have no intention or need to take on the United States militarily. However, many people would identify China as the most pressing current threat to the West.

As everyone knows, the Chinese economy has been growing at an enormous rate, to the extent that it can be hard to find any reasonably priced manufactured product which isn’t marked ‘made in China’. The fear in the West is that cheaply produced Chinese goods will effectively destroy the more developed nations’ industries – we will be able to compete effectively in fewer and fewer areas.  In the end, Western standards of living will fall towards Chinese levels and the economic – and then political and military – leadership of the world will pass to a monolithic, authoritarian regime. The ascendancy of the West will effectively be over.

The process that China is going through is nothing unique. In fact it’s a carbon copy of what happened when Britain became the ‘Workshop of the World’ in the early 19th century – right down to the aggressive self-confidence, the rise of a new class of multi-millionaire, the  use of child labour, the urban sprawl and the appalling, uncontrolled pollution. The pattern has been repeated many times around the globe since the original Industrial Revolution.

Whether or not the country can overtake U.S in the near future to become the world’s biggest economy, there’s no doubt that China has made the transition to becoming a major power. The question now is whether the next step will be taken– towards a market economy where civil liberties and rights become entrenched.

Because that’s the way it’s always gone.  There’s no major country with an advanced, modern economy which doesn’t also have some form of Western-style democracy. There are arguably some minor exceptions like Singapore, but the rule is pretty solid. Without a fairly liberal and open economy and social justice for the population, a country will wallow in corruption and inefficiency. It doesn’t seem to matter what other advantages a nation may have, a lack of freedom will lead to a stalling economy and a slow – or fast – fall back into poverty.

If you want a classic example of that process, take a look at Argentina. Blessed with an abundance of natural resources and rich agricultural land, and at one time about as wealthy as the U.S, a decades’ long series of mafia-style governments, both military and civilian, have pushed the country to the very edge of economic ruin. Interestingly, Argentina has recently kicked out its latest kleptocratic rulers and elected a government that could, just maybe, deliver the country from endemic corruption and demagoguery. If so, we can expect Argentina to finally take its place as a Latin-American version of Canada.

But can China be the first major exception to the rule? After all, money and economic might talk, while airy-fairy notions of ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ can be crushed under the tracks of a tank.

But that’s just what Hitler and Stalin thought, and where are they now? For that matter, do you think the kings and aristocrats who ruled England in the 18th century had any intention of introducing some form of liberal democracy? No, it’s just that they couldn’t stop it; in England they were canny enough to stand aside and let the juggernaut thunder in; in some other places they got crushed.

China is presently on the verge of a financial crisis, which is basically the result of an addiction to central planning. Modern empires and central planning go together like a horse and carriage, but it’s a vehicle with square wheels. In China, the rulers are pumping money into rust-bucket industries and a housing boom; the economy is badly distorted and getting worse; it will almost certainly end in tears.

That isn’t to say that China will de-industrialise and go back to square one, the game has gone too far for that. What is likely to happen is what has always happened in such cases; newly wealthy and educated people, people with expectations and jealously guarded personal ambitions are just not going to put up with it. While the economy is booming and money is flowing in, people are too busy to think about how they’re being governed – the government seems to be doing OK, so why rock the boat? Once the economy stalls – as even the best-run economy will from time to time, the ugliness and inefficiency come into very sharp focus and authoritarian leaders find they aren’t nearly as secure as they thought.

So, I don’t expect China to puncture the Bubble, I expect  a sharp turn towards democratisation, rising wages and improved working conditions, freedom of speech and government accountability. I expect the juggernaut to roll and I expect China’s rulers to resort to repression and distracting foreign adventures and then to step aside or get crushed. I expect China to join the West. There’s room for everyone in the Bubble and we should welcome China (and Argentina) with open arms. As people’s earnings and conditions improve, the Chinese will become a strong but not overwhelming trading partner and competitor.

This has been a lightning tour of the dangerous world around us, but I think the key point is that the Bubble is incredibly seductive. The Bubble isn’t about a particular race or nation being superior to any others, it’s about a way of life being superior – so superior that people are desperate to join in even if they don’t quite understand what it’s all about. The Bubble happened to emerge in a certain place and time, but anybody can join in – it’s just a matter of throwing off the ugly, ages-old way of doing things.

Unfortunately, there are people around who are dead against that idea. Some of them, as we have seen, are outside the Bubble, but others are very much on the inside, with their pins sharpened and eager to puncture the fabric of our home from within.

Perhaps I could be accused, up to now, of excessive optimism. In basis, I’m saying that, at the moment at least, we’re as safe as we’ve ever been from any outside threat. But I’ve saved the worst for last. I think the most dangerous threats to the Bubble come from these insidious, vaguely-recognised internal sources – and that’s what I’m going to look at next.

Prospero, 2016


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