Thursday, 20 March 2008

Easter thoughts

I shall be taking a break from blogging, or at any rate I shall cut down the time I devote to it, for the next few weeks at least.

Easter is a good time for personal and social stocktaking. Regardless of any specifically religious message, it is the yearly harbinger of new birth, new life, and new growth.

Such renewal was never more sorely needed than in this diabolical first decade of the 21st century. With a memory stretching back to the 1930s, I cannot remember any other decade which has so filled me with fury, loathing, and dread of the purblind pigmies who are leading the world recklessly to political, economic, and ecological destruction in the name of their false creeds and dogmas. Of necessity, politics is always a matter of small, loud-mouthed tails wagging large, too-quiescent dogs. This has never been more the case since the millennium.

We were told that the Twin Towers atrocity of 11th September 2001 was a ‘wake-up call’. On the contrary, it proved to be the prelude to a catastrophic sleepwalk towards the abyss. Instead of the more profound inner reflection required to throw much-needed light on the causes of the insensate hatred which motivated the perpetrators – whoever they were - the West embarked upon a stridently self-righteous crusade; a spurious ‘war on terror’ which has in the event spread even greater terror, destruction and apprehensive fear around the world.

So far, the 21st century has resounded to the empty lies, braggings and boastings of Western politicians who purport to champion ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ while trampling on both, not only overseas but in their own home countries where traditional civil liberties have been blithely swept aside in the name of ‘security’. Can we really be surprised at the bitterly anti-Western tirades of Middle Eastern and Asian peoples who feel themselves the victims of double standards, or at the criticisms of our hypocrisy emanating from the Russians and the Chinese, whom we so love to lecture loftily about their disregard of human rights?

We are living through times dominated by what Jung called the ‘dark shadow’ – the collective negativity bred by anger and hatred of real or fancied injustice. The only really important – indeed, urgent – question is: how to reverse this trend? Genuine peace will only come about when all parties desire it, and stop striving for dominance. There is no lack of conflict resolution know-how, but these skills can only be applied when circumstances are favourable because increasing numbers of people realise the futility – and unwinnability – of fighting.

We – everyone in the world – need to make a sincere effort of heart-searching if things are to improve. We must all abandon the stale old “We are right and you are wrong” attitudes which falsely teach us that our ‘truth’ is the only correct one, and seek, through the exercise of empathy, to understand better how our opponents and critics feel about us – and about themselves. This calls for a daunting amount of candid self-criticism but it can – it must - be done.

Almost half a century ago, the convener of a pioneering conference on the still ongoing topic of religion and sexuality opened the proceedings with these words: "Forget who you represent. We represent the human race. Let's start there." The urgent search for world peace must proceed in that spirit.

The Easter message is that God is Love. Whether or not we believe there is a God, and regardless of which God we believe in, It is only Love, and not Hate, that is going to heal humanity’s self-inflicted wounds. We must love one another or die.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

What is real?

Here is another piece of vintage Anticant, which originally appeared in the Burrow:

Each of us perceives the world, and everything and everyone else in it, through our senses. Our personal imperfect mind-body composite mediates our experience of reality. So what is reality? Is there something ‘out there’ which is immutably real whether or not you and I are aware of it? This has been a disputatious field for philosophers and theologians down the ages. Religious believers hold that ultimate reality is a supernatural Being. Most philosophers, whether religious or not, accept that the universe exists. There is a story that Dr. Samuel Johnson asked a lady who had announced herself to be an extreme sceptic what she did believe in. When she replied “the universe”, Johnson retorted “By God, Madam, you’d better”.

Disbelief in the reality of anything or anyone outside oneself is solipsism. It is obviously difficult to ascertain how many people are solipsists, though a good many self-absorbed egotists behave as if they were. Bertrand Russell relates that someone once wrote to him asserting that they were a solipsist, and expressing surprise that there weren’t more of them. Russell replied “I am surprised at your surprise.”

Even though not solipsists, large numbers of people - if they are adult enough to consider them at all - regard other people’s realities as being less real than their own, and therefore deserving of less respect. It is the way of the world that the realities of the powerful trump the realities of the weak. The inflamed realities of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have devastated the humble realities of hundreds of thousands of anonymous Iraqis. The Islamic realities of Osama bin Laden and growing numbers of fanatical jihadists are increasingly impinging upon the less hubristic realities of multitudes in the West who don’t want their lives to be disrupted by fantasists, and just want to be left alone by all the godbotherers of assorted stripes.

But there seems little hope of this for the time being. Reaching out to the Other is no longer fashionable in this self-obsessed age. Empathy – the wish and ability to stand in another person’s shoes without stepping out of your own – was a fashionable aspiration in the 1970s but is nowadays widely scorned as namby-pambyish. Conflict resolution is rarely a priority; most combatants, military and mental, are more intent on victory than on compromise. Their respective realities brook no rivals.

When the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly and woke up wondering whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was a man, he was opening himself to possibilities beyond the armour-plated ego which so many 21st century people barricade themselves into. What the world needs is many more butterflies, and far fewer blowflies.

Will we ever grow up about sex?

The latest crop of serio-comic incidents around the ever-interesting topic make me wonder at the sheer lack of realism of so many otherwise intelligent and publicly responsible people.

The tragic death of the Chief Constable of Manchester, Mike Todd, is very sad. If emerging reports are true, he took his own life because an extramarital affair was about to be exposed. Surely this should not have been necessary, or even thinkable. But evidently he had a punitive personal moral code which told him that this was the only way out.

The case of Mr Eliot Spitzer, New York’s ‘Mr Clean-Up’ Mayor, is more laughable and calls for less sympathy. Having set himself up as the ideal person, because of his strict moral probity, to flush out his city’s vice-infested sewers, he falls from grace, and feels obliged to resign, because his name is discovered on the client list of an escort agency. And not any old escort agency, but a top-flight one which charges $2,150 – over £1,000 – an hour for its ladies’ services. [According to today’s papers, Mr Spitzer splurged out around $80,000 on prostitutes in recent months!] “I have let down my family”, the soon-to-be-ex-Mayor wails, his wife standing beside him looking as miserable as if she has been waterboarded. And so he has. Why his wife – a high-flying lawyer – didn’t slap his face in front of the cameras and march off to file her divorce petition beats me.

Finally [for now] we have the Conservative MP for Castle Point, Dr Bob Spink, who has had the party whip withdrawn [when he threatened to resign it] because of shenanigans within his local constituency party and attempts to de-select him arising out of an affair he has been having with a lady described [in The Times] as the ‘long-term partner’ of the local Conservative association’s deputy chairman. According to the article, the MP also uses his Commons staffing allowance to employ as ‘assistants’ both his ex-wife [who does this ‘work’ 150 miles away from Westminster] and the student daughter of his lady friend and her ‘long term partner’. The latter is, unsurprisingly, Dr Spink’s bitterest enemy – they have been involved in unseemly scrimmages [in one of which the ‘long term partner’ ended up on the floor], and complaints to the police of ‘criminal harassment’. This MP – I scarcely need add – is a “hang-em-and-flog-em” rightwinger, favouring Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and courting controversy with outspoken attacks on asylum-seekers and homosexuals and vocal criticism of abortion laws.” As Mandy Rice-Davies would say, “he would be, wouldn’t he?”

In my younger, more sanguine, days I hoped that as a result of the liberalising work which some of us achieved in the 1960s and ‘70s, public and private attitudes to sex would evolve into a more mature, relaxed acceptance of what is, after all, one of the most basic universals of human existence. But I did not reckon with the hypocrisy, prurience, and venality of the gutter press, which [rightly from its viewpoint] sees sexual titillation as a money spinner, and spares no effort to vulgarise the subject, mislead its readers, and vilify the minority who are brave enough to speak and behave in a more honest manner.

That great British pioneer of sex research, Havelock Ellis, said over a century ago that sex is the human activity which above all others generates vast amounts of vehemently held opinion founded upon little – if any – basis of facts. In his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud said that people are in general not candid over sexual matters. “They do not show their sexuality freely, but to conceal it they wear a heavy overcoat woven of a tissue of lies, as though the weather were bad in the world of sexuality. Nor are they mistaken.”

A great friend of mine who was a brilliant trainer of sex educators, the late Dorothy Dallas, used to say that in teaching sex, you must begin by clearing morals, like you clear trumps in Bridge. Only when you have established a clear ethical framework based upon mutual respect, honest dealing, and rejection of cheating, can you proceed to deal with the physical details [which Dorothy used to call the ‘plumbing’] and the health issues involved in sex.

It’s a pity that Mike Todd, Eliot Spitzer, Bob Spink, and many other twisted, self-deceiving moralisers about sex who behave on the shabby old “do as I say, not as I do” principle weren’t her pupils. If they had been, they might have led happier lives and avoided damaging others.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The need to be right

Debating with religious people, and irreligious ones, on Stephen Law’s philosophy blog and elsewhere is convincing me that the one propensity which unites almost all human beings is the compulsive need to be ‘Right’ – to reassure themselves that their world-view is the only correct one, and that their opponents are not only sadly misguided, but in many cases positively wicked.

What I think I am right about is that this egocentric attitude is a major cause – if not THE main one – of most of the strife and conflict in the world. It is also extremely boring: I do my best, when communicating, to convey my views as clearly as possible – sometimes combatively but never, I hope, aggressively - and to learn from the insights and opinions of others. Unlike many bloggers and other controversialists, I do not seek to beat my interlocutors into abject submission.

I first came across this repugnant debating style as a student, when I remember an earnest young lady saying with great vehemence: “Nothing is absolute! Everything is relative!.“ I am inclined to think she may be right, but I would never assert it with such finality. Nor am I able to bring the dogmatic attitude which many do to the ‘Big Questions’ of whether or not there is a God, or gods; which religion [if any] is the true one; whether the universe was created and, if so, how; the nature of reality; and the mechanisms by which we know [or think we know] anything.

Many of the squabbles around these issues seem to me to be mere verbal hair-splitting. They involve disputes about the meaning and significance of words. They recall the medieval controversies between ‘nominalists’, who said that ‘universals’ such as the abstract concepts of perfect archetypes posited by Plato were simply thoughts inside human minds, and ‘realists’, who maintained that such concepts denoted actual realities which did exist independently of the persons thinking about them.

In that sense, theists who maintain that there is a Creator, and other supernatural beings, are realists, while those who dispute the actual existence of such unverifiable beings outside the minds of those who believe in them are ‘nominalists’.

Taking one of the most profound of these enigmas – where did the universe come from, and why is there something rather than nothing – I am increasingly of the opinion that this is a non-question, because time, space, and existence are all concepts which shed no light on the indisputable fact that we are each aware that we are here. So there is now something, and the question is, was there ever a time when there was nothing? What was there before the Creator God or the Big Bang? Put in these terms, the question is unanswerable for certain. So why not simply conclude that there may never have been a time or space where there was nothing, and that existence is and always has been, eternal – as we are told by theists to believe God is?

That would dispose of the Creator vs. Big Bang conundrum, and we could all of us – theists and non-theists alike - agree to stop disputing over speculative abstractions, and get on with solving the human-made dire messes which abound in this imperfect world that we find ourselves living in.

But I fear it isn’t going to happen. Too many people have a too big self-important investment in being ‘right’. As the historian A.L. Rowse once said, “those who believe nonsense must expect awkward consequences”. Trouble is, the awkward consequences are all too often visited upon those who don’t believe the nonsense.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Education or indoctrination?

Over on Stephen Law’s blog, the debate with Ibrahim Lawson, the headmaster of an Islamic school, continues. I have previously referred to this three-month-long marathon in my 17 February post Islam in the West. It all started with a critical post by Stephen on 27 November [“Is religion dangerous?”], following Ibrahim’s assertion in a BBC broadcast that, in his view, it is OK to teach his pupils that the truth of Islam is a ‘given’ and must not be questioned. The discussion has since ranged far and wide over philosophical, religious, and mystical territory, and we are indebted to Ibrahim for his patience and stamina in returning time and again to rebut others’ criticisms and state his own position.

In his latest contribution he explains the rationale behind his decision to become a Muslim, and defends of his teaching methods. As regards his conversion to Islam, it turns out that there is no rationale – as Ibrahim says, “there is no why. decision was rather an ‘acte gratuite’; but not in the negative sense of an irresponsible action.” It was “a pure act of will, undetermined by any external conditions”, and not based on any kind of evidence or argument. He quotes a Muslim scholar as saying “the man of Allah does not say ‘how?’ or ‘why?; he says ‘yes’.

As I pointed out to Ibrahim, there is a world of difference between a mature, highly educated man such as himself making this act of will, and instructing his young immature pupils with all the authority of an adult teacher that they must accept Islam as “the truth”. I asked him if he felt comfortable telling them this?

He made a long response, saying inter alia that “there is of course a huge difference between someone who chooses to be a Muslim following a long period of search and someone who is born to Muslim parents. We can’t do anything about that.” To which I retorted: “Oh, yes we can! We can ensure that they grow up with the awareness that although their parents are Muslim, there is nothing inevitable about them being Muslim, and they have a choice. It should be the business of educators – as distinct from indoctrinators – to provide them with the breadth of knowledge necessary for making an informed choice when they reach maturity.”

Ibrahim then said: “I grew up in a more or less permanent state of alienation from the society around me, as did many of my 60’s generation; born Muslims today will have their own version of this alienation. I was then, and remain, utterly convinced that ‘western’ society has serious problems, which are not solvable by tinkering but only by re-writing the whole paradigm” – presumably in the image of Islam.

Ibrahim continued: “So having decided that Islam is the answer, what are the implications for a school teacher?..…My view of the education of children is that it must, first and foremost, contribute to their individual ‘quest for the fullness of selfhood’ and that this is a subversive activity….In order to achieve this we must have questions that are worth asking, questions that demand a response.

“Teaching in the state system for 10 years, I observed that western liberal secular culture fails to provide children with such questions; the overwhelming sense is one of ennui. Muslim children, on the other hand, have in front of them all the time the enormous question: what does it mean to me to be a Muslim? This is why, for example, visitors to Muslim schools are frequently impressed by the degree of engagement demonstrated by many pupils in fundamental questions of self and society.

“So voila, my justification for ‘imposing’ my beliefs on my pupils: it is really more a challenge to them to face up to their own situation as ‘born’ Muslims as authentically as possible. Faith as a heuristic, if you like….

“I don’t know what you imagine goes on in our schools under the name of ‘indoctrination’. It could be made to sound very oppressive and tyrannical; we imagine Vietnamese communists brainwashing American POWs or scenes from Orwell’s 1984 [How many fingers am I holding up?] It’s rather that the specific question ‘Is Islam true?’ just doesn’t come up. It is taken for granted as the position from which we start….

“I can see that, yes, children are defenceless, they do not and cannot question what adults tell them at first; this only starts around adolescence. At this point we begin to introduce the skills of critical questioning about religion [quite different from critical questioning in other areas of the curriculum] and this continues into adulthood…..

“My point is that adults have to tell children something” [my italics], “and for Muslims that has to be Islam. I am comfortable with that, especially having seen the alternatives.”

Having considered this, I asked Ibrahim what the actual difference is between what he had just described and brainwashing? I await his answer with interest.

And a further pertinent question I intend to put to him: Does such an education properly equip those subjected to it to play a constructive role in our wider, largely non-Islamic, British society?

Free Expression and the Rule of Law

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald QC, delivered a lecture with the above title at Birmingham University on 4th March. The full text is here. It is an extremely interesting exposition of the Crown Prosecution Service's - surprisingly liberal - approach to putative offences involving freedom of expression, and stresses the crucial importance of the 1998 Human Rights Act in bolstering the legal protection of free speech.

As the DPP points out, while there is no universally agreed consensus over what is acceptable and unacceptable, widely held views change over time, and the law needs to respect this and to evolve accordingly.

"A reckless inciter of violence imprisoned in one generation is a martyr to free speech in the next.

"For our grandparents a gay marriage would have been an abomination. To our children it is the excuse for a great party."

Anyone interested in free speech issues should read this illuminating reflection of the official mind.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Hodge bombs Proms

We were informed by yesterday’s Guardian that the “the culture (!) minister, Margaret Hodge, will today criticise the Prom concerts as one of many British cultural events that fail to engender new common values or attract more than a narrow unrepresentative audience. She will make her remarks in a broad-ranging speech that examines the role culture should play in developing a stronger sense of shared British cultural identity. Hodge will also suggest that British citizenship ceremonies should be held in places such as castles, theatres, museums, art galleries and historic houses.”

I’ve heard it all now. Or wish I had. What else will these ever-meddlesome Politically Correct ministers come up with next? Compulsory multiculturalist dancing round maypoles? The busybodyishness of the likes of Margaret Hodge is almost beyond belief. The ethnic composition of Prom audiences is not an issue in the musical world. Love of classical music and enjoyment of what’s on offer is. Attendance or non-attendance at the Proms or any other musical or artistic event is purely a matter of personal choice, and none of Mrs Hodge’s business.

When I first lived in London in the early 1950s, I was a frequent attender at the Albert Hall Promenade concerts, which under the benevolent sponsorship of the BBC were the highlight of the capital’s musical year. A veritable feast of wonderful music was provided by world-class celebrities and international orchestras, who obviously enjoyed performing at the Proms as much as their mostly youthful audience enjoyed hearing them. Several weeks of nightly musical pleasure was yours for a season ticket price of only 35 shillings [less than £2!] if you were prepared to stand, either in the arena or up aloft in the gallery. I chose the latter, and we stalwart regulars vied to be early in the queue so that we could run quickly up the stairs and bag our favourite vantage point.

There was a camaraderie among the ‘prommers’, and I met some very pleasant people at the Albert Hall. I really can’t remember whether any, or how many, of them were darker skinned than me, because it wouldn’t have mattered. Although friendly, that young audience – containing many music students from the various London and provincial schools of music who knew the scores as well as, if not better than, some of the conductors – was never rowdy in those pre-television days, and when the music began you could have heard a pin drop in the huge packed auditorium. At the end, the applause was usually warm – except on the rare occasion of a poor performance – and sometimes enthusiastic to the point of being ecstatic. One especially memorable occasion was the London debut of the exquisitely rich-voiced Spanish soprano the late Victoria de los Angeles, who was cheered to the echo as the prommers took her to their hearts [where she remained for the rest of her long singing career].

But the rot set in with television, and all the visual gimmickry which modern producers mistakenly deem essential to make any programme interesting. The cameras were a gift to the at first small but now too large clique of exhibitionists who fondly imagine that funny clothes, banner and balloon waving, and graceless clowning enhance the home-watching audience’s enjoyment – especially on the traditional ‘last night of the Proms’ [a quintessentially English occasion, whatever La Hodge and her minions may say]. Formerly, this was a good-humoured event with a jolly audience singalong of “Rule Britannia”, “Land of Hope and Glory”, and other patriotic ballads skilfully steered by experienced conductors like Sir Malcolm Sargent. Now, watching the stereotyped ‘last night’ has become a pain, so I usually don’t.

As for the Minister’s contention that the Proms don’t cater for today’s ‘common values’, and that Prom audiences are “ a long way from demonstrating that people from different backgrounds feel at ease being a part of this”, it seems to have escaped her notice that Prom audiences – like theatre, cinema, football, cricket, and race track audiences – are a self-selected group. Is she proposing compulsory attendance, in order to make such events more ‘representative’? Roll on Big Sister’s Brave New World!

And I am less than enthused by her naff idea of holding ‘British citizenship ceremonies’ in castles, theatres, museums, art galleries and historic houses. Presumably these worthy events are designed to foster a synthetic patriotic consciousness, like young citizens of the USA saluting the flag. If so, there are many other places where they could be held, such as Tyburn and Tower Hill, where criminals and State prisoners were executed – and, of course, the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall where King Charles I met his grisly end at the hands of the self-appointed Politically Correct national nannies of his day. No doubt a 17th century Mistress Hodge was among the eager bloodthirsty throng that witnessed the historic regicide.

As for celebrating next year’s 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession and the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, all well and good. But is having government-sponsored national debates about the legacy and significance of such historic figures the best way to foster a sense of British identity? In both these instances, and in many others, it is more than likely to spark off renewed dissension.

The reason for this fatuous initiative by Mrs Hodge – who is, not inappropriately, MP for Barking - is, it seems, a belated awareness on the part of the government that ‘multiculturalism’ [code word for downplaying traditional Britishness in the supposed interests of social harmony] is a dead duck; and that a new strategy for promoting greater cohesiveness among the increasingly diverse populations of the United Kingdom has to be employed. They have suddenly awoken to the fact that the great majority of peaceable people of good will who constitute what Mrs Hodge recognises with uncustomary astuteness as being “the all-important centre ground of politics”, and who simply want to get on with their own lives without hassle from extremist political or religious factions, are becoming increasingly dismayed by the failure of PC ‘multiculturalism’ to gell. Indeed, it seems to be having the opposite effect to that intended, and is actually encouraging the flaunting of difference in an antagonistic manner by those who consider their religious and cultural traditions to be superior to those of the majority British population, an increasing number of whom are confronted with a wilfully alien presence in their midst.

This seems to be dawning on Mrs Hodge, although the obvious reason for it escapes her. “Over and over again”, she witters, politicians are failing to be seen on the side of those worried by loss of identity [theirs, of course]. “The cracks in the community turn to gaps. And those gaps, those voids, are always exploited mercilessly and cruelly by the extreme right”. [Is it any wonder, when official policies are driven by crackpots?] “The mainstream parties”, Mrs Hodge moans, “in their determination to capture and maintain power,” [she’s got it right there, at least!] ”have perhaps allowed a blurring of their ideological value base….In doing this they inadvertently create a value vacuum which is then filled by fundamentalists in religion and extremists in politics.” In established poor communities where choice is least, “people can be left with the feeling of imposed change or being subject to forces beyond their control”. Abstract notions about Britishness mean little to “the good burghers of Barking” faced by rapid change [a euphemism for becoming inescapably aware that what they used to regard as their native heath is inexorably being taken over by another way of life].

Faced with such weasel-worded twaddle, if I were a good burgher of Barking I would be barking mad at having such a mistress of NuLabour spin as my member of parliament. It is as if Mrs Hodge and her civil servants and ‘political advisers’ had sat down together and said “Oh dear! Multiculturalism isn’t working. Those stroppy Muslims and nasty BNPers don’t buy it. What shall we do?” Suddenly some bright spark says “I know! Let’s attack the Proms as being narrow and unrepresentative of modern British values. The BBC is a soft target. It won’t bite back.”

“Brilliant idea!” says La Hodge, and is so chuffed that she can’t contain herself until her speech is delivered, but leaks it to the PC-friendly Guardian. But lo and behold! Before the words are even out of her mouth, she has been sharply slapped down by a Downing Street spokesman who says that the prime minister is a keen fan of the Proms, which are a “wonderful, democratic, and quintessentially British institution that do [sic] a fantastic job in broadening culture.”

You couldn’t make it up, could you? Obviously the left-handed Hodges of this increasingly flaky government no longer know what their right-handed prime minister is thinking. Come back, Alastair Campbell – almost all is forgiven. It would never have happened on your watch.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Weasel words

Sixty years ago George Orwell, that tough-minded scourge of mental and moral laziness and political humbug, wrote a classic essay on Politics and the English Language, lamenting how far the insidious undermining of clear thought had gone with the spreading habit of using political labels as terms of mindless insult and vulgar abuse, without any attempt at invoking their original meaning. As he pointed out in another piece, a recent survey in America had shown that ‘fascism’ meant anything from ‘pure democracy’ to ‘pure diabolism’ to different people. In England, ‘pro-fascist’ was being indiscriminately used by the Left to denote all Conservatives, whether appeasers or anti-appeasers, and other traditional patriotic non-socialist organisations. On the other hand, defenders of old-style capitalism asserted that socialism and fascism were the same thing; while an array of right-wing thinkers refused to recognise any distinction between fascism and communism, maintaining that they both aimed at identical societies and even comprised some of the same people. Stalinist communists accused trotskyists of being crypto-fascists, in the pay of the Nazis. Outside its own ranks, the Catholic church was almost universally regarded as pro-fascist.

It would be interesting to know what Orwell would have said about political discourse today, not least on the internet. While I cannot emulate his incisiveness and unrivalled debunking powers, I can at anyrate vent my spleen at the futility and sheerly destructive nature of much that passes for informed debate, not only in the mainstream media but also in the blogosphere. The manipulative concept of ‘Political Correctness’, unheard of in Orwell’s day, is the first hurdle to be crossed. Originally put forward as a salutary antidote to much prejudiced assumption and near-unconscious bias, PC has morphed into a cudgel wielded by verbal bullies to silence any point of view they dislike or consider unacceptable. It is no longer sufficient for the PC person to register disagreement with another point of view: they proceed to assert that it is so obnoxious that it has no right to be heard, and should in fact be banned. In recent years they have even notched up some legislative scalps in the form of laws banning racial, religious and other ‘hate speech’ on the pretext that such opinions are so offensively hurtful to their targets that they must not be publicly uttered. This is the thin end of a very thick wedge indeed. Proponents of Political Correctness are no friends of free speech, and are, whether they admit it or not, in the murky business of thought control.

Another favourite ploy of the uncandid debater is to damn the message because he or she dislikes the messenger. Thus, those on the virtuously self-preening Left dismiss anything said by right-wingers, even moderate ones, as obvious nonsense and not worthy of consideration. This leads to a glaring imbalance in what is nowadays deemed acceptable public debate. The Left’s self-righteous cry of “No platform for racists or fascists” is an attempt to blot out a variety of widely held strands of opinion which are self-evidently neither racist nor fascist. Whether or not today’s British National Party is – apart from its historic roots –‘ fascist’ in any meaningful sense is a moot point; whether its stance on immigration is ‘racist’ is also debateable. But these not unimportant questions never are debated in the mainstream media, and scarcely at all on the blogosphere: they are simply taken for granted by almost everyone except those on the extreme political Right, whose actual or ostensible opinions and policies therefore go virtually unscrutinised and undissected. This, in fact, makes such extremist views even more dangerous than they otherwise would be, because the large swathe of the general public whose prejudices and lack of balanced knowledge of the issues may incline them to be sympathetic to BNP-type views on ‘alien’ immigrants have their bias reinforced by a sneaking sympathy for a perceived underdog who is being unfairly silenced by the Politically Correct.

Another adverse consequence of the drive to exclude certain views from public debate is that, in the absence of strongly combative debate, political illiteracy flourishes. Genuine education occurs through exposure to a whole range of opinions – wise, daft, erudite, ignorant, tolerant, intolerant. Capable and conscientious teachers are not in the business of indoctrination; it is their business to draw out [educare] from their pupils a reflective response to the variety of human sense and idiocy they encounter in the world of the past and the present. Free speech is the bedrock of democracy. Subject to the interests of national security as defined by parliament, the only limit which should legitimately be placed on it is the prosecution of direct incitement to violence and the right of individuals to obtain redress for libellous defamation. Banning so-called ‘hate speech’ is the first lurch down an endless slippery slope towards an Orwellian ‘big brother’ regime. As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, when anyone’s opinion is forcefully suppressed, the whole of society is the loser. Poisonous and hate-filled views are more effectively combated out in the open, just as the first step towards healing a boil is to lance it and let the pus out.

What strikes one forcibly about the blogosphere is the irritably truculent, hostile tone of much of the discussion on sites such as the Guardian’s comically named ‘Comment is Free’ [in fact, a heavily censored PC forum] and other political blogs such as ‘Harry’s Place’. All too often there is no serious attempt to evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of the posts being commented upon; all most of the participants want is a puerile slanging march between combatants sniping at one another from entrenched positions and not in the least concerned to seek common ground, but only to ‘prove’ that their adversaries are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG [often adding that they are stupid and ugly as well and have naff hair styles]. For someone like myself, who came fresh-faced to blogging naively expecting an intelligent exchange of views between mostly sensible people, all this came as rather a shock until I realised that the underlying impulse behind a lot of this school playground bullying is fear - an emotion I share with them, because we are all living in a nightmarish world at the start of a new century which bids fair to become the most nightmarish of any yet known in human history. But this sombre fact surely makes it all the more important that everyone should do their level best to keep a cool head, and strive to find as much common ground as we can to safeguard what slim chances we have of survival.

Insult is no substitute for reasoned opposition, and the current widespread use of insult in place of sensible debate is futile and silly. In recent weeks I have been labelled by other bloggers a ‘racist’, a ‘neo-Con’, and a ‘pseudo-liberal bigot’. I don’t recognise myself as any of these – except maybe a bigot for the maximum individual and collective freedom of thought, speech and action compatible with a democratic society. In fact, I am not prepared to settle for anything less.

More than a century ago that astringent [not to say cynical] American observer of his contemporary scene, Ambrose Bierce, compiled his Devil’s Dictionary – aptly named, as it shows how people play the very devil with words. Bierce’s definition of politics was “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. And he said that “as compared with the statesman, the politician suffers the disadvantage of being alive.” A Conservative, Bierce said, was a politician “who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others”.

His example emboldens me to end with a list of fashionable political boo-words, and their assumed meanings. Continuing first with American politics, it is clear that differing uses of political labels on opposite sides of the Atlantic are a rich source of European/American misunderstanding. To an American, a Conservative is a patriot whose allegiance centres upon preserving the near-sacred tenets of the Constitution. To the European, conservatives are right-wing adherents to traditional values, especially those of Christianity. This is less clearly so in Britain, where conservatism since Mrs Thatcher is still searching for a platform which will renew its public appeal.

Americans – conservative ones at any rate – use ‘liberal’ to denote someone whose ideas on social policy are even mildly In favour of state intervention and increased public spending. Such people are considered dangerous, because they threaten the unlimited freedom of private enterprise, and are also believed to be less patriotic over foreign policy insofar as they might be prepared to concede in some instances that American perspectives may require questioning. American ‘liberals’ are also seen as the Trojan horse for socialism which, to most Americans, is synonymous with Stalinist communism and tyranny. European liberals are, by contrast, regarded even by their opponents as staunch upholders of an open society and pluralism. The European tradition of democratic socialism seems to have passed America by almost entirely, with the consequence that Americans quite wrongly equate the Left in Western Europe as unwitting stooges for totalitarian infiltration, either by militant Islam or authoritarian Russia. The confusion is compounded in America by the recent addition of the prefix ‘neo’ to the traditional terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’. Neo-conservatives and neo-liberals are entirely distinct animals to their predecessors – and to some still surviving traditionalists, who repudiate them.

In Britain, the most shaming political boo-word tossed around by the PC brigade is ‘racist’. This term is used indiscriminately by the totalitarian left groupuscules to vilify and, they hope, to silence, anyone who questions the viability of extremist religious creeds and imported tribalist cultural practices some of which strike indigenous British people as abhorrently primitive. As I have indicated earlier, this is a debate in which it is imperative to engage if we are to work out a way of living peaceably together in an open, tolerant society with our immigrant population and their British-born descendants.

Words, as Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, are slippery things. ‘Democracy’ itself was purloined by the Stalinist communists in the post-war mid-20th century to misdescribe their East European satellite puppet states and to throw dust into Western eyes. Today, ‘Fascist’ is still being flung around as recklessly as it was in Orwell’s day, closely followed by ‘bigot’. ‘Fundamentalist’ is a term of abuse for religious people who are so misguided as to take the teachings of their chosen faith seriously. ‘Moderate’ is usually – though not always – intended as a compliment, but often with an undertone of condescension because ‘moderates’ don’t brandish their political banners around as fervently as the committed armchair warriors. We are indeed now living in the era which W.B. Yeats forecast in ‘The Second Coming’, where

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Depression and political snake oil

Restlessly swivelling its cock-eyed purblind beam around the social scene searching for yet more errant groups in need of correction and ’improvement’, the basilisk glare of this ever-meddlesome government of half-baked State Nannies has in recent weeks alighted successively upon fatties, binge drinkers, salt eaters, school truants [again], and assorted others, most recently settling upon the growing army of depressed people. With the ever-ready cry “Something must be done!” issuing from their lips, and alarmed by a recent Hull University report of clinical studies indicating that the billions poured into over-priced ‘anti-depressant’ drugs may be largely misdirected and wasted, ministers have come up with the mind-boggling notion of spending £170 millions of our money on training 3,500 new psychotherapists. Not to be outdone, the new LibDem leader Nick Clegg blithely ups the ante with calls for 10,000 of these paragons, while for the Conservatives David Cameron burbles of the ‘politics of happiness’.

No doubt all this is well meant. But from what assembly line are this national posse of state-trained mood-changing miracle-workers to emerge, and how soon can they be effective – bearing in mind that adequate psychotherapy training requires years rather than months? More to the point, do politicians or civil servants – none of whom, we charitably assume, are ever even a teeny weeny bit depressed because they are far too busy virtuously striving round the clock for the nation’s wellbeing – ever stop to consider why so many people are currently depressed, or whether the political climate which they are responsible for manufacturing might have anything to do with it?

That widespread mental and emotional malaise, amounting in many cases to clinical depression, is the direct result of more or less repressed fears and anxieties about humanity’s global and local predicament in this sombre first decade of the 21st century is to my mind indisputable. While depression is a personal and private tragedy, its origins often lie far further afield than an individual’s genetic makeup, inherited tendencies, family circumstances, or other life experiences. It can be not only socially, but also politically, induced. In the 1980s, psychologist Dorothy Rowe wrote Living with the Bomb: Can we live without enemies? in which she discussed many instances of depressed people internalising their fears of a nuclear holocaust while the majority carried on with their lives, turning a blind eye to the reality of danger. She commented: “Denial of reality, that is, lying to yourself, is the most costly error you can ever make. Reality does not become unreal. You do. Our present world is full of people who are unreal to themselves, who do not know themselves. It is they who will destroy us all.”

In similar vein, the sociologist Frank Furedi, in his recent book Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, speaks of the pervasive denial practised not only by private individuals, but by governments, which has led us far along the road towards a dependency culture in which the elitist Nanny State, besides endlessly lecturing us on how to behave and what to think, even aspires to control our emotions, telling us what it is OK and not OK for us to feel. “Therapeutic policies aim to forge a relationship between governments and individuals through the management of the internal lives of people“, Furedi says. This sinister ‘politics of behaviour’ is underwritten by the idea that people ‘need support’ in order to cope with their state of vulnerability. “Treating citizens as vulnerable children constitutes the unstated supposition of the politics of behaviour.“ Government institutions no longer engage in dialogue with the electorate as responsible adults, but offer them ‘treatment’, ‘support’ and ‘counselling’. As long as the public is disengaged from politics they can be treated as atomized units and infantilized. Furedi sees this trend as undermining democracy.

This blatant hijacking of counselling and therapy by the shameless Politically Correct brigade should set alarm bells ringing, not least among those of us who have rather more in-depth knowledge about what psychotherapy is and how it operates than the political busybodies who would, no doubt, eagerly lace our drinking water with a euphoria-inducing drug if one were available to make us all more pliable to their wishes. Successful counselling and therapy is an intensely personal journey towards greater self-knowledge which demands time, patience, and dedicated effort on the part of both the client and the counsellor. It must be voluntarily entered in to, and cannot be forced upon an unwilling client as a social obligation. Reluctant clients are failures waiting to happen. Psychotherapy is not a mechanical ‘procedure’ which can be switched on and applied automatically as if it were a mental vacuum cleaner.

There is too much humbugging, ignorant talk by politicians around mental health issues; and the pretence that these have nothing to do with the citizen’s daily experience of international, national, and local politics in action cannot be sustained. A therapist friend says there are too many flakey thinkers in the therapeutic world [and in the political world too, I would add]; and that the idea that politics has no place in psychotherapy and no relevance to depression needs to be challenged. I heartily agree.

It's not ALL doom and gloom!

Three items from this morning's 'Guardian' - two depressing - here and here - one mildly cheering.

"Today, there's both bad news and good news. First, the bad news: there isn't any good news. Now for the good news: you don't have to listen to the bad news."

As James Lovelock says, "Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."

Eat, drink, and be merry. For tomorrow we die?