Sensemaker: Culture wars

Tuesday 16 February 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • A rocket attack on an airbase in northern Iraq killed one foreign contractor and injured at least five others, including several Americans.
  • Myanmar’s military junta offered a “guarantee” that it would hold new elections and hand power to the winner, but no date was set.
  • Putin’s spokesman said Elon Musk’s invitation to the Russian president to a conversation on the Clubhouse chat site was “an interesting proposal”.

Culture wars

The education secretary for England has announced a plan that would allow people disinvited from speaking at higher education institutions to sue universities if they think their free speech has been infringed. Free speech on campus is an issue that certainly does not merit this level of ministerial attention. But our political class is made up of people who went to more external speaker meetings at university with politicians than proper lectures.

The whole thing, though, is about political signalling – so too is a plan to impose a “free speech tsar”. It is unclear what these things will do that the 1986 Education Act does not. There have been requirements for institutions to show they have a code of practice for maintaining free speech since before Thatcher left office. This will not have any on-the-ground consequences.

But it is of a piece with the government’s decision to meet 25 heritage bodies to lecture them about their approach to controversial artefacts: it is part of ministers’ concern about “rewriting history”. I have to say I am confused about what the government thinks the historians paid with taxpayer funds do if not rewrite history. They’re not bards passing down an epic poem. Their job is to reassess. But ministers are worried about too much reassessing of the slave trade and Empire in funding the stately homes that still dot the country. 

Their solution is odd. The government’s position is that contentious artefacts should be “retained and explained” rather than hidden. But that is precisely what the heritage institutions have sought to do and been attacked for. The National Trust’s review of links between its properties and slavery was intended to allow exactly this kind of contextualisation. But the government is dead set on being seen to fight the “woke”.


New things technology, science, engineering

Free speech on Facebook 
Facebook’s Oversight Board, a sort-of semi-independent body, is set to announce whether it plans ever to allow former president Donald Trump to reclaim his Facebook pages. I have to confess to feeling that the world has felt much calmer since his ability to continually rap at the window was finally switched off. 


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The Capitol riot
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, has decided to set up an inquiry into the events of 6 January, when rightwingers stormed the US Capitol. The inquiry, modelled on the 9/11 Commission, would seek to tie together what happened. Its significance is that it is likely to repeatedly re-pose the question of what to do about the Trumpist bloc inside the Republican party. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Trade war
China is looking into restricting exports of rare earth materials used by US defence contractors, apparently as a way of denying them to America’s armed forces (FT $). US-China relations are not improving noticeably since the accession of Joe Biden to the White House – but then China is an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive state, and one that is committing a crime against humanity in Xinjiang. Next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics will be a test case for the world’s commitment to human rights.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Returning to normal? 
The UK is to consider using fast turnaround lateral flow tests to allow some mass events to reopen. Theatres and nightclubs, say, could ask people to take a swab. The hope would be that anyone infectious would have a high enough viral load to be picked up by the test. It is unclear how this might work – but rather than a vaccine passport, you might get a test passport. Before turning up, for example, you might need to have passed a test within a set number of hours before curtain-up.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Frozen turbines
Yesterday we mentioned the cold that has smashed into the US. The scale and impact of the freeze are now coming into focus: around 150 million Americans are now living under weather warnings. The NYT ($) has a neat map showing how the whole interior of the US is experiencing temperatures below freezing – with a huge chunk below zero degrees fahrenheit (-18 degrees celsius). The big trouble that is brewing now is that the country’s energy grids are struggling – a combination of higher demand plus difficulties with supply. Natural gas supplies have been bought up by homes and wind turbines are frozen up. The depths of this winter might become quite a good case for the building-back-better infrastructure spending that Joe Biden campaigned on. 

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can. 

Chris Cook
@xtophercook

Photographs by Getty Images

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