Archive for the ‘Secularism’ Category

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.


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.


(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.


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


Mediocre Books: The Mary Whitehouse Experience

December 16, 2012

marywhitehouseYou’re a professional in a public facing role. A complaint lands on your desk. The complaint will be at least three pages or a thousand words long. The letterhead address will be a house that has a name, in one of a thousand forgotten English towns. The handwriting will be preposterous, and the prose seasoned with random punctuation and unnecessary capitalisations. Its subject will be some trivial local issue, or a G-spot national policy debate – immigration, international aid, Iraq, Israel or welfare. Regardless of content, the tone will essentially be reactionary, self-satisfied and provincial. The complainant will look down on migrants, foreigners in general, and benefit claimants. (The complainants probably don’t work themselves, but then, why should they?) If the complaint has arrived by email, it will have been cced (not bcced) to every influential person with a publicly available address, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Duchess of Cornwall. There will be little concession to courtesy or readability. The message will end with a thinly disguised threat to take the complaint to the papers if whatever impossible demand is not met. I say threat, but it’s unlikely even a regional editor would be interested in what the complainant has to say. The complainant will be the kind of person who does not appear in newspapers unless the story ends with ‘and ordered to sign the Sex Offenders’ Register for three years.’

In the para above I have tried to encapsulate the kind of complaint that gets sent to councils, politicians, police forces, newspapers and TV stations. These days of course everyone’s a complainant. The internet has given us an orchestra of one-man media monitoring services. Bloggers and tweeters ruthlessly analyse and critique media representations and attitudes. Leveson said the web was an ethical void. If anything the internet is too moral. A UKIP councillor says something bigoted, a newspaper prints a chauvinist op-ed, and it’s halfway around the world in seconds and it dominates the cycle at the expense of more important stories. Where this departs from my dismissive caricature is that many complainants these days are progressive or at least think they are. As the journalist David Hepworth said, Disgusted on Tunbridge Wells has become Appalled of Stoke Newington. And so perhaps this stupid, overlong and overhyped book can actually tell us something. In his introduction to Mary Whitehouse’s letters, Ben Thompson claims that ‘From feminist anti-porn campaigns to UK Uncut, and the Taliban and Mumsnet, Mary Whitehouse’s monuments are all around us.’

Ban This Filth has been reviewed along the lines of ‘Well, we laughed at her, but maybe the old girl was right after all.’ The broadsheet critics have a point. There is far more to complain about than in Whitehouse’s day. How can you not be angry and appalled at a culture that sells dangerous diabetes-inducing junk food to children, where women writers receive violent and sexualised misogynist abuse and death threats, where the broken people are encouraged to parade their dysfunctional lives through reality shows that could have been devised by a Nietzschean fantasist? Too often our culture seems summed up by creepshots and Jeremy Kyle. It’s a world where hatred passes for criticism and casual cruelty passes for comedy.

I have no problem with traditional values and there’s a strong case for having some kind of vanguard for public decency. Many of Whitehouse’s targets appeared radical at the time, but were self-satisfied Footlights acts dated even back then. And in an era with only a few television channels and no internet it was fair enough to debate what should fill the limited airtime. But Mary Whitehouse was not content to campaign against merely distasteful and explicit programming. She was a Christian evangelical who wanted to impose her interpretation of the world to the exclusion of everything else. And she had some familiar Christian hangups. ‘I am writing in response to press reports that the ‘EastEnders’ cast is to include a homosexual couple living together,’ she wrote to the BBC. The following para gives us an insight into the nature of bigotry:

I cannot emphasise too strongly our anxiety about the threat to the young – and others – of any ‘normalising’ of homosexual practices in your programmes. It is important that we have compassion and concern for homosexuals. It is equally, if not in your circumstances more important, that concern for the impact of such material upon viewers in particular should be paramount.

This encapsulates Christian prejudice. Whitehouse does not want to lock gay people up or put them in camps. She would probably have been horrified by that idea. The term ‘homosexual’ is used in a clinical sense: Whitehouse sees gay people as if they suffer from some tragic and transmittable disease. Gays are not actively wicked but they are sick and it is necessary that they be kept out of sight, lest their condition become ‘normalised’. This is not homophobia in its contemporary sense, but anxiety and disgust and even a terrible kind of compassion.

Well, Whitehouse lost that one. As Jonathan Freedland pointed out yesterday, it was that cultural  ‘normalisation’ of gay lives just as much as political activism that made equal marriage possible. Conversely, Whitehouse’s attempts at cultural cleansing were undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of avoidable human suffering. There is a letter from a gay man in Northern Ireland asking for help and support for what he saw as a shameful condition.

I have never quite belonged to the lobby who sees the new ‘gaiety’ as ‘normal’ behaviour, nor have I ever joined any gay organisation. As a musician and creative artist I have chosen to channel my frustrations into altruistic channels – but the feedback is not without its moments of despair. I have often contemplated thoughts of suicide.

The letter is heartbreaking to read, and made me wonder why we see Whitehouse as worthy of our time, why her legacy is seen as worth having. I wonder if the gay Northern Irish man is still alive. I hope he learned he had nothing to be ashamed of.

An uninterrupted volume of Whitehouse’s correspondence would be a pointless dirge, unreadable even for ironic value. So Thompson is obliged to pad out the letters with lengthy commentary in that jaunty and verbose style that passes for wit in the English bourgoisie. This is never less than irritating and at some points akin to torture. To give Thompson credit he does touch on the controversial points of Whitehouse’s philosophy: ‘The dispiriting impact of the stratospheric levels of bigotry on display in many of the letters she received is often compounded by a closing signature that begins with the prefix ‘Rev’ (translation: Whitehouse was supported by bigoted priests who shared her prejudice against gays). There are attempts to draw parallels with the Islamic grievances that would hold the creative world to ransom from 9/11 on. In his own review the Observer’s Andrew Anthony quipped that ‘Perhaps Whitehouse would have been taken more seriously by her liberal antagonists if her supporters had offered a plausible violent threat.’

In general Thompson treats Whitehouse with a joshing affection she clearly doesn’t merit. We hear almost nothing about the lady’s personal life – she would want it that way – but you get a picture of a disagreeable egotist: six autobiographies, numerous libel writs, including a private prosecution of the magazine Gay News, after it published an erotic poem about Jesus. Thompson’s epilogue includes this revealing line: ‘When interviewed by David Dimbleby for Person to Person, Mary’s husband Ernest spoke of her in the same breath as the suffragettes and the great anti-slavery campaigner Lord Wilberforce.’ There is a kick in moral superiority. The rush of self-satisfaction is a narcotic.

I’m guessing Thompson’s book went to press before the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, for there’s no mention of it here. I think it’s fair to say that people in the media class knew. There are throwaway lines in interviews and sitcoms that are chilling in retrospect. In Britain, if you have the power, if you’re a big fish in a small pond, you can do pretty much anything. You can rape and hurt women and children, if that’s your inclination. The libel laws will protect you, and hey, it’s all for charity. Think of all those starving kids in Africa and say nothing.

Reading Hunter S Thompson’s letters, I came across a letter to Olympia in which HST turned down the opportunity to endorse George Kimball’s novel, which he saw as a ‘violent sex book’. Thompson was offered $500 to write ten words, and at a time when the money was badly needed. But the drug-fiend gonzo journalist could not ‘under any circumstances endorse that heap of deranged offal that Mr Kimball has coughed up in the shameful guise of art.’ He added: ‘pornography is one thing, but raw obscenity is quite another.’ Around the same time Cyril Smith was mayor of Rochdale and Jimmy Savile was doing youth TV, dancing around at some community fun day, hiding in plain sight. I make this juxtaposition because common decency can come from the most unlikely places. And sometimes it’s wholesome family values that protect and enable the true capering and corrupting evil.

The Rise of the Authoritarian Left

October 17, 2012

Mehdi Hasan says the Prophet Mohammed is more important to him than his children. He also uses his own experience of fatherhood as an argument for making other people’s decisions for them. This is why deeply religious people tend to unsettle me no matter how benign they seem. I mean, I’m sure Mehdi Hasan’s a great guy. I just wouldn’t like to be with him in any kind of enclosed space.

Mehdi Hasan stresses that his position on abortion isn’t anything to do with his Islamic faith. Rather it’s an attempt to reclaim the ‘pro life’ cause for the left. ‘It has long been taken as axiomatic that in order to be left-wing you must be pro-choice,’ he complains. Well, I’m not crazy about abortions either. I think there is a point where an embryo becomes a human being and I think current law reflects this. I know a few people who’ve undergone the procedure, it’s not a thing I’ve seen done lightly. It’s a sad, distressing thing. In an ideal world no one would need abortions. No one would ever be raped, contraception would be 100% foolproof and love a thing that never went wrong.

Fact is though, the right not to have a child if you don’t want to is absolutely key to secular civilisation. Childbirth keeps women in their place. The right to opt out is crucial. For that reason I don’t truly believe you can be a feminist if you want to limit that right. Fuck with it and you fuck with freedom.

Another problem with pro life arguments is the awful aggressive cloying sentimentality that always has to accompany the process. As soon as the blue line comes up the discussion becomes about the needs of a hypothetical child over a living, breathing person. So Hasan writes: ‘Isn’t socialism about protecting the weak and vulnerable, giving a voice to the voiceless? Who is weaker or more vulnerable than the unborn child? Which member of our society needs a voice more than the mute baby in the womb?’ The best response to this comes from Wilbur Larch, the orphanage director and abortionist in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. In a letter to FDR, he implores the President that ‘Mr. Roosevelt – you, of all people! – you should know that the unborn are not as wretched or as in need of our assistance as the born! Please take pity on the born!’

There is a wider implication here. Hasan writes:

Abortion is one of those rare political issues on which left and right seem to have swapped ideologies: right-wingers talk of equality, human rights and ‘defending the innocent’, while left-wingers fetishise ‘choice’, selfishness and unbridled individualism.

‘My body, my life, my choice.’ Such rhetoric has always left me perplexed.

To argue that the concept of choice is essentially rightwing, something evil and capitalist, is not a good position to be in. We are in danger of forgetting first principles. You can’t be a free or happy person without making choices. But there are prominent voices on the left, religious or religiously influenced, who argue for the community and the struggle over individuality, free decision making and personal autonomy. This has been developing for years but has become apparent now over the controversy around Galloway and Julian Assange. No wonder in the debate with David Aaronovitch Hasan claimed that free speech was being ‘fetishised’. ‘We were in a society dying,’ says Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘of too much choice.’

The result is that smart women are leaving the left. Here’s Naomi McAuliffe:

To view women’s rights as simply desirable rather than essential, as an optional extra rather than necessary for our mere survival, is what allows us to negotiate with the Taliban for peace in Afghanistan. Peace is important but peace for women and girls can wait no matter how many 14 year old girls are shot in the head for wanting an education. It is the idea that women’s rights will be achieved AFTER other ‘more important’ ‘male’ rights are achieved. It allows people on the left to think that women’s right to justice for allegedly being raped and molested are not as important as an imaginary global conspiracy to jail a darling of the Left. The Left have a long history of postponing women’s rights until their socialist revolution has happened, their war has been won, their peace declared, their poster-boy has defeated capitalism. But of course it never comes. There is always another reason why women have to wait for their rights and why they are being selfish for having the temerity to fight for them.