“This country is always at war…”

Thus commented the Marquis de Custine in his Russia, 1839, one of the most perceptive books ever written on this subject by a foreigner.

It didn’t start, nor will end, with Putin

Custine saw right through the smokescreen laid by the Russian authorities to deceive visitors to their shores. “The profession of misleading foreigners is one known only in Russia…,” he wrote, “everyone disguises what is bad and shows what is good…”

However, Custine missed one salient point: wars against Russia’s neighbours come and go, but one war remains constant: the one between the rulers and the ruled.

Uniquely among leading world powers, Russia kept most of her people in serfdom until the Emancipation of 1861: out of her population of 23 million at the time, 21 million were serfs. (The Emancipator Tsar, Alexander II, was by way of gratitude blown in half by a terrorist bomb.)

Though their legal status was technically different from that of the slaves in the American South, in reality this was a distinction without a difference. Actually there was one difference: the black slaves in America weren’t regarded as Americans, or indeed even as fully human.

But in Russia the slaves were the same Orthodox Christians as their owners, which affected both groups in unique ways, none of them ennobling. The situation continuously dripped fuel into the fire of the millennium-long war, and the fumes were driving Russia crazy.

The slaves, aka serfs, stole their masters blind, burnt their property or even, given the slightest chance, killed them.

That fate befell, for example, Dostoyevsky’s father, a doctor and landowner known (presumably only in the latter capacity) for excessive cruelty. Dostoyevsky-père made the mistake of taking his eyes off the ball, as a result of which laxity one of his serfs stuck an axe into his head, orphaning the future writer at an early age.

Nor was it just isolated acts of violence. When opportunities arose, the peasants would rise not only in rebellions but in full-fledged wars against the government, such as those led by Ivan Bolotnikov (1606-1607), Stepan Razin (1670-1671) and Yemelian Pugachev (1773-1774). In addition, there were at least 200 small-scale peasant rebellions in the nineteenth century alone.

Since most Russians learn the history of the 1812 Napoleonic war from Tolstoy’s fictional and ideologically inspired account in War and Peace, they generally believe that at least, when threatened by invaders, the serfs closed ranks, joined forces with their masters and picked up what Tolstoy called “the cudgel of people’s war”.

So they did, but the cudgel was swung not at the French, but at the Russian landlords. The peasants burned manor houses en masse, killed their owners and hid their grain away from the starving troops – their own, not just the French.

In fact, having suffered horrendous losses at Borodino and abandoned Moscow, the Russian High Command had to dispatch some of their depleted troops on punitive missions against peasant uprisings.  

Now that the Putin regime has chosen the Russian Empire as its propaganda figurehead, the tendency is to describe the post-Emancipation life as going from good to better. The epoch of Nicholas II in particular is singled out as a period of bliss.

It’s true that the Russian economy was growing more rapidly than just about any other at the time, but this datum is misleading because the country started from an extremely low point. By analogy, a chap who has £100 to his name and then earns another £20 shows an economic growth of 20 per cent, while a billionaire who earns £20 shows no growth at all.

One way or the other, Russian peasants, no longer serfs, clearly didn’t feel their lot was blissful. As far as they were concerned, the perennial war was still in full swing.

During 1907-1909, impoverished peasants torched 71 per cent of all gentry estates and 29 per cent of farms belonging to wealthy peasants.

The owners of surviving properties must have heaved a sigh of relief, but it was premature: in 1910-1913, 32 per cent of the remaining estates and 67 per cent of the remaining wealthy households were burned down as well.

What Pushkin once described as a “Russian revolt, senseless and merciless” wasn’t just contained within the countryside. Between 1901 and 1916, some 17,000 state officials were murdered or crippled by terrorists.

None of this even began to compare with the cannibalistic mayhem of the ensuing Bolshevik regime, which over the next 35 years murdered 60 million people and enslaved the rest, effectively reintroducing serfdom.

But the Bolshevik seeds fell on a ground all too ready to receive them: the Russian Empire was rotten to the core.

Its people were corrupted by centuries of despotism and penury. Thus when Stalin declared war on the kulaks (industrious peasants who resisted collective farms), he found no shortage of willing executioners. Nor was Lenin’s war on the Church short of volunteers: 40,000 priests were murdered on his watch by yesterday’s Christians.

And so the situation has remained in all its guises, including the present kleptofascist regime. For all their cloyingly professed Christianity (or, as an interlude, commitment to universal equality), Russian rulers have never grasped the concept of each individual possessing a sovereign value.

People to them are but material, out of which are built the power and wealth of the ruling elite. Hence the proud possessors of huge yachts and Nice estates don’t mind it that most Russians subsist on coolie wages (by various estimates, the average salary there is $300-500 a month, and the gap between the rich and the poor is the widest this side of some African fiefdoms).

They are satisfied that the decades of Bolshevism knocked rebelliousness out of the people, while increasing their receptiveness to nauseating propaganda.

In the distant past, its focus was on Christian submission to tyranny and acceptance of abject poverty in the hope of eternal salvation. The Bolsheviks retained the millenarian nature of the message, but swapped salvation for militarised imperial grandeur ultimately bringing about world communism.

Today’s lot have kept the accent on militarised imperial grandeur, but added the extra dimension of the Russians’ unrivalled spirituality (it’s hard not to notice that most Russians shed their spirituality the moment they arrive in the West and start getting mortgages).

The powers that be have throughout history accompanied their propaganda with whipping up hostility towards the soulless West that’s for ever harbouring aggressive designs on Russia.

Apart from the first 25 years of the Bolshevik regime, the rulers have always been ably assisted in their mission by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s entirely consistent that its present head, Patriarch Kirill, is a lifelong KGB/FSB agent – as were the other two aspirants for his job.

I have no doubt that the Putin junta isn’t long for this world – and it won’t take 70 years to self-destruct as the Soviet Union did. But there’s little hope for Russia unless she undergoes changes that cut much deeper than simply a regime change.

What a ridiculous, dishonest resolution

The US House of Representatives has passed a resolution condemning President Trump’s racism – a serious condemnation indeed, for racism now sits at the very top of the deadly sins hysterically decried by American opinion-fu… sorry, I mean formers.

Let it be a racial lesson to Trump: Thomas Jefferson believed that black people are sexually attracted to whites “as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species.”

This name-dropping document has done little to heighten my admiration for politicians in general and US politicians specifically. Its form resembles a Roget’s Thesaurus of Quotations blended with hagiography of past politicians supposed to have championed racial equality.

However, none of the quotations says a single word about race. They all talk about welcoming immigrants who’ll then contribute to America’s “intoxicating” prosperity.

Now, any president of the past would have had to be retarded to say anything different. In 1790, shortly after the US Constitution was ratified, the country’s population was a meagre 2.5 million. Hence an influx of immigrants was a matter of national survival.

Even in modern times America has done well out of immigration, for example in her space programme. And, as anyone who has ever lived in the border states will testify, Mexican immigration is also vital to the economy of the region.

Trump, whose own blood is a cocktail of ethnic ingredients, knows this as well as anybody. He has employed immigrants, accepted their campaign contributions and even married some of them.

However, he has tried to stem the influx of illegal immigration, mainly though not exclusively from Mexico, and this is a lesson our own politicians should heed. Citizenship and therefore eventually nationhood are meaningless in a country that loses control of its borders.

Hence, the resolution’s statement that “if we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost” would only mean something in this context if Trump planned to slam the metaphorical door in the face of all immigrants, not just illegal ones.

Anyway, even supposing for the sake of argument that Trump doesn’t want to admit any more aliens, that doesn’t ipso facto make him a racist.

For example, an Englishman who dislikes the Frogs and the Krauts (I’ve met many such bigots), isn’t on the strength of this fact a racist, for the simple reason that his bogeymen belong to his own race. He’s xenophobic, but a dislike of foreigners may well coexist with amiable acceptance of differently coloured fellow citizens.

When words were used not to signal virtue but to signify meaning, racism meant belief in the superiority of one’s own race over all others. Since Trump has never said anything along those lines (if he had, rest assured that his statement would have been quoted chapter and verse), all those pro-immigration quotations from American secular saints are wide of the mark.

However, I’ve uncovered this excerpt from a presidential speech that clearly brands its author as a virulent racist:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Awful, isn’t it? The only trouble is that this statement was uttered not by Trump but by the Great Emancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln.

Quoting from great presidents of the past is thus a perilous business: it’s easier to find quotations similar to the one above than opposite ones.

This explains the House’s sleight of hand: first, they give a roll call of sainted names, with pro-immigration quotations attached; then they ignore that the quotations were about immigration from Europe only or at least predominantly; then they imply, on flimsy evidence, that Trump disavows such sentiments; and then they incongruously and without any proof whatsoever accuse him of racism.

The first sainted names quoted in the resolution are Jefferson, Hamilton and Madison, which is cosmically dishonest in a document supposed to condemn racism.

Those Enlightenment demagogues didn’t extend their noble principles to blacks, whom they didn’t consider fully human. All three owned (Jefferson also procreated) slaves, and treated them as livestock.

On his Monticello estate Jefferson bred slaves using the same agricultural principles as those applied to breeding farm animals. And any slave attempting escape was bullwhipped within an inch of his life.

The resolution is correct where it confirms my yesterday’s definition of American nationhood: “Whereas American patriotism is defined not by race or ethnicity but by devotion to the Constitutional ideals of equality, liberty, inclusion, and democracy and by service to our communities and struggle for the common good…”

That was my point precisely: Americanism is in some ways closer to an ideology than nationhood qua nationhood.

I shan’t repeat what I said yesterday, but one could argue explicitly, as Trump did implicitly, that the fanatically radical ‘ideas’ propagated by the ‘Squad’ contravene that ideology.

Pursuit of economic happiness, for example, would be rendered well-nigh impossible by their proposed socialist policies, such as raising the minimum wage to $30,000 a year.

Also, members of the Squad could more readily than Trump be liable to accusations of racism. Theirs is thinly veiled anti-Semitism, and even that gossamer cover is at times dropped.

None of the four ladies bothers to conceal her clear preference for Hamas and Hezbollah over Israel. Each time Israel retaliates against terrorist acts, it’s a ‘massacre’, and Israel’s very presence in the West Bank is an ‘occupation’.

Lest you might think their problem is only with Israel, not Jews as such, Ilhan Omar has been forced to apologise for using “anti-Semitic tropes” after she suggested that US support for Israel was bought by a pro-Israel lobby. And Rashida Tlaib has admitted that she finds talk of the Holocaust “calming”.

I’m still waiting for a House resolution condemning the Squad’s racism. But then I’m also waiting for a flock of pigs overflying my garden.

Trump might have meant the Bronx, not Puerto Rico

That happened to me too. I arrived in Texas during the big oil crisis of 1973-74, when queues at gas stations were a mile long, and everybody’s nerves were on edge.

“Who says I don’t like foreigners?”

My car was overheating, and I asked the mechanic at the station to have a look at it while I waited for a fill-up. He refused, saying he was busy. When I complained about the rotten service, he said: “Boh, if you doan lahk it here, go back where y’all come from.”

You probably expect me to say I was traumatised for life and sought immediate counselling, but in those days no one knew that was the requisite reaction. Actually, I was delighted, as I am every time my stereotypes are confirmed.

At a guess, however, that Texan grease monkey wasn’t a privately educated Wharton alumnus. Had he acquired such credentials, surely he could have found a subtler putdown than pointing out his mark’s foreign origins?

Not necessarily, as proved by President Trump, who boasts just such an educational background. Justifiably irritated by the ‘Squad’, a group of four alternatively coloured congresswomen somewhat to the left of Jeremy Corbyn and easily matching his anti-Semitism, he told them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

This was taken as a manifestation of racism. However, since the Squad leader, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), comes from the Bronx, Trump’s invective was even more apposite than it would have been even had he indeed referred to her family’s Puerto Rican origins.

The four women reflect the general leftward drift in Congress, a tendency corresponding to a similar development in Britain. There were left-wing congressmen during my time in the US (1973-1988), but I can’t recall anyone matching the febrile hatred of traditional America displayed by the Squad.

This animus goes beyond Trump, although they do see him as the personification of everything they detest. They are particularly incensed about Trump’s attempts to rid the US of illegal aliens.

AOC describes the detention centres at the Mexican border as “concentration camps”, Ilhan Omar talks about “mass deportations”, and Ayanna Pressley insists that: “We remain focused on holding him accountable to the laws of this land.”

One would think that fighting illegal immigration does uphold the law of the land, rather than violating it, but let’s not quibble about words. It’s the thought that counts, and especially the anomic hysteria behind the thought.

Most accounts of this incident talk about the Squad members’ obsession with identity politics and every conceivable socialist cause, or alternatively about Trump’s encoded appeal to his core electorate.

Not to repeat what others (notably Melanie Phillips in The Times) have said so well, I’d like to focus on something else: the nature of Americanism, and why variations on the theme of ‘go back where you come from’ are so popular in the US.

Since racial and ethnic particularism seems odd in a country of immigrants, it’s tempting to think of America as a nation in the grips of irrational racism and xenophobia. No doubt such sentiments exist, especially the former.

But I doubt that they, in their crystallised form, are much rifer than in some European countries I could mention. Racist and xenophobic language is definitely more widespread in some parts of the US than in Western Europe, but as often as not it masks something else.

Hence, for example, the joke: “What are the five most dreaded words in the English language? Hello, I’s your new neighbour.”

The serious concern reflected there has more to do with class than race. One is extremely unlikely to hear the sacramental phrase “there goes the neighbourhood” when a black doctor or lawyer buys a house in a middle-class area.

Middle-class ethos is the sun for which all Americans reach tropistically. Those who don’t share it are viewed with suspicion; those who attack it, with hostility.

Groups that sit above the middle class, and they do exist, keep themselves out of sight behind the walls of Newport mansions and the fences of the Hamptons estates. It’s the habitually downtrodden and their champions who are in plain view, and they are seen as somehow un-American.

In this connection it’s useful to remember that the congressional committee investigating the communist infiltration of American institutions back in the 1950s was called the House Un-American Activities Committee, not, say, the Anti-Communist Committee.

This wasn’t merely a euphemism, as is commonly believed. For communists were seen not just as ideological enemies of American democracy, but principally as ontological adversaries of American nationhood.

The country’s unique history is such that its nationhood is both more and less than just political, ethnic, linguistic and cultural commonality. Americanism is also, perhaps above all, an idea or even an ideology.

An American may be of foreign origin in the second or even first generation, but that doesn’t matter for as long as he unreservedly accepts the American idea.

This can be loosely described as unequivocal commitment to the liberties essential to achieving the middle-class American Dream of two cars in every pot and two chickens in every garage, or some such.

In that sense, it’s possible to become an American directly after stepping off the boat: all it takes is to feel the baptismal commitment in one’s heart. Conversely, in the absence of such commitment, even an American whose roots go back to the Mayflower may be perceived as an alien.

Trump is guilty of his customary savagery and characteristically slipshod research: he probably didn’t realise that three out of his four targets were born in America. But, perhaps inadvertently, he enunciated the essence of Americanism and the consequences of deviating from it.

In that sense he did appeal to his core electorate – not to their racism or xenophobia, but to their visceral understanding of what it is to be an American. They are, and the Squad really aren’t, regardless of where they were born.

At least, Hitler got one thing right

Before you scream that there’s a crypto-Nazi under your bed, let me reassure you that my overall view of Hitler is no different from yours or any other decent person’s.

The only people who could possibly find anything wrong with abortion (according to The Times)

But ‘overall’ is the operative word. Not everything a monster says or does should be dismissed out of hand just because a monster says or does it.

Hence we shouldn’t be expected to hate dogs just because Hitler loved them, detest classical music just because he was a keen listener or shun galleries just because he was a painter of sorts.

Nor should we all light up just because Hitler abhorred smoking. In fact, it was Nazi scientists who first established a link between smoking and lung cancer. As a result, women were banned from smoking (a similar ban on men would have hurt their fighting morale). The ban had a lasting effect: for the next generation, Germany had less incidence of lung cancer than any other European country.

That was the thrust of my argument with a famous Remainer journalist a few months ago. Unable to find a sensible argument against Brexit (for the simple reason that none exists), he accused me of being a Putin acolyte because Putin also detests the European Union.

The implied syllogism is simple, and inane in its simplicity. Thesis: I support Brexit. Antithesis: Putin supports Brexit. Synthesis: I support Putin.

If this logic were anything other than a silly solecism, one wouldn’t be able to hold any views at all – it would always be possible to cite a monster who felt the same way. This I pointed out to my interlocutor and, since the conversation was liberally lubricated with wine, in words whose choice I now regret.

But the point remains: it’s intellectually dishonest to use Hitler’s name as an argument clincher, especially in a context that has nothing to do specifically with Nazism.

Alas, intellectual dishonesty is the stock in trade of today’s press, a point The Times goes out of its way to prove in every issue.

Hence its short article on a German doctor fined for advertising abortions manages to find room for three (!) references to “restrictive abortion laws that date back to the Nazi era”.

The implication is that such laws are as evil as the Nazis were, while those who campaign for abortion on demand are courageous fighters against tyranny. This is a dirty rhetorical trick, but no holds are barred for champions of any modern outrage.

Germany, to her credit, still refuses to regard abortion as a universal human right. Abortion there is illegal de jure, if not always de facto. Even so, if the UK’s limit is 24 weeks, Germany’s is only 12 – and the woman must undergo mandatory counselling on the sanctity of human life.

And clinics are prohibited from advertising abortions everywhere in Germany, with directory and on-line listings correctly treated as advertising in most areas. Naturally, even such timid attempts to put brakes on abortions are too much for the brittle sensibilities of today’s lefties.

Even though 100,000 abortions are still performed in Germany every year, the country, in spite of her greater population, still lags behind Britain’s 185,000. Such backwardness is intolerable to the modern lot.

A massive campaign is under way to bring Germany in line with Britain in that respect, and The Times is clearly sympathetic to it. On top of the three references to the Nazi provenance of the advertising ban, it also mentions that the populist AfD party is anti-abortion.

Its slogan is “larger families, not more immigration”, which, as far as The Times is concerned, is antediluvian on both counts, especially if it implies objections to abortion. As far as the paper is concerned, indigenous populations should stop procreating altogether, with the resultant underpopulation remedied by a mass import of Somalis.

An innocent reader – and few are today anything rather than innocent – may get the impression that the only people who find anything wrong with abortion are overt or covert Nazis and other nasties.

And – are you ready for this? – “anti-abortion campaigners… are in some cases religiously motivated…”. QED.

Not only are they Nazis, but they are also Christians. Are they also homophobes, misogynists and global warming deniers? I’m sure they must be, and our formerly respectable paper missed a trick by failing to allude to that likelihood.

P.S. Speaking of Germany, it is henceforth in extremely poor taste to refer to Angela Merkel as a ‘mover and shaker’.

Our poor English language

I wouldn’t be breaking any new ground by saying that anyone who practises a trade should be able to use its tools.

Dr Johnson must be spinning in his grave

A carpenter must know how to wield a file; a violinist, how to finger; a PR executive, how to get a client drunk and laugh at his incoherent jokes.

A writer’s tool of trade is knowing how to use language – its grammar, vocabulary and style – precisely, lucidly and perhaps even elegantly. This is the essential job qualification, and anyone who fails to achieve it can’t be considered a writer.

How one uses those tools is of course a different matter. One chap may write gibberish in stylish English, while another may say profound things in incomprehensible jargon.

But that only means that the second chap is clever and the first one isn’t. It doesn’t change the fact that, of the two, only the first one is a writer.

As an aside, such dichotomies are rather rare. If God in his munificence gives a man something to say, he usually gives him the means to say it.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. That’s why I’m always suspicious when a musician is described as a mindless virtuoso. Nine times out of ten he’s either not so mindless or else not so virtuosic.

I’m not in the mood to wax philosophical today, but such unity of form and content could conceivably be traced to the great Christian synthesis of body and soul that lies at the foundation of our civilisation.

But getting back to the more mundane matter of putting words together, one can’t help noticing that this art is suffering tremendous attrition throughout the Anglophone world.

Up until some 31 years ago, the only periodicals I had been reading were American. Then, having moved to London, I went cold turkey and switched to predominantly British output (with some smattering of Russian and French).

However, when I was researching my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick, I went back to American papers – and was stunned. The level of journalism had dropped not just several notches, but all the way down to the floor.

Reasoned arguments had been replaced with hysterical rants; stylistic elegance, with censorious humdrum prose; precise choice of words with a widespread use of what Mark Twain described as the right word’s second cousin thrice removed; judicious use of irony and light-hearted idiom, with strained attempts at mock-folksiness.

Lest you might think this is an exercise in America-bashing, exactly the same regress is observable in British journalism, if mostly at its popular and especially broadcast end.

When I first settled in Britain, one could see words misused not by professional wielders of language, but only by the general public. I recall earning rebukes, if not outright enmity, from my colleagues by pedantically pointing out the difference between appraise and apprise, affect and effect, masterful and masterly or willy-nilly and at will.

They would get defensive and explain, correctly but irrelevantly, that languages are a means of communication, and they develop. My reply to the first truism was that using words in their incorrect meaning hampers rather than improves communication.

As to development, the unshakable belief, nay creed, of modernity is that every change can only be for the better. This presumption of progress is simply wrong, and it certainly doesn’t work in language.

English has indeed developed over centuries like perhaps no other language on earth, but this development has always been vectored towards enlargement and greater precision. In due course English streamlined its grammar and developed a bigger vocabulary than any other European language, three times as big as Russian for example.

I’m not going to delve into the nature of this process, and anyway History of the English Language was the only exam I had to resit in my university days. Suffice it to say that a major factor was extensive borrowing from other languages, such as Latin and French.

Its tempo and volume were mostly controlled by educated, multilingual people, such as the team put together by Lancelot Andrewes to produce the authorised translation of the Bible, which remains an unrivalled exemplar of English prose.

Andrewes and his colleagues had heated arguments about every word, seeking perfect precision, power and elegance – and unfailingly attaining it. But the arguments were conducted in Latin, the quotidian language of intellectual discourse in those days.

Street language affected linguistic developments too, but only when the literate, and typically literary, folk implicitly accepted and endorsed it. Thus some lexical and grammatical colloquialisms forced their way into standard usage and some didn’t, but even the successful ones did have to fight hard.

All that changed with the arrival of our ideologically egalitarian, progress-happy, comprehensively educated (that is, universally ignorant) modernity. Style manuals and grammar books stopped being prescriptive and became merely descriptive.

The underlying assumption, these days voiced by Oliver Kamm and other permissive gurus, is that anything the people say is correct because the people say it.

The revolt of the masses described by Ortega y Gasset now has in its crosshairs not just social and political hierarchies, but also cultural ones – and consequently the language. And, with practice, their hit rate is improving exponentially.

These days it’s impossible to open a newspaper without seeing something – lots of somethings – that affects sensitive ears like one piece of glass scratching another.

Here are just three examples from the past couple of days, but I could give you twenty if I weren’t afraid of presuming on your patience.

Writing about a man who always brags about his achievements, one writer wished that, if his subject exhibited a bit more hubris, he’d achieve much more.

The sentence didn’t make sense to me, so I reread it to make sure I followed. Then I realised that the writer thought hubris meant humility – an easy mistake to make: after all the words do share the first two letters.

No serious paper would have let that malapropism through at the time I first came to live in England, never mind 100 years ago.

Then there was a news announcer talking about a witness to a crime: “As she was sat in her Audi…” One must have a tin ear and no culture whatsoever to choose that ugly usage over simply sat or was sitting – the comment in the previous paragraph applies.

And today’s paper has caressed my ear with this headline: “Brewster [Liverpool FC striker] will get given chances this season”. How about will get chances? Or, if his chances can only come courtesy of others, will be given chances?

My preference would be to say “Klopp [Brewster’s manager] will give Brewster chances this season”, but anything would work better than the unsightly monstrosity actually used.

Don’t nobody speak proper these days? One wonders where they was brung up.

Would you call a bearded man ‘madam’?

Or, put another way, would any sane person do so? Wrong question.

What would Miss Darwin think?

Here’s the right one: What kind of society can allow the punishment of a man who refuses to kowtow to collective madness by denying the evidence before his own eyes?

The answer is, a totalitarian society. You know, the kind ours is becoming.

It was George Orwell who first pointed out a key feature of totalitarianism: forcing people to accept madness as sanity and vice versa. Writing specifically about Italian fascists, he showed how they used that stratagem as a mechanism of power.

It was as if they were saying to the people: “What we make you do and say is ridiculous. We know it, you know it, and we know you know it. But we can make you do and say those things anyway, to impress on you who’s boss.”

If authoritarian regimes seek to run political life only, totalitarian ones strive for total control over people’s minds. That is the very essence of totalitarianism.

Everything else is just the means to that end, and these may vary within a broad range, from the unrestricted and indiscriminate Bolshevik savagery to the Nazis’ selective genocide to the Italian fascists’ limited violence.

However, most people miss the forest of totalitarianism’s ends for the trees of its means, things like murder by category, death camps, torture and so on. When these aren’t in evidence, they don’t recognise totalitarianism.

That runs the risk of letting it achieve its objectives insidiously and so gradually that the exact moment of its arrival will be impossible to pinpoint. And ultimately totalitarianism vanquishing softly will prove more enduring, for the same reason an expert seducer tends to run up a higher amatory score than a rapist.

We happen to be in the grip of precisely such a development, and if you contest this observation, consider the case of Dr David Mackereth.

Dr Mackereth was fired from his job at the Department of Work and Pensions for giving a wrong answer to the question in the title above, thereby proving his sanity in an insane world.

Throughout his work as a disability claim assessor, Dr Mackereth steadfastly resisted the requisite linguistic vandalism by sticking to the personal pronouns grammatically appropriate for the individuals in question.

A person born male was a ‘he’ to him, one born female a ‘she’, and he didn’t allow his choice of words to be affected by any confusion about the person’s self-identification.

I applaud Dr Mackereth, but his superior’s reaction was rather less sympathetic. He hit Dr Mackereth with the short uppercut of the hypothetical question above and, having received a negative answer, sacked him.

“In truth, the argument between us arose not because of any realistic concerns over the rights and sensitivities of transgender individuals,” explains Dr Mackereth, “but because of my refusal to make an abstract ideological pledge to call any six-feet tall bearded man ‘madam’ on his whim.”

He then proceeds to aggravate his guilt by insisting that: “Throughout this process I kept stressing that my objection to that misuse of pronouns was based on my Christian beliefs and conscience.”

His superiors regarded that statement as antediluvian. Our courts will doubtless soon be describing it as criminal. I, on the other hand, would merely describe it as superfluous: one shouldn’t have to swing the sledgehammer of God to crack the nut of insanity.

Other statements made by Dr Mackereth should have sufficed: “I cannot in good conscience go along with those ideas – for example by using people’s chosen pronouns, instead of those naturally pertaining to their sex. As far as I am concerned, to do so would be both dishonest and irresponsible.”

And, even better: “What I object to is being forced to do violence to language and common sense, in a ritual denial of an obvious truth, for the sake of an ideology which I disbelieve and detest. The very fact a doctor can be pulled off the shop floor for an urgent interrogation about his beliefs on gender fluidity is both absurd and very sinister.”

Those anti-totalitarian statements should have indeed sufficed, but they didn’t. In fact, an appeal to honesty and responsibility cuts no more ice today than it did when used by those Russians who refused to regard as vermin people without calloused palms, or by those Germans who doubted that some ethnic groups were subhuman.

Yet citing the Bible has even less chance of succeeding. Yes, of course Genesis puts it with sancta simplicitas: “Male and female created he them”. But then God (who everyone knows doesn’t exist anyway) lacked our modern aptitude for nuance.

Unlike that binary deity, we distinguish up to 81 different sexes by latest count, and the number is bound to go up as we become more sophisticated – nothing can stop the march of progress.

Such plenitude would have stretched God’s taxonomic agility, had he taken on the task of enumerating all the sexes. It may also present a thorny challenge for our inspiring neologians: concocting 81 different sets of pronouns is no easy task. But I trust their talent implicitly: as an earlier totalitarian, Stalin, put it, “there are no fortresses Bolsheviks can’t storm”.

Quoting the Bible against this background is like screaming “thou shalt not steal” at a mugger. It’ll only make him turn nasty.

Dr Mackereth has taken the DWP to an employment tribunal, and he plans to use religious discrimination as his line of defence. That sounds like a loser: Christianity is the only religion these days whose abuse doesn’t qualify as discrimination.

In fact, the DWP already denies that Dr Mackereth’s beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, while those who appointed him argue that he infringes on the rights of others.

“I don’t agree,” says Dr Mackereth. “We do love transgender people. That’s our duty as Christians. But to love people doesn’t mean we can accept every ideology that comes our way.”

Hear, hear. But I’m afraid no one will in our neo-totalitarian world.

Never mind Darroch, feel the leak

Our Man in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, e-mailed a series of confidential dispatches to the Foreign Office, describing President Trump in scathing terms.

“Anyone who doesn’t like me is a wacky and very stupid guy.”

Trump’s administration, wrote Sir Kim, was likely to “crash and burn” and “end in disgrace”. Because “We really don’t believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”

That got the columnist Richard Littlejohn upset, which vicariously upset me as well because I usually like Littlejohn’s work. Yet what he wrote on this incident falls far below his usual standard.

To begin with, Littlejohn’s view of Trump’s administration is diametrically opposite to Sir Kim’s. That gives me no problem because my own view, though falling between those two poles, is closer to Littlejohn’s.

That’s why it’s puzzling to see him describe, in his hallmark demotic style, Darroch’s assessment of the Trump administration as a “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”.

Something that’s bleedin’ obvious is so true that it goes without saying. Since Littlejohn clearly doesn’t mean that, perhaps he ought to have dropped that linguistic class badge for the sake of precision.

I do share Littlejohn’s distaste for our mandarins and other fruits, so I have no reason to doubt his overall assessment of Darroch’s character. However, he’s factually incorrect in describing Sir Kim as “one of the new breed of politicised civil servants created by Labour under Blair”.

One of Blair’s gifts to the grateful nation was indeed rampant constitutional vandalism, including the destructive politicisation of what used to be an impartial and professional Civil Service.

It’s probably also true that Darroch is “only too typical of the anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, anti-democratic clique which infests the higher echelons of our Civil Service”. But Darroch already held a high diplomatic post, that of First Secretary at Tokyo, in 1980, 17 years before Blair graced the country with his leadership.

Hence, unless Littlejohn wishes to make the valid, if here extraneous, comment that the debauchment of the Civil Service didn’t start with Blair, although he accelerated it, he’s leading the reader on a wild-goose chase.

Then follows a diatribe about our political establishment closing ranks to sabotage Brexit. Again, though I share Littlejohn’s views on both Brexit and the political establishment, that lengthy aside piles more hay on the stack hiding the needle of the Darroch scandal.

Finally the needle emerges, but at this propitious moment Littlejohn gets things terribly wrong. For he simply misunderstands the role of an ambassador.

“Call me old-fashioned,” he writes, “but civil servants – like children – should be seen and not heard.” And, “[Darroch] is supposed to cultivate a close relationship with President Trump, not slag him off on the sly.”

Well, I won’t call Littlejohn old-fashioned. I’ll call him misguided.

To begin with, Darroch’s confidential dispatches weren’t meant to be either seen or heard by anyone other than his government. Second, a diplomat has a dual, not single, role.

He’s indeed supposed to ingratiate himself to the host government, for otherwise his job in the country would become untenable. But, just as critical, he must also help his own government to formulate its foreign policy by offering observations on the host country’s leaders.

If Darroch’s observations on Trump happen to be negative, it’s childish to accuse him of “slagging him off on the sly”, though I do admire Littlejohn’s use of demotic idiom.

Sir Kim was entirely within his remit. He was doing his job, even if Littlejohn thinks, not unreasonably, that he was doing it badly.

If Darroch’s undiplomatic comments on Trump were confidential, the latter’s response was public and hence even more undiplomatic: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.”

Like all narcissists, the president can’t stand being disliked, but his choice of words is characteristically wrong. A UK ambassador is appointed, not ‘foisted’ and, as Jeremy Hunt correctly remarked in his debate with Boris Johnson, it’s up to HMG to decide whom to appoint to that role.

Neither is there anything ‘wacky’ or ‘stupid’ about Sir Kim’s comments. These may be wrong and, as Littlejohn thinks, platitudinous, but they reflect Sir Tim’s assessment of the situation, and he’s paid to make such assessments.

It’s not his fault that the dispatches have been hacked and leaked, though I agree with those who call for Darroch’s dismissal. Because his dispatches have been made public, his work in Washington will now be difficult if not impossible, especially considering Trump’s thin skin.

The point may be moot anyway since Sir Tim is due to retire at Christmas, so in any case the president won’t have to put up with the very stupid guy for long. Far more vital is another issue: who hacked into British diplomatic traffic and leaked the purloined information to the papers, and to what end.

Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has asked the Metropolitan Police to launch a criminal investigation, adding that the security services should be involved.

Writing in The Times, he remarked: “Whoever did this has weakened the British government and harmed the interests of the British people. They have, in the true sense of the term, betrayed Britain.”

Now, only those who owe allegiance to Britain can betray her. But what if the source of the leak is foreign and hostile?

This thought has occurred to Whitehall: “The involvement of hostile state actors has not been ruled out.” Proceeding from the old cui bono principle, I’d say this possibility must be emphatically ruled in.

“Hostile state actors” is a euphemism for Putin’s agents, and it’s good to see that Whitehall regards Russia as a hostile state. This status is, to use Littlejohn’s phraseology, bleedin’ obvious to anyone whose judgement is informed by facts, not ideology.

Sowing discord among Western powers is Putin’s stock in trade, and the Atlantic alliance is high on the list of his targets.

Since Britain is America’s most reliable ally in NATO, Russia has a strategic interest in loosening the ties between the two. And Putin’s ‘state actors’ have shown their willingness and ability to use hacking as an offensive weapon – not least in their interference with the US elections.

This is the key aspect of the scandal, and it shouldn’t be obscured by the brouhaha about Sir Tim’s competence and immediate future. But I understand Richard Littlejohn: slagging off Darroch is easier than getting to the bottom of enemy action against Britain.

One nation, one language

The other day I was having an après-tennis beer with a local French player who had just thrashed me in a tournament.

Is this the kind of Britain Johnson was talking about?

He named a town not far from us that, according to him, has a thriving English community. The chap was bemused when I told him that I don’t seek out English communities in France – just as I don’t seek out French communities in England.

When in France, I want to be among the French, speaking my bad French; when in London, I want to be among the English, speaking nothing but the local tongue. Unfortunately, however, the second ambition is becoming much harder to satisfy.

I wasn’t born in England, but apparently those who were feel the same way, which is why Boris Johnson said at a recent hustings that: “I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be and to feel British, that’s the most important thing, and to learn English.”

Mr Johnson went on to lament that: “Too often there are parts of our country, and parts of London still and other cities as well, where English is not spoken by some people as their first language.”

Replace ‘some’ with ‘most’, and you’d get close to picturing the Babel one hears on the 22 Bus, going from my home at Parsons Green to Oxford Circus.

Actually, Babel was one of the first punishments visited by God upon mankind to “…confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” If so, I feel suitably punished.

Going through an election process, Mr Johnson has to limit himself to truisms, stating nothing but the blindingly obvious not to offend anybody.

Alas, by now he should have realised that yesterday’s truisms are today’s highly controversial statements. One would think there’s nothing controversial about the notion that people making a life in a country should speak its language. But one would think wrong.

Jane Dodds, Welsh LibDem, was aghast: “Here in Wales, we know that not speaking English as your first language is no barrier to having a thriving community.”

And SNP MP Angus MacNeil tweeted: “Boris is just moronic and clueless. Same arrogance of centuries past that did down native Celtic languages for the Germanic import.” If Mr MacNeil wishes to prove that English isn’t his first language, this statement will suffice.

Other people from the Celtic fringe have also accused Mr Johnson of a whole raft of sins, ranging from cultural imperialism to downright racism, this though to my untrained eye the Celts appear racially similar to the English.

Now, by the latest count only some 5,000 Welshmen speak Welsh, only some 57,000 Scotsmen speak Gaelic, and I doubt that most of them speak it as their first language. Mr Johnson probably had different numbers in mind when he bemoaned the attrition suffered by English in its native habitat.

For example, Home Secretary Sajid Javid estimates that 770,000 people living in England speak no English at all, and he didn’t mean the Welsh and the Scots. Add to those linguistic underachievers millions of those who can only just about get by in English, and suddenly those Welsh and Gaelic holdouts look numerically trivial – much as I may regret the demise of their ancient languages.

Mr Johnson put his finger on a dire problem, at the heart of which lies the very definition of a nation. The dictionary defines it as “a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological makeup manifested in a common culture”.

One might take issue with some parts of that definition. For example, the American nation is formed by people of various ethnicities; a Raj Englishman born and bred in India still belonged to the English nation; the psychological makeup of a Neapolitan may be different from that of a Milanese.

But one indisputable adhesive of a nation is a common culture and especially a common language. Wherever this adhesive is absent, separatist trouble beckons.

For example, bilingual Canada struggles to form a single nation out of her Anglophone and Francophone groups, while Belgian Walloons and Flemings are at daggers drawn. Switzerland is perhaps unique in her ability to unite her French, German and Italian cantons into a single nation, but then she’s unique in so many respects that one may safely dismiss Switzerland from any generalisations.

Mr Johnson demand that all British residents, and especially her nationals, speak English may thus be paraphrased to say that destroying Britain as a predominantly (or better still, exclusively) English-speaking nation is tantamount to destroying Britain as a nation.

Of course, this being an election season, even such a basic statement can’t be uttered without a concomitant claim of allegiance to multi-culti rectitude.  

Thus Mr Johnson, feeling mandatory pangs of guilt produced by a version of Stockholm syndrome, had to add that: “What we want is a modern British culture in which we value each other, in which we respect each other and in which we – I think tolerate is too feeble a word – love each other in a Christian spirit, or a non-Christian spirit, whatever.”

This reminds me of Vladimir Solovyev’s (d. 1900) brilliant putdown of the precursor of today’s ‘culture’: “Man descended from apes, therefore we must love one another.”

Having got into my good books, Mr Johnson then rode his disclaimer right out of them. For respecting, tolerating or even loving one another in a Christian spirit or otherwise have nothing to do with making sure that all Britons share the same language and culture.

It’s an unrelated argument here designed to signal virtue rather than to elucidate a point. I would have made a different statement:

It’s not only tolerable but actively desirable that as many Britons as possible are multilingual people of the world comfortable with many different cultures – provided that our own culture and language remain universal and dominant.

If this proviso is no longer met, we must do all we can to make sure it is, for otherwise Britain qua Britain will cease to exist within a few generations.

Yes, that’s what I would have said. But then I’m not standing for any political office.

Corbyn to suffer his idol’s fate

Becoming a political advisor to the Labour Party sits rather low on the list of my life’s aspirations.

However, last September I unwittingly acted in just that capacity by outlining a path to a Labour victory. And, what’s worse, they now seem to be taking it. This is what I wrote:

“They can guarantee a win by ditching Corbyn a month before the polling date and replacing him with, well, just about anybody.

“Then they can win without changing one comma in Corbyn’s Trotskyist programme. For, while our voters see nothing wrong with Corbyn’s programme, they increasingly see something wrong with Corbyn.”

I’m sure neither Shadow Chancellor McDonnell nor Shadow Home Secretary Abbott has read my piece. And yet they must have got the message osmotically. That’s why they gave their friend (and Abbott’s ex-lover) an ultimatum: either sack the more hideously anti-Semitic of your advisors, or we’ll sack you.

And it’s not just the anti-Semitism scandal, Jeremy, they told him. It’s also your shilly-shallying on Brexit. So here’s the deal: either you support a second referendum or we’ll find a leader who will. Nothing personal, comrade, that’s just how life is.

Do what we tell you, and you just may remain where you are for a while. But not for ever, mind you. An ‘ice-pick’ coup is brewing within the Labour Politburo and, much as we love you, we can only keep it at bay for so long.

With all due modesty, I can’t ascribe their action solely to my ESP message. Labour slumping to a risible 18 per cent rating in the polls must have had something to do with it.

But it’s reassuring to note that they clearly see Corbyn as a Trotsky-like figure, for Trotsky was indeed dispatched with an ice-pick. Or rather he wasn’t: these ignoramuses can’t get anything right.

Stalin’s agent Ramón Mercader did murder Trotsky in 1940, but he did so with an ice axe, not an ice pick. The latter is a stabbing weapon, whereas the former is a chopping one, which is why Mercader managed to bury it to a satisfactory depth in Trotsky’s skull. But such pedantry aside, the metaphor is telling.

For throughout his career Corbyn has treated Trotsky as his role model. Jeremy in general has seen no mass murderers he can’t love, and it’s immaterial to him whom and for what cause they murder. IRA, Hezbollah, Sandinista, Hamas, PLO – you name them, Jeremy loves them.

But compared to Trotsky they’re all babes in the woods. That cannibalistic ghoul was a principal figure in the Bolsheviks’ seizing of power, and even a more principal one in their keeping it.

Once power was secured, Trotsky planned to use it for what he called ‘permanent revolution’: non-stop pouncing on Europe like a rabid dog until the whole continent had been turned into either a concentration camp or a mass grave.

His favourite stratagem for keeping troops in the frontline was decimation, in the classical sense of the word: executing every tenth soldier before the ranks. His domestic policy was similar: red terror, to last as long as it took to turn the whole population into unthinking slaves ready to do Bolshevik bidding.

Trotsky’s conflict with Stalin was that between extremism and moderation, and you can judge the character of Corbyn’s role model by the fact that, compared to him, Stalin was a moderate.

In his adulation of Trotsky, Corbyn has shown unwavering consistency. When still a backbencher in the 1980s, he kept petitioning the Soviet government for the “complete rehabilitation” of Trotsky, who had remained a non-person ever since his clash with Stalin.

Corbyn even went on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Trotsky museum in Mexico City, where Mercader had swung his ice axe. But then Jeremy does pilgrimages with the best of them, provided the relics belong to murderous enemies of the West and, ideally, Jews.

That’s where I observe a conflict of pieties. How does Corbyn reconcile his anti-Semitism with his adoration of Lev Davydovich Bronstein (aka Leon Trotsky)? Perhaps he feels Trotsky redeemed his unfortunate birth by preaching and practising the politics Jeremy favours.

That would be him having a Hermann Göring moment. When the Gestapo told Göring that his Luftwaffe deputy Milch was a crypto-Jew, Göring replied: “At my headquarters I decide who is a Jew and who isn’t.”

Or perhaps Corbyn has decided that Trotsky was so wonderful that he couldn’t possibly have been a Jew. Or else he has arranged his convictions in some order of priorities. One way or another, there’s food for thought here, but not necessarily mine.

What’s more interesting – and alarming – is that Labour seem to have arrived at a winning strategy. They are going to dump Corbyn and replace him with someone else, probably McDonnell.

Now McDonnell’s politics are to the left of even Corbyn’s. If he were any further left, he’d be dropping Sarin gas into Tokyo underground or else agitating for a Great Leap Forward.

Yet I’m convinced that British voters have been sufficiently primed not to mind that. Once Corbin is gone, they’ll heave a sigh of relief and flash a self-satisfied smile: their voice has been heard. Now they’ll feel justified in voting for Corbynism without Corbyn.

It’s likely that soon after the Tories have a new leader, and Britain a new PM, Labour will force a general election by passing a vote of no confidence in Parliament. In that they will be assisted by other left-wing parties and, critically, some 30 ‘Tory’ turncoats.

Predicting who’ll win that election is a perilous task. However, anyone who looks at the latest polls and feels Labour won’t have a good chance to form the next, Trotskyist, government has an exaggerated faith in the wisdom of the British public.

Trotsky may yet smile out of his Mexican grave. And even Jeremy Corbyn may do so while tending his retirement allotment.

Where are the clever atheists of yesteryear?

Christianity has always had bitter enemies, but it used to have better ones. Nietzsche, for example, might have detested Christianity, but at least he understood it.

Another product of those backward Middle Ages

Hence he gave Christianity the courtesy of hating it for what it actually is: a religion of love, compassion and mercy, one that promises that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Not much room for Nietzsche’s pagan Übermensch there – rather than loving the meek, he’d trample over them.

Yet the right to attack Christianity has to be earned: by learning about it, identifying its supposed weak points and offering sound criticism proceeding from a cogent intellectual stance.

However, a critic who proceeds merely from febrile atheism unsupported by any real knowledge – or whose atheism overrides his knowledge – will mouth nothing but embarrassing nonsense. This, even if he happens to be otherwise clever and erudite.

Thus people like Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert or the late Christopher Hitchens, all intelligent within limits, sound like truculent pupils with learning difficulties whenever the word ‘God’ crosses their lips.

For example, those three gentlemen and other professional atheists typically ascribe all wars and genocide to religious fanaticism.

Since the two militantly atheist creeds of the twentieth century, communism and Nazism, between them ran up a higher murderous score than all the Christian centuries combined, one would think such a proposition would be hard to defend.

But that’s where the sleight of hand comes in: those chaps simply claim that communism and Nazism are religions too, albeit secular ones. The syllogism they activate for this purpose is as reassuringly simple as it’s frankly idiotic. Thesis: I don’t like mass murder; antithesis: I don’t like Christianity; synthesis: ergo, Christianity is principally responsible for mass murder.

Because Jacques Le Goff’s profession was history rather than atheism, his book Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 (La civilisation de l’Occident medieval) is informative, well-researched and generally useful. Yet, though atheism is only a side line to Le Goff (d. 2014), it still succeeds in compromising his intellectual integrity.

Anyway, it’s not immediately clear how someone can devote his life to the study of the Middle Ages without cherishing Christianity, even if he doesn’t believe in it. After all, nothing else has ever shaped any period of European history as thoroughly as Christianity shaped the object of Le Goff’s investigation.

Yet Le Goff manifestly doesn’t cherish Christianity, for otherwise his comprehensively educated mind would have prevented him from writing arrant nonsense about it.

For example, Le Goff repeats the popular misconception also shared by other thinkers, including some who described themselves as Christians, such as Leo Tolstoy and Vasily Rozanov (d. 1919).

To Le Goff, medieval Christianity was some kind of disembodied spiritualism: “[Medieval] society… lived under the pressure of Christian ideas of contempt for the body – although the prospect of the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgement forced people to look for salvation also by means of the body.”

The disclaimer part of the sentence is merely a garnish; the meat of the idea is that Christianity despised the body. That misapprehension led Rozanov to loving Judaism while at the same incongruously hating Jews. Unlike lifeless Christianity, he wrote, Judaism was fermented with blood and semen.

And Tolstoy who, unlike Rozanov, hated Christianity (apart from the Sermon on the Mount) with barely concealed malice, preached (though didn’t practise) sexual teetotalism because he claimed Christ demanded it.

Of course Christianity couldn’t have demanded anything like that because it taught that the end of physical life on earth would arrive with the Second Coming – not within one generation as a result of people desisting from sex.

In Rozanov’s case, this was an unfortunate misunderstanding: he conflated some ascetic strains of Christianity with the totality of Christian doctrine. In Tolstoy’s case, it was wilful distortion. And in Le Goff’s case, it was more like clutching at atheist straws, although his disclaimer points at some inner conflict in his thinking.

Now I don’t mind atheists, provided they either refrain from arguing against Christianity or, if they can’t, simply say they don’t believe in it. Faith is a gift in the strict sense of the word, something presented by an outside donor. Some get that gift, some don’t – such is life.

What upsets me is non-Christians getting inside Christian doctrine, misinterpreting or even perverting it and then launching their attacks from the base of emotionally tinged ignorance.

For it is indeed ignorant to claim that Christianity teaches “contempt for the body”, and it’s especially odd when an internationally renowned historian does so.

After all, St John writes in his gospel that “the Word was made flesh”, not a disembodied spirit. Also, the Apostles’ Creed, while saying nothing about the soul, states instead the belief “in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”.

The Church always treated as heretical all movements that denied the physical reality of Jesus. Thus in 325 the First Council of Nicaea unequivocally trounced the Docetic heresy that claimed that Christ only seemed to be human.

That year is outside the period specified in Le Goff’s title, but the 451 Council of Chalcedon just makes it. The Chalcedonian definition specified that Jesus is “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man”.

And surely the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) falls into the period under study. That was a foray against the Manichaean Cathar heresy that regarded the material world including the human body as the work of the devil.

Jesus himself never preached anything like “contempt for the body”. For example, he blessed the wedding at Cana by turning water into wine – this though he knew perfectly well what happens after nuptial celebrations.

Nor, if the evangelists are to be believed, was Jesus himself necessarily abstemious: “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber…”

Jabs at Christianity are scattered all over Le Goff’s text. For example, he accuses Christianity of wiping out the culture of classical antiquity:

“The vandalism shown by medieval Christianity was exercised at the expense of antique paganism just as much as it was at the expense of medieval heresies (whose books and monuments were pitilessly destroyed) and was only one aspect of the historical totalitarianism which made it wipe out all the weeds which were growing in the field in the past… However, when Aristotle or Virgil… escaped this ostracism, it was to be ridiculed.”

This is bilge. Surely Le Goff must be aware of Plato’s influence on Christianity early in his designated period of study and Aristotle’s late in it? And if he thinks that Aquinas merely used Aristotle for ridicule purposes, he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Ours is an asset-stripping religion: Christian thinkers took what they found useful in antiquity and discarded the rest. Thus Aquinas is said to have baptised Aristotle, that is fused his philosophy with Christian theology. One consequence of such fusion was the preservation of ancient thought, not its ridicule.

As to Christianity ridiculing Virgil, and presumably other Latin poets, one wonders how much Le Goff knew about poetry. In fact, Western versification owes to Virgil, Horace and Ovid so much as to owe them practically everything. It was only in the late nineteenth century that poets began to deviate from classical models, and even then only cautiously.

Elsewhere Le Goff blames the Church for the “technical poverty and stagnation” of the Middle Ages. This too is so nonsensical that one has to believe the author was blinded by his atheism.

As a historian, he must have been aware of the technological progress directly attributable to the Church during the Middle Ages. The Cistercians, for example, built the first European foundries and revolutionised wool weaving.

Anyone who has seen medieval Romanesque and Gothic churches will bear witness not only to their aesthetic beauty but also to the intricate technology involved in building them. Yet it wasn’t just great cathedrals but also great universities that were founded under the Church’s aegis.

The Middle Ages saw such vital inventions as vertical windmills, mechanical clocks, spectacles and saddles with spurs. And three-field rotation discovered then changed agriculture for ever.

It’s true that medieval scientists and engineers fell short of developing jet travel, computers and 4×4 SUVs. But by the standards of their time, they produced something that’s a far cry from the “technical poverty and stagnation” of Le Goff’s fantasy – and Christendom certainly did better in that respect than any other contemporaneous civilisation.

Still, it’s unsporting to argue against modern atheists – one almost wishes for worthier opponents. So Friedrich Nietzsche, please come back. All is forgiven.