Argumentum ad Baseball Bat

Something I haven’t written about, since starting the blog, has been argumentum ad baculum: the use of threats in order to persuade someone to do, or not to do, something that you don’t want them to do.

As this is a blog containing mainly my reactions to and interpretations of what I observe around me, this neglect stemmed from my not noticing examples of it. The only notable instance that I remember was the managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s attempt to prevent the government from cutting funding to his organisation by threatening to remove Peppa Pig from television scheduling – a pathetic and hollow threat summed up dismissivley by one commentator at Catallaxy as

Give us more money or the pig gets it‘.

Of course, I may have missed a number of examples simply by not paying attention and noticing. But, by its nature, the argumentum ad baculum is not something you would expect to see very much in ordinary conversation at any level in society – except perhaps bikie clubs, drug gangs, yakuza, etc, that sort of milieu – because it is usually both a last, desperate resort, and, as the name suggests, a resort to threats of violence. So its appearing recently in a number of situations has provoked my interest and I think invites comment.

 *  *  *

The first situation concerns the approaching ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom, in which the electorate will vote on the question or whether or not to leave the European Union. This is clearly a big decision to make, with considerable geopolitical consequences, and as a result the people who most don’t want it to happen – the US president, and the UK prime minister – have come out swinging.

First, President Obama:

‘I think it’s fair to say that maybe some point down the line there might be a UK-US trade agreement, but it’s not going to happen any time soon because our focus is on negotiating with a big bloc, the European Union, to get a trade agreement done. The UK is going to be in the back of the line.’

He also warned that British voters should be wary of cutting themselves off from the market that takes 44% of British exports and is ‘responsible for millions of jobs and an enormous amount of commerce upon which a lot of businesses depend.’

That’s right, the quality of debate has fallen to ‘stay in or you don’t get a trade agreement’. What makes this even worse is that this is an empty threat, as these people make clear (the film is worth watching in full).

Across the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese government’s response to slowing economic activity, and consequent problems for companies, is ‘don’t talk about it … or else …’:

When it comes to dealing with the mass media and its impact on public confidence, China has a long and illustrious history of not beating around the bush.  Last summer around the time its stock market bubble started to crack, Beijing banned the use of such terms as “equity disaster” and“rescue the market.” Then earlier this year, China’s president Xi Jingping visited the country’s three big state news organizations, Xinhua, the People’s Daily and China Central Television, to lecture them on the need to toe the party line, “tell China’s stories well” and enhance the nation’s influence in the world.

After all, hinting that not all is as it appears in official propaganda soundbites would merely instill further lack of confidence in the economy and accelerate the stealthy capital outflows from the country (while making the Vancouver real estate market even more entertaining).

Now, according to the WSJ, Chinese authorities have set their sights on a new set of targets: “economists, analysts and business reporters with gloomy views on China’s economy.”

While in the US and the rest of the free world, anyone who holds a less than bullish view of things is simply marginalized as a conspiracy theorist, ridiculed by establishment economists and pundits, is the recipient of mainstream media hit pieces, or denigrated by the president as “peddling fiction”, China has decided to take a more blunt approach: “securities regulators, media censors and other government officials have issued verbal warnings to commentators whose public remarks on the economy are out of step with the government’s upbeat statements.”

Take the example of Lin Caiyi, chief economist at Guotai Junan Securities who has been outspoken about rising corporate debt and a glut of housing and the weakening Chinese currency. According to the WSJ, she received a warning in recent weeks, her second, from her state-owned firm’s compliance department, which instructed her to avoid making “overly bearish” remarks about the economy, particularly the currency.

For now it is just verbal warnings although if past is prologue we expect China will soon incarcerate at least a few of its “rogue” bearish economists to send a very clear signal that any lack of upbeat commentary will not be tolerated.

Meanwhile, China’s economy is doing so well, that as a result of “pressure” by financial regulators bent on stabilizing the market, stock analysts at brokerage firms are becoming wary of issuing critical reports on listed companies. At least one Chinese think tank  was told by propaganda officials not to cast doubt on a planned government program to help state companies reduce debt.

Und so weiter.

Meanwhile, in the muslim world:

[S]hould Europe deny anything Turkey wants, [Turkish President Erdogan] will simply open the gates leading to spiraling political chaos of the type already seen in Austria and Germany where anti-immigrant parties have stormed higher in the political polls in recent months.

Confirming precisely that, was a warning by Burhan Kuzu, a high-ranking deputy for Turkey’s ruling AKP party and former adviser to President Erdogan, who said that Ankara will send migrants back to the EU if the European Parliament won’t grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens.  Kuzu made several statements on Twitter in anticipation of Wednesday’s session of European parliament, at which visa exemption for Turkish nationals in the Schengen zone, as part of a migrant deal between Brussels and Ankara, was to be discussed.

“The European Parliament will discuss the report that will open Europe visa-free for Turkish citizens. If the wrong decision is taken, we will unleash  the refugees!” in what was an unmistakable threat.

He also told Bloomberg: “If Turkey’s doors are opened, Europe would be miserable.

“Europe is on the edge of an important decision: It will decide on Turkey’s visa-free travel rights today. If a positive decision comes out, this is also a benefit for Europe,” the MP wrote in a separate tweet.

As RT writes, it’s not the first time the deputy has threatened to flood Europe with over 2 million migrants from North Africa and Middle East, stranded in Turkish refugee camps.“Finally the EU understood Turkey’s stake and loosened its purse strings. What did we say? ‘We will open the borders and set Syrian migrants on you’,” he wrote back in December 2015.

And staying in the muslim world:

[London Mayor Sadiq] Khan brushed aside Trump’s suggestion that he would exempt him from his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, and said that “this isn’t just about me – it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world,” he said. Quoted by the Telegraph, Khan added: “Donald Trump’s ignorant view of Islam could make both of our countries less safe – it risks alienating mainstream Muslims around the world and plays into the hands of extremists.”

Yes, that’s right: don’t take measures against the violence perpetrated by koran-faithful muslims, because that will just make them engage in more violence against you.

 *  *  *

These examples are fairly quotidian and mundane – unsophisticated people making gauche statements intended to scare others into complying with their wishes. So far, so mundane.

But there was, I think, one example which caught my attention for its sophistication. Not necessarily the sophistication of the threat, which is always a ‘lowest common denominator’ thing. But the way that the perpetrator made public a conversation they were having with the object of their intimidation. The intimidation was only there if you looked through what was happening on the surface: fail to do this, and you might get caught up in those surface matters, as I initially did before realising the strangeness of the whole episode and discussing it with a perceptive, insightful and thoroughly unsentimental friend of mine.

What caught my attention initially were an increasing number of reports about the possibility that the US government might release the 28-pages of the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, otherwise known as the 9-11 Commission, that the executive had concluded it was not in the interests of the country to release and thus had suppressed.

The reports, including a segment on the programme 60 Minutes, tended to feature people associated with the Commission urging the government to release the 28 pages, which many who either wrote them or who have read them claim implicate various Saudis in the conspiracy to perpetrate the attacks, including well-connected and wealthy Saudis and some working within the Saudi government.

Hearing talk of a possible release of the 28 pages piqued my interest. I had for a long time been indifferent to discussion of the 9-11 attacks: they happened, they were terrible, we knew who did them, the administration blundered terribly in invading two countries without a plan, one of which had nothing to do with the attacks, nothing else to see. Until one day a couple of years ago when this same friend encouraged me to re-visit the publicly-available information about the attacks and re-examine what I thought about them.

After having steeled myself to watch hours of hideous footage concerning the attacks, and repressed the response of physical repulsion to what I had seen, I was quite surprised at the quantity of analysis of the attacks that was available on the internet, a lot of it mediocre but some of it of very high quality. Some people had put a lot of time into looking at the evidence, asking questions, and seeking answers to those questions with one hypothesis or another. One could be skeptical of their conclusions, but one couldn’t easily dismiss the anomalies that they had uncovered, which raised questions about the official narrative of the attacks. And, apart from this topic being inherently fascinating, given my interest in thinking and the processes of the mind I was also interested in how these people reached their conclusions, assessed evidence, tested hypotheses, etc.

So of course, when I heard snippets of information that the US government might release the 28 pages, I was pleased: here was a chance not only to learn more about how the 19 hijackers, 15 of them Saudis, were supported while they were in the US preparing for the attacks, and who supported them, but also, possibly, to begin a re-appraisal of the whole attack and shed light on some of those anomalies, controversies and unanswered questions that independent investigators had discovered and brought to the world’s attention. The reason being, I didn’t believe that the Saudis who supported the hijackers could possibly have carried out their work without the knowledge of, and therefore without at least the tacit permission of, people within the US security services. It simply was not possible that people on terrorist watch-lists would be allowed into the US, and enabled to carry out their plans, without the security services knowing about it and watching them.

I had an idea of dominoes falling: the release of the information about the Saudis in the 28 pages leading to the Saudis, to protect themselves, releasing information about their cooperation with US security services, leading to a release of information about decision-making in those security services, and so on. All for the good: the more information, the better.

But soon after my critical mind kicked in: why was this being discussed now? It was almost 15 years since the attacks had taken place, they were beginning to disappear into the mists of time, buried under the new memories and outrages accumulated since then. There had always been pressure for the release of the 28 pages, to which the government had responded with flat denials, and which the media had ignored – except to dismiss those intent on investigating the attacks as crackpot ‘truthers’.

So, what had changed?

I have a hypothesis that sudden emergences of information don’t happen by accident. When an issue like this, long-buried and dismissed as being the province of crackpots, suddenly, and for no apparent reason, enters the main-stream, it happens as a result of coordination by powerful people. Someone wanted the information to be there. And they were likely using trusted media contacts, and the excuse of national security, in order to get their message out in a form that suited them.

Don’t think that it doesn’t happen.

So, assuming that was the case – what was the game here? What did these people want?

The information was clearly embarrassing for the Saudis. The information in the 28 pages implicates some of their most powerful, wealthy and influential people in providing support for the conspiracy behind the attacks. But this is not new information, and for so long, the US has done everything it could to divert attention from it. Something has to have changed in the US-Saudi relationship for the US to want to embarrass the Saudis. And it has to have been something serious. Playing around with information about atrocities of the scale of 9-11 is not something done lightly. This is a weighty matter.

It’s fair to say that the decades-long US-Saudi strategic partnership is now under severe strain:

  • the Saudis are profoundly aggrieved by the US accommodation of Iran’s strategic objectives (which in itself looks bizarre, given that the US appears to have given Iran everything it wants without appearing to have received anything in return – unless the aim was simply to upset the Saudis, in which case ‘well played’);
  • the development of technological solutions to extracting energy from the US’ immense reserves of shale oil and gas have significantly reduced its dependence on imported energy products, and thus also its political dependence on the countries which dominate provision of those products;
  • the US and Saudis are not in complete alignment on Saudi involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen – although the US has gone a long way to accommodating the Saudis in Syria by calling for Assad’s removal and by mostly leaving Islamic State alone to do its thing: the Russian decimation, in a few weeks, of Islamic State showed just how little the US had done to roll these beasts up.


(To be continued).


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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