On the Nature of Meaning (and Union Jack Tee-Shirts)

Bliss It Was

Who is Christopher Caldwell? No doubt Google would tell me some sort of truth about the man, but is there world enough and time to be bothered? He\’s something to do with that gaggle of charmers over at Mr Murdoch\’s Weekly Standard, I know that much, but nothing else. I don\’t know where in Canada he\’s from, or even if – cripes! – he might actually be an American conservative writing for a conservative American magazine. As to what sort of conservative, whom he hates, whom he likes, who likes him, who loathes him, where he lives, what toothpaste he uses, I know nothing. Throw in anything you like: hair colour, approximate weight, star sign, table manners, accent, cufflinks or not? I just don\’t know. For pity\’s sake (I must have misplaced my Paleo-Observer\’s Book of Columnar Religiosity), I don\’t even know what religion the fellow is. Ignorance: that\’s the only word for it. And what does my unsullied view of this cove look like, now that I\’ve read him in our own dear Financial Times? Not hot.

Now, were I to employ the trope that runs, "X said Y, X is a [blank], therefore all [blank] think Y", well, I should apply to be Jonah Goldberg\’s intern. So from the opinions of Mr Caldwell I\’m not going to extrapolate anything about anyone, not even him. I\’m just going to try and see (and forgive me for all the girly-boy qualifications) how it is that some people don\’t think, for instance, that it\’s desperately plausible that, for example, some Muslims aren\’t exactly British, despite, on paper, by birth, and so on, being just that. The gist of Mr Caldwell\’s article in the FT was that the two recent British (or \’British\’) suicide bombers in Israel weren\’t really seen as being British. \’By whom?\’ is a big question in this context, and understandably skated over by Mr Caldwell. He, after establishing this allegedly widespread perceptual dissonance, then suggests that \’treason\’ may, as a result, be on the way back as a viable concept in the soft, Anglophone West. At least I assume that\’s where he\’s predicting, \’Treason – the new black\’, as it\’s hard to think of any other part of the globe where treason ever went out of conceptual fashion.

For what it\’s worth, it never really surprises me when Britons plant bombs and blow people up – it is after all a pastime long enjoyed in Northern Ireland. Which is part of the United Kingdom, so (and follow the logic here), a fair old chunk of the people doing this are bound to have been – whether they wanted to be or not – British. In other words, planting a bomb doesn\’t suddenly cause you to stop being British. Not in the way that, oh, genuine, unfeigned pleasure at American \’football\’, German \’pop\’ or French \’success\’ would instantly deBritify one (were one British). But I\’m being disingenuous here because I can\’t really see how, other than true treason, if one is British, one can magically \’stop\’ being British merely by cultural effluvia. By that I mean stuff like, say, murdering foreigners, or engaging in child rape, or selling poisoned milk to the third world, or being sarcastic to disabled animals, or basically by doing anything underhand or generally unBritish. For being British isn\’t a state of mind, it\’s a state of being.

Being British is a state conferred upon one by being subject to the British state – it\’s honestly that simple. There\’s no mystical compact involved in this individual-to-the-state relationship. We don\’t delude ourselves with any social contract-like rubbish the way so many unfortunate, paper constitution-bound republics abroad do (naming no names, cough, France, cough, America). You\’re not British because, somehow, you\’ve signed up, or otherwise transcendentally assented to, some national or republican or whatever \’values\’. Or because you\’re the descendants of clear-eyed patriots who centuries hence did, or because God\’s made you that way. You\’re British because you\’re British because you\’re British. It doesn\’t ask anything value-based of you, and you don\’t expect anything from it.

By far the best thing about this minimalist attitude towards understanding nationality is that it\’s the only one that\’s in any way honest or accurate. For whatever \’values\’ any of the other systems or belief-structures impute to the possession of a rival nationality, they never end up quite working that way, do they? Whatever values are, or were, supposedly inherent in being post-revolutionary French, or post-independence American, or post-anything Russian, German, Chinese and etcetera, the crucial thing is: they turn out not to exist. The fact remains, in each any every instance, that all the citizens designated by the nationalities cited above remain subject to their eponymous states, but the claimed virtues that go along with that status aren\’t quite so immutable. Historically, by disavowing any notion that being British has a cultural as opposed to a merely legal import, the theory has been proven to be a good one. Good in this sense means that it has been successfully – i.e. without difficulty – applied to a staggeringly wide range of actual-factual, living breathing people. It\’s a theory I think we should stick with, but it\’s one that some people, in pursuit of the enemy without and within, wish to dispense with. As ever, the consequences of rational theorising will not be happy if our government attempts it.

I Think Differently Than Christopher Caldwell

When two British Muslims, one born here, one subsequently having acquired British citizenship after being born in Pakistan, set off for Israel with the intention of becoming Palestinian martyrs, Christopher Caldwell believes that a quasi-religious transformation occurred. At some point – the commission of the act? the possession of the intention to become a suicide bomber? – this journey rendered them less than British. What they should be regarded as having thereafter become (stateless? non-national? Palestinian? Islamofascistic? dead?) is left unsaid, but that even their victims didn\’t regard them as being \’British\’ is Mr Caldwell\’s key insight: \’what excludes [them] from many people\’s classification as "real" Britons is, of course, that they stood against Britain, repudiated the west and worked towards its destruction\’. At this point we could be callous and observe that blowing up foreigners abroad does not, in and of itself, amount to an assault on Britain, a repudiation of \’the West\’, let alone being the trigger of its destruction. That, however, would amount to moral nit-picking.

More in the way of criticism of the idea that, terrorism overseas negates Britishness, is of course painfully easy to come by. Britons, now and in the past, have travelled to every continent to murder people for politics, pleasure, or an admixture of both as circumstances will allow. This, sadly perhaps, didn\’t stop them from being British. Any more, I regret to say, than those foreigners, notably Americans, but also obviously citizens of the Irish Republic, who backed violent Irish republicanism, have had their nationality Tippexed because of this support for, or participation in, terrorism within Britain. Clearly there is an argumentative gear-shift at work here. That, one would have to guess, after the climacteric of 11th September, terrorism has been re-evaluated as the mortal sin of the age, with appropriately comprehensive punishment now entailed. Yet as the rest of the world knows of the moral vanity claimed for 9/11: terrorism was terrorism before it hit America too, and it remains just as much what it always was. There isn\’t a \’new\’ terrorism, requiring new moral poses towards its victims, there\’s just the hateful, evil habit there always was. It\’s simply that it now has a wider net of victims.

When a Christopher Caldwell claims, apropos the happily deceased Messrs. Sharif and Hanif, \’with British nationals taking up arms against their own country, those radicals who stay in Britain and cheer them on look more alarming\’, this isn\’t, unfortunately, the practical, sensible, precautionary observation it at first seems. From the lie that either of these wicked men took up arms against their country (this, whatever their nationality is finally deemed to be, is precisely what they did not do), it\’s an assertion as to what one particular stripe of foreign terrorism amounts to, to us. That is to say, Mr Caldwell is a believer in the idea that Islamicist terrorism, even when practised abroad, is still sufficient enough of a threat to the UK, that it should be treated much as if its bombs were going off here. These arguments are telling exactly because they are still not made about other sorts of terrorism. It is quite possible to explode a bomb in pursuit of Basque separatism, Irish nationalism, Colombian narco-oligarchy, Tamil supremacy, or indeed any of the \’old\’, pre-9/11 sources of terror, without being designated the terminal threat to Western civilisation that explosives allied to the Muslim faith causes.

I imagine that Christopher Caldwell is being sincere when he worries that the necessity of having to accuse some British (or \’British\’) Muslims with treason, may well be a bad thing as it could \’retard their integration\’. Albeit, \’a good case can be made that such [loyalty-based] laws will in fact hasten it\’. This brings us right up against the problem with his rhetorical super-weapon: the rebirth of treason, for treason to whom? (or as Mr Caldwell would wrongly see it, treason to what?) What trust, placed in who by whom, is to be considered betrayed by these new treason charges?

Once upon a time, when Britain was an honest-to-God confessional state, this would have been a cake-walk to answer: for treason could be discerned by catching out those not adhering to the uniformity the state required of its subjects. Catholics, Jews, atheists, no, not editorial conference at National Review, but the kind of folk you didn\’t want to be in Britain before we started our retreat from a culture of treason in the nineteenth century. To start up such a culture again, what would inescapably be required is a new uniform, state-imposed ideal of the subject. The government would have to say, \’here is what a Briton should be like, don\’t let us catch you not being this way!\’ Christopher Caldwell might trust a contemporary, democratic government to define such a Briton: I don\’t.

Suicide Bombing Is Wrong

There is a much simpler reason why British Islamic terrorists aren\’t seen as being particularly British by some foreigners, and that\’s casual racism by the foreigners concerned. I\’m not making this accusation of Mr Caldwell, nor of his nameless \’Israeli officials\’ who draw this distinction between \’real\’ and \’unreal\’ Britons. It\’s perfectly natural, not least because the Muslims concerned may very well have put themselves beyond any notion of being British (a petty distraction compared to the divine commonwealth of Islam). Yet that\’s the thing: the murderous pair in question may, or may not, have considered themselves to be British; they might, or might not, be considered to be British by foreigners (or, come to that, by fellow Britons), but it changes nothing. They are, or rather, were British. A dishonesty hedges round Mr Caldwell\’s entire article in its hopes for Muslims resident in the West, and is frankly confused in its conclusion:

\’As long as law-abiding Muslims appear "unreal" to non-Muslim fellow citizens, they will be the beneficiaries of a legal regime that replaces criteria of ethnic belonging with those of citizen loyalty that are blind to race and religion.\’

It\’s Christopher Caldwell\’s claim that our Muslims appear \’unreal\’, as fellow countrymen, to most of us – but even were this a majority opinion, which it isn\’t, it still wouldn\’t be accurate. Muslims who are British stay British even if there are people about who think Muslims by definition can\’t be British (this belief, incidentally, has achieved almost the status of one of those things we don\’t have – a British value). Beyond that it\’s an incomprehensible ending: as long as good Muslims still seem like fake Britons (how? why?) to real Britons, then . . . they\’ll (\’the law-abiding Muslims\’) benefit from, uh, what? To begin with, what on earth is the problem with, er, \’good\’ Muslims \’benefiting\’ from anything? But as to what this thing is that I think Mr Caldwell wishes that they weren\’t benefiting from, it\’s his desire that nationality (or more precisely, state-citizenship) should be determined, and presumably retained, by individual adherence to race and religious free values, not by just having got your Britishness with a slip of paper, be it birth certificate or naturalisation form.

I can\’t make sense of what it is that Christopher Caldwell says he wants for Muslims, whether ours or other people\’s, but I sense that he thinks militant Islam has put at least some of our Muslims outwith what it can legitimately be said to mean to be British. This represents not his problem with militant Islam, but his problem with what being British can mean. Being British can mean being bad. This animus against \’Islamofascists\’ is in fact a utopian desire to expel evil from our Eden. It\’s unrealistic, and God help me for thinking it, that – and not vague, incoherent dislike of manifestations of Islam – is what makes it so typically neo-conservative.

– Christopher Montgomery