Giacomo Balla Line of speed

As another year draws to a close, here are some of the highlights of a year of Pandaemonium in 2017.


Liberalism, populism and democracy

In my first essay of the year, I wrote that ‘Democracy, on the surface at least, is in rude health. It is liberalism that is in trouble.’

I gave the keynote address at the 2017 Karlsruhe Dialogues on ‘The Pluralistic Society and its Enemies’. The subject of my talk was ‘Can Diversity Embrace Democracy? Can Democracy Acknowledge Diversity?’  I also gave a talk at the European School of Politics in Istanbul on ‘Populism and immigration’.

I wrote of the conflict over Catalan independence that ‘The authority of both democracy and the rule of law depend upon political legitimacy. That is what neither side possesses.’

In an essay on the controversy over Donald Trump’s retweeting of tweets by the far-right Britain First, I argued that, in common with much contemporary political discussion, it ‘had the feel less of a political debate than of online trolling’. I wrote also of the contemporary character of polarised societies, arguing that ‘Social divides today seem more intractable because they have become disconnected from social movements.’

I contributed an essay, ‘Proud to be British?’, for a collection of essays on British identity published by Demos. ‘Thirty years ago’, I wrote, ‘I was an angry outsider knocking on the door of a nation uncomfortable with my presence. Today, I am as at ease with my Britishness as Britain is with me; I refuse, however, to reduce that relationship to an unthinking patriotism. What links the old me to the current me is an insistence that common values are important but that these can emerge only through political contestation and struggle.’

I took part in a debate at the Melbourne Festival of Questions on ‘What is Right? What is Left?’ 



I wrote a post about Osman Kavala, the Turkish intellectual who was arrested in October and is still held without charge in solitary confinement.

I gave a talk on ‘Free speech and unsafe spaces’ to a conference Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.  And  one entitled ‘From The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo’ at the Integrity 20 conference in Brisbane. ‘The journey from the Satanic Verses controversy to the Charlie Hebdo killings’, I suggested, ‘ shows how the response to the first helped lay the ground for the second. We have learnt the wrong lessons of the Rushdie affair. A quarter of a century on, it’s time we started learning the right ones.’

I wrote an essay for a collection by the Runnymede Trust to mark the 20th anniversary of its influential 1997 report on Islamophobia. I questioned the very use of the term, arguing that it ‘makes it more difficult to challenge bigotry and discrimination against Muslims’.

In an essay on the debate about Indigenous rights in Australia, I argued that it seems ‘to take place on only two registers: on one hand, silence and, on the other, a romanticization of Indigenous life.’

I wrote a short post on the scandal of ‘non-compete’ contracts in the USA, the consequence of which are ‘to give employers ownership over  work experience as well as over work’ and to create a rigged labour market and keep wages artificially low.

On the anniversary of the 1943 uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto, I published musical tributes from Paul Robeson and Arnold Schönberg.


Identity & appropriation

I gave a talk on why ‘Not all politics is identity politics’. I also reviewed Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal, arguing that ‘Between them, Lilla and his critics sum up well the impasse of contemporary politics on the left’.

I wrote an essay on cultural appropriation for the New York Times that caused considerable controversy. ‘The accusation of cultural appropriation’, I argued, ‘is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy.’  I responded to one of my critics, Briahna Joy Gray. ‘It is’, I wrote, ‘a measure of the confusion of our times that so many self-proclaimed radicals imagine, too, that a political approach that is deeply conservative, and draws upon ideas of culture that lie at the roots of racial thinking, can somehow challenge racism and exploitation.’ Art Review published a talk I gave on the art and politics of cultural appropriation in which I argued that the campaigns against cultural appropriation embody a notion of ‘social justice… not as the erasure of exploitative structures but merely as the possibility of ‘cultural fairness’ within them’.


Race, culture & difference

I wrote a essay on whether, and how, university curricula should be ‘decolonized’, interviewing among others, staff and students at SOAS, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Jonathan Israel.

I took a debate about cross-cultural adoption as the starting point for an essay on the relationship between race and culture. Another adoption controversy, this time in Tower Hamlets, led to an article on the difficulties contemporary society has in talking about Muslims: ‘Neither side is able to talk about Muslims as a normal part of British life, with the usual range of achievements and inadequacies, but only as ciphers for other issues. More than simply bigotry, this failure to find an adequate language through which to discuss Muslims and Islam bedevils public debate.’

I was interviewed for a documentary series on France Culture on social policies towards immigration and integration in France and Britain.



In the aftermath of the attack on pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in March, I argued that recent terror attacks ‘expose both how the character of ideological violence has degenerated and how rage has become a feature of public life’. I extended this argument is a talk I gave at the Kreisky Forum in Vienna on ‘The challenge of the jihadi state of mind’.

After the Manchester Arena bombing in May, I wrote of jihadism in the context of ‘the transformation in what it means to be disaffected’. ‘If we are serious about combating the scourge of homegrown jihadism’, I argued, ‘we need not just to denounce jihadists as evil, but also to look at how the shifting social landscape has given them space to act as they do – and at how we can remake that landscape’.

After the London Bridge attack in June, I wrote of failure of government anti-terror policy.


Fake news & post-truth

In an essay on fake news, I argued that there is nothing new in fake news.  I argued, too, that ‘If the problem of fake news is more complex than is commonly suggested, the solutions offered are often worse than the problem itself.’ On the debate about the ‘post-truth’ world, I suggested that ‘This is not so much a post-truth world as a world of too many disengaged ‘truths’. A world that is simultaneously both too relative and too absolute.’



I gave a talk at the State Library of New South Wales on morality and its history. A discussion at the Byron Writers Festival  on ‘Living Ethically’, in which I took part, was broadcast on ABC’s big ideas programme, as was a discussion on morality and history with Paul Barclay at the Bendigo Writers Festival.

I wrote an essay on the moral confusions in our attitudes to death, contrasting the debate about Charlie Gard, a baby whose life support doctors wanted to end against the wishes of his parents, and that about Noel Conway, a terminally ill man who wanted the law to accept assisted suicide.

I gave 2017 RICS Harris lecture on ‘The common good’, arguing that ‘The common good was always the common good of the few, not of the many’.


From Fatwa to Jihad

A new, updated edition of From Fatwa to Jihad, with a new Afterwordwas published this year. I wrote a post on why it needed updating and published an extract from the Afterword.


Book reviews

I reviewed Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, describing it as ‘an important and necessary challenge to the contemporary celebration of empathy and deprecation of reason’.

In a review of Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment, Cemil Aydin’s The Idea of the Muslim World and  Tariq Ramadan’s Islam: The Essentials, I explored the complex relationship between Islam, modernity, and the West.


Art, music & poetry

I reviewed the Royal Academy show of Russian revolutionary art. In contrast to most critics, I thought it ‘a curatorial mess, haphazardly lumping together works in a way that helps illuminate neither artistic nor political developments in post-revolutionary Russia.’ A Giaometti exhibition at the Tate Modern led me to republish an extract from Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay on the sculptor.

I published a photographic post on José Clemente Orozco’s The Epic of American Civilization mural at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.

There was a short tribute to Thelonious Monk, on the occasion of the centenary of his birth.

I republished an essay by E Thomas Finan, originally published in The Millions, on Derek Walcott, the great Caribbean poet who died in March. I suggested ‘five poems that won’t be heard at Donald Trump’s inauguration, but perhaps should be’. And I posted two poems by Langston Hughes – Dreams and A Dream Deferred.



Among the photographers whose work I covered this year were Malick Sidibé , Mel Rosenthal and Khadija Saye, one of the tragic victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in June.

I published a series of photographic posts from Australia, including a series on dawn and dusk at Uluru and Kata Tjuta, at the Sydney Opera House,  and in Byron Bay, the most easterly point in Australia. Other photographic posts from Australia included ones on Bruce Munro’s ‘Field of Light’ installation at Uluru and rock art in Ubirr and Burrungguy. Away from Australia, I found beauty in bleak landscapes and explored the changing face of Harlem.


Top posts

These are the ten most-read posts of last year.

Not all politics is identity politics

Why hate speech should not be banned

On those ‘difficult conversations’

The failure of multiculturalism

On the Enlightenment’s ‘race problem’

Rethinking the challenge of anti-Muslim bigotry

Not post-truth as too many truths

Why both sides are wrong in the race debate

Decolonizing our minds?

Marx and morality

Since five of those posts were published prior to 2017 (Why hate speech should not be banned, The failure of multiculturalism, On the Enlightenment’s ‘race problem’, Why both sides are wrong in the race debate and Marx and morality), here are the top 10 posts actually from 2017

Not all politics is identity politics

On those ‘difficult conversations’

Rethinking the challenge of anti-Muslim bigotry

Not post-truth as too many truths

Decolonizing our minds?

The challenge of the jihadi state of mind

Appropriating confusion

Free speech and unsafe spaces

In search of the common good

How culture came to appropriate race


Finally, my thanks to all readers of, and contributors to, Pandaemonium. And most especially to all the Patrons. And best wishes to all for 2018.



The image is ‘Line of Speed’ by Giacomo Balla. 

One comment


    P268 highlights how the egoism at the core of the enlightenment ideals has entrenched self-interest at the core of our social, economic and political life which at the same time fragments society into individualised interests over and above common values.

    I thought it appropriate to identify specifically moral egoism because I can’t remember if you have mentioned it or not.

    Whilst we have different views of the good society, I think we share the desire of how to transform moral egoism to a more communitarian/collective/collaborative perspective without recourse to ‘conservative’ institutions such as race, ethnicity, church or family or without recourse to ‘liberal’ institutions such as identity, multiculturalism or the state.

    Maybe we are looking at civic democracy but as of yet I’m yet to learn what you want common values to be centred around. You know for me it is ecological sustainability and the democratic management of national ecological capacity.

    Look forward to more of your inspiring work.
    All the best for 2018.

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