Politics

A case of secular piety? Current anti-racism demonstrations as a religious phenomenon

Writing with not a little insight, commentators have observed a deeply intriguing dimension to the protests currently convulsing the United States: percolating beneath the callow progressivism lies a kind of spiritual fervour, which animates a great swathe of the demonstrators. It’s not simply the case that some people have been driven by prior religious convictions to respond to the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police; rather, it’s that much of the outpouring of grief, activism, and even violence triggered by the death of George Floyd is itself quasi-religious in character.

Popular opinion holds that the United States is a bastion of piety within the community of Western nations; although European states long ago settled into an easy secularism, the pulse of vital religion still seems to beat strongly on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s true that the U.S. remains an outlier in this regard, although things are far more complicated than common narratives suggest. Moreover, statistical evidence suggests that the country may be on the same trajectory as the Old World. But while America might be following the Continent down a post-Christian path – busily divesting itself of its religious inheritance – this hardly entails the erasure of all ‘spiritual’ sentiment. On the contrary: that impulse persists, even if at times it’s channeled differently.

From a certain perspective, this is unsurprising. The propensity of humans to devote themselves to comprehensive worldviews is nearly universal. We are a meaning-making species, prone to developing grand existential schemes as a way of buttressing our lives and integrating the sheer welter of events that daily confront us. More fundamentally, it represents an attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own mortality and finitude.

The largely ineradicable character of the religious instinct means that it persists, even upon the apparently disenchanted landscapes of modern secular culture. Like nature, society abhors a vacuum. And with the demise of organised religion, other claimants have rushed in to fill the void.

Writers such as Tara Isabella Burton have documented the mushrooming of new movements and fashions, which in many ways ape the external features of traditional religious beliefs or practices. Politics is, of course, one such vehicle, supplying the meaning, values, solidarity, identity – even the pretence towards a type of salvation – that were once the preserve of organized religion. Ideological frameworks, whether past or present, offer a pre-packaged means of explaining the world and its ills, claiming to satisfy one’s craving for something beyond the individual and the material. In societies starved of conventional sources of spirituality, those systems – and the mass gatherings they may generate – offer something of a secularised substitute.

And so, we return to the present eruption. The activist zeal that has roiled America and elsewhere may express a yearning, however inchoate, for a kind of transcendence that has survived efforts to extirpate traditional religion from Western societies. True, not everyone involved in the recent protests is driven by such existential concerns; so diffuse and widespread a social movement will attract a conglomerate of participants. But for some, politics as a procedural, incremental, collective enterprise has given way to a deluge of righteous fervour, more akin to various expressions of religious fanaticism that have broken out periodically throughout history.

Witness some of the key moments that have emerged over the past couple of months. The toppling of statues has dominated news cycles, but it also provides a particularly clear window into the types of attitude that have colonised the minds of some activists. The philosopher John Gray has rightly termed these acts of iconoclastic destruction: ‘rituals of purification’, aimed at cleansing society-at-large, and consolidating the protagonists’ moral and spiritual virtue. It is a well-trodden path, one taken by a variety of groups spurred on by a profusion of religious zeal. As but one example, Gray cites the outburst of Anabaptist millenarianism in the wake of the Reformation: the obliteration of artistic and iconic works was part of a wider movement to (violently) wrench the present, and indeed the future, out of the ossified grip of a moribund past.*

Certainly, such actions intersect with more mundane grievances. But this is politics in a cosmic key, focused upon an ‘eschatological horizon’ that promises to trigger a wholesale break with the present course of history. As psychologist and ethicist Aaron Kheriaty has recently written, the iconoclasm on display manifests an effort to create the conditions for ‘an entirely new and historically unprecedented social order’ – the secular analogue to traditional religious longings for the divine kingdom, whose advent would sweep away the moral detritus of both historical and current political systems.

The destruction of secular iconography in towns and cities across the U.S. bears witness to this utopian desire for redemption – an emancipation from the past, which is seen as unbearably corrupt. In fact, it’s an attempt to realize that desire using the tools of political vandalism, which have been harnessed to overturn the sacred symbols of the old order. That the eschatological object of such longings remains opaque and ill-defined doesn’t diminish their potency.

What of other scenes now embedding themselves in popular imagination? Watching thousands of people ‘take the knee’ (as if in prayer) or chant creeds in unison, one is struck by the spiritual quality of such actions. These aren’t merely protests; they, too, are near-sacred rituals, with all the liturgical trappings of a religious service. Although such gatherings occur in ostensibly secular spaces, they are festooned with sacral imagery (including a cloud of slain martyrs), sculpting and guiding participants at a deeply existential level.

Much of this bears more than a passing resemblance to Emil Durkheim’s concept of collective effervescence, which holds that the gathering of individuals in mass settings for a common purpose can engender a spiritual-like experience. With the right cocktail of social context, shared concerns and corporate energy, participants may be drawn out of themselves into a higher realm of intense, collective excitement. The resulting emotional ‘electricity’ is profoundly generative, creating a profusion of almost sacred meaning that transcends any one person. To observe the brewing protest marches, then, is to witness Durkheimian theory attain shape and body and life.

The protests constitute a key manifestation of the broader creed of anti-racism, which supplies them with whatever intellectual ballast they exhibit. Chief among the ideology’s claims is the totalising concept of structural or systemic racism. It’s true that sometimes-unjust racial disparities are products of broader institutional mechanisms; both progressive and conservative voices have argued as much. But when a concept like structural racism is deployed axiomatically to explain every instance of racial disparity, no matter how minor or contrived, then we have drifted away from sober discourse, and instead migrated into the realm of an all-encompassing metaphysic – a fundamental theory – resembling the dogmatic architecture associated with popular religion.

Casting white supremacy and its crowning achievement, the institution of slavery, as America’s ‘original sin’ functions in a similar manner. For certain advocates, white people bear within their own bodies the near-ineradicable marks of their ancestors’ primal fall – not that of the fabled Adam and Eve, but of the early whites who established and maintained the sordid trade in human flesh. The seeds of racism are said to lie in every white person, even those who explicitly repudiate any notion of racial superiority as a moral cancer. As the black academic John McWhorter has observed, activists have propounded the notion that white Americans are tarred with the legacy of their supposed privilege, from which absolution may be sought only through ceaseless rounds of contrition and repentance.

It’s easy to see how such views complement the utopian – and indeed, destructive – tendencies many protestors have revealed. If society is so riddled with injustice, then reforms, no matter how grand or ambitious, are likely to fail. Deconstruction is the only viable solution. Unwittingly, however, many anti-racist and black rights advocates help themselves to the same cultural patrimony they seek to dissolve. This should come as no surprise: despite assiduous efforts to liberate themselves from history, protestors are, like everyone else, ensconced within it. Try as they might, they cannot avoid completely the overtures of the past.

Activists from Portland to Atlanta have unconsciously imbibed elements of America’s residual Christian legacy, earnestly recycling them within a post-Christian environment. Talk of white people being tarnished by the evils of their ancestors clearly transposes the biblical story of Man’s fall into a secular context. Similarly, the obvious eschatological overtones of the movement appropriate the cosmic and redemptive dimensions essential to the Christian religion.

But even in those convergences, differences remain, with the current movements mimicking some of the worst excesses of populist or millenarian religion (filled out with a noxious blend of warmed-over Marxism and modern identity politics). Universal sinfulness, for example, has been replaced by the accursedness of one particular ethnic group, in a strange inversion of the curse of Ham. Whereas Christianity affirms the claim that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), modern anti-racists, on both the street and in the academy, have radically circumscribed the doctrine, applying it in a selective, highly racialized manner. Ignoring Solzhenitsyn’s warning that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, they have adopted a moral dualism that is fundamentally Manichean in attitude. Absent, too, are notions of forgiveness or charity, which Christianity, at its best, has greatly cherished. Merciless treatment is meted out to anyone who dissents from the protestors’ overarching values, or who isn’t sufficiently seized by the conviction that American society is incorrigibly racist. In their stead lies a purifying fanaticism, aimed at purging every view that fails to reflect the movement’s exacting standards.

And while the current demonstrations manifest a certain Christianised eschatology, protestors eschew the mainstream Christian belief that redemption is something that can only be secured extrinsically, as a result of God’s inbreaking kingdom. Instead, they cast themselves as the specially anointed agents of emancipation, leading the charge towards a claimed racial eschaton. A person doesn’t need to be a Christian to see the dangers inherent in such utopian schemes; a basic grasp of history is sufficient. The idea that flawed individuals can possibly wrought sweeping, epochal progress within the decrepit structures of history has been shown repeatedly to issue in the same injustices against which the vanguard claims to be fighting.

This witches’ brew offers up a potent series of dangers, especially in an anxious, highly fractious society. As Andrew Sullivan has noted, the quasi-religious character of both the protestors and their intellectual benefactors has already seen the substantial cessation of transparent debate around the issue of race, and the growth of an often-vicious intolerance. Thus, does the lifeblood of a healthy political community evaporate. When a political program is transcendentalized in the way this one has been – with only one perspective being imbued with near-cosmic urgency – attempts to explore a complex issue from the point of view of one’s opponents are repudiated as a dance with heresy. It is to debase oneself by engaging those who are regarded, not as fellow citizens with whom one disagrees, but as existential foes whose mere existence may retard the liberationist project.

Activists will be untroubled by this, salved as they are by the righteous demands of their cause. And yet, they are creating the conditions for precisely the kind of coarse, pitiless society they profess to oppose. Witnessing many of the protest marches, or hearing the self-appointed priests of the anti-racist creed, is to glimpse a dark future. It’s a future in which charity towards the other is condemned, violence is valorised as a crucial instrument of progress, and the crushing of all dissent is lauded as a sign of ideological virtue. In short, it’s a future stripped of everything that ordinary, decent folk seek in fashioning a life for themselves and their loved ones. The urban acolytes dominating our news feeds tout their penetrating insight into the ills plaguing society. But by their actions they reveal the bitter harvest of so much chiliastic idealism.

* Of course, the statues themselves could be seen as symbolic incarnations of a rival secular religion, connected to the major narratives generating and shaping American (or at least southern American) identity. However, that’s for another post.

Devaluing our humanity: university ‘reforms’ and government myopia

A short piece, critically examining the Australian Government’s plan to reform the higher education sector.

It’s telling that the government’s proposal to radically overhaul university fee structures has been disparaged by figures from across the political map. The Greens have denounced it as elitist policy-making, aimed at making higher education inaccessible to ordinary people. Some columnists observe that the government’s cocktail of aggressive market principles and command-style social engineering is incongruous, to say the least. Others have argued that the proposed measures are counter-productive, and will likely produce short-term effects that are diametrically opposed to the Coalition’s ambitions. Even the right-leaning Institute for Public Affairs has weighed in, lamenting the inadequacy of the government’s efforts to reform the sector. When a policy is subject to such widespread criticism, one is tempted to conclude that it’s irredeemably flawed.

A large share of the controversy has been focused on the announcement that the government plans to dramatically increase the cost of a humanities degree, sending a negative price signal to prospective students. In so doing, the Coalition has exposed its approach to education as leadenly — unimaginatively — technocratic. In attitude, it reflects what Pope John Paul II once labelled ‘economism’: the reduction of (in this case) higher learning to a merely instrumental good, subject to the blunt, transitory logic of contemporary market forces. On this view, knowledge is confined to that which is immediately practical, while universities are transformed into institutional conveyor belts — churning out graduates who’ve been technically equipped for a narrow range of favoured professions.

Of course, trying to predict which industries will enjoy success in future economic environments is a fool’s errand. But there are other reasons for scepticism. Weakening the place of the humanities within the university system is an attempt, however unwitting, to undermine some of the basic principles underlying the idea of tertiary education. Writing in The Guardian a few days ago, writer Ben Eltham aptly quoted the nineteenth-century cardinal, John Henry Newman, who argued that university should stimulate the entire spectrum of one’s mental faculties — aspiring towards ‘universal knowledge’ and a broad ‘cultivation of the mind’. Even allowing for the pernicious influence of identity politics upon university campuses, the humanities remain one of the purest exemplars of that intellectual mission.

At their best, the humanities inculcate a love of knowledge and thought for their own sakes. They nurture the ennobling conviction that an educated mind is of intrinsic — and not simply instrumental or economic — value. In so doing, the humanities tap into the unique capabilities and gifts with which human beings have been imbued. One key strand of the Western philosophical tradition (starting with Aristotle) posits that humans are, by nature, ‘rational animals’, distinguished from other organisms by their capacity for reason. That definition enjoys a venerable place within Catholic philosophy, having been propounded by luminaries such as Boethius and Thomas Aquinas.

The humanities bear witness to that tradition. Philosophy, history, literary criticism — such fields of enquiry are prized, not so much because they can be applied in simple, technocratic fashion, but because they foster and refine what has long been deemed the sine qua non of human beings.

Dan Tehan, education minister and one of the chief architects of the planned reforms, added a biographical codicil to his announcement: that studying an arts degree almost cost him a job earlier in life. The implication here is that the humanities aren’t sufficiently ‘practical’ to aid a person.

It’s difficult to know what to do with Tehan’s personal anecdote, or the wider point he tried to make. Like his colleagues, he evinced a narrow, thoroughly desiccated view of wealth and value. But if it’s practicality one wants, immersion in the humanities has been associated with a stronger propensity for critical and analytical thought, habits of mind that enable someone to engage empathetically with others, and intellectual suppleness — skills likely to be highly sought after in today’s globally connected economy.

Consider the discipline of history. Students of the past are trained to enter into worlds that are sometimes vastly different from their own; the mental apparatus one must develop in order to do that produces, in historian Samuel Berner’s words, ‘a heightened sense of complexity’, allowing a person to hold in reserve a bevy of competing truth claims and narratives. Moreover, philosophers have shown how the conceptual precision and logical rigour of philosophical enquiry can aid in the development of scientific research, leading to remarkable breakthroughs that might otherwise have remained elusive. It’s this kind of intellectual cross-pollination — something the science writer, Matt Ridley, has described as ‘ideas having sex’ — that has created unheralded levels of prosperity in the West. And since the Coalition is seeking to burnish Australia’s scientific credentials, investment in such qualities seems wise. It’s much harder to achieve, however, if the very departments incubating those skills have been drained of both funds and willing pupils.

Coalition ministers are rightly concerned by Australia’s economic future and capacity for wealth-creation. But their planned university reforms will risk impoverishing the country in other ways. The humanities preserve some of the deepest principles of Western culture and learning; for a government that supposedly cherishes that inheritance, it’s making some baffling policy choices.

Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions

Introduction

Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Get that Man a Mirror: Giles Fraser, Conservatism, and Sex (Part One)

The first installment of a two-part critique of Giles Fraser’s article on religious conservatives and sex

Giles Fraser is the type of liberal about whom the conservative commentator, Rod Dreher, has written from time to time: the Anglican priest and writer frequently chides traditionalists for their alleged fixation upon sex, all while providing ample evidence that his own mind has been thoroughly colonised by a modern version of erotic intimacy.

A recent article by Fraser, which appeared on the Unherd website, is a case-in-point. He upbraids “sex-obsessed conservatives” in a piece that once again sees him earnestly trying to push the barrow of homosexuality through the hallowed corridors of the Church of England. Fraser accuses said conservatives of several basic errors, borne (apparently) of their ideological fetishes: a superficial grasp of biblical teaching when it comes to familial ideals; a fixation on apparently recent and peculiar forms of family life; and a stultified historical imagination. The problem is that these charges, like boomerangs, come back to strike the very hand that cast them.

Let me summarise the thrust of Fraser’s argument in a little more detail, before going on to examine the first part of his article. Using David Brooks’ recent essay on the demise of the nuclear family as his launching pad, Fraser insists that (American) religious conservatives have been entirely wrong to “fetishize” that particular family structure. He uses the formative influence of the Moral Majority and Reaganite conservatism in the 1970s and ’80s to claim that traditionalists are in thrall to this supposedly pathological obsession, before mounting a full-scale broadside against the very notion that Scripture upholds the biological, two-parent family as something to which people should aspire. Jesus, we are confidently informed, was an implacable “enemy” of the nuclear family, his opposition stirred and reinforced by a more generous, expansive conception of intimate affiliation as rooted in a common faith in God. Fraser uses his analysis of contemporary culture war tropes and ancient biblical narrative to lay the groundwork for a new vision of “fictive kinship” – which of course includes the many hues and iterations comprising modern “rainbow” families.

Fraser’s historical blunders

The first stage of Fraser’s argument is riddled with deficiencies both multiple and substantial. Take some of his historical claims, many of which are of doubtful accuracy. In one of his opening gambits, Fraser cites the Moral Majority – founded by the fiery evangelical, Jerry Falwell, in 1979 – as evidence of the apparent preoccupation religious conservatives have with sex. It’s certainly true that the coalition devoted much of its energy to combat what it saw as aberrant forms of sexuality, as well as the permissive society that endorsed them. Fraser is also right to criticise the Moral Majority for its slipshod conflation of biblical injunctions and right-wing populism, which climaxed in the unstable marriage between the movement’s fundamentalist version of Christianity and an ascendant Reaganism.

But where Fraser goes wrong is in the significance he attributes to the Moral Majority as an exemplar of conservative hand-wringing over matters relating to sex. The movement, we should recall, was established some 40 years ago; after about a decade of aggressive political activism, its influence began to wane and its internal structures started to splinter. By 1989 – two years before the end of the Cold War – it had ceased to function as a significant religio-political phenomenon. Nothing like the Moral Majority pervades American political life now, and the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric it habitually used to describe the country’s declining moral standards simply doesn’t exist on the scale it once did.

The most generous thing one can say about Fraser’s attempt to summon the spectre of the Moral Majority (he points to no one else) is that it’s an ahistorical view of politicised religion in the United States. The movement has little substantive connection with the concerns of many religious traditionalists today; meanwhile, the coarse, offensive style it represents is commonly repudiated, even by those who occupy roughly the same territory on the religious and political map. Where orthodox members of the major faiths do find themselves talking about sex in the public square, it’s frequently a response to the relentless, protean force of progressive libertinism. If citing a long-defunct political movement is the best Fraser can do to substantiate his charge, then one may fairly ask whether tales of conservative “fixations” reflect instead the fecund imagination of a certain type of liberal advocate.

A similar problem afflicts Fraser’s claim that so-called “reactionaries” have long fetishized the nuclear family – a “very particular” notion of family formation, which in his mind is little more than a post-war “blip” on the historical map.

To be fair, Fraser’s claim is a common one: the notion that the nuclear family is a relatively recent “invention” is invoked so often that it has attained the status of unassailable fact. For all its superficial plausibility, however, the argument is largely innocent of historical truth. Even a brief glance at the late Brigitte Berger’s The Family in the Modern Age should swiftly disabuse a person of the idea that the nuclear family is some kind of sociological aberration. It’s worth quoting her at length:

“This band of scholars [i.e., the clutch of European historians whom Berger mentioned in the previous paragraph] can document with a fair degree of certainty that the nuclear family…was instrumental in the modernization process. In being able to trace the existence of the [nuclear] family as far back as the thirteenth century, they succeeded [in] ‘nullify[ing]’ the widespread assumption that [it] is a product of industrialisation. To the contrary, their studies unmistakably indicate that this type of family unleashed the very social forces conducive to the formation of modern economic and political institutions” (emphasis mine).

Commentary on studies like this one demonstrate that the nuclear family has actually been the predominant way of arranging intimate life since the European Middle Ages – flourishing long before the industrial revolution, the second world war, or any other dubious historical markers to which commentators appeal to marginalise it as a novel “departure from a much older tradition”. According to scholarly study, the nuclear family has not only endured for many centuries; it has also been instrumental for both the socialisation of individuals and the evolution of Western culture. Although Fraser criticises conservatives for their lack of “historical imagination”, his own inability to see beyond the easy assumptions of modern pop-sociology is readily apparent.

Trivializing the nuclear family

Historical ignorance masquerading as superior learning is juxtaposed with Fraser’s attempt to trivialise the whole concept of the nuclear family. A lurking subtext throughout his essay, its unreality is patently obvious: where Fraser seems to think of the nuclear family as a dispensable artefact of late-modern Western culture, the evidence garnered by social science consistently suggests otherwise.

Even if we allow that movements like the Moral Majority politicised family life – transforming the nuclear family into something of a Cold War-era talisman – it remains undeniable that this particular mode of kinship structure has been a boon to both individuals and societies. The experience of children, considered on a broad-scale trends analysis, makes this quite clear. Historical analysis of the sort I have alluded to is buttressed by contemporary sociological evidence concerning the overriding benefit of intact, biological, two-parent families for the social, emotional, and intellectual development of the young. In fact, a genetic link can be drawn between patterns of “concerned cultivation” prevailing within the nuclear family today and practices of nurture and attentiveness that evolved in its earlier iterations.

Kay Hymowitz, for example, has cogently argued that of all family forms, the nascent nuclear family was better placed for the raising of children during the economic and social upheavals of the late-medieval and early-modern periods. Unlike extended kinship groups, nuclear families were often headed by couples who had married later, which normally meant that they had less children. The offspring that were born to such couples therefore benefited from a larger share of attention their parents could lavish upon them. And whereas extended families sometimes functioned as fairly loose coalitions – leading, for instance, to the expectation that older children would take care of younger siblings – children in nuclear families were drawn into tightly integrated “households already steeped in an ethos of hard work, future-mindedness, and ingenuity”. These skills were necessary for a changing economic landscape, and the intimate context within which such modelling occurred allowed such children to flourish.

Recent studies of biological, bonded, two-parent families extend and develop these insights. Sociologists have found, for example, that children raised within a nuclear family structure excel on a number of key developmental indicators, outperforming those peers who have been raised in a variety of other family types. And it’s not just the children born within the relatively secure structure of the nuclear family who benefit, either; society-at-large is enriched, given that this particular family form often acts as the seed-bed for the cultivation of productive, well-rounded citizens.

Lest one thinks that conservative activists are the only ones touting the advantages of the nuclear family, some liberals also recognize its inestimable value. Back in 1999, for example, the late theologian and ethicist Don Browning – no traditionalist he – wrote powerfully of the ongoing importance of the nuclear family, even in the face of progressive attempts to ridicule or abandon it. Browning went on to document the dissolution of biological, two-parent family structures – and in particular, the increasingly common trend of paternal absence – as well as the individual and societal catastrophe that has followed in its wake.

Fraser would doubtlessly lament many of the ills that plague modern society. Even so, he ignores the massive body of evidence tracing several of these pathologies back to the nuclear family’s demise. By reducing its significance, Fraser implicitly denigrates an institution that has long survived as the primary incubator for stable, well-adjusted, and socially conscious individuals. Meanwhile, the modern fictive kinship arrangements Fraser extols are frequently (though not always) the result of the breakdown in more traditional family forms – the collapse of which leads inevitably to the very chaos, pain, instability, and neglect he would rightly decry. In his rush to applaud these so-called “forged” families, he seemingly remains unaware of those studies which suggest that for all their attractions, such groupings lag behind their nuclear counterpart when it comes to the key ingredients of (e.g.) child-nurturing; on the other hand, their rise is often associated with the wider unravelling of social bonds. Substituting glib dismissals for honest engagement simply shields the reader from these widely recognized realities.

Conclusion

Fraser is perfectly justified in critiquing nakedly politicised expressions of religion, whatever their source. But in so doing, he ought to remember that not everything cherished by his opponents should be criticised as an irrational fetish, or lampooned as an ideological heirloom. Swiftly accepting the premise that the nuclear family has been disastrous for many, Fraser has exposed his own anti-conservative animus. If ever he is able to shed this constraint, he would see that the institution has in fact been fundamental to the thriving of countless individuals across the centuries.

King Hit: What Criticism of a Celebrated Author Reveals about the “Diversity” Mindset

It seems that another celebrity has incurred the amplified wrath of the online mob. Last month, author Stephen King was subjected to the indignity of seeing an otherwise unremarkable tweet warped beyond all recognition by the self-appointed guardians of permissible opinion. He made the mistake, you see, of admitting that when he voted for potential Oscar nominees earlier this year, he did not take into account the demands of “diversity” (whatever that means). King had the temerity to base his decisions on the rather quaint notion that a purported work of cinematic art should be chosen for its quality or artistic merit — the underlying reason, in others words, that film festivals and awards nights are held in the first place.

Naturally, a murmuring throng began to swell on Twitter; online warriors for truth and justice excoriated King en masse for his intellectual misdeed. In what amounts to a form of verballing verging on fabrication, writer and critic Roxanne Gay wrote:

“As a fan, this is painful to read from you. It implies that diversity and quality cannot be synonymous. They are not separate things. Quality is everywhere but most industries only believe in quality from one demographic. And now, here you are”.

Director Ava Duvernay followed suit with a more pungent take on the famed author’s opinion, taking aim his allegedly “backward” and “ignorant” comments.

In their rush toward purgation, King’s critics have quite simply failed to grasp his basic point. He was not saying that diversity and quality “cannot be synonymous”. Nor was he objecting to the telling of stories that revolve around the experiences of minority or marginalised groups. But what King was suggesting was that artistic merit does not lie primarily in the fact of its production by a member of a minority; the identity group to which one belongs (whether racial, gender, and so on) is not, by itself, sufficient to guarantee the calibre of one’s artistic work. As the celebrated author seemingly acknowledged, trying to use “diversity” as a criterion by which to judge the artistic value of a particular work may actually stymie one’s attempt to identify true aesthetic prowess.

Although diverse representation may at times coincide with art that moves, ennobles, and enriches, it need not be the case. Creative excellence simply transcends the categories of identity; no artist, for example, can presume to manifest aesthetic virtue merely because of ethnic provenance. Writer Justin Lee helpfully observed that King was “shooting for impartiality, as any judge should”. And impartiality obliges the judge to divest herself of all considerations that do not bear directly on the matter to hand. Minority artists are neither marginalised nor privileged within this scheme, their work being considered in the same way that the art of majority members of the guild should expect. Is this always successfully achieved? Of course not — any more than liberal democratic principles are perfectly exemplified by the countries that claim them as their heritage. But the ideal is no less honourable for all that.

The seeming inability of King’s umbrage-takers to appreciate his point may be partly attributed to the blinding power of that protean scourge, identity politics. Over the past few decades, identity politics has come to supplant older, creedal modes of broad-based solidarity with sharper — and narrower — forms of tribal identification. Members of such “tribes” ground their identities in certain intrinsic or internal features — racial, gender, sexual, or whatever — elevating them to a position of existential priority. This way of casting identity creates an exclusivist kind of group cohesion, distancing tribes from one another and robbing them of meaningful opportunities to cultivate mutual understanding.

Identity politics, moreover, leads inevitably to the erection of value structures and moral hierarchies, which rest, not on virtuous living, nor on the curation of individual character, but on group membership. As the late Sir Roger Scruton noted, identity politics operates with a “reverse hierarchy of privilege”, in which the supposed markers of victimhood and minority status are valorised, imbued with a kind of beatifying power. Francis Fukuyama wrote similarly in a recent essay on the issue. He perceptively argued that modern justice movements, having undergone their own evolution over the past 50 years, no longer issue calls for equal rights; they now demand special redress or recognition for historically marginalised groups, as well as public celebration of their intrinsic differences and uniquely-held experiences. The assiduous effort to import considerations of “diversity” into a disparate variety of fields is but one manifestation of this relatively recent phenomenon.

The consequences of artificial “diversity” criteria for the arts — whether formally imposed or informally accepted — are likely to be corrosive. Creatives like Stephen King are therefore right to be leery of such attitudes. Indeed, arguing for the salience of “diversity” (of whatever type) threatens to introduce a perverse metric into the artistic project, compromising the standards of creative excellence to which artists are normally committed. Marvel, the comic books giant, found this out the hard way. Flush with a freshly-realized commitment to the new creed, Marvel executives transformed many of its superheroes in the light of progressive identity politics. Iron Man, The Hulk, Wolverine: all were thoroughly re-imagined by a stable of new writers who were hired, not primarily for their skills or experience, but for the fact that they shared the bespoke identities of the characters they’d transformed. It wasn’t long before the company witnessed a sharp decline in both quality and sales.

Under a regime governed by identity politics, an artist’s work would no longer be evaluated on the grounds of intrinsic worth or value, but on the entirely irrelevant basis of minority representation; census boxes, not aesthetic quality, would determine its place among the celebrated few. Approbation would be driven in large measure by membership of a favoured group: one artist may be ignored because he happens to belong, say, to the “wrong” ethnic or racial category, whilst another might enjoy elevation for precisely the opposite reason. If this seems far-fetched, then consider how a similar logic has started to influence institutions like American schools and universities, with predictable consequences for (in this case) academic standards.

The temptation for an enterprising artist to lean on her lineage rather than her talents may prove too great, particularly when the lure of public adulation or financial reward is strong (the Jussie Smollett fiasco, for all its differences, is a particularly egregious example of an artist attempting to harness membership within historically marginalised groups in order to advance his career). Again, this has nothing to do with whether one set of people is possessed of greater artistic skill: the distribution of artistic gifts is whimsical and undiscriminating, heedless of colour or sex. Moreover, one doesn’t have to look very far to find examples of white artists producing mediocre work, or creatives from minority backgrounds displaying artistry of the most sublime character. But the point at issue has everything to do with alien concerns corrupting the artistic process.

The cult of “diversity” bodes ill for certain classes of artist. However, its diffusion throughout the arts also threatens to corrupt the status of the critic. Under normal circumstances, there exists a natural connection between the objects of criticism and the critic’s considered judgment. That connection is a rational one, in so far as the critic grounds her estimation of creative excellence in the aesthetic qualities she herself perceives in a particular work. But evaluating a piece of art on the grounds of its creator’s advertised identity can only be described as rationally deficient: the critic’s views aren’t driven by the affective and intellectual power of the work of art she observes, reads, or listens to; they are shaped instead by the wholly unrelated — and in many instances, destructive — obligation to ensure equity of representation.

A desiccated role, then, is likely to await the unfortunate critic who wishes to retain her integrity, compelling her to embrace the hypocrisy of the unwilling propagandist. No longer propelled by her finely-tuned aesthetic perception, she would act at the behest of external forces, executing the demands of a larger socio-political project that has only a glancing relationship with art itself. This is no longer academic: it’s a depressing fact of modern cultural life that many art critics not only fail to resist the degeneration of their vocation, but are now exercised by the fact that some awards seasons reflect insufficient deference to the new regime.

Underlying these troubling developments is perhaps the most pernicious effect of ideological diversity requirements — namely, the perversion of what art is, and the role it plays within a healthy, vibrant society. The shrill denunciations of many of King’s critics reveal two, related features in this regard. Both of them stifle the higher aspirations of the artistic enterprise: the instrumentalization of art as part of a wider, progressive programme of minority advancement; and its fragmentation along a series of heavily-policed identity borders.

Art has traditionally represented the realization of one’s inward creative vision through aesthetically skillful manipulation of the material world. Such works have been produced with the goal of speaking to, even challenging, those who have observed them — overturning conventional wisdom, or exposing people to new truths clothed in the garb of artistic beauty. It was, and in many respects still is, a potent form of communication. But “diversity” activists see things differently. To the extent that they value art, it seems to be due in large measure to the discipline’s potential as a vehicle for ideological progress or political transformation. Their energy is then drawn from the conviction that designated “tribes” require advancement or elevation, and that this can be achieved through cultural recognition the arts bestow.

The intersection between art and politics has a long and distinguished history, to be sure. No one denies that great art can (and should) inaugurate seismic changes within society, nor that political contexts inform or shape an artist’s work. However, there is a world of difference between genuinely good art effecting socio-political change (precisely because of its intrinsic power), and the artistic enterprise being hijacked by an alien political agenda that seeks to prescribe the criteria for recognition from the outset — all before a daub of paint has been placed on the canvas, or a word has been selected for the page.

Where politics can provoke artists to create something luminous and arresting, it does so by acting as a kind of tragic muse: stimulating one’s yearning for truth and justice (often through suffering), which in turn acts as the creative furnace within which great art is forged. “Diversity”, on the other hand, does not fundamentally aspire towards the things for which art has traditionally served as a vessel: truth, beauty, and the kind of transcendence with which anyone, regardless of background, may theoretically resonate. These are, as Andrew Bushnell has eloquently observed, “among art’s oldest and noblest impulses”. It’s true that diverse representation may at times dovetail with fine art, and minds governed by such considerations may produce works of great beauty. But cognate with the core principles of identity politics, the overriding goal here is tribal advantage.

On this view, art isn’t intended to speak to others across the divide of (e.g.) race, culture, or class. Instead, it’s meant to help certain, historically marginalised groups accumulate power against those whom they see as perpetuating oppression. The fruits of an artist’s labour are no longer valued for their own sake, or for the inherent power they contain to move individuals and transform societies; rather, they are reduced to mere tools in the identity advocate’s attempt to re-distribute social and economic privilege.

This bleeds into the fragmentation of art along deep identity fault-lines. “Universal legibility” is no longer a key or desirable goal; consistent with conflict narratives embedded in the marrow of identity politics, notions of “diversity” may be taken as an expression of in-group solidarity, leavened by an adversarial outlook. The idea that an artistic piece might have the capacity to transcend varying contexts or life experiences is anathema, for it “erases the essential differences between individuals” who have been shaped existentially by membership within a certain tribe. Just look at the adjoining furore around what is termed “cultural appropriation” in art (particularly fiction writing), where some have argued that an author from, say, one racial group is morally precluded from giving voice to the experiences of another group through her writing.

The kind of mind that is scandalized by such appropriation is also scandalized by a successful author suggesting that matters of “diversity” shouldn’t count when evaluating the merits of a work of art. Both are iterations of the same identitarian attitude, which remains hostile to the liberal universality to which art — even art that is controversial or subversive — has so often aspired. When one is convinced that social life fundamentally consists of contests between tribes of varying degrees of privilege, then one’s work is far less likely to exhibit the “noble impulses” to which Bushnell referred. Instead of treating art as a universal medium, capable of speaking to all manner of people, activists who obsess over structural power imbalances conceive of artistic endeavours in narrow, sectional terms. Thus, a film by and for, say, African-Americans is transformed into a “racialized” product, in that it trades universal legibility for an insular — indeed, separatist — aim. One is left with a deeply balkanized conception of art, which not only fails to overcome the things that divide people, but reinforces them in an act of collective solipsism.

For all the opprobrium he received, Stephen King was nevertheless right to be sceptical of the effects of “diversity” upon artistic expression and criticism. Of course, it is all too easy to dismiss these concerns as an exaggeration of what might appear to be a niche agenda, propagated by a small band of progressive elites. That would be a mistake, however: hand-wringing over equity of representation in the arts is an often-inchoate expression of some of the key elements of modern-day identity politics, which has succeeded in making its presence felt in a myriad of domains. The boundless zeal of the new identitarian has continued to expand, even into fields where one might have deemed it irrelevant or antithetical. When Western societies are already riven by a litany of economic, social, and racial cleavages, one wonders whether it is wise to nurture an ideology (however benignly) that values separatism over integration, and unbridgeable difference over shared humanity.

Australia and Iran: Courting Disaster?

Yet another piece on the Iranian controversy — this time on Australia’s recent decision to send a warship to the Persian Gulf to ensure freedom of navigation in the region. I originally wrote the essay for publication, and although it was rejected, I think it holds up fairly well.  

The political class can be an incurious group. Despite privileged access to specialist knowledge – willingly doled out by a gaggle of advisers – politicians remain susceptible to conventional thinking and pre-fabricated narratives. This is hardly conducive to the suppleness of thought required to navigate a complex international ecosystem.

The Morrison Government’s recent pledge to send military assets to the Persian Gulf – part of a US-led exercise aimed at safeguarding maritime traffic amidst rising tensions with Iran – illustrates the point well. Considered as a response to the need for ensuring freedom of navigation, the move is comprehensible on narrow grounds. But therein lies the problem. The government’s restricted view of the roiling crisis between the United States and Iran reveals a failure to properly ask – much less answer – two vital questions: How did this crisis emerge? And what are the chances that Australia might become embroiled in an escalation of tensions?

The government’s rationale for providing assets to the region is two-fold: to secure the unmolested flow of oil and gas exports; and to uphold the rules-based international order. In resting their decision on the integrity of that order, Australian officials have acquiesced to the conventional claim that Iran is largely responsible for subverting it. Although he did not identify Tehran specifically when announcing Australia’s involvement, Scott Morrison could hardly have been referring to anyone else when he invoked the spectre of ‘destabilising behaviour’.

It’s difficult to overstate the wrongheadedness of this interpretation. Despite the prevalence of claims concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression, the reality is that the United States has been the primary antagonist in the escalating crisis. Tehran’s recent actions in the Gulf – sabotaging and hijacking commercial vessels, or downing an American military drone – cannot be understood apart from events in the 16 months since the Trump Administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

Despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the JCPOA, the US abandoned the agreement in favour of its preferred strategy of ‘maximum pressure’. The Trump Administration subsequently embarked on a relentless campaign designed to force Tehran’s capitulation. Economic sanctions provide a window into the destructive effects of American strategizing. Multiple and far-reaching penalties have been imposed upon Iran, strangling large swathes of its economy and destroying the livelihoods of millions. One particularly tragic consequence of the current sanctions regime is the near-impossibility some Iranians have had trying to obtain life-saving medications. Present American policy is thus killing Iranian citizens, whose only ‘crime’ is to live under a regime Washington happens to despise.

American actions over the past year or so have not only failed to draw Iran back to the negotiating table (the stated objective of its ‘maximum pressure’ strategy); they also have provoked the Islamic Republic’s recent ‘destabilising’ activity. Whether this represents deliberate calculation or merely a lack of foresight is difficult to divine. But commentators observe that in its zeal, the U.S. has fostered precisely the kind of behaviour for which it now condemns Iran.

Seemingly blind to this context, the Morrison Government remains committed to the fiction that securing freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Trump Administration’s escalating feud with Iran are entirely unrelated. But it also appears uninterested in the risks associated with sending military assets into a highly restive environment. The rules of engagement are sketchy, and although the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, claims that Australia’s objective is ‘de-escalation’, there’s every chance a militarised response will simply generate yet another instance of the dreaded security dilemma.

Although conflict between the U.S. and Iran is relatively unlikely at this stage, the potential for miscalculation to trigger open hostilities remains – particularly when one of the antagonists is helmed by a man notorious for his thin skin and penchant for crude displays of machismo. Tehran could respond to perceived provocations with any number of tactics: mining the Strait of Hormuz, for example, or harassing American military assets in the region. Several analysts have explored the consequences of war, which would likely be far bloodier and far costlier than many advocates for confrontation with Iran are willing to admit. But Australian government officials have apparently failed to examine these prognostications with anything more than a cursory glance. Meanwhile, the irony of unwittingly intensifying tensions in the Gulf through a purported strategy of de-escalation seems lost on them.

As an independent middle power, Australia has a bevy of well-defined interests. These, of course, do include the flow of oil exports out of the Middle East. But the country’s independence should not be sacrificed for the sake of slavish devotion to the American alliance. This is particularly so when such devotion encourages critical myopia, or screens out uncomfortable (though eminently important) strategic truths. One can only hope that the Morrison Government won’t require the calamity of open conflict to learn these lessons.

Iran and the Ossification of US Foreign Policy

UPDATE (30/8/2019): My sincerest apologies to early readers for the many grammatical and spelling errors in this essay. I wrote the piece in relative haste, and rushed to put it up — before doing a thorough audit, it seems. The crashing of my personal computer didn’t help matters either, as it forced me to hastily chip away at the post between calls at work. Anyway, all mistakes have (hopefully) been rectified.

Introduction

The world of US foreign policy is dotted by an archipelago* of think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups, all of which sustain the dogma of American interventionism. One of the most influential is The Heritage Foundation, which has long supported the vision of an activist United States. Grounded in a robust neoconservatism, and coming to prominence during the Reagan years, The Heritage Foundation continues to advocate for the application of American hard power around the globe, believing it to be an indispensable source of order and prosperity. Lately, the think tank has argued strenuously for a more confrontational approach with Iran. To the extent that the Trump Administration is guided by intellectual clarity on the matter, it’s organisations like The Heritage Foundation that are supplying the necessary conceptual scaffolding for the government’s policy decisions.

A good example of Heritage’s muscular approach to the Islamic Republic came with the publication in June of a piece applauding President Trump’s decision to tighten economic sanctions against Iran. Authored by defence expert, James Jay Carafano, the article defends the president’s decision to abort a planned missile strike against Iran (proposed retaliation for the downing of an American-made unmanned drone), before justifying the expanded economic penalties the US elected to impose upon Tehran instead. Calling such penalties “surgical”, Carafano insists that the president has now shown the Islamic Republic a bright “red light”, rightly punishing the regime for what he calls “bad behaviour”.

We can be thankful that Carafano thinks well of President Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to cancel the United States’ planned strike against Iran. The rest of his argument, however, is grounded in the unspoken assumption that the US has the right and duty to try and maintain global order — as if delegated by Providence herself to police the international system and confront the forces of chaos. This has the lamentable effect of skewing his examination of the issue.

Historical distortions

There are several grave problems with Carafano’s analysis, undermining his thesis at both the level of theory and history. Let’s take the second point first. Like so many Iran hawks, Carafano adopts an extremely narrow interpretation of the causes of the current crisis. He writes that the president opted for “precision-guided sanctions” in response to Iran’s “provocation[s]”. Certainly in a restricted sense, it’s true that Iran is responsible for fuelling the latest round of tensions with the US. But as I and others have written, Tehran’s actions over the last several weeks, condemnable though they may be, are largely a response to repeated American provocations in the 15 months since the US withdrew from the JCPOA. That act — which, despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the deal, was made unilaterally — inaugurated the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure”, which it has applied to Tehran as a way of forcing it to yield to Washington’s demands. This has involved a battery of rhetorical, pecuniary, and military moves designed to corral the Islamic Republic and strangle its economy.

As such, the provocative acts for which the US now “punishes” Iran are largely the result of unremitting American pressure, which has fostered the conditions for the present escalation of tensions.  Whether this represents deliberate calculation or a failure to predict the consequences of blunt-force pressure is difficult to tell. But as if to underscore the point, former Bush official, Kori Schake, has remarked that most European governments believe the current uptick in Iran’s threatening behaviour is a product of Washington’s desire to force Tehran’s capitulation.

Carafano’s piece recognizes none of this context. This absence means that his analysis is almost entirely ahistorical, which inevitably makes it easier for him to establish clear lines of justification for American sanctions. The problem is that it reflects a highly distorted presentation of the causal sequence in question, and provides no illumination — beyond tired tropes concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression — as to the reasons for Tehran’s recent activity.

We should also emphasise the fact that the imposition of sanctions upon Iran has already had a deleterious effect on the country’s economy. Far from being “surgical”, the consequences extend far beyond members of the ruling regime, and have begun to erode the lives of ordinary Iranians. US sanctions have asphyxiated Iran’s economic capacity, leading to a great deal of suffering amongst the populace. Unemployment has risen apace, whilst people’s life savings have been wiped out. Furthermore, the application of American economic penalties has made it far more difficult for Iranians battling life-threatening diseases to obtain the drugs they so desperately need. Recent news reports have suggested that many locals are on the verge of death as they are unable to receive the kind of treatment that could save their lives. Not only does Carafano not address the gravity of these issues; he also fails to consider the compounding effects of this latest round of sanctions.

All this is made worse by the fact that Carafano’s interpretation of the US’s sanctions regime against Iran is inconsistent with the Trump Administration’s own account. I’ll return to Carafano’s commentary on sanctions below, but his amnesia in this area needs to be noted. The administration itself has argued that the battery of responses mounted by the United States is designed to force Iran’s re-negotiation of the JCPOA — the theory being that Tehran will not be able to withstand Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign indefinitely, and will be compelled to seek relief through capitulation. The strategy is based on the absurd proposition that under such circumstances, Iran is likely to do the president’s bidding — someting that has proven to be an abject failure. But what’s key is that the US has predicated its sanctions regime on the assumption that it will alter Iran’s behaviour. Carafano explicitly denies this.

Troublesome theory

So much for recent history. What of the theoretical issues with Carafano’s article? These, I’d argue, are even more serious. Two observations are worth highlighting.

First, his commentary reveals a lack of clarity concerning the purpose of sanctions, and indeed, the purpose of “punishment” in general. Theories of punishment suggest that there are three broad reasons for enacting some kind of penalty against another actor: retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. In the context of the international system, the last two purposes would imply an effort to effect some change in the offending state’s behaviour.** However, Carafano argues that the Trump Administration isn’t trying to modify Iran’s conduct. The only other alternative, then, is an expression of moral opprobrium as the animating principle for this new tranche of sanctions. But apart from contradicting official US government statements on its governing rationale, this view rests on an implausible interpretation of sanctions regimes. As the Council of Foreign Relations notes, sanctions are invariably imposed to alter the strategic behaviour of a state or non-state actor deemed to be a threat to vital interests or international norms. This is the reason for enacting them in the first place, upon which their practical utility is founded.

Carafano is either confused about the underlying logic of sanctions, or he’s equivocating on their purpose. He excoriates the Obama Administration for failing to enforce a “red line” against the Assad regime in Syria, arguing that this failure gave tacit permission to the Syrian government to continue its murderous campaign. But behind that criticism lies the assumption that American retaliation at the time — whether undertaken via sanctions or military strikes — was going to affect Assad’s behaviour. So why not in the case of Trump and Iran? It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Carafano’s view represents a desperate ex post facto rationalisation of the (predictable) failure of Trumpian statecraft. Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges that sanctions aren’t likely to draw Tehran back to the “negotiating table any time soon” — tacit admission, perhaps, that Trump’s strategy wasn’t so “shrewd” after all.

Second, the broader assumptions underlying Carafano’s justification for the Trump Administration’s new sanctions regime are deeply concerning. It’s possible to understand why penalties might be imposed upon a country to dissuade it from acts that threaten the vital interests of the sanctioning state(s). But the kind of moralistic, unilateral action Carafano supports has to rely upon the grounding belief that the United States bears the transcendent duty to act as global policeman, and alone has the right to execute moral judgment over the conduct of others. This seems to be the best interpretation of Carafano’s laudatory article, in which he confidently avers that the US is right to apply sanctions against Iran to punish its “bad behaviour”.

Several cogent objections can be levelled at this conception of the US’s role in world affairs. Writing in The American Conservative earlier this year, Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, outlined four such rejoinders. I won’t recapitulate them in detail, but suffice it to say, they are difficult to counter. For one thing, no one has appointed the US to act in this role; doing so simply places it outside of — and indeed, above — the norms of the international system. What right, we may ask, does it have to act in this manner? The United States has simply arrogated the role of moral arbiter to itself. For another thing, the US is inconsistent, taking action to punish only those states it happens to despise. It works strenuously to strangle Iran economically for its supposed infractions, whilst leaving Saudi Arabia untouched — despite the Kingdom prosecuting an illegal war in Yemen with untold savagery. Finally, Larison notes that such a role lacks accountability, which means that the only restraint upon American action is an internal one. To accept this is to play hostage to fortune.

To these four points I’d briefly add two more. For the United States to act in this manner invites the kind of reckless decisions that have so successfully destabilised the Middle East recently. If the US believes itself unbeholden to the normal rules of international statecraft, then there is little to prevent it from pursuing an assertive foreign policy, particularly when it is fuelled by the conviction of American power as an unalloyed good. Conversely, to do nothing during times of crisis would be seen as a dereliction of duty. But as the past 16 years have demonstrated, chaos and suffering have followed in the wake of American interventionism in the Middle East.

And what of other states, and their self-perceived interests? While many American commentators, politicians, and thought leaders would claim that the US possesses a unique, inalienable role within world affairs, other countries might not be so sanguine about it. Then there are those states that emulate US assertiveness on a more local (though no less destructive) scale. The Saudis’ activity in Yemen and Syria may be highlighted as a good example of this phenomenon. American actions in foreign lands, then, may simply encourage other state (and non-state) actors to adopt activist foreign policies in their own spheres of influence — thereby adding to the sum total of global crises.

Carafano fails to grapple with observations like these, so committed is he to the axiom that the United States ought to engage the world as its chief arbiter. In so doing, he repeats the same old, ideological tropes that have sustained a supposedly conservative approach to US foreign policy and national security. Of course, this isn’t a unique view: American interventionism has long been a bi-partisan position in the US, enjoying approbation on both sides of the political aisle. For those inhabiting that world, anything else projects weakness and invites chaos. But to the extent that the US lacks strength and permits turmoil to thrive, then it’s precisely the ideas that movement conservatism cherishes — ideas blandly regurgitated in Carafano’s article — that have produced this state of affairs.

* I can’t claim this rather evocative description for myself. I owe it to Rod Dreher, the conservative journalist and writer, who first used it some months ago in a blog post on similar issues.

** This, of course, assumes that talk of “punishment” in the context of the international system is appropriate — something I would dispute (or at least heavily qualify).

Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.

Iran-US Tensions: Questioning the Dominant Narrative

This is a very long read, for those who still hold to the rather quaint notion that the Israel Folau saga is not the only issue of significance at the moment…

Introduction 

It’s with a mixture of bafflement and dismay that I read of the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. I’m baffled because I wonder how such tensions could be allowed to escalate so rapidly, with war being proposed as a serious option. I am also dismayed, since those who promote these policies seem to do so with alarming insouciance. Despite the surfeit of woe that has been visited upon the Middle East since 2003, the so-called “hawks” in the American establishment — men like Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, or his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo — continue to press for confrontation with Tehran. My concerns have only been intensified by recent reports that Australia is considering joint action with the U.S., up to and including military intervention in the region. 

Although relations between the United States and Iran have long been marked by mutual suspicion, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal — last May has seen them reach their lowest ebb for some years. Since that time, the Trump Administration has relentlessly applied pressure to Iran, both economic and rhetorical, in an effort to force the Ayatollahs back to the negotiating table. But instead of renewed talks, we have reached a point where oil tankers are being sabotaged, drones shot down, nuclear enrichment threatened, and administration officials enthusiastically beating the drums of war.

Those who favour confrontation with Iran maintain that the country is solely responsible for the burgeoning crisis. U.S. Central Command, for example (which oversees Washington’s theatre-level military projects in the Middle East), is “bent” on trying to blame Tehran for last month’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Whether or not the allegation is true (and on the available evidence, it’s probably the case that Iran is behind the attack), it is being used as part of a consolidating narrative. Indeed, it is of a piece with long-standing rhetoric aimed at depicting the Islamic Republic as a menace and an inherently destabilising force in the region. According to such claims, Iran is unique amongst the nations in the Middle East, fomenting crises and volatility as part of some grand strategy to secure regional hegemony. The country is also labelled a rogue nuclear aspirant, relentless in its desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction; its recent declaration that it would begin enriching uranium beyond what had been stipulated by the JCPOA is used as undeniable evidence by some that the Islamic Republic simply cannot be trusted to keep its word. It’s on the basis of such assertions that supporters of a more aggressive posture towards Iran advocate an array of policies: tighter sanctions, a show of force in the region, “pinprick” strikes, and even regime change (however that might be achieved).  

Now, I have no love for the Iranian government. It rigorously promotes a virulent form of Shia Islam, which has produced a ghastly catalogue of human rights abuses. Tehran thinks little of supressing political protests, and arrests activists without compunction. Dissidents are imprisoned, members of religious minorities are at risk of execution, and the levers of power are jealously guarded by a ruthless theocratic regime. Moreover, critics of Iran are correct, at least in narrow terms: it is guilty of contributing to the instability of the region. Aside from recent actions — including the seizure of a British vessel just days ago — it has long been a major sponsor of terrorism (think Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip), and its roles in both Yemen and Syria have helped fuel the civil wars engulfing both those countries. None of this can be disputed.

It is tempting, then, to lay the blame for the crisis at Tehran’s feet. But the morally decrepit nature of a regime doesn’t mean that it is guilty of every accusation levelled against it. And in this case, I am convinced that primary responsibility lies, not with Iran, but with the Trump Administration and its retinue of media supporters. Far from acting as a restrained, beneficent superpower, the US has consistently fuelled the roiling escalation of tensions with Iran over the past 14 months. Moreover, it has deployed a battery of tendentious claims as it seeks to justify its declared strategy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic. Those trying to promote the idea of aggressive, militarised engagement with Tehran have distorted recent history, inflated the threat Iran poses to regional stability, and minimised the potential costs associated with military intervention. Such assertions are as dangerous as they are fallacious, and demand scrutiny. 

Selective memories and historical distortions

American foreign policy hawks have used the recent past in a highly selective — nay, distorted — manner to frame current tensions in terms of Tehran’s alleged provocations and nuclear ambitions. So pervasive is this narrative that it has shaped even neutral reportage (see here). Of course, Iran is likely responsible for May’s oil tanker attacks — although the evidence isn’t absolutely clear — and is almost certainly behind the downing of an American military drone. However, it’s also the case that proponents of retaliation fail to properly contextualise these attacks. Whatever role Iran’s actions have played in deepening the crisis with the US, they have come after months of mounting pressure and sabre-rattling from Washington. President Trump, famous for his online bombast, has lashed out at Iran with a salvo of incendiary tweets, with at least one suggesting that in an armed conflict, the US would “end” Tehran. Whilst it’s true that the President is also notorious for his mercurial inconsistency, such missives are hardly likely to calm tensions, and do everything to corner Iran. 

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Cotton has been campaigning for a more assertive posture towards the Islamic Republic, and has confidently declaimed that the US could “swiftly” win a war against it. For Cotton, this isn’t a defensive policy, aimed merely at responding to a possible Iranian attack: the Arkansas politician has consistently argued for regime change in Iran, which can only be interpreted in offensive terms. Such arguments aren’t new, either. In 2015, for example, John Bolton — an unrepentant architect of the Iraq War — insisted that the US should not only “bomb” Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but ought to seriously consider toppling the regime. Seven years prior, he was urging the US to strike Tehran, arguing that the Iranian government was supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even now, he hints at the possibility of armed intervention to secure his favoured goal.

The concomitant to these declarations is the ceaseless promotion of supposed alternatives to the current Iranian government. President Trump’s key advisor, Rudi Giuliani, gave a speech recently in Albania – home to the mysterious Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant organisation grounded in a strange mix of socialist and Islamic principles. The MEK’s avowed aim is the overthrow of the Iranian government, and politicians such as Giuliani and Bolton have been forthright in their endorsement of the group. This is despite the MEK being subject to frequent and credible accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. 

It’s quite clear, then, that for some influential figures within the American political elite, effecting a change of government in Iran is what one might call an “embedded good”. That is, the notion of regime change as intrinsically beneficial has become an unassailable axiom in the minds of many policy makers, politicians, and analysts. The moral character of a government matters little at this point; being threatened with armed intervention or forcible regime change is bound to put any country on the defensive. In such a feverish, bellicose environment, the risks of retaliation — like the downing of an unmanned drone — are far more likely.

This isn’t merely a case of aggressive rhetoric. The US has been relentless in trying to pressure Iran to yield through the imposition of increasingly crippling economic sanctions. Despite claims to the contrary, these sanctions are not “surgical”, but have begun to suffocate large sectors of the Iranian economy. The Trump Administration has moved to cut off all revenue from the sale of Iranian oil, whilst eliminating waivers that previously permitted countries like China, India, Japan, and South Korea to purchase crude from Tehran. If that wasn’t enough, the US has also placed sanctions on Iran’s metallurgy industry, which comprises about 10% of the country’s economy. These actions don’t merely impinge upon Iran’s political and military elite; they have broad-based effects, harming ordinary Iranians. The economy has contracted and inflation has risen sharply over the past year, thus destroying the livelihoods of men and women everywhere in Iran. Certainly, there are many Iranians who despise the regime, and would like to see its demise. But collective economic punishment, of the kind meted out by the US, can only succeed in provoking Iranian intransigence and forging closer ties between the country’s government and its people. As Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, has remarked, whatever the Trump Administration thought it could accomplish via such means, the (predictable) effect has been to harden the resolve of the Iranian government.

Economic “strikes” have been complemented by ominous American moves on the geo-political chessboard. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the US, in a purported show of strength and leadership, sent a carrier group into the Persian Gulf at the beginning of May – despite there being no imminent threat from Tehran, and despite warnings from several quarters that it would cause a further escalation in tensions. If the act was designed to be inflammatory, then it certainly succeeded. Of course, it could be interpreted as a response to the already-noted acts of commercial sabotage in the region — a deterrence strategy, designed to ensure vital sea-lanes remain open. But in the context of past American provocations, not to mention President Trump’s claim that the US might send thousands of troops into the region, one could be forgiven for being sceptical. All this has come in the wake of America’s precipitous withdrawal from the JCPOA, even though there was no evidence that Iran was failing to meet its obligations under the terms of the deal (see below). Is it any surprise, then, that Tehran — which entered that agreement in what appears to be good faith — should fail to acquiesce to American “strong-arm” tactics?

Indeed, American responses to Iran’s vow that it would begin enriching uranium again beyond the limits set down in the JCPOA – something that does violate the agreement – exhibit the same tendency towards historical amnesia. Iran’s decision to re-commence an element of its nuclear programme can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the very pressure the US claims is necessary to force the country back to the negotiating table. The Iranian government has strongly implied it will use this development as leverage in an effort to force a lifting of sanctions, and has made little secret of the fact that it is retaliation for American unilateralism. But Iran critics forget this inconvenient datum, or ignore it altogether. Instead, they leach the story of all historical and political context, so dedicated are they to the depiction of Tehran as a rogue nuclear contender. No one would argue that an Iranian breach of the nuclear agreement is a wise move, and several European governments have rightly criticised the country for it (whilst saying that such a breach is, for now, insignificant). But again, what some in Washington claim is evidence of Iran’s insatiable appetite for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a consequence of recent American policy. 

This isn’t to defend Iran. But its recent actions, as condemnable as some of them may be, cannot be properly understood without reference to the litany of previous American and Western actions surveyed here. Even the recent hijacking of the Stena Impero by Iran was in large part retaliation for the UK’s seizure of one of its own vessels (possibly at the behest of the United States). Trying to divine Washington’s rationale in all of this, however, is more difficult: is this a deliberate ploy, calculated to lure Iran into a reckless response, or the unintended (though eminently foreseeable) consequences of just this kind of aggression? As the journalist, Peter Beinart, has observed, officials like Bolton seem dedicated to the goal of “goading” Iran into foolish acts that will serve as a pretext for war. Beinart also makes the compelling case that Bolton, who has been spearheading the United States’ current response to Iran, has long searched for pretexts that would justify war with Tehran. Others, like the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, seem to interpret unfolding events as a consequence, at least in part, of American myopia. In an article for The Weekend Australian, he argued that the United States’ strategy of trying to suffocate the Iranian economy — not to mention the general air of belligerence the Trump Administration generates — was always bound to lead to just the kind of incidents we have witnessed over the past couple of months. Shanahan rightly observed that any analysis of likely Iranian reactions “to increased unilateral pressure by the US should have concluded that…Iran would respond by exacting a cost…to show that…support for the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign” would exact a price (italics mine).

Both alternatives represent a contemptible subversion of the diplomatic process. A premeditated strategy of conjuring evidence — however tenuous — that would legitimise a military strike against Iran repudiates good-faith efforts to resolve international disputes in a sober, reasoned, and peaceful way. On the other hand, a failure to reckon with the likely consequences of such belligerency is simply a reflection of the same inept, ham-fisted approach the Trump Administration has generally shown towards international statecraft. My point, however, is that on either analysis, the US has fostered the conditions that have led to precisely the kinds of reactions for which it now condemns Iran. As former Bush-era official Kori Schake has sagely noted, “every single European government believes that the increased threat we’re now seeing from Iran is a reaction to the United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and trying to force Iranian capitulation”.

Iran and the spectre of threat inflation

Those committed to a more hawkish posture towards Iran are often guilty of more than mere historical distortions. In an effort to promote their favoured policies, they have consistently sought to portray Iran as a unique existential threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East. This effort has involved a great deal of what many observers have called “threat inflation”, ranging from exaggerated claims concerning the depth of Iranian engagement in intra-state conflicts, to wild allegations regarding Iran’s allegedly imperial ambitions. Peter Beinart has amply documented the current administration’s attempts to propagate the idea that Iran is obsessed with regional dominance. Hawks have used these claims as a pretext, not only for withdrawing from the JCPOA, but for the United States’ ongoing pressure campaign against Tehran. That the nuclear agreement had nothing to do with Iran’s other activities in the region (involvement in Middle Eastern civil wars, support for favoured allies, ballistic missile testing, etc.) seems to have escaped their notice.

But leave that aside for now. It has been strenuously argued that Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen represent an attempt to acquire regional hegemony via strategic investment in local proxies. This is how Saudi Arabia, which launched an air campaign over Yemen in early-2015, has framed the conflict. Some have even gone as far as speaking darkly of an Iranian “empire”. The late Senator, John McCain — once an influential voice in American foreign policy circles — claimed several years ago that Iran’s presence in Yemen was evidence that the Islamic Republic was “on the march”, preparing to “take over” the Middle East. Bullish commentary has echoed this kind of political rhetoric: citing Iran’s activities in Yemen and Syria, a battery of op-ed pieces in major American media outlets ominously refer to the Islamic Republic as an emerging regional hegemon. 

Iran’s modest regional goals

Common though they may be, such assertions can be faulted on two grounds. First, it is simply untrue that Iran is, for example, trying to exercise hegemonic influence over the Yemeni conflict by directing the campaign of its Houthi “puppets”. As Thomas Juneau, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, has sought to demonstrate, Iran’s involvement in Yemen has been relatively modest. He has argued that Iranian interventions in the Yemeni civil war remained slight, even after the entry of the Saudi-led coalition into the conflict in 2015. As Juneau observed, Iranian activity in Yemen has been “far too limited to have a significant impact on the balance of internal forces in” the country. As for why Iran’s support has been somewhat restrained, Juneau cited two primary reasons: Yemen is fairly low on its list of foreign policy priorities; and Tehran, cognisant of the fact that the country is a major Saudi concern, does not want its own involvement to spark an escalation of hostilities. Moreover, he also averred that whilst Iran did begin to increase its assistance to the Houthis after about 2014, it was a response to the intensification of hostilities to which other state actors (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries) were already party. Juneau concluded that there is only meagre evidence the Houthis have fallen under the sway of Tehran, or act as a local proxy for the Islamic Republic. 

Similar dynamics obtain in Syria, where Iran has been assisting the beleaguered Assad regime, and Iraq, where for some years it has tried to exploit the chaos that emerged in the wake of the American-led invasion in 2003. Again, Juneau is an authority on these matters. In a more recent article on Iran’s activities in Syria and Iraq, he argued that its involvement in the latter country is checked by mutually constraining polarities. That is, whilst a weak Iraq allows Iran to project power into the country and influence the Shia-dominated government, it also means the ongoing presence of the United States — the chief regional constraint on Iran’s ability to prosecute its interests. Further, Juneau perceptively argued that a weak central government in Iraq invites the entry of a host of militant groups into the country, many of which are likely to adhere to a form of Sunni Islam implacably opposed to Iranian Shiism. This not only tempers the influence of the Islamic Republic within Iraq; given the contiguity between the two countries, it also presents a positive security threat in its own right (as the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks on Tehran in 2017 showed). On the other hand, a strong Iraq is likely to be a more independent Iraq, pursuing its own foreign policy, and acting as a check on the projection of Iran’s power. Either way, Juneau suggested, the ability of Tehran to exert some kind of hegemonic influence over the country (assuming that it desired to do so) is deeply inhibited. 

We should note, too, that Syria has been a long-time ally of Iran; their relationship stretches back to the 1980s, when the Assad regime sided with the Islamic Republic in its war with Iraq. On a purely geo-political level, there is nothing sinister about a country coming to the aid of a formal partner when that partner is under siege; whatever one thinks of the moral character of Bashar al-Assad’s government — and despite its undoubted savagery, there are arguments for allowing it to remain in power — meeting one’s alliance-related obligations is an unexceptional feature of international relations. Tehran’s incursion in Syria doesn’t automatically portend efforts to dominate the Middle East, and is a far cry from supposed “empire-building”.

It’s true that some of Iran’s interests in Syria extend beyond the terms of their alliance; for example, Tehran wants to ensure a friendly government in Damascus, since the country has long acted as a conduit for the passage of Iranian arms and equipment to militant groups in the Levant. But although the Islamic Republic seeks to maintain some influence in that part of the Middle East, those ambitions are largely realized through relatively weak non-state actors operating within a crowded political ecosystem — something that places a natural limit upon Iranian manoeuvres. Propping up the Assad regime also ensures that Syria doesn’t fall into the hands of a rival Sunni faction, which would likely come under the sway of Iran’s primary antagonist, Saudi Arabia. Again, this is the product of normal geo-political calculus: any expansion in the Kingdom’s regional influence is something Iran has long feared and seeks to inhibit.  

Context matters. In Iran’s case, much of its investment in other Middle Eastern countries stems from a desire to counter what it sees as a regional order dominated by the US and its local partners (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) — not regional supremacy. In that sense, Tehran’s involvement in places like Yemen — largely a response to the presence of the Saudis there — represents reactive, rather than proactive, decisions. Furthermore, sober analysts like Thomas Juneau have pointed out that whatever Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East, and whatever activities it sustains in the region, its ability to project power is severely constrained by the sheer amount of energy the US and local client states expend in trying to contain it. That containment effort has succeeded in restricting Tehran’s involvement abroad. One of the key instruments employed — namely, economic sanctions — has managed to suppress Iran’s economy, thereby limiting its military capabilities and diminishing its capacity to provide logistical and financial support to allies and like-minded actors. This is exacerbated by Iran’s internal economic problems, which are both chronic and endemic. Decades of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement have severely retarded the country’s economic progress, leaving it in a relatively stagnant condition.  The Islamic Republic is thus bereft of the financial and productive means it would require to achieve anything more than fairly paltry goals in the region. All told, Iran is simply incapable of doing what its critics regularly claim for it.      

What about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Of course, supporters of a more aggressive response to the so-called Iranian “threat” cite Tehran’s nuclear programme as possibly the clearest indication of its nefarious ambitions. Iran’s recent vow to exceed the limits on uranium enrichment laid down in the JCPOA is used as key evidence of its untrustworthiness. However, this ignores several crucial facts. For one thing, Tehran’s vow to increase its uranium enrichment is, like other acts of provocation, the inevitable consequence of ceaseless American pressure. Its decision cannot therefore be interpreted in a vacuum; claims that it represents Iran’s overwhelming desire for a nuclear weapon should therefore be met with caution. For another thing, American intelligence agencies concluded in 2007 that Iran’s nuclear arms programme had ceased in 2003. They went on to conclude that whilst Iran was “keeping its options open” about future development, there was no clear evidence at the time that it was about to re-commence work on a weapon. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency has publicly stated that Iran has satisfied every inspection it has conducted since the JCPOA was adopted in 2015, undermining claims concerning Iranian duplicity. None of this should be taken to imply that the Islamic Republic is a model international citizen; it remains engaged in a number of worrisome activities, at home and abroad. But it is to suggest that claims deployed by American and other officials concerning Tehran’s supposed threat to regional stability (often made with a geo-political axe to grind) seriously over-estimate both the scope of Iran’s ambitions and its ability to carry them out.  

Who has been a destabilising force in the region?

The second point to make in regards to Iran and threat inflation is this: Iran hawks can criticise Tehran for its foreign entanglements only on pain of hypocrisy. Whatever role Iran has had in fomenting crises in the Middle East, American activity has been far more consequential in this regard. Yemen is a case-in-point. American critics, for example, will decry Iranian participation in, say, the country’s civil war, but are loathe to examine the US’s own role in that murderous conflict. Despite having no congressional or international authority to intervene, the US has been a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia’s involvement — which, as noted, has led a brutal air campaign against forces opposed to the beleaguered government. Airstrikes have seen busloads of children bombed and schools destroyed, often with American-made ordnance. Homes, hospitals, water treatment plants, roads (which are vital arterial routes for humanitarian aid), funerals, and weddings have all been struck. The Saudis themselves have been credibly accused of war crimes, violating international humanitarian law for allegedly targeting non-military areas; at least one UN report has indicated that the Saudis have regularly bombed targets that were on a “no strike” list of civilian locations, thereby flouting the normal rules of military engagement. 

Saudi Arabia has also been responsible for a ruthless blockade on Yemen’s ports — an action it justifies by arguing that the passage of Iranian weapons is thereby halted. But the siege has prevented humanitarian aid reaching millions of civilians, many of whom are on the verge of death. This is in addition to the tens of thousands who have already been killed in the fighting. A deadly cholera outbreak has now gripped parts of the country, and it is estimated that at least eight million Yemenis are close to starvation in what would be one of the worst man-made famines of recent memory. Some analysts suggest that this is deliberate strategy on the part of Saudi Arabia: unable to win a swift military campaign against the Houthis, it has sought victory via the use of siege tactics, denying the entry of basic goods into the country. Infrastructure has collapsed, and the government barely clings to its titular authority. If Yemen doesn’t count as a devastated nation, then it’s difficult to imagine what would meet that threshold.  

That the Kingdom and its local allies have been able to engage in such barbarous conduct for nigh-on four years is thanks in part to the diplomatic shield provided by the United States. Washington has only made feeble efforts to restrain its ally in the Gulf. In addition to providing the Kingdom with a variety of materiel and military supplies, the US has regularly fuelled its fighter jets (sometimes in mid-air) to enable the smooth continuation of its campaign. It has also provided intelligence and logistical expertise, on the grounds that American participation can moderate Saudi excesses. What began as a relatively limited operation under the Obama Administration — itself morally problematic — has expanded under Donald Trump. The President even recently vetoed a bipartisan resolution to end US participation in the war, despite the untold damage that’s already been wrought.      

There’s little space to examine the US’s calamitous blunders in Syria, where attempts to arm anti-Assad opposition groups have seen American weapons ending up in the hands of radical Islamists. Nor is there time to explore in depth the progenitor for recent US interventionism in the Middle East, the Iraq War — an illegal, “pre-emptive” campaign, grounded in the neo-conservatives’ hubristic notion that the United States has both the right and the moral duty to transform foreign countries into bastions of democracy. Reality, of course, failed miserably to reflect American idealism, which has proven to be an enduring disaster for Iraq and its people. The ripple effects of its destabilisation are still being felt today — not least in the flourishing of ISIS, for which an imploding Iraq acted as a vital incubator.   

Suffice it to say, decrying Iranian participation in Middle Eastern conflicts smacks of double-standards. To claim that Tehran has destabilised the region through such activities ignores the fact that American foreign policy since 2003 has had precisely that effect (and to a far greater degree). We do well to remember the old adage: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. In other words, if the US is going to remain devoted to an adventurist foreign policy — one that has seen it dive headlong into one discretionary war after another — then it shouldn’t be surprised if other countries engage in similar actions based on their own self-perceived interests. Conversely, if it wants to label Iran a security threat by citing its participation in a series of morally ambiguous wars, then it should also be prepared to cast a critical eye over its own role in such ruinous conflicts. 

Glossing over the risks of military engagement

Finally, a word must be said about the extent to which Iran critics are willing to glide over the possible risks of initiating military engagement. This, too, seems to be a product of the overriding aim of strangling the regime and forcing its eventual capitulation. Hawks, like the aforementioned Tom Cotton, make grand declarations concerning the ease with which the United States might prevail in armed conflict with Iran. Cotton’s pronouncement that only “two strikes” would be required to subdue Tehran speaks to the overweening confidence some Iran critics have in the power of military force to achieve their intended goals. His comments are little different from President Trump’s bombastic tweets, or Bolton’s casual recommendation that the US ought to foment regime change in the Islamic Republic (something that would likely necessitate a certain degree of armed involvement, however indirect). 

It’s difficult to reconcile these re-assurances with concurrent claims regarding Iran’s imperial designs; after all, if the country is powerful enough to fulfil its hegemonic ambitions, how could military engagement be “quick and clean”? Either way, however, those like Cotton and Bolton radically understate the inherent complexity of such an undertaking. Thinking that every contingency associated with military action can be safely accounted for, or that an enemy can be easily defeated, is an arrogant and dangerous conceit. Warfare is, by its very nature, an unpredictable beast, even when the most propitious of circumstances prevail. Not only is it frighteningly easy for two countries to stumble into war (whether or not they wish to do so): the length, severity, and costs of armed conflict are likely to far exceed even the most realistic predictions. The bodies of countless young men (and women) lie entombed beneath the earth — forgotten casualties of the breezy optimism that often attends military operations. Most European rulers and military strategists, for example, believed that a relatively brief campaign could be conducted in the wake of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination in June, 1914. Instead, large swathes of the continent were consumed by a war of attrition for more than four years, claiming the lives of some 20 million soldiers and civilians.  It’s a cautionary tale that every political leader ought to heed.

As for any possible conflict between Iran and the US, Middle East security expert, Ilan Goldenberg, recently cast a predictive eye over the potential for escalatory action between the two countries, and the disastrous consequences that could follow. He argued that although neither state really desires direct confrontation, it hardly follows that they will not stumble into conflict. Goldenberg rightly observed that any attempt to use armed force against Iran is likely to see retaliatory action. This could include militarised harassment of US soldiers in theatres such as the Syrian civil war; attacks on Israel via Tehran’s local proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah; or closure of the Strait of Hormuz — one of the most important sea lanes in the world, given its status as a key exit point for the exportation of Middle Eastern oil. It’s worth quoting Goldenberg at length as to what could happen next:

In one scenario, all these escalatory pressures set off a larger conflict…At every turn, Iran tries to save face by showing resolve but stopping short of all-out war; Washington, intent on “re-establishing deterrence,” retaliates a little more aggressively each time. Before long, the two have tumbled into full-scale hostilities. At this point, the United States faces a choice: continue the tit-for-tat escalation or overwhelm the enemy and destroy as much of its military capabilities as possible, as the United States did during Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon recommends “going big” so as not to leave U.S. forces vulnerable to further Iranian attacks. [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the plan. Trump agrees, seeing a large-scale assault as the only way to prevent humiliation.  

Goldenberg went on to outline further implications of such “escalatory pressures”, should they materialize. This is a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But it is still plausible for all that, particularly given the inflammatory rhetoric and “maximum pressure” campaign the US has been mounting against Iran. Even David French (himself a foreign policy interventionist) has admitted that it is entirely possible that current tensions between the US and Iran could culminate in the sight of American military vessels ablaze in the Persian Gulf. 

Once more, the catastrophe of the Iraq War is poignantly instructive. Although then-President George W. Bush stood atop the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003 to declare “mission accomplished” — only six weeks after the commencement of hostilities — we now know that this was absurdly optimistic: Iraq was subsequently plunged into an abyss of sectarian bloodletting, from which it is still slowly emerging. Saddam Hussein’s demise and the destruction of centralising authority rapidly led to the political disembowelment of the country, as rival factions fought with ruthless abandon for supremacy. The true number of Iraqis who have violently lost their lives in the 16-year war is likely to remain a mystery. For the United States, the loss has been measured in the 35,000 military casualties sustained since 2003 (including 4,400 deaths), as well as untold quantities of materiel at a cost of well over $2 trillion. 

Contrast Iraq with present-day Iran. At the time the war began, Iraq was a country of roughly 25 million people, with a decaying military and an economy asphyxiated by many years of American-led sanctions. Although it’s true that Iran’s current economic situation is relatively parlous, it remains far stronger than Saddam Hussein’s domain was 16 years ago. And, with a population of 80 million, it is much larger — meaning that if a confrontation evolves into open warfare, any effort to subdue the country would be far more gruelling (not to mention far bloodier). A country like Iran would strain American military capabilities to their limit, especially if the goal were to mutate into Tehran’s utter defeat. It’s difficult to know what victory would look like under such circumstances; given Iran’s relative power and size, the cost in lives alone would be abhorrently high. Needless to say, they would be devastating for both the country itself and the region-at-large. And even though the US could, given its remoteness, contain some of the costs associated with such action, full-scale conflict would nevertheless exact a terrible price in blood and treasure. But again, Iran hawks, like their ideological forebears in the run-up to the Iraq War, fail to reckon with the foreseeable tragedies flowing from such a foolhardy endeavour.*

Concluding thoughts

Many policy-makers, pundits, and commentators in the American foreign policy sector seem to inhabit a Manichean universe, in which a righteous United States is forever pitted against an array of devilish foes. For disciples of American interventionism, Iran is just the latest villainous actor to appear on the international stage, against which the unrivalled goodness of American power ought to be applied. This is not a new worldview — nor a new danger — by any means: in 1821, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, warned the then-infant nation against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy”. Of course, since that time, the United States has confronted a ceaseless litany of state and non-state “monsters”. Some have certainly deserved the label; others, however, have been created out of whole cloth by a political and intellectual elite intent on forgetting Quincy’s words.

It is this moralising ideology that ultimately lies behind the arguments Iran hawks proffer, animating them with whatever persuasive power they possess. As I have sought to show, those arguments rest upon an unstable mix of distortions, exaggerations, and the suppression of inconvenient truths. Intellectual calumnies like these need to be exposed for what they are. To be sure, the relative cogency of arguments like mine may matter little: existential narratives, which supply a nation with an overarching sense of purpose and resolve, are often more seductive than the kind of unromantic analysis I have tried to conduct here. Suffice it to say, the overweening role ideological idealism plays in driving contemporary approaches to American foreign policy — and in particular, Iran — cannot be ignored.

The US’s allies, including Australia, must therefore make every effort to forge an independent position on the question of Iran. Even if Canberra wasn’t considering some involvement in the crisis, there would still be ample reason for concern. But as I noted at the beginning of this essay, my disquiet has been amplified by reports suggesting that the Australian Government is mulling some kind of contribution. I can only hope that policy-makers in Canberra are able to see beyond the critical myopia of their American counterparts, and acknowledge that Iran, for all the odium it so richly deserves, cannot be credibly held responsible for the current crisis. As a sovereign nation-state and regional power, Australia has a bevy of well-defined priorities. Following the United States “in search of monsters to destroy” — largely on the basis of half-truths and threat inflation — isn’t one of them. 

*After posting this essay, I read an article in The Moscow Times, which quoted a senior Russian official as saying that Iran would not be alone if the US decided to attack it. Whilst this could be interpreted in a variety of ways, one cannot discount the possibility of Russian military support for Iran if hostilities with the United States were to break out. Although a military campaign against the Islamic Republic would be destructive and prolonged (to say the least), it would pale into insignificance when compared with a conflict involving the Russian Republic.

Pushing and Pulling: Asylum-Seeker Flows, External Drivers, and Government Policy

The following piece began life as a footnote to my previous blog post. However, given that it rapidly metastasized into an essay in its own right, treatment as a separate blog entry was unavoidable. It certainly isn’t for everyone: I spend much of my time trying to conduct some fairly fine-grained analysis, which many people are bound to find rather dull or abstruse. But it does reveal the inevitable complexity of just one element of a much broader issue, and the consequent need for sustained examination.

Introduction

The seemingly interminable debate in Australia over asylum seekers has thrown up a host of subsidiary disputes. One such dispute concerns the comparative weight of external drivers and internal government policies as determinants of asylum seekers’ behaviour. In my previous post on the UN’s condemnation of boat turnbacks, I indicated that the ALP’s decision to dismantle Australia’s tightly-controlled border protection regime in 2008 ultimately led to a massive influx of boat-borne asylum seekers – and with them, the oft-repeated tragedy of drownings on the high seas (some estimates suggest that about 1,200 asylum seekers ended up dying en route to Australia between 2008 and mid-2013). I don’t claim that this was the intention of the government at the time. Not at all. However, I do claim that there exists a causal connection between Australian government policy and the behaviour of asylum seekers – a connection that can produce fatal results.

This remains a controversial opinion. Some have argued that the claim is an unwarranted assumption, not borne out by the evidence. Many advocates, analysts and observers argue that government policy, or “pull factors”, are at best negligible in their influence on asylum-seeking behaviour.

Various attempts have been made to rebut the idea that Australia’s suite of border protection policies affects asylum seekers’ choices in any way. It has been argued, for instance, that asylum seekers are largely ignorant of a country’s domestic legislation concerning border protection and irregular migration. The conclusion is that people seeking asylum are not (directly) influenced by such policy settings, for their conduct cannot be consciously shaped by things of which they are not aware. Others have asserted that the example of New Zealand – which has long had a more relaxed border protection regime than Australia – demonstrates that “pull factors” aren’t all the determinative. Since NZ hasn’t seen a great deal of change in the number of asylum seekers claiming sanctuary within its borders over the past 15-20 years (despite its being just as stable and prosperous as Australia), some have suggested that a country’s policy response to the issues of irregular migration isn’t terribly significant. Opponents of the “pull factors” theory prefer to see “push factors” – external drivers connected with the state of the international environment, or within individual source countries – as far more influential. Whether this means poverty or persecution, war or civil strife, advocates strongly argue in their favour to explain relative changes in asylum-seeker numbers. They cite both statistical and qualitative evidence to substantiate this basic contention.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to dispute the effect that disturbing phenomena such human rights abuses or civil unrest would have on a person’s thinking, or how they might drive someone out of his or her country of origin. That seems to me to be common sense, as does the proposition that the volume of asylum-seeker flows partly reflects the state of human security around the world. But I am far from fully convinced by the positions staked out above, for several reasons.

How Much do Asylum Seekers Really Know?

Regarding the claim that asylum seekers have been greatly unaware of Australia’s policies in this area, the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and legal scholar, has written poignantly of Hazara asylum seekers desperately fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, and being shepherded to Australia by a hazily-understood network of people smugglers – all while being completely ignorant of their ultimate destination, and entrusting themselves to those they believed would be able to guarantee passage to safe territory. There is also formal research which suggests that some asylum seekers know very little about their intended destination, if they know anything at all.

On the other hand, anecdotal data exists indicating that many asylum seekers are very much aware – indeed, quite sensitive to – changes in the government’s border protection policies. I have already referred to the outgoing head of the IOM in Indonesia, Mark Getchell, in my previous blog essay. In the related article, he says that both asylum seekers and people smugglers are currently “testing the water” – i.e., they are watching closely for any sign that Australia might relax its policies concerning boat-borne asylum seekers. This is of a piece with other evidence suggesting that asylum seekers aren’t the naïve, ignorant rubes they’re sometimes portrayed to be; many over the years have been monitoring changes in legislation, and have made decisions about their future on the basis of such changes. As journalist, Michael Bachelard, noted a few years ago, some asylum seekers have travelled to Indonesia from their countries of origin “despite full knowledge” of Australian policy in this domain. Why some asylum seekers would travel to Indonesia, knowing they can’t successfully enter Australian territory, is an interesting question. But that some people seeking refuge in our region are often cognizant of the country’s border protection regime seems reasonably clear.

Moreover, even if asylum seekers don’t always appreciate the implications of Australian domestic policy, people smugglers in South-East Asia and elsewhere do. Tightening up the country’s border protection regime – whether by the judicious use of boat turnbacks, or enhanced cooperation with (e.g.) Indonesian authorities – will almost certainly influence the activities of people smugglers, who are the very people asylum seekers rely on to facilitate their passage to Australian territory in the first place. If smugglers realize they can no longer penetrate the “virtual border” erected and maintained by the Australian Navy, or see their networks dismantled by diligent police work, then they have nothing of value to offer the desperate souls they purport to help. Their so-called “business model” eventually collapses, leaving asylum seekers stranded and unable to reach Australian shores. Smugglers, meanwhile, may respond to Australian policy changes by re-directing their activities elsewhere.

The New Zealand “Connection”: A False Analogy

What about the argument that New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed approach to asylum seekers has apparently had no effect on the numbers of such people attempting to enter that country? Does it prove that domestic policy isn’t all that significant in shaping the choices of people in so desperate a situation?

This claim can be dispensed with fairly swiftly. Advocates, such as the online news outlet, Crikey, seem to conflate the two main modes of asylum-seeking into our region: asylum via plane, and asylum sought via boat.[1] To some extent, this is unavoidable, since many reports on asylum-seeker trends do not distinguish between people who entered a territory by plane, and those who entered via some other means (boat, foot, etc.). But in the case of Australia and NZ, the distinction is fairly easy to make, since the latter is highly unlikely — owing to reasons of geography — to receive any asylum seekers arriving by boat. And of course, the issue pertains to such asylum seeking specifically. Isolating boat-borne asylum seekers for the purposes of public policy is not an arbitrary move on the part of the Australian government (whatever one thinks of its basic response). Only one of the two modes of travel has seen people perishing in large numbers. Only one of the two modes of travel relies almost exclusively on deep involvement with criminal networks – involvement that ultimately entrenches and enriches them. And only one of the two modes of travel is effectively unregulated (e.g., passing through unofficial channels and through unofficial access points, carrying people with scanty, or even no, identification), rendering a policy approach that is both open and measured extraordinarily difficult to achieve.[2]

This means that although boat-borne asylum seekers have at times been outweighed by asylum seekers entering the country via plane, the issue is not negligible (pace Crikey). What’s more, during the latter years of the Rudd-Gillard Government, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australian territory via boat far exceeded those arriving by plane. In any case, the key issue concerns the former type of asylum seeking; one needs to compare apples with apples, not with oranges. The volume of asylum applications within NZ territory – the vast majority of which would be made by individuals entering the country via legitimate means – is largely irrelevant to the debate.

Push and Pull Factors: The Weight of Statistics

The Significance of Global Data

Sceptics of the “pull factors” theory have cited statistical data in an effort to undercut whatever explanatory power it might bear. The Crikey piece to which I have already referred provides some interesting – and, one must admit, quite powerful – evidence in this regard. Using regression analysis, the article showed that the relative volume of asylum seekers arriving in Australia between 1994 and 2008 largely reflected global trends. As the writer of the piece argued at the time, “the relative patterns through time of boat arrivals in Australia is itself a function of broader global asylum seeker trends”.

The United Nations’ own statistical data would seem to confirm this, at least on the surface: in a 2011 UNHCR report concerning asylum-seeker trends, author Vivian Tan said that there had been a “dramatic drop” in the number of people claiming asylum around the world during the previous decade. Certain year-on-year differences tell substantially the same story. In 2006, for example, there were 11% fewer asylum claims globally than there were in 2005 (596,000 as against 674,000). It’s also worth observing that the UK-based Migration Observatory showed that the United Kingdom experienced a sharp decline in asylum applications between 2002 and 2005, in much the same way that Australia did during that time. As far as I am aware, the UK did not introduce a raft of restrictive policies, aimed at deterring asylum-seeking behaviour. That fact could be construed as evidence that the strength of a country’s border protection regime does not, in the final analysis, play a very significant role in determining the volume of irregular migration: if the UK and Australia both experienced sharp falls in asylum-seeker numbers, despite adopting different policies towards those looking for sanctuary, then what does this say about the relative strength of “push” and “pull” factors? As a consequence of such information, Crikey concluded that “pull factors” (i.e., government policies) are “simply swamped…” by changes in the global environment (with the implication that domestic policy can do very little, one way or the other, about general asylum-seeker flows).

But Wait a Minute…

The apparent potency of the above data, however, belies a more complicated, more ambiguous, reality. Whilst it’s true that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally fell throughout the 2000s, it is also the case that the Australian experience reveals some subtle (though nonetheless significant) differences. In its report analysing asylum-seeking trends between 2000 and 2002, the UNHCR noted that there was a reduction of 5.4% in the volume of asylum seekers in the 37 industrialised countries it surveyed. This was at about the same time that Australia began to experience a corresponding decline in such numbers. However, the same report also observed that the reduction in Australia had been far steeper, at approximately 50% – almost ten times the rate of decline experienced by the industrialised world as a whole (pp.2-3). Favourable changes in the global environment are insufficient as an explanation; something beyond such shifts would be needed to make this fall completely intelligible. This, of course, was around the same time that the Howard Government dramatically restricted Australia’s border protection regime, in an effort to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats. It’s hard to believe that the imposition of such policies didn’t have any effect on asylum-seeker numbers coming to Australia. Indeed, as academic evidence cited below suggests, policies instituted by the Howard Government at the time contributed materially to subsequent declines.

Similarly, even though industrialised countries around the world experienced a general fall in applications for asylum during the 2000s, we should note that Australia was, at times, an outlier. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the UNHCR reported that the industrialised countries surveyed showed a general fall of 5%, even though Australia experienced a 33% increase in asylum claims (p.6). This coincides with increases across the life of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and comes only two years after the ALP abolished the Howard-era laws composing Australia’s previous border protection regime. As we shall see (cf. linked graph, below), the number of boat-borne asylum seekers swiftly rose from almost nothing in 2008 to well over 5,000 by 2010. Again, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that domestic policy and asylum flows bore a causal link.

A final point on the significance of international data. It’s worth observing differences between Australia and the rest of the industralised world in the years after 2013. Whilst global asylum applications rose at around that time, boat arrivals to Australia continued to flatline. In its 2014 report on global asylum trends, the UNHCR stated that asylum applications within the industralised world had risen by 45%. Europe, North America, and Japan/South Korea all saw sharp increases of between 40%-65%. Australia, however, saw a fall of 23% in asylum arrivals (p.8). Not coincidentally, this was just 12 months after the introduction of a tougher border protection regime under the then-Abbott Government.

The Regional Experience

To this bevy of international data may be added statistical evidence drawn from both Australia and Indonesia. Together, they appear to lend further weight to the notion that domestic policy exerts some power over patterns of asylum seeking. Leaving one’s country of origin, it must be remembered, is only half the journey; one also has to find a safe harbour (as it were). And it is here that I’d argue Australia’s border protection policies have either expanded or constrained asylum seekers’ choices. Not in all cases, of course; but the anecdotal evidence I cited above does indicate that many asylum seekers – and certainly all people smugglers wanting to ferry their human cargo to Australia – calibrate their decisions with alterations in the country’s domestic policy landscape.

Take the following graph, which plots the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers between the mid-1970s and 2016. As one can see from the chart (tracking calendar-year figures), the numbers slowed markedly after 2001 – around the time the Howard Government introduced a panoply of responses designed to deter such activity. In 2008, the Rudd Labor Government, in a fit of moral hubris, all but dismantled that regime; after a brief lag period, the numbers began to rise again, and by 2013, the country had received approximately 50,000 asylum seekers on scores of vessels (including over 20,000 in that year alone). However, a change of government in September 2013 saw a precipitous drop in asylum seeker flows – one that began in the dying days of the second Rudd administration – as Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition implemented its highly militarised “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

These three inflection points – 2002, 2008, and 2013 – imply an intimate connection between changes to Australia’s policy settings and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. If one only had access to data pertaining to the first of those watershed periods, then it might be possible, as the Crikey piece does, to argue that domestic figures simply reflect international trends.[3] But unless successive Australian governments somehow managed to alter the country’s border protection regime at just those moments when global flows of asylum-seeking either rose or fell, then domestic policy changes likely do exert a degree of influence over the decisions individual asylum seekers make. And whilst correlation does not always equal causation, the parallels here are uncanny — leading me to conclude that there is some kind of causal link. Even Robert Manne, who has been harshly critical of Australia’s border protection policies over the years, effectively concedes that government policy has significantly affected the rate of (boat-borne) asylum seeker flows into the country. His view seems to have been partly formed by the weight of this kind of statistical evidence.

Figures concerning asylum-seeker numbers in Indonesia (which has usually functioned as the main staging-post for people hoping to reach Australia by boat) complement this data-driven picture. Back in 2012, for example, IRIN News Agency – a not-for-profit humanitarian media outlet – examined the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia since 2009. The agency reported that there had been a “spike” in those numbers, “from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010”, as reported by the UNHCR. The key watershed moment here lies between 2008 and 2009, when the Rudd Government’s fateful decision to relax Australia’s border laws was made. It was at that time that Indonesia saw a ten-fold increase in the number of (registered) asylum seekers within its borders. I’d argue that those increases can be attributed, at least in part, to the changes wrought by the Rudd Government: as news of those shifts trickled out, would-be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks attempted to take advantage of the new regime. Again, correlation and causation aren’t always well acquainted with each other; however, when this data is combined with statistics cited earlier, the proposition that domestic government policy can shape an asylum seeker’s behaviour – by way of either encouragement or deterrence – takes on a new cogency.

What Can Formal Analyses Tell Us?

Evidence like this is unavoidably probabilistic, of course. But the consistent parallels between alterations in border protection policy, and a shift in the number of (boat-borne) asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia, are striking. This is of a piece with formal research efforts, which have captured both domestic and international experiences in this domain. The aforementioned UNHCR report concerning asylum applications between 2000 and 2002 admitted that government policy “can affect asylum-seeker flows”. It went on to cite the example of Spain, where the imposition of stricter visa controls for Colombian asylum seekers saw applications from that country fall by 56% during the period in question (see p.3). The report also highlighted similar declines in applications within Spanish territory by people from Sierra Leone, largely as a result of similar measures).

Academic studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, Eric Neumayer, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, analysed refugee flows to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of obvious “push factors” at work (war, civil strife, persecution, and so forth), which conspired to drive people out of their native lands in search of refuge. Simultaneously, though, he concluded that the “share going to individual European countries [was] influenced by [the] specific characteristics of those countries” – among which were more lenient policies concerning asylum seekers. Economist, Tim Hatton, suggested much the same thing after analysing the Australian context. The ANU academic estimated that a tougher policy approach on the part of the Howard Government explained about 30% of the decline in arrival numbers in Australia between 1997 and 2006. He did not deny the inevitable power of external drivers, but found that internal policies also worked to shape the behaviour of asylum seekers (incidentally, evidence like this undercuts the assertion that desperate asylum seekers simply aren’t deterred by a country’s border protection regime, even if they are aware of such a regime in the first place. At least in some cases, they plainly are deterred).

Surveying the Global Situation: A Case-Study

So much for the quantitative evidence; what of the qualitative evidence? Some observers appeal to specific phenomena which reflect the state of the global security environment (i.e., “push factors”). In so doing, they purport to substantially explain the ebb and flow of asylum-seeker movements. But these, too, may rest on fragile assumptions, a selective use of data, or inadequate analysis. John Menadue’s article on the issue is a case-in-point. In that piece, the former public servant asserts that the fall in asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from 2002 was not due to the Howard Government’s suite of border protection policies – off-shore processing, boat turnbacks, and increased cooperation with Indonesian authorities – but rather to propitious changes in the global environment. Menadue cites the War in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban (October 2001-) as an example: the US-led intervention did eventually see several million Afghans return to their war-ravaged country. He concludes that events like these, and not domestic border policy, were largely responsible for general declines in people seeking asylum here. Menadue makes other gestures in this direction as he seeks to undercut the notion that Australian government policy can affect asylum-seeker flows, one way or the other.

I have no wish to deny the truth of Menadue’s claims, at least in narrow terms; the Afghan War and the Taliban’s (initial) demise have indeed exerted some influence on international migration patterns by making a return to Afghanistan more attractive for many locals. Nevertheless, several telling observations may be made in relation to Menadue’s argument. First, he, like others, simply conflates boat-borne asylum seekers with all asylum seekers (regardless of their means of entry). But as I have already noted, the question concerns the causal connection – if any – between Australian government policy and the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers specifically. The numerical evidence I cited earlier provides a fairly compelling picture of just such a connection.

Second, there is reason to believe that in the case of some national and ethnic groups, domestic policy settings may have indeed been decisive – or at least highly effective – in shaping the decisions of would-be asylum seekers and their ersatz migration agents. Menadue (perhaps unintentionally) ignores this evidence. Iraq is a particularly revealing case study. Menadue cites the so-called “Surge” in that country – a massive build-up of American troops during and after 2007, aimed at stabilising the fragile security situation there – as a partial driver of refugee and asylum seeker flows at that time. However, he fails to deal properly with other pertinent evidence.

An examination of what occurred, in both Australia and Iraq, after 2008 will make the point clearer. I have already noted the significant increase in boat arrivals to Australia between 2008-09 and 2013, many of which contained Iraqi nationals. Such was the volume that in 2012, the academic, Helen Ware, could write that Iraq was still one of the top three source countries for so-called “boat people” (the others being Afghanistan and Iran). Interestingly, this increase coincided with significant improvements in the security situation in Iraq. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has observed, “US sources estimated in early January 2010 that the overall number of security incidents in Iraq had decreased by 83% over the past two years…IED attacks in Iraq decreased nearly 80%…and car-bomb and suicide-vest attacks had decreased by 92%” (p.4). Iraq was hardly a model of peace and stability by 2010, to be sure; nevertheless, the country witnessed a significant fall in violent incidents as the sectarian strife of the previous few years began to subside. The relative declines in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers globally seems to reflect this: the UNHCR, for example, revealed that in 2012, the number of asylum seekers from Iraq fell to less than 20,000 — down from a figure of approximately 40,000 four years earlier (p.18). The report suggested that improved security was in part responsible for this shift. And yet, Australia saw a relative increase in the number of Iraqi nationals seeking aslyum via boat during this period (of course, the overall “pool” of Iraqi asylum seekers remained quite large during this time. The point, however, is that whilst global figures fell, Australian figures rose. This is counter-intuitive, at least according to an analysis guided by the “push factors” theory).

Thus, the volume of Iraqi asylum seekers entering the country began to rise steeply from 2009 – as part of a general rise in boat-borne asylum seekers attempting to enter the country – despite material improvements in Iraq’s security situation. Again, if the “push factors” hypothesis is as strong as advocates assert, then it stands to reason that we should have witnessed the reverse of what actually occurred, at least in the case of potential asylum seekers from Iraq. We should have seen, in other words, relatively low numbers in the few years after the American “Surge” campaign, when the country entered a period of comparative stability. The fact that we didn’t leads me to conclude that external factors were not always the only – or even the main – driver of the number of boat-borne asylum seekers entering Australia. Something else, it seems, was at work; the only other viable candidate is Australian government policy.

***

This brings me back to the original point at issue – namely, whether government policy can affect asylum-seeking behaviour. If my analysis has any merit, then it would appear that so-called “pull factors” can affect one’s pattern of decision-making, and do so substantially. In the case of the Howard and Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments, it has led to a reduction in the number of boat-borne asylum seekers. In the case of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, on the other hand, it produced a dramatic increase in such numbers, accompanied by a consequent rise in deaths at sea.

[1] To be fair, the Crikey piece later concedes that there may be some divergence in numbers based on mode of entry (i.e., airborne vs. boat-borne asylum seekers). But if that is so, then what is the point of citing NZ in the first place? In what way is it a relevant comparator if one is only interested in asylum seekers who travel by boat (of whom NZ receives very few, if any)?

[2] A certain level of regulation would require any government to at least approximate some of the policies that have so far been used by Australian authorities; the alternative is simply hoping that overall asylum-seeker flows would be moderated by a relatively benign international environment.

[3] We should bear in mind that the Crikey piece was only written in 2009. As such, it would have been impossible for the author to take into account the longer-term implications associated with the Rudd Government’s abandonment of Howard-era policies in 2008. These were yet to be fully felt a mere 12 months later. And of course, not having the power of time travel, the author would have been unable to respond to the significance – if any – of the Abbott Government’s changes in this domain in 2013.