Cancellation – the upgrade

In the playground at school in the distant past, there was the ultimate sanction: if you’d got up too many people’s noses, you were sent to that far-off land called Coventry. No-one would speak to you or play with you. You were ostracised. Quite where the expression came from is now impossible to say, but there is no lack of suggestions as to its origin. They tend to relate to the time of the Civil War. Coventry was loyal to the Parliamentarians. One protestant minister who lived in Kidderminster, a town very supportive of Catholicism, and so to the Royalist cause, found himself having to leave. In his journal: “Driven from Kidderminster”, the English theologian Richard Baxter (1615-91) found refuge at Coventry for two years from the end of 1642. He explained in Reliquiae Baxterianae (published in 1696) that he was not the only one to do so:
Thus when I was at Coventry the religious part of my neighbours at Kidderminster that would fain have lived quietly at home, were forced (the chiefest of them) to be gone. And to Coventry they came; and some of them that had any estates of their own, lived there on their own charge; and the rest were fain to take up arms and be garrison soldiers, to get them bread.
Today’s more modern version of being sent to Coventry - and not just used in the playground - is cancellation - a refusal to engage in any sort of discussion with people of the decried opinion. On the internet, in a less than intellectual atmosphere, there can be a storm of protest against someone who does not conform with current thinking. They are forced off social media.

All of this, however, raises a number of moral dilemmas. At the very least, there is the question of likely over-reaction in the face of something actually quite minor. Then there is the question of how the affected person can ‘repent’, and so be brought back into society or at least the part of society engaged in his cancellation. How far back should we look to find examples of things said which do not now accord with ‘proper’ thinking? Is there no Statute of Limitations for this type of immorality?

Proper procedure is followed in the courts for actual crimes, but for what is only socially unacceptable behaviour, it seems that only the condemning masses, just like the playground bully of yesterday,  can tell us the answers, because they are the ones who are prosecutors, juries, judges and gaolers and it’s unlikely that they have a considered opinion or indeed have ever thought seriously about it.

But now we’re going one step further and, in my view, remaining on the moral high ground in doing so. There has been over the last couple of weeks an attempt to cancel an entire country - Russia - by governments around the world. The EU, the USA, Britain and others have hit Russia with a wide range of sanctions after its invasion of Ukraine, imposing asset freezes on property around the world owned directly, or more likely through shell companies, by Oligarchs. There are travel bans and other restrictions on numerous Russian individuals including President Vladimir Putin himself. The EU has frozen part of what it calls "Putin's war chest" by banning its transactions and freezing all its assets in the 27-nation bloc. This is meant to make it impossible for the Russian central bank to liquidate its assets. It will also ban EU investors from trading in Russian state bonds.

Together with the United States and EU, Britain has barred British entities from transactions with Russia's central bank, finance ministry and sovereign wealth fund. Measures have been imposed to prevent Russian companies from issuing transferable securities and money market instruments, and Russia cannot sell sovereign debt in the UK, the USA or the EU either.  Oh, and most of their super-yachts around the world have been impounded, including one said actually to belong to Putin. A definite downer for Putin and his chums.

Businesses of many different types have also joined in the cancellation of Russia, although not all for the same reason and I suspect not really out of support for Ukraine. A number of the top international law and accountancy firms have closed their operations in Moscow. No doubt they are portraying their actions as being in sympathy with the Ukrainian people. Forgive my cynicism, but the truth, of course, is that they don’t have clients there any more who are rich enough to pay their exorbitant fees in view of the sanctions which have been applied. And I suspect that if they were to continue trading at even a reduced level they would be exceedingly worried that they would fall foul of the asset freezing orders and be in serious danger of being prosecuted in their home countries, so losing their licences to practise.

Of equal significance in the cancellation of Russia is the action taken by the companies which provide services or goods to the Russian in the street. No longer will he feel the irritation generated by trying to build IKEA’s furniture. No longer will he be able to buy clothes and food from Marks & Spencer, buy coffee from Costa Coffee or burgers from MacDonalds. Netflix and TikTok have joined what has already become a mass western boycott of Russia. American Express has followed Barclaycard and Mastercard in leaving the Russian market. Sainsbury’s has pulled out; fashion chains such as Zara and Mango have closed.

None of their activities in Russia would be illegal under either UK or European law. We are not actually at war with Russia - yet. It is though likely that they will have to close at some point: as the Russian economy collapses, it will leave them with no customers able to pay the prices needed to keep their businesses going. So they have decided to get out before that happens, incurring a small additional financial loss, but perhaps hoping to acquire Kudos with their customers elsewhere in the world. After all, in the very near future, pressure will most certainly be applied by their indignant Western customers. Better for IKEA and the rest to cancel Russia than to be cancelled.

Although I can understand a reluctance to let Russian ballet troupes and orchestras come to the UK unless they condemn the actions taken by Putin (very unlikely), it does seem a little pointless for classical concerts here to be reprogrammed to exclude works by Russian composers. I’m not really sure how Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky can be expected to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

But these measures will put pressure on the middle-class Russian, a necessary part of diminishing the support for Putin. Until recently, the middle classes in Russia have had it quite good and have been reasonably content to ignore the restrictions imposed on their freedoms. But big queues have now built up at cash machines in many parts of Russia. How long will younger Russians, quite unused to the exigencies of earlier times, tolerate the closing down of their world? Social media diversity, consumerism, travel have been taken away almost overnight.

They have until now preferred to believe the lies of the Russian government - that it is protecting them from an increasingly aggressive and expansionist West. The Russian government has even been able on RT TV to cite ‘experts’ from the West, both from left and right, like Farage and Corbyn, who want us to believe that a wish to defend a fellow NATO country against any aggressor is itself aggression. How will this end? Who knows. We may see the present conflict continue indefinitely.

One actual expert was saying that if Ukraine continues to resist after it is defeated, then Putin would need at least a million troops to control things, an impossibility.  But in view of the economic damage being done to the country and the oligarchs, there is also the possibility that Putin might be shown the door from the Kremlin to his dacha, as Khrushchev was, or even the door into his own cell at the Hague. What sort of regime would replace him is completely unpredictable. But in saying that he wanted to stop the advance of NATO, he has in all probability brought its boundaries closer, with the accession of other states, such as Finland, who were hitherto neutral. He has also united NATO as never before. Good Planning.

13 March 2022

Paul Buckingham

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