Archive for the ‘Secularism’ Category

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

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Real Intellectuals Have Day Jobs

July 18, 2017

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has an excellent piece in the weekend papers in which she compares public life in the UK to Erdoğan’s expanding kingdom of fear.

Here in the UK things are very different. Freedom of speech prevails, democracy is strong. Novelists are not sued for tackling controversial issues, academics are not expelled in their thousands, journalists are not put in jail en masse. Compared with their Turkish, Russian, Venezuelan, Pakistani or Chinese counterparts, British intellectuals have so much freedom. One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t. So why don’t we have more public intellectuals in this country? The answer lies in the words of a British academic who once told me: ‘Well, we think it’s a bit arrogant to call yourself intellectual. And to do that publicly is twice as arrogant.’

There appears to be an interesting mapping of the world in some people’s minds. According to this, feminists and activists for freedom of speech and human rights are only needed in those parts of the world where things are dire and democracy is visibly under attack. What seems arrogant to me is the presumption that intellectuals are needed in backward countries whereas over here in the developed, democratic west we are beyond all those ‘petty troubles’.

Shafak makes a fine point, but I’d like to expand on it. There are other restraints on intellectual life on this country. (I’m using the word ‘intellectualism’ to cover emotive and intuitive thinking, as well as cerebral rationalism.) So my attempt at answering Shafak’s question is in two parts.

Britain is a very stratified and class-oriented society. To be a ‘public intellectual’ in the UK – that is, to speak, and write, and argue, for a living – you need to have gone to certain schools, then to certain colleges in certain universities: you need introductions in the better parts of the capital, and a private income once you get there. Ideally, the legwork needs to begin long before one is even born: influential relatives and inherited wealth can open doors that nothing else can. I don’t want to be chippy: class considerations don’t necessarily poison everything, I think that amazing things still come out of British publishing and journalism. But let’s not kid ourselves.

In Amitav Ghosh’s fabulous opium novel Flood of Fire a young Indian farmboy, who dreams of being a soldier, refuses to join an English regiment because, he thinks, John Company doesn’t understand caste tradition. A havildar puts him right: ‘the English care more about the dharma of caste than any of our nawabs and rajas ever did… The sahibs are stricter about these matters than our rajas and nawabs ever were. They have brought learned men from their country to study our old books. These white pundits know more about our scriptures than we do ourselves… Under the sahibs’ guidance every caste will once again become like an iron cage.’

When intellectualism gets tied up with class and caste, intellectuals tend to hang out mainly with people similar to themselves, and to develop ‘packages’ of opinions – circumscribed always by the fear of getting sued, or pissing off certain key people. Meanwhile everyone else is brought up on the lie that books and reading have no practical application and that the right thing to do is get an apprenticeship and find steady work on a building site – steady work until the next crash, of course.

Or as Jeremy Clarkson wrote the other day: ‘I’m sorry, but an upper second from Exeter is always going to be trumped by a spot of nepotism. If I know your mum and dad, you stand a pretty good chance. If not, you’re just another name.’

The second part of my response to Shafak is about ideas. Shafak writes that: ‘Populism creates its own myths. It tells us that intellectuals are ‘a privileged liberal elite’ out of touch with ‘the real people.” Now, I hate giving credit to any of the foul ideologies and movements that call themselves ‘populist’ today – but the lies of what Shafak identifies as ”anti-public intellectual’ discourse’ are leavened with a grain of truth: it’s the iron rule of propaganda that the grain of truth is what makes the big lie believable.

People don’t trust intellectuals in this country because so many prominent thinkers have been ‘out of touch’ with England’s liberal, radical and democratic traditions. Turkish writers and journalists have been jailed for speaking out against Erdogan’s dictatorship. Too many English writers and journalists have spoken out for dictatorship – from the defenders of Soviet totalitarianism in the 1930s, to Corbynite fanboys for Putin, Assad and Islamism today. (The same weekend Shafak’s brilliant essay appeared, the same newspaper carried a comment article by President Erdoğan himself, in which he defends the repressions that followed a recent coup attempt by the hated Gulenists.) British intellectuals have been reluctant to make the most of their own freedom. As Shafak writes: ‘One would expect them to be aware of this privilege, and speak up not only for themselves but also for those who can’t.’

George Orwell has escaped the blanket scepticism that British people tend to have about public intellectuals – he wrote so clearly and honestly that he was accepted, with only a little bad grace, into English cultural tradition. In his essay ‘Notes on Nationalism’ Orwell demonstrated why the scepticism endures.

But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries.

People sense in public intellectuals, particularly the very political ones, what Orwell called ‘an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’ They suspect that a great deal of the intelligentsia would be comfortable with a British Erdoğan. (And can’t you hear the dinner-party rationalisations already: ‘It’s easy to criticise, but… vital measures to ensure the security of the People…. regrettable necessities…’)

Shafak writes:

We have entered a new era in world history. Liberal democracy is widely under threat. There is a dangerous discourse brewing outside the borders of Europe that claims, “Democracy is not suitable for either the Middle East or the east”. Isolationists are proposing new social models in which democracy, human rights, freedom of speech are all dispensable and all that matters is economic stability. They do not understand that undemocratic nations are deeply unhappy nations and cannot be stable in any way.

Turkey, Hungary, Poland … Case after case shows us that democracy is more fragile than we realised. It is not a material possession that some countries have while others have not; rather, it is an ecosystem that needs to be continuously protected, nourished and cared for. And today, faced with populist movements and tribalist discourses, this ecosystem is threatened. If we do not speak up for basic human rights and pluralistic values then we run the risk of losing them one by one. Turkey holds important lessons as to how countries can go backwards with a bewildering speed. What happened over there can happen anywhere.

Despite everything I’m optimistic – Britain still has a literate and creative culture that’s proven itself more than a match for bigotry, philistinism and wilful stupidity in the past. But the above, I hope, illustrates why other things entrenched in this country may make the storm longer than it should be.

Break the Fourth Wall

March 4, 2017

Every year when winter nights roll in a church near my home organises a carol concert on the local park. Everybody in the area goes. We sing carols. Friendly people hand out mince pies. We live high up and the park slopes onto a view of city and countryside that is beautiful in the way only a Yorkshire night can be. At the end there’s a fireworks display. The church has been doing this for twenty years. It’s free.

Last year the vicar made a brief speech at the concert, in which he drew on the political events of 2016. It wasn’t exactly the Sermon on the Mount. It was just the vicar talking about Trump and Brexit and how scary it all was and how worrying that our country had become so divided. I didn’t follow the whole thread but, judging from the Facebook area chat page, it seemed that the man had gone too far. People complained: how dare the vicar bring politics into a community event, how dare he take it upon himself, and all of this. As an atheist I can’t say I have a dog in the fight, but I did think, isn’t it the priest’s job to sermonise?

This week the author Susan Hill cancelled a signing at a bookshop because, it seems:

I do not expect this bookshop, wherever it is, city or market town, to have posters and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page telling me it is so against what the President of the United States stands for/believes/is/is doing that it is stocking only books devoted to those writers who oppose him too, and what is more, will give them away free. Needless to say, the opposite is also true. You will not find Donald Trump’s autobiography here, or anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him.

[…]

This is a form of censorship and, of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that.

[…]

All of this leads to an explanation of why I have cancelled a scheduled appearance to discuss my new novel at a bookshop. They have put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.

Danuta Kean has a good piece about the minor controversy this provoked, and the bookshop has itself responded here.

In turn, this reminded me of the row that erupted when Hamilton cast members interrupted their musical to deliver a brief speech to Vice President Mike Pence, sitting in the audience that night. You can read it here. One of the actors, Javier Muñoz, is openly gay and HIV positive and maybe the cast thought that breaking the fourth wall would provoke a reasonable debate about what the next four years might be like. Not a bit of it though. Trump moaned on Twitter about the cast’s ‘terrible behaviour’ and demanded apologies. Others followed his lead.

There appears to be a consensus, that Trump and Susan Hill and my fellow carol singers have tapped into: that this is a failure of decorum, and that politics should be left to politicians.

I’m not so sure. Of course elected representatives have to be careful what they say, and try to represent all shades of opinion within their community (although this duty seems to have lapsed following the events of 2016). Private citizens should have no such obligation. If you run a bookshop or a theatre or another commercial business, you’re not seeking anyone’s vote. You run the business how you see fit. And as an individual you don’t have a duty to represent anyone but yourself.

Don’t misunderstand me. Diplomacy is a great thing in human relations. Many volatile situations, which might otherwise escalate into violence, can be resolved with listening skills, and carefulness in stance and tone. But when it comes to politics, the idea that everyone should be diplomats is a counsel of despair.

Take FT columnist Janan Ganesh on the Women’s March. I used to have a lot of time for Ganesh. But even he has retreated into centrist chin-stroking. Ganesh complained that marchers prioritised ‘the cultural over the material. Their ultimate objection to EU exit is its tinge of nativism. Their main quarrel with Mr Trump is his attitude to women and minorities’ – as if nativism, racism and misogyny had no real impact: as if these forces don’t wreck lives, and not just those of women and minorities. The march was not going to convince ‘the marginal voter, the person who backed populists in 2016 but with some qualms’ – as if any serious person said it had to. This is quietism as virtue signalling – and it is condescending. Ganesh writes: ‘The marginal voter was doing some hamper management over the weekend. The marginal voter has never been on a march and might be unnerved by zealous multitudes.’ Oh I don’t know. Perhaps some of those marginal voters looked up from their laundry at the TV news.

My point is that politics is increasingly not diplomatic. If you’re not one of the 52% (or a 52 percenter who didn’t vote for what the government says you voted for) then you might as well not exist as long as Westminster is concerned. Populism is a club. Only the right people get to be The People. Others are sick of having nothing to vote for. I didn’t go on the January march but I heard from others who did, and what I heard was a weary exasperation at having to be polite and diplomatic for so long – to opponents that will never reciprocate the same courtesy. P J O’Rourke said that ‘there’s always a tinge of self seeking in making sure things are fair. Don’t you go trying to get one up on me.’

It’s worth mentioning that when the crowd booed him at Hamilton, Mike Pence said ‘I nudged my kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like.’ He’s not wrong.

The New Nasty Party

October 30, 2016

daverichLet’s try a thought experiment. A series of public controversies highlight racism against BAME people in the Conservative Party. A public inquiry is called, chaired by a well known conservative activist, who begins her investigations by joining the Conservative Party. The terms of reference make clear that the inquiry is not focused wholly on racism against black people, but into racism against black people ‘and other forms of racism’. The report while condemning use of epithets such as ‘nigger’ or ‘paki’ and acknowledging ‘unhappy incidents’ in the past (perhaps the Monday Club went too far… all that ‘Hang Mandela’ stuff… regrettable) maintains that the Conservative Party ‘is not overrun’ with racism against black people. At the launch of this report, a Black British Conservative MP is racially abused while the party leader stands by and does nothing. The activist chairing this inquiry is then awarded a peerage by the party leader, and later appointed Attorney General.

Imagine being a voter of BAME origin – or just someone concerned by racism – and watching all this. Would you feel that the inquiry report was credible and fair? Would you feel comfortable being involved in the Conservative Party: attending its meetings, delivering its leaflets, giving up energy and time to get it reelected? Would the Conservative Party feel like a safe place for you?

Would you vote for them again?

You have likely already guessed that I’m talking about the Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism. My analogy with anti-BAME racism isn’t an entry into the open barter of victimhood, because of course both forms of racism are poisonous nonsense. Rather it’s to illustrate a point made by trade unionist Dave Prentis – that Labour is now the new nasty party. Some people will deny there’s even a problem, but to list all the ‘unhappy incidents’ is way beyond the scope of a blog post… which is why Dave Rich has written an excellent book on the subject. (I would also recommend the Home Affairs select committee inquiry report into anti-Semitism in the UK, particularly chapter 6, which examines a range of anti-Semitic incidents within the Labour Party, and the failure to address these by either Chakrabarti or the party leadership.)

Smart people saw this coming, years before Jeremy Corbyn became party leader. Journalists like Nick Cohen, Greg Palast and Oliver Kamm, academics like Alan Johnson, and the Harry’s Place and other blog writers, warned of dark undercurrents on the left. They were told that anti-Semitism and other such craziness was a marginal issue, that one shouldn’t focus on tiny political sects, which could never have an impact on mainstream politics. Well, Mr Corbyn is a living, walking rebuttal of that critique. As despairing Eustonite Damian Counsell put it: the straw men are in charge now, and everything’s on fire.

How did we get here exactly? Rich explains that in the 1960s ‘some on the left gave up on the revolutionary potential of the Western working class and looked overseas for radical inspiration. By this way of thinking, the bloc of post-colonial states (and the national liberation movements that were fighting for decolonisation elsewhere) held the promise that the part of the world then known as the Third World might supplant the Western proletariat as the global engine for revolutionary change.’

Put simply? It’s easier, if you’re a first world academic or public sector leftist, to project revolutionary hope onto distant peoples like the Palestinians: insurrection by outsource or proxy, rather than trying to convince the working class and minorities in your own country… who might argue back. It’s a long story (try as he might, Rich can’t help but lose us sometimes in the left’s wilderness of mirrors) but you can trace the current tolerance for Islamism back to the ramblings of tenured postmodernists.

In this ideology, Israel isn’t a lifeboat state and multicultural democracy but an outpost of Western colonialism, Zionist not a national liberation movement but international conspiracy. (The more sinister reading, of course, flips this around so that Britain and America are just imperial outposts of Tel Aviv.) The Jewish people don’t need recognition as oppressed minority or noble victims, because they have protective imperial apparatus on which to draw. Rich has then SWP activist John Rees explain that: ‘There are some religions that are overwhelmingly held by the poor and excluded and there are some religions that back up the establishment, the rich and the powerful.’ Guess which ethnic minority falls on the wrong side of the line here.

Perhaps the saddest and most sordid development here is the weaponisation of the Holocaust against Jewish people. Rich discusses Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument over the play’s alleged anti-Semitism, everybody agreed on its main theme: that the psychological trauma of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism was playing out via Israeli violence and oppression towards the Palestinians.’ The Holocaust wasn’t a unique historical atrocity, but a schoolyard morality tale from which the Jews had, regrettably, failed to draw the correct lessons – a crappy piece of poetry, that activists recite in piping voices as they wag their fingers in the faces of Britain’s Jews.

Here’s a conundrum: how is it that professional activists, who have spent their lives campaigning against racism, ended up recycling racist tropes and targeting minorities? Dave Rich understands that ‘It is precisely because people on the left act as anti-fascists and anti-racists that they have such a problem recognising modern anti-Semitism.’ Activist sense of moral superiority defeats hope of self awareness: they are blinded by their own perceived virtue, and the left’s proud tradition of anti racism. The protests become shriller as this tradition recedes into memory, increasingly supplanted by ‘the left’s proud tradition of making life uncomfortable for Jews’. As Grossman writes in Life and Fate: ‘it was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality’.

‘Ever since I was a child, I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute,’ says the SS narrator in Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. ‘And if this radicalism was the radicalism of the abyss, and if the absolute turned out to be absolute evil, one still had to follow them to the end, with eyes wide open – of that at least I was utterly convinced.’ Dave Rich ends his brilliant book with a hope that the British left can rebuild its relationship with British Jews. But I’m not so sure. To repeat a famous line, the abyss tends to stare back at you until you fall right into it.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

March 5, 2016

Giles Fraser doesn’t like Americans. Why? For insufficient piety. The US isn’t Christian enough, Fraser complains. ‘Of course, way more people go to church in America’, Fraser concedes. And, he concedes again, ‘I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief.’ But his problem is that ‘a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing.’ He reiterates that ‘America itself has long been its own civil religion’, ‘America became its own church and eventually its own god’, and even adds that ‘Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.’ (This about the country of Thomas Paine, Edison, Mencken, Carl Sagan and Bill Hicks.)

There’s always been an anti American variant to UK establishment thought, that holds the US in contempt first for kicking us out of their country and then electing the wrong kind of people. Political junkies in the UK feel that we have a stake in the presidential elections. We don’t feel that about, say, the German electoral college or Afghan loya Jirga. Hence, in 2004, the spectacle of British Guardian liberals writing to people of Clark County, Ohio, to instruct the bemused Ohians not to re-elect the vulgar Texan George W Bush. I forget what happened that November.

There is truth in what Fraser says, nevertheless. We tend to perceive American religion as the tent-revivalist and snake-handler variety. Poll after poll had large percentages of US citizens subscribing to biblical absurdities. The late Christopher Hitchens (who was granted American citizenship) demurred. When he published his big atheist book God is Not Great Hitchens took it on tour through the Deep South. He came back emphasising the civility of the book’s reception and said that the repeated opinion polls depicting Southerners as swivel-eyed literalists were wrong. The stereotype of British liberal Christianity versus US fundamentalism persists, even though the Anglicans recently suspended an Episcopalian church from its decision making progress because they disapproved of their American counterpart’s liberal stand on gay marriage.

Liberals watched the resistible rise of Donald Trump first with amusement, then concern turning to a low-grade terror. True, Trump is scary. He makes Bush look like Cicero. (He’s also hard to explain: Trump is a product of the New York property billionaire class, so clichés about unreconstructed snake handler Southerners do not apply.) Not even Hunter S Thompson would have dared imagine this guy. And neither the liberals nor the amusing satires nor the last moment flailing of what’s left of the GOP establishment looks likely to stop him.

Slag politics all you like, but you have to admit it’s not boring. Trump could lose the Republican nomination, or win the nomination but be knocked out in the general by Hillary or Bernie Sanders. Or he could win. It doesn’t seem farfetched to talk about the end of the GOP or even the republic itself. There’s no natural law that says democracy and civilisation will continue forever. Look at the European far rightists that have leveraged themselves into power in the more fragile EU states. Meanwhile those of us who survive the Trump presidency can sit in irradiated WW2 bunkers, eating fried rats and tinned tomatoes and discussing where it all went wrong.

How did we get here exactly? The conservative journalist Tim Stanley nails it. Voters in both our countries have been told by politicians, in essence, that ‘You need to vote for us, because we are the practical-sensible people who get stuff done. True, we don’t have a lot going for us in terms of dynamism and creativity, we can’t empower people, but you need to vote for us because the other lot aren’t practical-sensible enough and it will be a disaster.’ Stanley writes: ‘The politics of that era is overfamiliar and tired. And younger voters resent constantly being told that ageing pragmatists know best – especially when the smart technocrats are the folks who gave us Iraq, the credit crunch and the mess that is Obamacare.’ Practical-sensible can’t even sort out the housing crisis or protect our cities from flooding.

Part of me thinks the complaints of anti politics are ridiculous, after all we live in a free country with no barrel bombs, civil war or high child mortality rates. For me, probably for most of us, England is still a fantastic place to live. We have won the geographic lottery. But does this mean so much if you are, say, a struggling professional couple who can’t start a family because most of your income goes on petrol for your commute or rent for your shitty, damp-infested private rental? Maybe once a year a candidate comes to your door and promises savings on your energy bills. You might vote for him, but so what? You’re still going nowhere in a highly stratified class based society. You’re going to feel that the real decisions are made somewhere else and you’re not part of that conversation. Governments come and go, laws are passed (some of these laws arbitrary, irrational and intrusive in nature) but nothing really happens.

I came across a thoughtful piece by an obscure fellow named Anthony Painter who does a lot to explain the vacuum. His theory is that politicians of the right and left got too much into a managerialist, Burkian worldview. Governments do things to and for people rather than with them. While ‘[p]opulist ideologies offer a false sanctuary for the fearful and the angry’ the problem is also with mainstream practical-sensible people who ‘spend their time bickering with lunatics on social media rather than trying to understand why and how the world is changing.’ Political professionals don’t like anything difficult and don’t like change:

You may or may not think that Basic Income is a good idea. This week the RSA published an entirely practical plan for introducing it as a means to unlock social, civic and economic creativity. It has been greeted on the political centre-left with the same reaction you expect to get from a plumber looking at a leak – it’s all too much trouble, too difficult and costly. Beyond parties, the idea has been engaged with energetically.

Painter calls for an awakened ‘spirit of Paine’. I agree strongly that it would be great to have a (truly) new politics based on Paine’s values of individualism, liberty, secularism, empowerment and human rights – but what that would look like or how we get there, I don’t know.

Also: For some superb critiques of Donald Trump as well as interesting foreign policy stuff I’d recommend following historian Tom Nichols on Twitter.

hst

Fear and Faith: Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

October 10, 2015

houellebecqcharlieSubmission is a novel written to be misunderstood. Fans and enemies will love it, hate it and get it wrong. And with good reason. Houellebecq’s last novel about Islam – for which he was widely condemned, and even taken to court – was published just weeks before 9/11. Submission came out on January 7 this year – the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In a further cruel irony, the magazine had caricatured Houellebecq on its cover that day. The cartoon Houellebecq, wearing a wizard’s hat and a deranged expression, declares: ‘In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth’ and ‘In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan!’ Houellebecq has some timing.

The satire riffs on Houellebecq’s propensity to predict the future. He’s a Cassandra who is cursed never to shut up. His breakthrough book, Atomised, has the human race becoming extinct and replaced by peaceful clones: this development is depicted as a utopia but in a later novel, The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq revisits the clone future and reveals it to be desolate and sad. The clones are smarter and more peaceful than their predecessors, but they miss humanity and its messy instincts they left behind.

Houellebecq is a fine observer of the human condition and social problems. The stupidity of market culture, the difficulty and sorrow that so often characterises human relations – no one draws it with more style. But Houllebecq then insists on coming up with solutions, and the solutions are always ridiculous. In Atomised, he wants to let humanity die out altogether: in Platform, he proposes an international system of indentured Far Eastern sexual exploitation, all for the benefit of a few middle aged frustrated European males. Houellebecq favours the ‘mad professor’ style of literature.

Platform is what the kids today would call a ‘problematic’ novel. At its beginning the narrator’s father is murdered by a young Muslim criminal: it ends with the narrator’s girlfriend murdered by Islamist terrorists. The bulk of the book follows narrator Michel as he gets together with the girlfriend Valérie and they set up their sex tourism business. For such a notorious grump Houellebecq is very good at writing about happy relationships. But outside the pleasant sensual world of the protagonists’ love affair, there’s a constant undertow of threat. A colleague of Valérie’s is raped on a train by West Indians, banlieues erupt in flames, the fear and hostility is palpable. ‘In the papers now it was teachers being stabbed, nursery school teachers being raped, fire engines attacked with Molotov cocktails, handicapped people thrown through the windows of trains because they had ‘looked the wrong way’ at some gang leader.’ Platform is not against Islam so much as it is against a certain kind of young Asian man – the ‘criminalMuslimman’ of Western stereotype.

Fear haunts Submission as well. ‘You could make out groups of masked men roaming around with assault rifles and automatic weapons,’ its narrator reports. ‘Windows had been broken, here and there cars were on fire’. Houellebecq would have made a great horror writer, and here he captures the fraught atmosphere of a city tipping into violence. The instinctive fear is matched with a more intellectual variant. Adam Shatz, in his masterful review of Submission, writes that ‘fear of Islam, and of Muslims, has never been the exclusive property of the far right in France: it has always been rooted in the widespread demographic nightmare of being overrun by Muslims, of the coming ‘Eurabia’… Houellebecq’s novel is sprinkled with winking allusions to anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists like Bat Ye’or, the doyenne of Eurabia literature.’ It’s a piece of conspiracy theory that many artists flirted with – ‘has feminism cost us Europe?’ Martin Amis wondered in 2008. The idea is that the liberation from the duty to reproduce will destroy liberal societies.

They must know that this dog is shot. What everyone misses about European freedom of movement is that it is only for Europeans. Katy Long in her book The Huddled Masses, claims that the EU spends 2 billion euro per year on its border agency, Frontex. ‘For the Europe that guarantees its citizens’ mobility is the same Europe set on keeping others out.’ She goes on to say this:

At the height of the Arab Spring in February 2011, for instance, Frontex put into effect Operation Hermes, which aimed to detect – and to deter – African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean… The results of Frontex’s industry must be measured not just in money spent, or illegal crossings detected – some 25,000 in 2013, an average of one every four hours – but in migrants dead. At least 20,000 would-be migrants are thought to have died on the Mediterranean sea in the past 20 years trying to reach Europe, as smugglers pack leaky boats and coastguards are accused of looking the other way. Numerous human rights advocates have warned that Frontex’s operations have blocked refugees from being able to apply for vital protection, as is their right under international – and EU – law.

So much for the social democratic paradise. Conspiracy about Muslim immigration and birth rates should have died the day Alan Kurdi’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach.

But Submission isn’t a book so much about Islam as the religious impulse. The takeover of France by religious extremists is played out with care and skill: there’s no big chunks of unlikely exposition. (It doesn’t even feel that implausible. A lecturer on political campaigns told me in 2014 that ‘if you wanted to take over the Labour Party and turn it into your own political vehicle you could probably do it. You’d need about five grand.’ Such things can be done.) Houellebecq has tremendous fun with the interplay of the reality and the dystopia, sending up anti-Israel boycotts, the nativist right and leftists who support radical Islam – shocking in the early years of the century, but a commonplace today.

But Houellebecq is nothing if not discursive. Throughout his novels, the storyline – what there is of it – is routinely interrupted by long passages of authorial comment on anything and everything: a critique of Larry Clark’s films, a tribute to Agatha Christie, a minor study of the parasites that live in summer meadows. His mind wanders, and he makes no apology for it. And in this book he has an excuse: the narrator is a university lecturer specialising in the works of J K Huysmans. Submission starts off with a wide scope but ends up following the scholar’s relationship with his master. At the end of the story Francois ends up finishing his relationship with Huysmans – the longest and most durable of his life – and converts to Islam.

For all Platform‘s erotica and violence, it had a serious point. Michel and Valérie are sensualists who assume that sex drives most people’s lives, and their business model is predicated on that basis. They learn the hard way that human beings still have a different kind of passion. Despite all the talk about supremacy of the market, ideology and belief systems still exist, still motivate. You fuck with this at your peril, Houellebecq warns. In Submission he takes the question deeper: why do people have such passions? Why do people believe in god? Where does religion come from?

Stanz also makes the point that, for a novel about Islam, there aren’t many Muslims in Submission. Houellebecq focuses on the impact of Islam upon the unbeliever. The reactionary faith turns out to dovetail more or less exactly with first world problems. Many conservatives have a secret, or not so secret, admiration for societies where women are kept to the home and shoplifters have their hands cut off. And the myth that there is no misogyny on the Western left is as dead as Eurabia. Houellebecq’s characters tend to build their routines around drinking, smoking, reading and sex. Write something down, drink a glass of wine, do some reading, jerk off, meet a woman, do some more writing, more wine, jerk off again – isn’t that the middle aged male writing ideal, Houellebecq asks, what we’ve been striving for since Hemingway was in full pomp? His attitudes to women are quite the most tiresome aspect of the book. Women! What can one do with them? They get old, they lose interest, they become melodramatic. And yet he’s still fascinated with them. François relates that he ‘once met a girl – a pretty, attractive girl – who told me she fantasised about Jean-François Copé. It took me several days to get over it. Really, with girls today, all bets are off.’

Houellebecq’s conclusion is a variation on John Updike’s idea that god exists because of the human desire that god should exist. When Houellebecq talks about submission he means it in an almost mystical sense, to accept what is and what comes. ‘The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.’ François submits to the new Islamist order. Most people would in that situation, because most people tend to do what they are told. The deal is sweetened by a fat salary, a pension, and several new wives (again, the constant riffing on Muslim polygamy is another thing that grates after awhile). But the real dealbreaker is the submission itself. A reason not to think. An escape from the terror and brilliance of living. As Atwood said: what an available temptation.

Perhaps this isn’t a novel about the religious impulse so much about the human desire for stability. The recent vogue for faith of any kind, the learned professors who rave about medieval belief systems, the activists who indulge maniacs and killers and call it dialogue – it all comes from this, the lazy ennui and weary exasperation of people who have taken all they can from a free country and now hurl their toys out of the pram. The director of the Islamic Sorbonne, and François’s new boss, experiences his crucial disillusionment when he discovers that the bar of the Hotel Metropole has closed down:

I was stupefied … To think that until then one could order sandwiches and beers, Viennese chocolates and cakes with cream in this absolute masterpiece of decorative art, that one could live everyday life surrounded by beauty, and that all this could disappear in one stroke in a European capital! … Yes, that was the moment when I understood: Europe had already committed suicide … The next day, I went to see an imam in Zaventem. And the day after that – Easter Monday – in the presence of a dozen witnesses, I pronounced the ritual formula of conversion to Islam.

There we have it. The anti consumerist ideology cultivated by authoritarians of all cultures is revealed to be… a product of consumerism. I don’t think that’s all there is to the religious impulse. Life is scary and confusing. You look for something that makes you feel safe. But the fear is part of this business of living and the fear too is yours. Henry Miller, in The Wisdom of the Heart, calls this the ‘Paradise of Neurosis’:

In his present fearsome state man seems to have one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept his fears, but worse, he fears his fears… To imagine that we are going to be saved by outside intervention, whether in the shape of an analyst, a dictator, a savior, or even God, is sheer folly.

‘There are not enough lifeboats to go around,’ Miller writes, and: ‘what is needed more than lifeboats is lighthouses. A fuller, clearer vision – not more safety appliances!’

Houellebecq almost despite himself is providing that full clear vision: he’s a lighthouse keeper, even if his beam is a little shaky and he does tend to fall asleep at the controls. You won’t agree with him. But how could you not love a writer so persistently leftfield. The line from Submission that made me laugh out loud comes when Houellebecq critiques the Christian parable of the adulterer and the crowd: ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’ His response to this is: ‘All you’d have to do is get hold of a seven-year-old child – he’d have cast the first stone, the little fucker.’

 

Blood, Bombs and Rock and Roll

August 9, 2015

I’m late with this response to Giles Fraser’s piece last week. I certainly cannot equal the wit of my old Shiraz comrade Jim Denham, who describes Fraser as ‘a caricature comes true – or rather two caricatures, both old favourites from Private Eye: the Rev JC Flannel and Dave Spart.’

In it Fraser begins by complaining about the lack of respect shown to Church of England priests in general. ‘Under pressure not to ‘do God’,’ he explains, ‘the wet non-committal English clergyman became a figure of fun – at best, a local amateur social worker, and at worst, a social climbing hypocrite’ and traces this to the great secularist compromise of the Enlightenment: ‘If not from its inception, then certainly from the end of the English civil war, the big idea of the C of E was to prevent radicalisation – precisely the sort of radicalisation that led to religious people butchering each other throughout the 1630s and 40s.’ But the downside was that ‘God is defeated by religion. Indeed, one could even say that, for the English establishment, that is precisely the purpose of religion. They trap Him in boring services so that people won’t notice the revolution for which He is calling.’

I would have thought this a fair tradeoff, after all there’s not much nostalgia out there for medieval absolutism and witch burning, but Fraser laments the vicar’s drop in status. Maybe that’s just his perception of it though. To vary Stewart Lee’s joke about Ben Elton: it’s not that people don’t respect Christians, or Christianity – they just don’t respect Giles Fraser. His next para gives some insight into why that may be.

And then along comes Islam – and, thankfully, it disrupts this absurd game and refuses to play by the rules. Its practitioners want to talk about God, sex and politics rather than mortgages, school places and the latest Boden catalogue. And good for them. But David Cameron’s whole attack upon ‘non-violent extremism’, his upping the ante on the Prevent agenda, is an attempt to replay that clapped-out C of E strategy of stopping people talking about God in a way that might have social or political consequences. Cameron, of course, thinks of this sort of political God-talk as radical and extreme – which, by the standards of English dinner-party rules, it most certainly is. But had the Levellers of the 17th century not been radical or extreme, they would not have introduced England to democracy in the first place (something for which they were eventually rounded up and shot).

Where exactly to begin? Does Giles Fraser know so little history that he can’t make distinctions between radicals for democracy and the radicalism of the black hole? (I don’t recall the Levellers slaughtering people on beaches, although admittedly I do need to work on my theory.) Fraser ends on a petulant flourish: ‘I believe there is an authority greater than yours – one I would obey before I would obey the laws of this land. And if that makes me a dangerous extremist, Mr Cameron, then you probably ought to come over to south London and arrest me now.’

Probably the Prime Minister has better things to do than to personally arrest people who disagree with him. That said, there is a huge debate to be had about anti terror strategy. Do we set a watch on any provincial maniac even if they have committed no apparent offence? Do we bug children’s phones in case their parents spirit them away to a war zone? This is way above my expertise, maybe above Fraser’s as well. Fraser’s more interested in the passion. There he is, despairing of old maids and warm beer, and then – here comes Islamism, and it’s like Elvis crashing a tea-dance. Belief! Conviction! Wow!

How bored would you have to be to welcome a movement that beheads aid workers and treats women as slaves? Maybe Fraser just needs to get out more, and go to more interesting parties, ones with sex and politics on the agenda. He says, of course, that ‘I condemn absolutely any theology that calls for or encourages violence.’ But what we’re talking about here is a very dull, fundamentalist Wahhabi/Salafist variant of Islam, one to which hardly anybody subscribes. If Islamism didn’t create violence it would be a marginal issue in the UK, like Scientology or Mormonism. As it is, the only reason the British are talking about Islamism is because Islamists are killing people… albeit mainly Muslims in developing countries. Maybe next time Fraser goes to the migrant camp church in Calais he should listen to some Syrian or Iraqi asylum seekers and discover exactly what it is they’re running from.

So despite Fraser’s disclaimer, maybe it’s not the sex, politics and God that attracts him – maybe it’s that buzz, the thrill of the abyss, blood and bombs and rock and roll. He wouldn’t be the first. Fuck him if that’s how he feels. As for the dull bourgeois civilisation he criticises, well, it’s not ideal, but most of us seem to get along. As Kent Brockman said on The Simpsons, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.

Life After God

April 27, 2013

‘The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God,’ says Theo Hobson, writing for the Spectator in an article that proclaims the death of New Atheism. Here are some of his paras:

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

In these pages Douglas Murray recently recounted debating alongside Richard Dawkins and being embarrassed by the crudity of his approach. Murray is not one of life’s fence-sitters: it must have occurred to him that atheism has polemical possibilities that would suit him rather well. But he has the sense to turn down the role of the new Christopher Hitchens. A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason.

It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’.

Polemical atheism was never going to go down well with the intelligentsia and immediately a kind of counter movement – what one blogger called ‘The New Sophists’ – grew up to oppose it. Though it was much more about tone than content, the New Sophistry had three basic positions: that religion was a lot more complex and interesting than we godless were willing to say, that atheism was more or less the same as religious fundamentalism (not that they ever criticised actual religious fundamentalists) and, finally, that criticism of religion should in many instances be regarded as racism. With Harris discredited, Hitchens still dead and Dawkins playing out an increasingly silly Twitter presence it must seem to Hobson that his own chin-stroking cabal must have won the bitter faith wars of the 2000s.

A few points, though. The first is that the philosophers Hobson praises have not connected with the public in the way that Dawkins and Hitchens did. There are no New Sophist bestsellers and most of Hobson’s cited names are little known outside academia and the CiF Belief blog. Andrew Brown, for instance, is the kind of nonentity even close friends sometimes struggle to recognise. To this point, Hobson would say that nuance is less marketable than grand sweeping assertions. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that the arguments of Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong etcetera have not resonated because they are not particularly original or interesting. (For example, the link between medieval apocalyptist movements and the twentieth century Nazi and Communist totalitarians was explored with much more eloquence and verve by Norman Cohn in his The Pursuit of the Millennium, long before John Gray got anywhere near it.) And perhaps the New Atheists spoke to people who for some reason or another weren’t able to speak up. I think of that line from Paul Berman: ‘I wonder if bookish young Muslim women in the immigrant zones of Europe aren’t sneaking a few glances at Hirsi Ali’s writings and making brave resolutions for themselves.’

There’s also the fact that belief hasn’t moved on in the way that unbelief has. Let’s ignore the obvious examples of Islamism and the Vatican and look at Hobson’s Anglican Church. Far from the harmless caricature quoted by Hobson – ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales’ – the Church of England is probably one of our most reactionary institutions. It almost derailed equal marriage. It did nothing to rein in the murderous homophobia of its Ugandan counterpart. It openly discriminates against its female employees. Liberal Christians are at the end of their rope. Here’s South Manchester Anglican blogger Rachel Mann:

I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance.

The awful suspicion comes that good people like Mann are actually in the minority. Julian Baggini, cited by Hobson in his article, said that the problem with this debate is ‘a lack of knowledge about what religious people, rather than the elite commentariat, really think.’ To get a better idea Baggini hung around outside various Bristol churches asking the congregation about their actual beliefs. Here’s his results:

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

For substantial numbers of people it really is about flying to heaven on a winged horse. And the controversy over gay marriage drew out further evidence of a literalist mindset. In the run up to the vote MPs were deluged with furious emails. One told the Independent that ‘Quite a few of us who were considering abstaining will vote in favour of gay marriage because of the unreasonable nature of the emails we have been receiving. Some of the emails I’ve had are simply appalling and I’m fed up with it.’ All those fine words about a poetic response to human suffering and the heart of a heartless world end in the same old ugly preoccupation with what lovers do behind closed doors.

What particularly annoys me about Hobson’s brand of new sophistry is its implication that we need to admit faith into our lives to experience the transcendent. A Catholic priest criticises Richard Dawkins, saying that ‘Dawkins stands in that long – and often noble – line of zealous irreligionists whose faith-foundation is reason and science. I deeply respect that stance, which is clearly religionless faith, but can it provide the ‘trusting place’ for the immanence, transcendence and mystery which our human spirits seem to need?’ Yes it damn well can, and I speak as someone who experiences these transcendental moments on a very regular basis. I did go through a religious phase in my teens – closely related to the OCD I grappled with back then – and it was absolutely terrifying. Being out of it is a liberation. The fact is that faith has little to offer and the rest of life offers so much more. Congregations were falling way before 9/11 and those atrocities gave us the chance to break with religion for good. We blew that chance and the twenty first century is a darker time as a result.

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(Image: Coupland)

The Myth of the Myth

February 17, 2013

Older readers might remember the UK late night comedy show Banzai. This was basically a sketch show, knockabout, childish and even slightly racist in retrospect, that parodied Japanese game show formats. Now, Banzai had this character called Mr Shake Hands Man. Mr Shake Hands Man’s job was to approach a celebrity outside a restaurant or somewhere, shake the celebrity’s hand and try to start some bullshit conversation and keep it going. Eventually the celebrity’s open and friendly exterior would dissolve into an expression of frightened bewilderment as s/he realises that Mr Shake Hands Man is still shaking their hand after a full moment and a half. The object of the sketch was to see how long Mr Shake Hands Man could keep the handshake going.

I thought of this when I read the latest gushing profile of John Gray, UK literati’s favourite celebrity philosopher. John Gray is an intellectual Mr Shake Hands Man. He has one big idea – that religious fundamentalism, New Atheism, neoconservatism, and various apparently secular philosophies are just a derivative of doomed Christian utopianism – and he has spieled this out into numerous books, articles, lectures, reviews and collections over what seems like the last two thousand years. Norman Geras has a collection of his greatest hits:

[The] idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.

To believe in progress is to believe that… humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals.

Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world… but their core belief in progress is a superstition.

[T]he belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as [Professor A C] Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species.

When contemporary humanists invoke the idea of progress they are mixing together two different myths: a Socratic myth of reason and a Christian myth of salvation.

Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

Get the idea? The argument that progress is an illusion, and that humanity is doomed to a cyclical and meaningless existence, is certainly one that becomes convincing after listening to Professor Gray reiterate this sort of thing year after year. Get a hundred pages into Black Mass and you’ll see what I mean.

Norman has taken this idea apart and raises two basic objections. One is that there obviously has been some kind of progress, if you count liberal secularist frivolities like longer life expectancies, the extinction of terrifying diseases, the acceptance of democratic frameworks, individual liberties and human rights. The world is a better place in night and day differences compared to fifty years ago, never mind thinking in centuries. The second point Norm raises is that belief in progress doesn’t always have to be about grand sweeping millennarian ideas. I would bet that almost no one in the progress industry – politicians, aid workers, doctors, scientists – thinks of progress in this way. They just want to make a difference. Clearly, Gray wouldn’t oppose these small steps. But he doesn’t admit to that, perhaps because the admission would introduce qualification and nuance into his own grand theory, and people would pay less attention to him.

Gray has recently introduced something that’s almost hopeful, that jars with the smug chin-stroking tone of most of his work. That is the idea that we should focus on the here and now. As he says: ‘Without the faith that the future can be better than the past, many people say they could not go on. But when we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.’ This is all good, I’m all for living for today, in fact my main objection to religion is it treats lived life as a mere prelude to what comes after. But Norm’s ahead of both of us here, too, and points out that it’s a natural human impulse to look to the future and to plan for it. From his response:

However, as Gray is evidently resistant to this notion, perhaps I’ll just leave it at this: even if we were to listen to him and fasten our attention on the present, take meaning from the here and now, human beings seem to have an impulse to do things better – better next time than last time, avoiding that mistake, introducing this modification, and so on. They also, many of them, want good things for their children, sometimes better things than they had themselves or perceived they had. For these kinds of reason, living in the present already contains something of thinking about the future; the present can’t entirely shut the future out.

So if Gray’s really asking us to forget what’s up ahead, he’s fighting immutable human instinct in the same way that he accuses the critics of religion of so doing.

John Gray

Nice Guys of the SWP

January 25, 2013

Some of us have been banging on about the misogyny of the left for some time. 2012 was the year it became too apparent to ignore. It became clear during the Assange/Galloway furore that a significant part of the left has no time for feminism, sexual freedom or gender equality, which it regards as irrelevant middle class distractions from the glorious struggle against neoliberal imperialism. This is clear in the SWP’s support for far right Islamic fanatics, and it’s long been my contention that many anaemic middle aged leftwing males would rather like a society where women cover up and do as they are told.

Is it a surprise, then, that when rape allegations are made within the party, SWP members rejected the ‘bourgeois court system’ in favour of a hastily convened tribunal consisting of friends of the defendant (but apparently one of them used to volunteer at a rape crisis centre, which makes it okay)? This is a cult. These people do not believe in the rule of law and it shouldn’t raise any eyebrows that they should try to essentially secede from the UK criminal justice system, and treat a serious criminal matter with a bullshit disputes committee process rightly compared to sharia.

Two objections are generally raised at this point. Members have told me that the complainant explicitly stated she didn’t want to go to the police. Maybe so, and that’s her choice. But we also have a duty to listen to people who know the organisation, and have made the choice to walk out. Tom Walker, experienced SWP journalist, has said that:

It is stated that the accuser did not want to go to the police, as is her absolute right if that was truly her decision. However, knowing the culture of the SWP, I doubt that was a decision she made entirely free from pressure.

Do not underestimate the pressure the SWP can bring to bear on members by telling them to do or not do things for the ultimate cause of the socialist society the party’s members are all fighting for.

Objection two is that these are just allegations. The McAlpine rules apply and you can’t convict Comrade Delta in the kangaroo court of public opinion. True again. But there is going to be no due process in this case because the party has decided that there won’t be. Unless the police make an independent decision to investigate, we’ll never know. Even if Comrade Delta is innocent, the whisper of the political village will follow him to the grave.

All this we know. This story ain’t going away and we have not heard the last of this. There have been further rape allegations and so much insight, argument and commentary that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it (although Jim Jepps does his best). I just want to pick up on something Paul Anderson has touched on: that there has been far too much credit and good faith given to the SWP ‘oppositionists’.

The best known SWP writers in the UK are probably the novelist China Miéville and my old friend Richard Seymour. Neither has quit the party as far as I know. Both of them have written long condemnathon posts at Lenin’s Tomb, and Seymour has set up a new blog, International Socialism, featuring posts from the rank and file. Their denounciations of the SWP leadership are welcome. But these guys have been cadre for years. Why has it taken a leaked committee report for them to speak out?

The SWP has a great talent for hyperbole. One post on Seymour’s blog shrieks that ‘The entire working class has an interest in what happens in the SWP… the SWP remains, for all I’ve said, the best thing the British working class has at its disposal.’ During the crisis, it has fallen back on its reputation. ‘Our record on women’s rights is SECOND TO NONE,’ a paper seller bellowed at me in Manchester. (Second to none? ‘YES’.) This is bullshit, of course. Close examination reveals SWP claims as defenders of feminism to be lies. The initial allegation was followed by the worst kind of Unilad slut-shaming. Laurie Penny writes: ‘not only were friends of the alleged rapist allowed to investigate the complaint, the alleged victims were subject to further harassment. Their drinking habits and former relationships were called into question, and those who stood by them were subject to expulsion and exclusion.’

Clearly there has been a misogynistic canteen culture within the organisation for decades. And Seymour and Mieville only notice this at the moment the leaked report detonated onto the internet? As Omar says in The Wire: ‘Nigger, please.’

Fact is, the SWP can’t come back from this. It is finished. As the Very Public Sociologist put it:

They are the party that lets an alleged rapist off because a committee of his mates gave him a clean bill of health, and no amount of back-pedalling, no ‘democracy commissions’ or truth-and-reconciliation procedures can change that. It’s game over, comrades.

The SWP recruit predominantly from universities and it can’t do that as the SWP after this. The young people coming up now (and by ‘young people’ I don’t mean bloggers in their thirties, I mean people born in 1985-1995) are strongly feminist. Think of a popular young writer or blogger – Laurie Penny,  Helen Lewis, Zoe Stavri, Juliet Jacques, the Vagenda team, Sianushka, the Nat Fantastic – and s/he is likely to come from a passionate feminist position. Big grassroots organisations are increasingly feminist and any far left group simply won’t get the numbers without them. The only remaining power play for a far left activist is to disassociate completely with the SWP and set up as some kind of new party that doesn’t have the SWP’s black past. Maybe I’m being too cynical and Richard Seymour really does have the sisterhood’s best interests at heart. But ask yourself: can you really trust a man who writes that badly?

Penny writes that ‘Many of the UK’s most important thinkers and writers are members, or former members’ of the SWP.’ She could have said that most of them became important writers and thinkers after they left the SWP. Paul Richards nails it, in his indispensable essay on the cult:

They sweep up young, idealistic people, take their idealism and energy, and wring them out like sheets of kitchen towel. They turn people off progressive politics for life. They stand alongside decent-minded people, subvert their campaigns, and drive them into the ground.

The problem with the SWP isn’t that it acts on naive, utopian and impractical politics, it’s that it actively crushes and destroys human creativity, idealism, hopes and dreams.

A very big rock has been lifted up. Whether it’s Savile, Cyril Smith or the WRP, this stuff always comes out eventually. Thank god for the internet. It exposes everything.

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Update: The brilliant Zarathustra, of Not So Big Society, has made a Nice Guys of SWP Tumblr:

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